Four Ways Innovators Can Use Time to Their Advantage
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Innovation Entrepreneurship Jan 4, 2017

Four Ways Inno­va­tors Can Use Time to Their Advantage

For cre­ative suc­cess, here’s when to hus­tle and when to reflect.

Entrepreneurs can use time constraints to their advantage.

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

David Schonthal

Time: you can kill it, call it, serve it, save it, make it, or get it to fly. But one thing entre­pre­neurs should not do with it, per David Schon­thal, is leave it in a liq­uid state. Con­straint, prop­er­ly har­nessed, can be one of the most pow­er­ful forces behind inge­nu­ity. And no con­straint is more pow­er­ful than time.

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There are a lot of ways to deploy time suc­cess­ful­ly. Whether you are decid­ing to speed up or slow down process­es, impose dead­lines, or set aside time for reflec­tion, the key is to be con­scious of how much time you have and real­is­tic about how you plan to allot that time. 

Schon­thal, a clin­i­cal asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship at the Kel­logg School and a port­fo­lio direc­tor at IDEO, offers four key sug­ges­tions for how inno­va­tors can use time to their advantage. 

Change Up Your Brain­storm­ing Sessions

The first step of any cre­ative process — gen­er­at­ing ideas — can also be the most painful. Cue the men­tal image of your team mem­bers sit­ting list­less­ly around a con­fer­ence table, osten­si­bly brain­storm­ing but actu­al­ly invent­ing new ways to doo­dle in the mar­gins of their legal pads. 

The best way to kick-start the idea-gen­er­a­tion process may be to mix things up. 

When brain­storm­ing more cre­ative solu­tions, one approach — backed up by Kel­logg research—is to push your­self to brain­storm beyond your nor­mal lim­its. Once you hit the wall, the think­ing goes, you may still have a lot of very good ideas that have not made it out yet. 

Schon­thal swears by a process that is a bit more coun­ter­in­tu­itive: hit it and quit it. Give your team a very short peri­od of time — no more than 10 – 15 min­utes — to get as many ideas as pos­si­ble relat­ed to a spe­cif­ic prompt out on the table. Then work from there. 

Peo­ple usu­al­ly enter brain­storms with the wrong objec­tives and expec­ta­tions in mind, so it’s no sur­prise they are dis­mayed with the results.” 

When you take a resource and con­strain it, it forces peo­ple to do more with less, and often­times they come up with unex­pect­ed­ly cre­ative solu­tions,” Schon­thal says. So when you con­strain time, it’s great for the process of being gen­er­a­tive. Peo­ple are always sur­prised by how much they are able to accom­plish in three to four min­utes. Just get­ting things out from the inside doesn’t take a lot.”

An impor­tant dis­tinc­tion Schon­thal makes, how­ev­er, is that he believes the best use of brain­storm­ing is to set a gen­er­al direc­tion or vec­tor for design, not that it will yield the final” bil­lion-dol­lar idea right there and then. 

Peo­ple usu­al­ly enter brain­storms with the wrong objec­tives and expec­ta­tions in mind,” Schon­thal says, so it’s no sur­prise they are dis­mayed with the results.”

Launch to Learn

Once your team has iden­ti­fied a con­cept to pur­sue, it is tempt­ing to devote a lot of time to refin­ing it before show­ing it to oth­ers. But that may not be the most effec­tive course of action, Schon­thal says.

Some­thing that’s been devel­oped with­in a week — why not toss it out into the world and see what hap­pens to it?” he asks. Take the min­i­mum viable ver­sion and get real reac­tions from real people.” 

Some of the ear­li­est exam­ples of Twit­ter and Airbnb prod­ucts, they were lit­er­al­ly just sketch­es,” Schon­thal says. But they were good enough con­cepts to put in front of peo­ple for reac­tions. Yes, there’s the dan­ger of falling on your face, but you don’t want to spend $50 mil­lion mak­ing the same mis­take that you could have made much soon­er for less money.” 

But will enough face-plants make poten­tial cus­tomers wary of your cre­ations? Not nec­es­sar­i­ly, as long as you are up-front about the fact that you are show­ing them prod­ucts in beta. 

You can let them know, Look, this is a work in progress. I just want to see your reac­tion to it,’” Schon­thal points out. 

Con­sumers have become much more com­fort­able with look­ing at stuff long before it’s ready. Look at Google. They slap the word beta’ right there on the mast­head, so you know that you’re tak­ing a risk in try­ing some­thing that’s maybe a lit­tle bit ahead of its time.” 

Iter­ate Often and Quickly

If you are launch­ing in beta, you are accept­ing the fact that you will need to iter­ate — pro­toyp­ing, test­ing, ana­lyz­ing, and refin­ing your product. 

Peo­ple often don’t build time in for the iter­a­tive process,” he says. They just assume that things will go well. They look at iter­a­tion as a very lin­ear pro­gres­sion: you start at this stage, and you go to this stage. But the real­i­ty is, it’s total­ly messy.” 

To allow for that messi­ness, Schon­thal advis­es, fac­tor in time for lots and lots of iter­a­tion cycles — but move through those cycles as quick­ly as possible. 

He points to the expe­ri­ence of stu­dent entre­pre­neurs he over­sees in Kellogg’s Zell Fel­lows Pro­gram, a selec­tive ven­ture accel­er­a­tor. Ini­tial­ly, it takes the stu­dents three weeks to move through the first iter­a­tion cycle. The next cycle takes two weeks. By the end of the course, each iter­a­tion cycle takes less than a week, because the stu­dents have learned what good enough” is. 

That’s a cru­cial les­son, giv­en how quick­ly things move in today’s prod­uct-devel­op­ment world. 

Inno­va­tion is faster today than it’s ever been,” says Schon­thal. What can be accom­plished in a unit of time is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent now than what it was when I start­ed ten years ago. Inno­va­tion is going to be faster next year than it is today. It’s prob­a­bly going to con­tin­ue to go down, down, down, down.” 

Take Time to Reflect

But struc­tur­ing time for inven­tion does not always mean speed­ing up process­es. One of the most impor­tant steps in the design process — syn­the­sis — entails delib­er­ate­ly paus­ing to reflect on what has been observed. And it is a step that is often overlooked. 

I can’t think of very many orga­ni­za­tions that cre­ate a very clear project objec­tive for reflec­tion,” Schon­thal says. Usu­al­ly it’s Go, go, go, go, go! What’s the next step? What’s the next step?’ Well, some­times the best next step is tak­ing a look back at what’s hap­pened already.” 

It is nat­ur­al — even expect­ed — to real­ize dur­ing the syn­the­sis process that the prob­lem you have set out to solve with your prod­uct may not be quite the prob­lem your prod­uct solves. That may seem like less than great news, but there is an upside: tak­ing time to reflect makes course cor­rec­tion possible. 

Try­ing to rush syn­the­sis is the kiss of death,” he says. Unex­pect­ed insights neces­si­tate reflec­tion. They’re nev­er on the sur­face. If they’re on the sur­face, they’re obvi­ous to every­body, and they’re prob­a­bly not all that innovative.” 

Featured Faculty

David Schonthal

Clinical Assistant Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship

About the Writer

Anne Ford is a writer in Evanston, Illinois.

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