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You’re Probably Wrong

A new look at the innovation process challenges the accepted wisdom.

June 27, 2017

When Luis Perez-Breva, PhD ’07, began looking for books about innovation to recommend to his students, he found them lacking. “There are so many books on innovation, but there’s no single one that tells you how to do it,” says Perez-Breva, a lecturer and research scientist in the School of Engineering who directs the MIT Innovation Teams Program. So he wrote his own. In Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto for Starting from a Hunch, Prototyping Problems, Scaling Up, and Learning to Be Productively Wrong, Perez-Breva details a process that relies not on a formula, but on a deeper, messier approach to developing bold new ideas.

First, forget the notion that you must begin with a breakthrough. “We’re told to get an idea, build a team, then go out and make your idea real,” he says. “But the people who succeed—what they have at the beginning is not really an idea. It’s more like a sense that there’s something broken.” Perez-Breva calls this a hunch. He cites the example of Steve Wozniak figuring he could probably build a better computer for himself, or Henry Ford making his quadricycle, an early attempt at a car.

The initial hunch may often be wrong or off target—Ford’s quadricycle barely made it a few blocks—but successful innovators adapt in response to these inevitable missteps. This process has given rise to business clichés about the value of “failing fast.” But Perez-Breva says this is terrible advice. “You don’t want to fail at all!” he insists. “A failure is fatal. A mistake is just a mistake.” While such errors or miscues might seem colossal at first, if you anticipate making them, and are primed to learn from them, your hunch will evolve faster, and major obstacles will look, in retrospect, like minor speed bumps.

Perez-Breva refers to this process as being “productively wrong”; he recommends pursuing the initial hunch and learning from your mistakes, seeking to understand at a deeper level the problem your innovation is looking to address. He advises becoming an expert not just in the problem itself, but in the system or environment that created it. This is one of the reasons Ford was so successful. He didn’t just build a more affordable machine. He also realized that the industry needed a financing system that would help people pay their cars off over time.

Much of Innovating focuses on overturning the accepted wisdom about innovating. “Growth-hacking,” “pivoting,” and other common concepts are dismissed as catchy but vacuous buzzwords. There is no precise playbook or step-by-step recipe, according to Perez-Breva, but Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto will help guide thinkers along the twisting, turning paths to developing a new idea. “The only thing that you can guarantee is that you’re probably going to be wrong,” he counsels, “and that you’re going to be learning by mistake.

Recent Books
From the MIT Community

Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto
By Luis Perez-Breva, PhD ’07
MIT Press, 2017, $34.95

The Sphinx of the Charles: A Year at Harvard with Harry Parker
By Toby Ayer ’96
Lyons Press, 2016, $22.95

With Their Bare Hands: General Pershing, the 79th Division, and the Battle for Montfaucon
By Gene Fax ’67
Osprey Publishing, 2017, $32

Cultures without Culturalism: The Making of Scientific Knowledge
Edited by Evelyn Fox Keller, professor emerita of the history and philosophy of science, and Karine Chemla
Duke University Press, 2017, $29.95

Truth from the Trenches: A Practical Guide to the Art of IT Management
By Mark Settle ’72, SM ’73
Routledge, 2016, $27.95

Agreement beyond Phi
By Shigeru Miyagawa, professor
of global studies and languages
MIT Press, 2017, $35

Domesticating Drones: The Technology, Law, and Economics of Unmanned Aircraft
By Henry H. Perritt Jr. ’66, SM ’70, and Eliot O. Sprague
Routledge, 2016, $150

Tiger Pelt
By Annabelle Kim ’86, SM ’89
Leaf-Land, 2017, $18

Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Darwin’s Quest for a Theory of Earth
By Rob Wesson ’66
Pegasus Books, 2017, $29.95

Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2016 and 2017 to be considered for this column.

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