How to avoid throwing away millions of dollars in innovation projects

Google Glass debuted in April 2012 before the company began accepting pre-orders for a very early “Explorer Edition” of the specs. It was a kind of “open beta” made available to selected developers interested in creating new apps for this device.

Google Glass was presented as a product ahead of its time. It was exciting. It encouraged people to imagine and to create. It was opening an industry of “wearable” technology that would soon change the world.

And then criticism began: it had poor design, privacy concerns, a price too high, a terrible experience, and, worst of all, it solved none real need.

In January 2015 Google announced that it was putting an end to the programme.

In the later big apologies tour, Astro Teller, Google X director, said “We did things that encouraged people think this was a finished product. We could have done a better job of communicating that but I’m sorry about those bumps and scrapes”. “We allowed and sometimes even encouraged too much attention for the program. What we wanted was to say to the world this is an early prototype” and “We will be hearing more about that in the future”.

Because Google not only lost the money they had invested in this project.

But it also affected its reputation. It failed to meet the expectations of many end customers who were anxiously awaiting the promised experience. But more importantly. Google failed to its most important partners: the developers. All those partners who not only bought the $1500 glasses but also invested all the time, effort, money and hopes in creating prototypes, designing applications, creating business plans and attracting investors.

And then the whole ecosystem disappeared.

Will they trust Google again?

How can an “early prototype” get this far?

For most companies a disaster at this level would mean the end. Not everybody can risk $14 billion in R&D during one year and have such a dominating market position to make their partners forget about the unfulfilled promises.

The question is: what lessons can we learn from this big disaster?

It’s clear that innovation projects may carry risks. By doing things nobody has done before there is a high chance that it may not work.

Working with innovative ideas means that you have to do certain assumptions because there’s no previous experience doing it. Some assumptions may be correct, others may be not.

The mission of a proper innovation management process is to minimize the risk. This is done by investing the minimum time, effort and money to discard those ideas with no future.

And the process is quite simple. At each iteration you must unveil the assumption that’s more “probable” to invalidate the idea if it’s wrong. Then decide the shortest, easiest and cheapest way to prove if this assumption is true or not. Run this test and check the results. If the test does not confirm the assumption then kill the idea or, at least, adjust the product and the expectations after removing this assumption. If the results confirm it then repeat the process with the next assumption or until all critical assumptions had been confirmed.

So you’re not sure if there’s enough interest for your product? Launch a marketing campaign. Is technology mature enough? Build a simple prototype. Can you find enough experts? Publish a job offer. Is the selling price correct? Get pre-orders. Would investors be interested? Try crowdfunding. And so on.

Properly implemented this process should quickly solve your doubts and clear the unknowns.

The best result you can expect is that your idea passes all the tests. The second best result is that it’s killed in the first test.

Sure Google used something similar to that process with Google Glass. So, how could it arrive to the market?

Because the more tests you have to execute the more reluctant you and your team will be to kill the idea.

So the more you’re involved in the project the easiest is that you “forget” to test some assumption based on your previous experience, your market knowledge, your technical expertise or whatever other logical reason you can conceive. Or that you reinterpret some uncomfortable results or invalidate and repeat those tests that have failed or define fuzzy boundaries for some specially dangerous tests.

And the more the team and the sponsors have been involved in developing and supporting this idea, the more they are emotionally involved. It’s not just a high cost for the company, but also a high cost for them. They risk their own credibility in such a way that could even affect their position or their future career. Or at least they may feel it this way.

And by not being strict during this verification phase you can arrive to the worst possible scenario: the crude reality reveals itself too late to destroy your project, your investment, your credibility and, maybe, your company.

Has Google learned the lesson?

There are techniques to minimize the risk of not managing properly the verification phase. Even there are some strategic movements that can fix such extreme situations like the one Google found in 2015.

As Astro Teller said “We will be hearing more about that in the future” and, keeping its promise, Google has recently announced the relaunch of Google Glass.

What has changed now?

Google has tried a new approach. Google Glass EE is now focused on a new niche: factories and warehouses.

In fact around 50 companies have used Google Glass during the last two years with great results:

  • At DHL, Google Glass is used by workers to receive directions thus freeing up their hands to speed up the sorting of packages
  • Boeing reduces production time of aircraft ‘wire harnesses’ while reducing errors.
  • Physicians use it to get information and dictate their notes while interacting with the patient, shaving hours off their work week.

With this new strategy Google has addressed 4 of the main problems:

  • By discontinuing the mass consumer market and moving to enterprise environments they are now focusing on solving very specific problems. In fact the software solution has to be customized for every specific scenario. So the use case is absolutely clear from the beginning and not left to the imagination of the users or developers.
  • By working in professional environments (most) privacy concerns disappear.
  • Pricing is no longer a problem because beyond any solution there must be a productivity and/or quality increase that justify any cost before being adopted. No ROI? No project.
  • You can only buy the Google Glass through an official partner that will develop and support your customized Glass solution. This strict roll-out strategy allows to control expectations; running away from the previous launch experience and ensuring they can control damage to their reputation in case there’s some unexpected crisis.

Will this approach work better? Only time will tell.