Lessons in Innovation from Spore

Electronic Arts finally released Sims-creator Will Wright’s newest game, Spore this week. I’m not really a gamer, but it looks to be an intriguing and engaging game. I actually saw a demo of a prototype a couple of years ago (Wright demo’d it prolifically during its long gestation period), at an outstanding talk Wright gave along with composer/producer Brian Eno in San Francisco. The talk, put on by the Long Now Foundation, explored a common theme between the two men’s work of starting with simple elements and creating increasing complexity with relatively simple rules.

In the case of Wright it had to do with simple game elements working within simple rules about how they could be combined and how they interact. In Eno’s case it had to do with small numbers of notes, some simple rules about how they should be played, and then setting them off and running to see what melodies they create.

There are some profound lessons for innovation there. I wrote at the time:

The talk helped crystalize some things I’ve been thinking about with wicked problems, and issues of emergence and how one can use seeds (in Eno’s words) to generate and test ideas, rather than trying to build forests. This is a key aspect of dealing with wicked problems: rapid iterations of probing and testing to further understand the problem.

Plant seeds, not forests

When you’re trying to tackle a new problem where the problem itself is unclear (a characteristic of wicked problems), it is usually foolish to go whole hog and launch a full-fledged product (i.e. a “forest”). Chances are it is going to miss the mark and fail. So an incremental approach that acknowledges the emergent nature of the problem is far more effective. In other words, plant seeds and see which ones flourish.

In contrast to expensive, complex forests that take a lot of resource investment to make, seeds are cheap, disposable, and resource light. Spread them as liberally as you can, with some forethought as to which areas of soil look the most promising (that is, do some pre-screening of the opportunity areas).

Seeds in this case can mean prototypes, sketches, white papers, limited market tests, focus groups, even casual conversations with end customers. Really, any means of trying out a new idea, whether in early stage development (where cheap and fast are key) or actual product launch.

In the latter case, the mentality should be one of incremental launches that ideally build on one another and get one piece right at a time, rather than trying to build the whole thing right from the beginning. This is also a key principle behind the approach to software development known as agile programming, and can be seen in the endless stream of “beta” launches from many software companies that have real users bang away on the emergent offering.