The sound of innovation

In music, a note is a pure sound of a single frequency, or pitch. What we perceive as a note is simply the vibration of air molecules between the source and our ears. Things get more exciting when we sound three or more notes at the same time. This is a chord.

As students of music theory understand, some sets of notes played together as chords sound harmonious and other sets sound inharmonious, or dissonant. There exist unequal spaces between the frequencies of notes that comprise harmonious chords. There are many such chords – all of which are in one way or another expressive of the intent.

I think of creating musical chords as a metaphor for creating innovative products. Converting an inventive idea into an innovative product requires finding the harmonious chord that balances feasibility, viability, and utility. Usually, there are more “notes” to consider (i.e. sustainability, legality, desirability), but let’s continue with the minimum we need for a “chord”. It is never enough to consider and prove technical feasibility, business viability, or user utility alone. In our world, at least those three factors must be played. And the tone of at least those three factors must be played harmoniously.

Innovation is not about finding that one perfect note – it’s about the intentional combination of notes into a complex, expressive, harmonious chord.”

We are often fortunate to be a part of innovative endeavors. One recent example is the Hydrow Rower. Hydrow’s founder, Bruce Smith, had a clear vision for a remarkable innovation. He came to us describing the hardware “note” – the indoor rowing machine had to be pin-drop quiet and drop-dead gorgeous. We invented a few things along the path to proving the technical feasibility, delivering a solution that provides the resistance needed for exercise in a quiet, compact form.

Bruce described the visual impact and physical experience he wanted users to feel so we created an exceptional form that was harmonious with the technology we were developing. We proved the user utility in a way that started shaping that chord we were looking for.

Meanwhile, Hydrow’s internal team was developing the digital user interface, collecting and generating content for the streaming experience, and developing a revenue-generation platform to prove the business viability. This added to and completed that complex, expressive, harmonious chord Bruce was hoping to find.

With a background in rowing and training elite athletes, and not in creating products, Bruce demonstrated a remarkable instinct for putting the right notes together to sound the innovation chord. Hydrow’s user interface, content, and business model, and our engineering were the individual notes that constructed a beautiful, harmonious chord. And it’s more than just being lucky to find the right notes or mindlessly iterating until you stumble upon them. It’s the combination of experience, natural talent, and curiosity – sort of like an improvisational jazz quartet that has the years and the ears to know just what notes to sound.

So, back to music for a minute. How do you know when one sound works with another? How do you know which notes will combine to create a harmonious chord? In music, it’s easy. Music theory guides you to pick notes a certain number of steps from your dominant tone, depending on what you want to express. You add a pinch of timing and a dash of timbre and you have the chord that will put a smile on your face.

Regrettably, it’s not that easy with product development. How do you know when all the notes, when played, work together? As with the jazz musician, the years and the ears certainly help. What also helps is testing, testing, testing. One of our tenets is “listen, think, then build”. Once you’ve built, repeat. Intentionally iterating is part of the process – lots of little mistakes, lots of little corrections. A shoebox guitar can play a set of notes just as easily as a $5,000 guitar – well enough to know if I have a chord that works. Prototype your ideas as quickly and dirtily as you can, so you can converge on what you have in your head.

What is my suggested innovation “don’t”? Do not let yourself be seduced by the sound of that single, perfect note – innovation is a complex, harmonious chord.

This essay originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Innovation Leader’s Pointers, responding to the question “What’s your innovation ‘don’t’?”

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