3 Powerful Habits that separate successful innovators from also-rans
It was a late September day in Half Moon Bay, California. I was sitting in my living room, enjoying the ocean view and chatting with the brilliant and visionary CEO of a hot gaming startup. As we shared an organic pizza lunch, he told me about his crazy idea for a mutli-player 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. And even better — they’d actually develop their musical skills and sensibilities by playing the game. They’d become better than before at a real skill — something that translated into the physical world outside the game
What do mega-successful innovations have in common?
That game turned out to be Rock Band — a genre-defining worldwide smash hit. And a recent scientific study confirmed what we imagined might happen: it turns out Rock Band players actually improve their musical perception by playing the game.
Being part of the original Rock Band design team taught me what it’s like to work on a risky project — with a crack team of brilliant, experienced game creators — under conditions of extreme uncertainty. NONE of us was sure exactly how things will turn out — but we had a promising vision, and a collective focus on scoping the core game and finding the fun.
I’ve been privileged to work on several breakthrough hits. I was on the early design team for The Sims — the largest-selling PC game franchise of all time — under the direction of Will Wright, a brilliant, visionary game designer with some unorthodox methods for unlocking creativity. And later, I co-led the early design of Covet Fashion- an innovative mobile co-op fashion game created by a crack team led by Blair Ethington. Three years after it launched, Covet Fashion has over 3M MAUs and growing — and it incorporates high-fashion clothing from hundreds of real-world brands.
How do innovators navigate conditions of extreme uncertainty?
Each of these games turned into a major, long-lasting hit — and defined a new genre in the process. Looking back, the games seem almost inevitable — but in the early days, while working under conditions of extreme uncertainty, I saw up-close and personal how the teams operated.
And as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’ve ALSO worked on many projects that you’ve never heard of — because they went sideways, or never went anywhere, or came out with a splash and faded quickly. Those also-ran projects started out with a promising idea — but through a series of missteps, they didn’t reach their full potential.
So what’s the pattern? What separates mega-successful innovators from also-rans? How do innovative projects that break through into hits actually come to life? What do they do EARLY ON that changes the game, and increases their odds of success?
3 Powerful Habits of Successful Innovators
After working with extraordinary teams who managed to create and ship breakthrough hits, I’ve learned that successful innovators share 3 common habits that set them up for success. Some of these habits might seem counter-intuitive — but keep an open mind, because they can yield extraordinary long-term payoff that increase your odds of success.
#1: find & leverage super-fans — then expand from that base
When I was working on Rock Band, I noticed that 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 playtest this innovative multi-player game into existence.
That wasn’t really our target market, though — which puzzled me at the time. As a social systems designer on the project, part of my job was to study our potential market, and create personas and scenarios to model and better understand their behavior and desires. When the game was further along, we tested and refined our ideas with direct input from these casual gamers.
But in the early days, it was our super-fans who helped bring the game to life. In a very real sense, those hard-core music gamers were our co-creators and collaborators — able to see what our crude mockups and simple artwork could become, and — crucially — give us actionable feedback on how to 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 to bring the game to life, we’d have to first capture the hearts and minds of hardcore music gamers AKA early, passionate customers with a burning desire for more & better music games.
I noticed this same pattern while working on The Sims. For years, Will Wright cultivated a group of hardcore simulation enthusiasts who, like himself, loved building objects and evolving systems. Will was a master at keeping these super-fans engaged by leveraging their skills and energy; 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 the majority — but in practice, they NEVER start off pleasing the majority. 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 focus on when you’re first bringing your innovative idea to life.
To understand this more clearly, you simply need to look at Innovation Diffusion Theory — a data-driven model published by Everett Rogers of Bell Labs in 1961. This model show us that innovations spread THROUGH your early market into the mainstream. This distinction — this product development paradox — is as close to an immutable law of innovation as we’ve got.
TIP: It turns out that if you’re innovating, who you test your early ideas on matters. A LOT. To after a large addressable market, start by first getting feedback from a small, passionate group of early customers who are dissatisfied with current alternatives and NEED what you’re offering. If you can find and delight these super-fans, you’re probably on to something.
#2: tinker, prototype & assume your first idea might not be right
All the successful innovations I’ve worked on — games, services, apps, marketplaces — kicked off with tinkering, prototyping & playtesting. In the early days of eBay, for instance, we fiddled with, tweaked and tested the core systems into existence — sometimes maddeningly so. There were VEHEMENT arguments between design and engineering about the right way to do things — which were usually resolved with a quick test to collect real data from customers.
As a designer, this fast-paced, rough-and-ready style of development was nerve-racking — and as eBay grew, itcaused some major problems and required changes. But in the beginning, this agility was a major factor in ebay’s ability to find product/market fit and become an industry leader.
Long before it became a worldwide hit, The Sims was as an ongoing series of small, high-learning world-building experiments. Will and the team spent many months building crude simulation prototypes to test out core properties of the game. It was through this experimental tinkering process — and lots of iterative playtesting — that a hit emerged from the various ideas.
TIP: If you want to build a breakthrough hit that delights and engages people, prototype and playtest your ideas early — and test your assumptions without being attached to being right. Assume your first ideas will need testing and revision — and might even be dead wrong. If you adopt this attitude and think like a scientist, you’ll accelerate your learning process and more quicky find product/market fit.
#3: build & test your core product experience from the inside out
During the early days of bringing Rock Band to life, we had a “war room” setup with crude, taped-together instrument prototypes and big screens showing feedback and stats. For many months, the only thing we worked on was playing a song together — the Core Loop of the Rock Band experience All the fun, sexy progress mechanics and graphical polish — levels, arenas, custom instruments, super-cool avatars — came much later, once we’d really nailed that core product experience. At the time, I was somewhat frustrated — because I wanted to dive in and make the cool stuff. Now that I’m much more experienced, I understand the wisdom of focusing on your Core Loop first, before everything else — because if you don’t nail that, nothing else really matters.
This is a common pattern among successful innovations. All those tiny world-building experiments that the Sims team ran early-on were focused around testing the Core Loop. And on the Covet Fashion team, we tested many ideas for the core cooperative gameplay in the first 6 weeks. Now, we did consider how our onboarding experience would look and feel — but we never focused our efforts there, because we were obsessed with working out what would make our players come back again and again. Why, you might ask? Because if we couldn’t pull that off — if we couldn’t drive sustained engagement — nothing else mattered, and the project would NOT get off the ground.
Years later, I remembered this lesson while working with a brilliant entrepreneur who was seduced by the siren song of slick onboarding. I tried to get him focused on building and tuning a strong Core Loop — but instead, he opted to build a beautiful, polished onboarding experience to get users into the system quickly — and then ship that to “see what happens.”
Not surprisingly, that app was a leaky bucket — hardly anyone stayed around after downloading and trying it out, because… well, there wasn’t any strong core loop or truly compelling reason to return daily. In the language of the Player’s Journey, the app did a good job of discovery and onboarding — but lacked any real development of the habit-building phase of the experience.
Unfortunately, this approach is all too common in startups — but I’ve noticed this mistake doesn’t happen on hit games and products that drive long-term engagement. These teams stay focused on “finding the fun” (as we gamers call it) and creating a strong, skill-building Habit Loop before they move on to develop slick onboarding with pretty graphics.
TIP: If you’re testing ideas, and bringing an innovative product to life, make sure that your team is aware of the key stages of your customer’s experience — and knows what to focus on when. If you want to drive sustained engagement, focus your early efforts on prototyping, testing and tuning your core product experience AKA Core Loop — NOT the easier, sexier Onboarding experience.
Innovate smarter with these 3 Powerful Habits
So there you have it — 3 powerful habits that can super-charge your innovation game, and lead your team towards success. To recap — here are the habits that separate mega-successful innovators from also-rans:
- find & leverage your super-fans — then expand from that base
- tinker, prototype & playtest – assume your first idea might not be right
- build & test your core product experience from the inside out
Learning and practicing these habits can help you avoid some of the most common — and costly — mistakes that smart entrepreneurs make building their products.
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