The “1-10-100” Rule for Innovation Experiments

I was talking to one of our PhD students this afternoon about his research design. He was trying to figure out how to structure his network survey to learn about how a firm that we’re working with innovates. He is particularly interested in learning about the role of trust in the evolution of innovation networks. We talked about a few different ways to frame the survey.

Once we settled on one good possible approach, he paused, and then said, “Now I’m going to have to rework my research question and methodology to fit this.” This is true. One of the things that we’ve talked about throughout this project is that it takes a process of iteration to discover a research question that is both interesting and researchable in the real world.

This process of iteration and discovery doesn’t just happen in research – it happens every time we try to develop innovative new ideas.

I was reminded of this again when I ran across a blog post by Peter Tu, reporting on the Maker Faire that just happened in San Francisco (the link came via boing boing).

This is the paragraph that caught me eye:

Two of the stars of the event were Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe who are famous for their viral Coke and Mentos videos. I enjoyed a talk they gave on their approach to innovation as it applies to performance art. Their method follows the 1-10-100 principle. It takes one experiment to spark a concept. By experiment 10 one should have fleshed things out and have defined a direction. By experiment 100 one hopes to have found something that is sublime… The four rules that they espouse are:

  1. Seek variation – explore the possibilities.
  2. Be obsessive – keep focused until one finds something special.
  3. Be stubborn – don’t give up until you work through the problems.
  4. Set limits and work within them – unconstrained innovation meanders and wonders, only by setting limits does it force one to dive into the depths of a concept.

Their thoughts are somewhat reminiscent of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, where the key idea is to have an obsession with quality and to always have a good pot of coffee close at hand.

I think that the 1-10-100 rule is pretty useful. It illustrates some important innovation points. The first is that it takes some effort to work through an idea until you’ve found something sublime. Second, sometimes it takes quite a bit of effort – this is why their rules about obsession and being stubborn are true.

Of course, sometimes it takes more than 100 tries too – in a good post about prototyping, Jeremy Jackson talks about James Dyson and the development of his bagless vacuum cleaner:

Creating something innovative is indeed a risky undertaking. To do it, you have to crash often before you are able to fly. The inventor James Dyson crashed 5,127 times before perfecting his bagless vacuum cleaner. Although he eventually got it right, there was no singular defining “aha” moment. Dyson’s process is an extreme example, to be sure, but his feelings on failure ring to true to any healthy, iterative design process: “On the road to invention, failures are just problems that have yet to be solved.” Rather than shy away from failure, prototype and use what you learn to your product’s advantage.

And this approach doesn’t just work for creating new things. You can test out ideas, business models, services, anything with an experimental approach. Here is how Diego Rodriguez from IDEO puts it:

You can prototype with anything. You want to get an answer to your big question using the bare minimum of energy and expense possibly, but not at the expense of the fidelity of the results. It’s not only about aluminum, foamcore, glue, and plywood. A video of the human experience of your proposed design is a prototype. Used correctly, an Excel spreadsheet is a wonderful prototyping tool. GMail started out as an in-market prototype. A temporary pop-up shop is a prototype. Believing that you can prototype with anything is a critical constraint in the design process, because it enables wise action, as opposed to the shots in the dark that arise from skipping to the end solution because zero imagination was applied to figuring out how to run a create a prototype to generate feedback from the world.

So keep the 1-10-100 Rule in mind when you’re innovating. It works for things, and it works for ideas. It can even work for a PhD.

Here’s a video of Voltz and Grobe with #321 in their coke and mentos ideas. If it takes 100 tries to get an idea to work, and this is the 321st idea that they’ve tried, what does that tell you about how many experiments they’ve run?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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2 thoughts on “The “1-10-100” Rule for Innovation Experiments

  1. I like this 1-10-100 idea. Like you said, Tim, it’s not a hard rule; where one experiment leads to ten variations, leading to a solution in 100, but it does highlight the need to:

    A) Try something.
    B) Explore possibilities.
    C) Work toward a specific direction.

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