How to be wrong (on the path to being right)

We all like to be right. It feels GREAT.

But when you’re innovating… out there on the edge… trying to build something new… chances are you’re going to be wrong.

A lot.

To build a breakthrough hit, you need to learn fast, make mistakes, & avoid getting stuck on any one idea — while ALSO holding an overall vision & direction.

Because when you get right down to it… innovation is about discovering all the ways that you’re wrong… on the path to being right.

Here are five innovation tips taken from my experience working or massive, category-defining hits.

Tip 1. Think like a scientist

When you’re pitching your idea to investors, you need to get them excited about a BIG opportunity space.

So you paint a rosy picture of why your product will rise above the competition and grab a major share of a huge market.

At this point in your journey, you’re playing the role of a salesperson & you need to think like one.

But when you start developing and validating your product, you need to do an abrupt 180 and adopt a skeptical attitude toward your own idea.

You need to think like a scientist — NOT like a salesperson — and view your beloved idea as a hypothesis to be tested, not a fixed truth to be proven right.

Every successful innovator walks this tightrope. Working on The Sims, for example, I watched Will Wright and team alternate between executive meetings to gather budget and resources, and heads-down prototyping sprints to test ideas and fail fast.

We ran months of experiments that failed — on the way to creating the hugely successful Sims experience that you know and love — and the biggest-selling PC franchise of all time.

So don’t confuse what you need to do to raise money with smart product validation.

Embrace the scientist mindset and lean into discovering all the ways your idea could be wrong… on the path to being right.

Think of it as stress-testing your idea as early as possible. That’s how hit-makers figure out how to build the right product.

Tip 2. Carve out time for up-front research

Making a hit animated movie is crazy-hard. It takes dozens of drafts and thousands of storyboard panels to craft a story worth handing to a team of hard-working animators.

So how does Pixar do it?

Following a tradition started at Disney, Pixar spends a year or more up front doing story research. During this pre-production phase, a small creative team builds and rebuilds their story many times — testing, scrapping and tuning ideas until magic happens, and the story is working.

Here’s what makes this work: everyone on the team understands that the story will start off terrible, and everyone’s job is to make it better by critiquing it honestly.

No one is under pressure to get it right immediately.

I saw this same dynamic on the Rock Band team. We spent over 6 months tuning & testing the basic core loop of 4 people playing a song together. It started off terrible — but promising — and we made it better together — developing our Player Journey as we brought the core multiplayer experience to life.

And the same thing happened on The Sims. We spent a good year under Will’s direction building tiny prototypes & running experiments that led us to the core gameplay and progression.

Tip 3. Test your riskiest assumptions first

If you’re designing a rocket to send people into orbit, you want to minimize the chances that it’ll explode on the launchpad.

That’s why NASA conducted dozens of crewless launches long before putting astronauts on board. And while it’s never easy to see one of your rockets blow up, it’s far better to get those explosions out of the way early.

The same is true for innovative product development. You want to identify and test your riskiest assumptions first, instead of waiting for something to go wrong.

That’s why on June 23, 2020, SpaceX famously subjected their Starship SN7 fuel tank to increasing pressure, UNTIL it ruptured and exploded. This stress test confirmed that their newly developed steel alloy was as strong as they expected, and motivated them to develop an even stronger alloy.

And that’s EXACTLY why we stress-tested the core experience while building The Sims and Rock Band. It was painful… even frustrating sometimes… but ultimately, those early failed tests were part of why those products became category-defining hits.

Tip 4. Learn fast with cheap, low-fidelity prototypes

So how do you do it? How do you test your riskiest assumptions first?

Well… you need to run experiments that help you learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

Sometimes that means building a working prototype. But not always. More often than you think, you can test our product ideas surprisingly early, without building anything at all.

For example, if your goal is to learn about your customer’s existing needs and habits, you can run a test where you observe people using your closest competitor’s products…. and learn how they use it, what they’re enjoying, and what could be better.

That’ll teach you so much about your market — without you needing to build a thing.

OR you can take a cue from the brilliant minds at Pixar, and test your end-to-end customer journey by sketching out storyboards that help your customers imagine what it’d be like to use your product over the first 30 days.

We call this powerful design tool a Concept Storyboard. You can develop and test a Concept Storyboard much earlier than a working prototype — and they’re far cheaper and faster to update.

We did this kind of concept storyboard sketching on Rock Band, The Sims, and every hit I’ve worked on. It’s incredibly helpful for helping your customers visualize how they’ll experience your product over time.

Quick side-note: make sure you’re getting feedback from the right people — the ones who want and need what you’re building, and are already looking for something like it. These Superfans will give you the most valuable feedback and insights during early product design.

Tip 5. Stay curious about discovering the truth

If you think like a scientist and set up the right experiments, you’ll be well on your way to receiving market truth with open arms — and an open mind.

But here’s the truth: no matter how experienced you are, listening to honest feedback can be emotionally difficult, especially if it challenges something you’re deeply invested in.

So don’t get discouraged if you aren’t an expert right away. Give yourself some grace — and keep pushing forward. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at iterating towards market truth.

Productive friction is ALWAYS part of creating a hit. I remember tense and uncomfortable meetings during Rock Band development, where we wondered if we would EVER get the feel of the drums right.

And I look back fondly on some EPIC yelling matches during Happify development — especially when we realized that if we truly listened to our research results, we’d need to pivot to a different UX model, and change our roadmap.

The discomfort of finding out you’re wrong never really goes away. The trick is to breathe through the discomfort and embrace the idea that it’s there FOR you -rather than something done TO you.

This is ESPECIALLY true when the feedback is painful or difficult. That’s usually a clue that it’s valuable and worth paying attention to.

Replace the fear of being wrong with curiosity to discover the truth.

I hope these tips inspire you and help you create YOUR next breakout hit.

If you want to learn a step-by-step method for rapid product validation, check our signature course, the Certification Masterclass. Thousands of leaders have used Game Thinking to accelerate product market fit, and you can too.

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