17: It’s not the years, it’s the mileage

If you're going to reach innovative outcomes on a routine basis, you need to match the right team to the opportunity.  Part of that means understanding Principle 7 so that you know what type of problem you're tackling, the other part involves understanding what kind of experience you need on your team. 

When it comes to answering that last question, the right kind of experience profile depends on whether you're looking at a high or low variance situation.  Examples of low variance situations are flying a 747 from San Francisco to Singapore, operating on a heart, or serving up burgers at In-N-Out.  In each of those situations, we desire a predictable outcome delivered with a low degree of variance from a predetermined standard, and in this context, the right experience is expressed in terms of having done the same thing many times before.  We want a pilot who can fly the 747 on, well, autopilot.  We want a surgeon who has done hundreds of the same operation, and learned something from each one, not a surgeon who has done one hundred different surgical procedures once.  As such, experience is really about tenure in a role, with relevant experience having a direct correlation to years in the role.  

In a high-variance situation, where we are expecting an innovative outcome, but have little to no sense what the right answer might look like, we need a different definition of what "experienced" means.  In this context, we want people who are experienced with the process of innovation — in other words, people who have gone through the "understand – build – test" cycle of Principle 4 many times.  We want folks with a lot of mileage under their belt, in other words, but that mileage need not be strictly correlated with years at work. 

For example, one of the reasons why Honda cycles its production engineers through its various racing programs is to increase their innovation process mileage; designing a new component for a mass market automobile takes several years, so between the time an engineer graduates college and turns 40, they may have only shipped three to four designs to market (if they're lucky).  Contrast that with a race engineer, who faces the challenge of optimizing a race car for a different track configuration every two weeks for eight months, as well as managing an arc of innovation for the entire car over those same eight months.  During that short period of time, they may experience 10, 15, even 20 cycles of "understand – build – test".  So when it comes to picking an engineer to go figure out the future of mobility, which one would you choose, the "I've shipped the same thing to market three times" person, or the "I've done 20 cycles every year for the past  four years" individual?  By my reckoning, in this world an engineer age 26 could have 20 times the relevant process experience as a person 14 years their senior.

Mileage really does matter when it comes to understanding the art and science of bringing new stuff in to the world.  Many of the hottest Web 2.0 apps are springing from the agile fingers of lads barely past drinking age who are in fact hoary veterans of the coding wars, having been engaged in hacking kernels since they were eight.  They have a tremendous amount of relevant mileage under their belt, and have a skillset that's perfectly tailored to the nimble world of innovation on the interwebs.

I'd like to propose a metric for assessing the innovation prowess of an individual or of a team.  It looks like this:

innovation experience index =  [market ships] / [years of practice]

In other words, how many innovation market ships have you experienced over a given period of time?  And of those, what's your profile for incremental innovations?  For revolutionary innovations?

It's all about mileage.

This is number 17 in a series of 21 principles of innovation.  I really welcome your feedback, questions, and ideas.