3 habits that super-charge innovation

These 3 powerful habits will help you avoid the most common — and costly — mistakes that smart entrepreneurs make bringing their products to life.

This year, many innovative and exciting new products and services will launch — yet only a handful will survive and thrive. Why do some innovations fail — while others go on to mainstream success? What do teams that create breakthrough innovations have in common? How can we follow learn from them to innovate smarter & faster — with better odds of success?

It’s impossible to predict hits — but we CAN increase identify successful patterns of innovation. Let me take you back to a beautiful September day in Half Moon Bay, California where I was sitting in my living room, listening to the brilliant, visionary CEO of a hot gaming startup pitch me his crazy idea for an online social game — a game where people with no musical talent — playing simplified plastic instruments — would FEEL like they were actually in a band, making music together.

That game turned out to be Rock Band — a genre-defining worldwide hit. And a recent scientific study confirmed what we imagined might happen to those non-musical players: Rock Band players actually improve their musical perception by playing the game.

Rock Band was a high-risk project — created under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Nobody on the team knew how it would turn out. We had a promising vision, a window for experimentation, and a collective focus on scoping the core game and finding the fun.

I experienced a similar process working on The Sims — the largest-selling PC game franchise of all time, led by Will Wright, a brilliant, visionary game designer with some unorthodox methods for unlocking creativity. Early on, Will and his team created dozens of small world-building experiments — and the core Sims gameplay that we all know and love emerged from that primordial, iterative phase of experimentation.

A few years later, I worked on Covet Fashion — an innovative mobile fashion game created by Crowdstar that incorporates high-fashion clothing from real-world brands. Every month, this evergreen hit enables millions of players to create fabulous outfits from designer collections — and then purchase those clothes in real life. But during the early days, we relentlessly tested our design ideas with players — and the end result was very different than our original ideas.

Rock Band, The Sims, Covet Fashion… each of these breakthrough hit s found massive success and carved out a new genre. And I participated in bringing these ideas to life. Of course, I’ve also worked on many projects that you’ve never heard of — because they went sideways, or never found their market, or came out with a splash and faded quickly. Those projects all started with a promising idea — but through a series of missteps, they didn’t reach their full potential.

What separates these successful innovators from the also-rans? What do successful teams do early-on that makes a real difference?

3 Powerful Habits of Successful Innovators

#1: Find your super-fans, then expand from that base

On Rock Band, our early play-testing sessions were populated with hard-core music gamers — people who’d mastered Guitar Hero (an earlier music game) and were eager to help play-test our innovative multi-player idea into existence.

That puzzled me at the time. As the social systems designer, my job was to study our potential market, and create design systems to model their behavior and desires.

When the game was further along, we refined our ideas with direct input from our target market of casual and party gamers. But in the early days, our super-fans — those high-need, high-value early customers — truly helped us bring the game to life. Those geeky music gamers were our co-creators — able to see what our crude mockups and simple artwork could become, able to give us actionable feedback that helped us make it better.

Everyone on the Rock Band team knew that for this risky, expensive game to succeed, we’d have to appeal to casual party gamers. We also knew that we’d first have to capture the hearts and minds of hardcore music gamers AKA early, passionate customers with a burning desire for more & better music games.

Leveraging BOTH audiences during game development is what enabled this innovative breakthrough hit to come to life — and then reach a mainstream audience.

I saw the same pattern at work on The Sims. For years, Will Wright cultivated a group of hardcore simulation enthusiasts who loved building objects and tweaking systems. Will was masterful at keeping these super-fans engaged; he’d share early versions of the game tools with them, and then watch what they built with the tools and what kinds of questions they asked. Some of our earliest game testers came from this group — which insured that long before Beta, we had eager testers providing input and creating content that would make the game more fun for everyone.

By definition, successful innovations end up affecting a mainstream audience . In practice, they NEVER start off that way. That’s the paradox of successful innovation: the people you’re targeting as your “addressable market” are NOT the same people that you need to delight when you’re first bringing your idea to life.

This isn’t just anecdotal wisdom — it’s backed up by hard science. Back in 1962, Everett Rogers described this dynamic in his seminal data-driven theory, Diffusion of Innovations.

Years later, Geoffrey Moore adopted these terms & popularized this model in his classic marketing book, Crossing the Chasm — a compelling tale about turning the Apple II computer into a main-steam hit.

It takes focus, humility and energy to proactively connect with your early passionate customers. Why bother? Because the payoff is huge. They can:

  • play-test your early versions without needing a lot of hand-holding
  • offer up exhaustive, opinionated feedback for you to filter
  • help you bring your core social systems to life
  • evangelize your Beta and spread the word when you’re ready to scale

When you set out to create something new and innovative, put energy into finding high-need, high-value customers who are dissatisfied with current alternatives and have a burning desire for what you’re offering. If you find and delight them, you’re headed towards building something that can grow. And if you’re missing this early human feedback loop, it’s much harder to cross the chasm into mainstream use.

#2: bring your product to life from the inside out

During the early days of Rock Band, we had a “war room” setup with crude instrument prototypes and big screens showing feedback and stats. For months, the only thing we worked on was playing a song together and getting feedback — the Core Learning Loop of the Rock Band experience.

All the fun, sexy progress mechanics and graphical polish — levels, arenas, custom instruments, super-cool avatars — came later, once we’d nailed that core product experience.

At the time, I wanted to dive in and make cool stuff — I was frustrated. Now, looking back, I’m grateful to have worked with brilliant game designers who understand the wisdom of focusing on your core learning loop first — because if you don’t nail that, nothing else really matters. All those tiny world-building experiments the Sims team ran early-on were focused around testing the core learning loop. On Covet Fashion, we quickly tested many ideas for the core cooperative gameplay loop during the first few weeks.

Sure — on these projects, we considered how our on-boarding experience would look and feel . But we didn’t focus there, because we were obsessed with working out what would make our players come back again and again. Because if we couldn’t pull that off — if we couldn’t drive sustained engagement — the project wouldn’t get off the ground.

Among successful innovations, getting the core product experience right before over-building is a common theme. I remembered this lesson while watching a brilliant entrepreneur get seduced by the siren song of on-boarding. He created and shipped a polished on-boarding experience to get users into the system and “see what happens” — but there wasn’t any compelling reason to return, so (not surprisingly) the app was a leaky bucket — hardly anyone stayed around after downloading and trying it out.

In Game Thinking language, that app did a good job of discovery and on-boarding — but lacked any compelling habit-building activity and feedback loop to keep people coming back. There was nothing to get better at.

Unfortunately, this approach is common in startups — but hit games and products generally avoid this mistake. Those teams stay focused on “finding the fun” (as we gamers call it) and creating a strong core experience that people want to come back to.

If you want to create a deeply engaging experience, focus on testing and tuning the repeatable, pleasurable core activity that keeps your customers coming back. By building a simple, compelling Learning Loop, you’re laying the groundwork for sustained engagement.

#3: tinker; assume your 1st idea might not be right

All the successful innovations I’ve worked on kicked off with an experimental phase of tinkering, prototyping, and play-testing. The Sims team spent months building crude simulation prototypes to test out core properties of the game. The Rock Band team kicked off the project by tuning the core dynamics of playing a song, and testing many different feedback systems. And when the Covet Fashion team brought their cooperative game to life through iterative testing, the end result looked quite different than we’d originally imagined.

Once you establish this habit of tuning the experience with customer feedback, it becomes embedded in your culture. I saw this up-close at eBay, during their growth from 30 to 300 employees. Early on, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar setup a feedback loop with avid early customers — and that customer-listening habit permeated eBay’s early product development culture. We tweaked and tested eBay’s core social systems into existence — sometimes maddeningly so. There were week-long fights between design and engineering about the right way to do things — and in true eBay style, we resolved those disagreements with a quick-and-dirty test to gather customer data and make the case. This contentious, rough-and-ready style of development was nerve-racking to me at the time — and as eBay grew, it caused major problems. But this agile, data-driven approach was a major factor in eBay’s early ability to find product/market fit.

Every complex system starts out as a simple system that works. Great games and products aren’t fully designed up-front — they’re prototyped into existence, brought to life through iteration, and tuning.

The best visionary product leaders discover what works by relentlessly testing and tuning their ideas with real users. In gaming, we call this finding the fun. In Lean/Agile, we call it validating assumptions. All point to the same activity — running experiments to test and tune your product ideas with real customers.

Innovate smarter & faster with 3 powerful habits

1. find & leverage your super-fans — then expand from that base

2. build & test your core product experience from the inside out

3. tinker; assume your first idea might not be right

Now, you might be thinking “I get it — that sounds great — but how exactly do I put these ideas into practice?” That’s where our Game Thinking toolkit comes in. This step-by-step system helps you validate ideas with the right customers — and design deeply engaging experiences from the ground up.

Click here to learn about our Game Thinking programs. We’d love to support your success.

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur gamethinking.io