Innovation for Dummies


In 5 seconds, while listening to an interview with Derek Sivers, I heard the best innovation advice in all my years practicing and reading about the topic.

If you want to build a successful company, service, or product...

  1. Find a need that people are proving they're willing to pay for and,
  2. Find a profitable way to solve that need for them.

That's it. All of those books, articles, famous quotes, classes, canvases, and tools are an attempt at how to do it. Because, as it turns out, it's really...really hard. This is in large part because, contrary to popular belief, the human brain is not designed for thinking making us prone to cognitive biases that lead us astray. Countering these biases and looking to accomplish the two goals above led me to practicing and honing my skills in three activities.


Activity one: Frustrated and Desperate

Find these people. Innovation is about creating value for people, not novelty. Find people whose only alternative is your solution or nothing at all. People who would gladly use your crappy MVP because even in its incomplete stage is a painkiller and not a vitamin. Without clear evidence that you've found a real need don't move forward. If you are wrong about this, nothing else matters. The goal here is to discover need. 


  • Use surveys to discover need
    • People are really bad at telling you what they need or predicting their hypothetical future behavior
    • Surveys can be a powerful of way to validate need, but should not be relied upon to discover it in the first place.
  • Use focus groups to discover need
    • Groupthink is very real and, combined with your confirmation bias, can quickly lead you to false conclusions.


  • Learn ethnographic research methodologies
  • Learn Design Thinking
  • Learn Lead User Research by Eric Von Hippel from MIT
  • Learn Journey Mapping


Activity two: Assumptions. Assumptions. Assumptions.

Really good chance this is your team.

Really good chance this is your team.

I believe the number one reason new ventures fail is because of a disconnect between assumptions and reality. Therefore, spending resources to (a) uncover assumptions and (b) stress test those assumptions is of the utmost importance. Constantly get in sync about what is true and what to do about it. Ask yourself "Is it true?" How do you know? Recognize that conflicts between assumptions and reality are essential for high-preforming and innovative teams (i.e. teams that regularly create value).

Tools like the Business Model Canvas, The Value Proposition Canvas, The Environment Canvas, etc. are at their heart methodologies for uncovering assumptions in your customer segment, value proposition, and business model. Learn to make use of these exercises.


activity three: Experiment

I believe companies adept at using data to drive experimentation will win. Nature uses multiple strategies rather than a monoculture to solve problems. The diseases that threaten us constantly mutate, changing their tactics, making discoveries, hitting on breakthroughs, finding ways to disarm our drugs. Nature's research and development is based on billions on billions of experiments. It is a resilient, decentralized, and widely diverse scheme. Take a cue from nature.

"If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong!"

- Richard Feynman

In my own work, recognizing alignment between need and solution is most crucial, I've used a modified Javelin's Experiment Board. It's a hybrid between the Value Proposition Canvas and Javelin's Experiment Board.

80% in 5 Minutes

Get really good at finding the frustrated and desperate, uncovering your assumptions, and experimenting to accomplish two goals:

  1. Find a need that people are proving they're willing to pay for and,
  2. Find a profitable way to solve that need for them.

With that you've learned 80% of what innovation is all about. All of those books and materials on the subject will add nuance and color. Good luck!