Before Innovating, Make Sure You're an Explorer

Kent Beck, who pioneered many of the agile practices we now employ, came up with a concept for the product development triathlon while working at Facebook. His framework, 3X, sets out a model for identifying and reacting to different stages of a product’s lifestyle. Every company or product exists in one of either three states - Explore, Expand, Or Extract. 

“Explore–the risky search for a viable return on a viable investment [via experimentation]…If you’re lucky, one of these experiments turns out to be unexpectedly successful, which leads to:

Expand–now things are going nuts… Unanticipated bottlenecks appear… Once growth becomes routine, it’s time to:

Extract–now the shapes of the problem and solution spaces are clear. One euro in equals three euros out. Playbooks emerge…Economies of scale matter…

– Kent Beck, The Product Development Triathlon

Some people are natural explorers. Others thrive in managing the chaos of rapid expansion. And yet others are masters of efficiency, squeezing out drops of value from an already mature product. In order to Innovate, you have to be willing and able to think like an explorer. You also need some friends who can expand and extract, for when the time comes. Segmenting your teams to focus on different parts of the problem brings clarity and direction. But if you Explore with a team of Expanders, or Extract with a team of Explorers, you will be solving the wrong problems with the wrong tactics. 

Exploring, in action

We were hired to conceptualize a new product in participatory sports. We started with a clean slate and could pick anything we wanted. We looked at existing fitness apps, organized sports management apps, sports training apps - basically anything sports-related, minus sports watching. We found an interesting and testable segment in marathon training, a fast-growing sport with a passionate community. We found that training methods were static and outdated. Users would download a 12-week training plan, usually a PDF or simple calendar, which they would print out and pin it to their fridge. This looked ripe for digital innovation. 

Related: Elements of an Innovation Team

Following the guidelines of Lean Startup, we built as little as possible and put it in front of users right away. Our hypothesis was that users would pay for training plans that adjusted to their progress. So we read a few books on marathon training and started creating training plans. Then we put up a landing page with Instapages and started offering training plans with adjustability in exchange for email addresses. We tested new ‘features’ like phone calls with trainers and speed training add ons, seeing if the addition of those features increased our conversion rate on our landing pages.  A $20/day ad budget gave us enough users to spend the next few weeks building training plans all day (and some of the night). When 10 people signed up, we switched out the email address for $1, then $5, then $10. Each user would cost us hours of work creating and editing plans, so we knew this wasn’t efficient, but we wanted to see if users would actually pull out their wallets. Once we established that they would, we began the process of automating the plan creation with software, making the product scalable and efficient through technology.

Related: Three Dynamic Models of Innovation

Let us show you how it works

Same team, different problem

Our team was thinking like an Explore team, but once the value prop was established, we needed an Expand team to take over and figure out how to grow our traffic through ads and optimize our purchase funnel through onboarding optimization. Instead, we kept our same Explore team working on new features that we hoped would lead to more users or revenue. We continued to test out new features when the old ones were already performing well. We missed the opportunity to focus on growing. We had the wrong team in place for the next phase of that project. 

Sophisticated innovation teams understand this. At West Elm, our explore team created countless prototypes for testing - from Facebook chatbots to AR showrooms to Progressive Web Apps. But when we struck a chord with our Progressive Web App, West Elm absorbed those findings into their primary production team for Expansion. The Explore team was free to move onto testing new ideas while the Expanders could do what they do best in scaling that product. At J. Crew, we came in as an Expand team, working on core architecture and scalability. Knowing which team to utilize at which time is critical to the success of a product initiative.  

Related: Innovation Defined