One key to successful innovation, a growing body of innovation thinkers believe, is trial-and-error fastcompany_130x130experimentation. Proponents of the Lean Startup methodology urge innovators to create a minimum viable product (MVP)–something that solves a customer’s problem adequately but isn’t perfectly polished–and use it as a vehicle to gather critical in-market learning. The approach makes many executives inside big companies nervous. After all, experiments can fail, which implies taking on a risk that could blow back in some way to harm the core business. And in some industries even developing a good enough product is time consuming and expensive.

Consider how, for example, innovators approached the development of manned flight. Since most animals that can fly have wings, one group naturally thought about developing strap-on wings. To test a particular design, they’d go to the top of a tall structure, and jump. Wrong assumptions had predictable consequences. Other innovators tried to create flying machines, taking years to build expensive prototypes that often didn’t survive the testing process.

The way the Wright Brothers approached the problem offers important lessons for modern innovators. The Wright Brothers were consummate experimenters. But they found relatively simple, low-risk ways to test their assumptions. Rather than going to the top of a tall building and jumping or spending years tinkering to create the perfect prototype, they built and flew kites. Not only could they build kites more rapidly, but they hadn’t risked life and limb or depleted their bank accounts when it turned out that they got something wrong.

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