5 Habits of Breakthrough Innovators

What does it take to do breakthrough product innovation? What can we learn from teams who’ve managed to pull off that amazing feat?

If you’re an entrepreneur, innovator, or maker, you know that everything starts with a hunch — an an exciting idea to explore, a nascent market to pursue, a vision for a product game app or device you’re itching to build.

But until you’ve developed and tested your idea, it’s only a hypothesis. How do you know if today’s bright idea is the right one to pursue? What’s the best way to test and sort innovative ideas? How do teams who’ve managed to innovate successfully do it?

As the Creative Director of Shufflebrain, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great companies and teams — all trying to build something innovative and new. Some projects bit the dust; othes went sideways or transformed into something else. And a handful went on to become massive, genre-defining hits.

What sets these breakthrough innovations apart? How did these particular ideas emerge as successful and worth developing? What did the teams who developed these ideas have in common? What did they do differently than most teams? Can we identify habits, behaviors, or practices that reliably lead to better, faster, and smarter innovation?

I think we can. Here are 5 habits of breakthough innovators — the attitudes, practices and behaviors shared by high-performing teams who’ve created long-lasting, genre-defining hits.

Of course, these practices alone won’t guarantee success — that takes focus, dedication, excellent execution, market timing, and lots of luck. What these habits CAN do is tip the scales towards success, and help you get the most from your innovation efforts.

Habit 1: Think Like a Scientist.

Successful innovations start with small, iterative experiments designed to answer the most important questions.

This is consistent with Lean Startup — where the path to success involves moving quickly through the build/measure/learn cycle

All the highly successful innovators I’ve worked with made it a habit to ask hard, important questions upfront, and seek the answers experimentally.

The team behind The Sims — led by Will Wright and Chris Trottier — spent years experimenting with different approaches to bringing a virtual dollhouse to life, finally settling on a design that became the highest-grossing PC franchise of all time.

The early team at eBay — led by Pierre Omidyar, Mike Wilson & Mary Lou Song — experimented with a variety of social systems for building trust among buyers and sellers, at a time when online shopping was still a niche activity.

The Rock Band team faced a daunting challenge: could non-musicians — playing plastic instruments — make music together and FEEL like a band? Answering that question was key: without a resounding YES, nothing else mattered.

The Covet Fashion team had created several fashion games — and hit a wall. For a breakthrough hit, they needed to reach a broad audience of fashion-loving women Using a disciplined, experimental approach, the team iterated their way into Crowdstar’s biggest success to date.

Habit 2: Laser-focus on Early Adopters

Successful innovators kickstart their projects by delighting a small, passionate group of early adopters.They don’t get seduced by the siren song of a larger market until they’ve captivated their crucial early advocates.

Have you ever heard of Crossing the Chasm — by Geoffrey Moore? This influential book outlined the difficulty of marketing innovative products to a mass market — and opened people’s eyes to the key differences between early adopters and early majority.

Moore’s book was based on work done three decades earlier — Everett Roger’s Innovation Diffusion Theory is a data-driven model of how new products spread through existing communities.

If you want to innovate successfully, start by finding & delighting your early adopters. These are the people who will put up with cost, inconvenience and and ridicule because they’re LOOKING for what you’re offering — it solves their problem, or meets some real need.

Early adopters add value in many ways. Pierre Omidyar — the founder of eBay — was the original customer support rep for the service — and during a support interaction, an early user came up with the idea for eBay’s reputation system

Will Wright — the genius game designer behind The Sims — cultivated relationships with an active, highly creative group of super-fans who provided a rich source of ideas, user-testing and content creation long before the game ever shipped to paying customers.

The Rock Band team knew that social dynamics could make or break their ambitious multi-player music game — so we focused on understanding the needs and habits of avid social gamers and non-musicians, which helped to create a massive crossover hit

Habit 3: Collect customer feedback early

Successful innovators are tinkerers and experimenters. They don’t fall in love with any one idea; instead they test and refine many ideas — and include their customers in an iterative feedback loop right from the start.

If you embrace lean methods — and want to set your team up for success — one of the most powerful things you can do is to create a culture of quick, iterative, high-learning play-testing in your team and organization.

Testing can start before you’re designed or built a thing. Early in the Rock Band project, we interviewed dozens of casual gamers, and gained early insights about their habits and lifestyle that helped to shape the game.

The Covet Fashion team was blessed with a savvy in-house researcher who setup weekly interviews with fashionable young women, gamers and non-gamers alike, to learn about their habits and preferences early in the project. Those weekly sessions morphed into playtesting once we had a playable prototype.

The Sims team also developed a weekly playtesting culture early — and once the game started to take shape, expanded those tests to include their enthusiastic, content-creating fan community.

Habit 4: Build & test your Core Loop

Breakthrough innovators focus on testing and tuning the most important part of their customer experience FIRST.

A Core Loop is a gaming concept that describes the interlocking activities, progress markers and rewards that a player experiences during a gaming session. As game designer Dan Cook says, skill-building and learning are an essential part of what makes games compelling fun.

When you’re validating your product ideas, be careful not to fall into the trap of testing your marketing message — and thinking you’ve validated your core loop. A fake landing page will help you shape your message — but it’s NOT going to help you shape or test your core product experience.

An operant conditioning loop — such as the Habit Loop (from the Power of Habit book) or the Hooked model — gets you closer to a Core Loop, because it’s based on feedback and rewards. What’s missing, though, is any notion of skill-building or personal empowerment. Skinner Boxes and operant conditioning loops can shape behavior — but they won’t lead to player delight or true long-term engagement.

For that, you need skill-building. People enjoy getting better at something they care about. The process of learning and mastery is deeply, intrinsically motivating. To create a robust Core Loop, combine compelling feedback with the skill-building power of games.

Use these three steps to get started building your own skill-building loop:

1 .Start with engaging, repeatable activities — connected to an existing urge or need

2. Add a feedback loop that promotes learning, skill-building and a sense of progress

3. Close the loop with meaningful reasons to return — plus cues & triggers as reminders

Breakthrough innovators make it a habit to test and tune their core loop early. The Rock Band team, for example, created a War Room for protoyping and testing early versions of the game — and didn’t add features or polish until the feel of that early play experience truly ROCKED.

The Covet Fashion team experimented with a number of different Core Loops — tweaking and iterating until they found the right combination of features and systems to delight their early players.

Habit 5: Co-create your path to Mastery

Breakthrough innovators know that innovation is a team sport. They recognize the importance of early adopters — and then go beyond that, and find ways to co-create with them — empower them — learn from them — and leverage their skills, knowledge and passions.

Breakthrough innovators partner with their best customers to bring their product vision to life. Breakthrough innovators know that best way to drive long-term engagement is to show customers that their voices matter, that they can have real power and impact

As I wrote about recently, what’s makes games truly engaging is learning, skill-building and mastery. You can use this insight to engage ALL your customers with progressive skill-building.

Breakthrough innovators go even further for their best customers — the early adopters, enthusiasts and passionate advocates. They keep these people engaged and involved by giving them tools, powers and new roles to play. For example, in true eBay fashion, the idea for the star system came from a group of early power-sellers who wanted a shorthand way to communicate trustworthiness to potential buyers. Through their actions & feedback, these power-sellers helped shape the overall system.

The Sims team leveraged their fan community by giving them powerful customization tools early in the development process — and then learning from their experiments and questions.

For Rock Band, the mastery systems were built around the Rock-N-Roll fantasies of social gamers and non-musicians — something the team absorbed through interviews & early testing.

And the hit game Covet Fashion was created from the ground up around rating systems that naturally bubble true fashion expertise among the players.

I hope these habits inspire you to create an experimental, high-learning culture in your team and organization. In my next post, I’ll share 3 practical shortcuts you can use to put these innovation habits into practice.

For in-depth information and guidance on early product development, check out MVP Design Hacks — our 4-week program for customer discovery with game design smarts.

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