Innovation! – And how to pitch it



We are all excited about seeing innovation, and even more so, driving innovation. But how is innovation happening? More interestingly, how can we drive innovation?

Modern Entrepreneurs will tell you that it takes many attempts, and often countless experiments and pivots, to find an idea that sticks and takes off. That wisdom is not new though. As a kid, I saw a movie about Thomas Edison, and I never forgot this quote:

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

Edison tried hundreds, maybe thousands of different materials, until he finally got his first working lightbulb.

The same is true for innovations that we want to drive. We need to think through many ideas, vet the ones that make the most sense to us, and develop them further. Then we need to pitch them to see if they hold water under scrutiny. Finally, we must test if the assumptions hold true in the real world, or are just paper dreams.

We will pitch a lot, and only a few of our ideas will see the light of day. But that’s ok, it’s actually good and intentional. Unless you are a once-in-a-century genius, just like it did for Edison, it will take you several attempts before you come with an idea that gets broad support and quick traction. That’s good, the selection of the best ideas is a critical part of the process. In our case, Amazon is successful because it focuses on the most promising ideas, not everything we could tackle (otherwise we would still be selling books from a garage).


So how do you pitch an idea?

Of course, there are events through the year, that proactively solicit ideas – unconstrained ones like Hackathons and Ideathons, or more focused ones like 3 Year Plan and roadmap planning.

However, I hope that your ideas are not limited to those fixed and defined dates, but your creative juices flow every day at work. So how do you land those sparks of inspiration?

First of all, please don’t wait for the next ‘official’ planning session! Second, don’t trust the ‘elevator pitch’. It’s highly unlikely that a thoughtful and responsible leader will invest substantial resources based on the information and depth they can get from a quick hallway chat or an improvised meeting.

Instead, the mechanism we have at Amazon to pitch ideas and sell them is through PR FAQs. PR FAQs and Working Backwards docs are Amazon’s way to explain a proposal, think through the critical details, and win approval to move forward, experiment and learn more along the way.

Here’s a quick overview as to what makes a good PR FAQ (at least in my mind):

Be clear, be focused – You need to focus on the core problem that you want to solve, the core proposal you want to make. Don’t provide a laundry list of stuff, make a pitch for a core idea (you can still move your laundry list to the end of the appendix if you have separation anxiety). You want your PR FAQ to be a clear, crisp and concise story. You also want it to be a believable pitch so that your leaders can trust that you have thought it through.

Understand your ‘What’ – What problem are you solving or what new value are you creating? Specifically! Pick one, not ten.

Explain the ‘Why’ – Answer the “so what” question that every leader has. Why should I care? Why does this matter? This is where you MUST have data – our beloved Xs and Ys just don’t cut it here. As you explain the “why this matters”, also think about the “why now”. It’s a great idea for sure because you are a smart person, but of all the things, why should we focus on this right now, and not in a year or two?

Be diligent about the ‘Why not’ – Pitch your idea, but don’t be a sales rep (sell it, but sell it honestly). Tell the full story, not the rosy picture. Don’t drop valid concerns to drive an easier sell. What are the risks, challenges, and headwinds? If you proactively address them, and explain how you think about testing or mitigating those risks, your credibility will jump to the next level.

Lay out the ‘How’ – Let’s assume, we buy your idea, now what? How would we execute? How can we test your assumptions (see the next point)? What are the next steps that we need to take if we want to go further?

Clarify the ‘Asks’ – What do you need? Are you asking for time or permission to run an experiment on your own? Are you proposing to rebalance current funding? Are you asking for incremental funding? Be clear, not ambiguous! What’s the goal of the doc? What do you want to achieve?

At this stage, keep in mind, that it takes many attempts and many shots to develop, pitch, and land a new and compelling idea. Some will land, others won’t.

Early validation

One of the first questions you answer when you think about your proposal and draft your PR FAQ should be: How do you validate that you are onto something? How can you get early signals, as to whether this will actually work in real life?

You must be explicit and specific in the experiment you will do as a next step and litmus test. That experiment needs to be something simple. It can be a proxy for what you actually want to build. It can be something that you run manually, and with only paper support, before we all take the next step and decide to invest in engineering. It can be something that you do in shadow mode in parallel before we decide to change process or customer experience. For example, you can just show a few paper mocks to future users and see their reactions. Whatever it is, you need to make it a point to find ways to test quickly and cheaply.

You need to break big and scary proposals down into smaller bits that are less expensive to fail and learn, and then quickly test them before you move on. If you don’t do that, you are asking for a big leap of faith from your leaders to make big investments in a paper-idea, that very possibly could not work after all.

We all want to experiment, fail (we don’t want to, but we are aware that it’s part of the process), and learn fast. Make it a core part of the proposals you are putting forward. In every single proposal, think a LOT about how you can experiment cheaply in the early stages, to provide quick validation or signals to pivot.


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

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Reflections from Tai Chi Class Today

I usually don’t share discussions and lessons from class here, but today we talked about one that I think is worth sharing outside of our little Tai Chi family.

Pushing hands – Like water, like wind

We did quite a bit of pushing hands in class today. We don’t do it very often in our regular Tai Chi classes, but when we do, it’s a great way to feel, practice and guide our energy, face external obstacles and get direct feedback on our own actions.

It helps us understand the form on a deeper level, and it also presents broader lessons that apply to all areas of life.

Here’s the key point:

Don’t have a preconceived plan. Listen and react to the situation. Feel the energy and respond to it.

Our as our teacher, Hilmar Fuchs, likes to say:

Keep your mind open for opportunities. When they present themselves, go for it.

With that, we learn to ‘listen’ in push hands, to ‘keep our eyes open’ for challenges (attacks) and opportunities (openings).

Some of the principles we study in pushing hands:

  1. Have your mind on the end goal, on what you want to achieve. Don’t hold yourself back by overthinking the challenges in front of you, or thinking they are unsurmountable.
  2. Don’t try to force your way because you had a certain plan and want to stick to it.
  3. Don’t miss opportunities because you weren’t ready yet, or because they don’t fit in your plan and timeline.
  4. Be frugal, only move when you need to. Only react when you get energy. Don’t be mechanical, if there is no signal, there is no need for response.
  5. Don’t be stiff either, be flexible. The tree bends to the wind, the water flows around the rock, the wind reaches into every corner. On the other hand, the frozen branch breaks upon resistance.

When you get the principles right, you don’t need force

When we need to apply force, speed or trickery to overcome our partner (or obstacle), then we got the timing and the principles wrong. When we can be soft and calm, and still achieve our goals, then we did the right thing at the right time.

Strive to be soft (flexible) and calm, while maintaining course towards your goal.

When there is an opening, allow your energy to flow into it. When you pull a bolder out of the stream, the water will fill the void without hesitation.

When there is resistance, go around it. Every hard spot has a corresponding soft spot that is presented to you as a gift.

And in ‘real’ life?

After class we talked a little about the application of these principles to life and business.

It’s the same thing.

You want to have a general sense of where you want to go (we call it strategy), you want to simulate a few things that could happen to train your sensitivity (often referred to as business plan). But after that, you need to look and listen carefully to what is happening.

Keep your goal in mind, but lock your plan away where you can’t see it. Sense, listen, and react (we often call this experimentation and learning, or ‘little bets’). If an opening (an unexpected opportunity) presents itself, then go for it, whether the time is right or not (it usually never is). The goalpost is durable, the actual path to get there usually is unexpected.

Opportunities you didn’t predict will present themselves (openings), challenges you did’t anticipate will get in your way (resistance). Stay sensitive, flexible, and oriented towards forward momentum (project your energy to your goal, not to the obstacle in your way).

In the military they say:

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Be attentive, be flexible, be nimble, and be open for the unexpected.

Strategy gradually evolves – tactics pivot on a dime.