You did a great job forming your original hypothesis. It was reasonable, testable, and you secured the funding and approval you needed to embark on a journey of innovation, maybe seed commercial success, maybe take a leap forward in human knowledge. So why does it feel like you keep going back to square one? Did you recognise every place where you made an assumption, to make the decisions you believed needed to progress? When you confuse assumption with fact, you are storing up problems that can send the most seasoned researcher down blind alleys, to pour their time and effort into valueless (though important-feeling) activities. The key to efficient innovation is a method that avoids basing the journey to test that original hypothesis on a series of assumptions which have been confused with fact.
Applying a rigorous, lean method to the process of innovation can protect innovation teams from the pitfalls of the “assumption trap”, and help them take the fastest and most effective path to success. A good core hypothesis is a critical starting point for innovation, but only a starting point. Before we leave that point, it is wise to remind ourselves that our very core hypothesis itself is a supposition, an assumption, however well informed. That means a good methodology needs an inbuilt mechanism to regularly circle back to the original hypothesis, and continually ask and re-ask: Are we still asking the right question? Keep awareness keen that your hypothesis itself was a core assumption, and revisit it often and look it in the eye to assess whether it remains valid.
To move forward, a core innovation hypothesis next spawns a set of decisions. Some of these decisions are low impact (what shade of pink will we make the box?), others have a pivotal impact (will we make it waterproof?). Some decisions are grounded on knowledge (we can make the box any colour), others have significant knowledge gaps (will users want to use this while swimming?).
This is a key danger point, because decisions are the most common place for an unacknowledged assumption to creep into our plans. Everyone feels pressure, and traditional project management approaches augment it, to make critical decisions early, as a foundation for a “solid” plan with “predictability”. A good innovation method resists this, and drives us to list our set of decisions, and to reflect on which of these are critical, high impact decisions. A good method makes us articulate what we need to know to make those critical decisions well, and leads us to evaluate honestly what we actually know and what we do not yet know, and need to learn. This process frequently yields surprises in the form of things which we thought to be knowledge, turning out really to be assumptions. It sounds so simple, but it is the point where the most intractable problems in innovation are born; the most common error innovation teams make is, in their haste to make a decision, to base it on an unacknowledged assumption. When such an assumption later transpires to be false, all of the work until the point where this was discovered risks being wasted.
The best innovation teams postpone critical decisions until they know enough to make them well. Wherever possible, they pull learning to the front of their process, and they spend their time working to close the knowledge gaps which block informed, good decisions. They resist the illusion of progress in order to make real progress.
A hidden hypothesis/assumption is a common, and critical, error, which can drive huge amounts of subsequent rework when it proves to be false. Named assumptions can be your friend and allow you to proceed where otherwise you would be stuck, but with a good method, the level of risk is evaluated and the assumption you deemed necessary is kept in view for testing as soon as feasible, and the team is not deluding itself. In the world of academic innovation, assumptions can be your friend or mortal enemy. The choice is yours. Avoid hidden assumptions, and you will avoid, at the least, those eleventh hour shocks that send you back to a soul-destroying cycle of avoidable rework.
Keeping your critical decisions, knowledge gaps, and any unavoidable named assumptions, front and centre, and pulling learning to the front, enables every collaborator to spend their time better where they can add most value. Leaders can focus on the critical decisions, and avoid getting lost in the detail, spending their time and expertise guiding teams where it really matters. They know that their teams are working on the right things, and they can see where they need to involve themselves to guide critical decisions, without wasting their time and frustrating their people in a spiral of fruitless micro-management.
An accelerated learning approach to innovation empowers teams, giving them broad scope to think, experiment, and take non-critical decisions without micromanagement. It creates a structured approach to evaluate progress accurately, and to the documentation of acquired learning in a way that is reusable and supports collaboration. It allows measures of progress which are real: Auditable in that we can spot check a rigorous process; accessible in that they are transparent and available to all; actionable in that we can more accurately evaluate the levels of risk we choose to take and respond when these deviate from what is acceptable. In a culture of group learning and teamwork, students are better prepared for the more structured innovation approaches they will encounter in their future careers.
But above all, an accelerated learning approach helps every collaborator, from funding authority, to professor, to student, to spend their time in the most valuable way possible, insulated from the assumption traps which lurk throughout the innovation processes, threatening to pull the most enthusiastic into a frustrating spiral of rework. Instead, whether the core hypothesis is proven or disproven, your team spends its time well on the most valuable work, learning the shortest path to success.