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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