Proving Ideas Quickly

Great ideas are at the heart of innovation. No matter what you’re trying to invent or improve upon, progress begins with a great idea. But how do you know if your idea really is great, and just as important, that it really is a workable, doable approach? What if it’s a great-seeming concept that just doesn’t work in practice?

That’s part of the innovation process, too. As Thomas A. Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” But as long as we’re citing famous quotes about innovation, it’s also worth recalling the wisdom of leadership guru John C. Maxwell, whose advice is to “fail early.”

One of the key benefits of working with Rose-Hulman Ventures is its capability of proving ideas quickly. Or, on some occasions, disproving them quickly. It’s the best way to move forward, and also the most cost-effective.

“This is one of our core operating principles,” says Brian Dougherty, senior director. “The general idea is to prove or disprove concepts as quickly as possible, so you can get on with more defined development work. We are trying to maximize the risk reduction per dollar spent. I want to get clients to the point they can have confidence in an idea with the least amount of money spent.”

Testing concepts is, of course, the whole point of prototyping. But even before you get to the point of a working prototype, you may benefit from a much cruder mockup intended to confirm whether you’re heading down the right path, and if not, make an early course correction.

“It may be done with Styrofoam and duct tape and baling wire in an afternoon,” Dougherty points out. “That is a great thing, because if you prove it’s a bad idea, you can stop spending time on it and go onto something else. If you can’t prove it’s a bad idea, then move forward and test it again. Maybe you do it in another way, and if you still can’t prove it’s a bad idea, it just might be a good idea. You quickly iterate your way.”

An example of the “proving ideas quickly” philosophy at Rose-Hulman Ventures was its work with a Colorado State University veterinary professor who was trying to improve functionality of a device to remove diseased tissue from the inside of large animal bones. The question was, would it be practical to make a device that could go through a small hole, expand inside the bone and get the job done?
“We said that’s a pretty tall challenge and chances of success are low, but we have a few ideas,” Dougherty recalls. The Rose-Hulman Ventures team was able to explore the basic ideas with a minimum of expense. “We decided that with today’s metallurgy, it’s not going to be practical.”

The “process improvement” mindset often advocates seeking small victories first, going for low-hanging fruit. But the “providing ideas quickly” mindset may instead seek the toughest nut to crack. “Tackle the hardest part first, and leave the easiest parts alone for now,” Dougherty says. If your exploration of the hard part fails, you may end up saving yourself a lot of time, effort and money. If, on the other hand, you prove the harder part of the concept, that endeavor may offer insights for the easier parts, too.

The key to Maxwell’s “fail early, fail often” approach is that setbacks are learning opportunities. “Chances are, the first concept won’t work, but you don’t know until you try,” Dougherty concurs. “You figure out what it is that you didn’t know you didn’t know, then take that new knowledge and trudge into battle again to solve the core problem.”

Proving ideas quickly is a great path to success, but it’s also the secret to keeping the inevitable setback from becoming a development catastrophe. “You don’t want to take an unproven concept, spend a million dollars and then find out it’s a bad idea,” Dougherty says. “That is one of our core philosophies here.”