Luis Perez-Breva - GenX


Author of

Innovating – A Doer's Manifesto

MIT Lecturer and Research Scientist


It turns out that if you're really innovative – if you're really doing something new – you want to be wrong as many times as possible.



Uncoupling the Commoditization of Innovation

By Heidi Legg

After a 20-year run from the days when business plans were being funded on napkins at a taco stand near Silicon Valley, have we arrived at the moment when entrepreneurship and innovation have become so polished and commoditized that we forget how they differ? This is the argument presented in Luis Perez-Breva’s new book Innovating: A Doer's Manifesto for Starting From A Hunch Prototyping Problems, Scaling Up, and Learning to Be Productively Wrong (MIT Press). Perez-Breva pushes innovators to stop looking for a recipe and a narrative to share with funders and first explore. In fact, he argues exploration leads to the story, because hindsight is the only place where you can see how it happened.

Looking back over the past 20 years, it is easy to see how this commoditization of innovation evolved beginning with Apple’s “Think Different” campaign by TBWA\Chiat\Day in 1997 and a reflection of Jobs himself, coupled with the Biblical-like Innovator’s Dilemma published by Harvard Business School’s iconic Clay Christensen the same year. This brought with it the mid-1990s rise of venture capital and a skyrocketing IPO market that fueled stories of 20-year olds with one page business plans written on a napkin with six-figures attached. Today, all of North America watches Shark Tank, Dragon’s Den, and the host of The Apprentice is now our President. Have we out-commoditized innovation and entrepreneurship, and how do they differ?

Barcelona-born and educated Perez-Breva, PhD, Director of MIT Innovation Teams Course and Program at MIT Engineering and Sloan, has been trying to convince his MIT Engineering and Sloan Business School students to spend a few years exploring rather than check listing from a recipe.

In his book, he argues that innovators must be productively wrong in order to learn. He urges his students to take the two years they may want to spend following a blueprint for building a business and instead spend the same two years exploring their idea. He calls the current “pitch mentality” a delusion. I sat down with him to understand how we undo this commoditization and what he sees as the path to true innovation.

Your new book asks readers to be “productively wrong” and even lists this in its title. Why is this important?

It is one of the most important lessons in the book. That's effectively how we learn. You learn by being wrong. I've been wrong all the time. Today, people confuse being wrong with failing. Failing is a very fatal word for people to use because what you actually most often are is wrong. And the beauty of it is that you only need to be right once.

In the book, you say we need to be "just a little bit right," not totally right. Why?

Yes, because we learn that way. If you look at how kids progress their learning, they're mostly wrong. They keep on trying new things and eventually they get it right. It starts with language. Somehow, when you grow into being an adult, you've learned so much and you've been taught so much that it feels like being wrong is an anathema. But it turns out that if you're really innovative – if you're really doing something new – you want to be wrong as many times as possible.

You drew much of this theory by watching how your MIT Engineering and Sloan Business School students continuously sought a formula. In the book, you try to debunk the idea of a recipe. Why are you so convinced?

For the last decade I've been observing a trend: most of my students come into the classroom and expect I will give them a sequence of steps – five steps or twenty steps – by which they will end up with an innovation. They think they'll create some MIT technology, which we actually play with in the classroom, and then somehow all they have to do is find the market research person and do a little persona and then sell it to the market. Except that those technologies are not products. The active data object (ADO) we have for products for those technologies is not necessarily the ADO that will actually succeed or have an impact in the world. There is a lot of conceiving to do before that happens.

What I need of my students is for them to be critical thinkers. I need them to become doers. And I need them to be wrong before we can figure out what might have an impact. What I have noticed is that, instead, they want me to supply a recipe: find your user or find your market and work backwards from there.

“Get the great management team, do market research, and pivot” – reading your book, there is a sense of relief that one could forget about all the lingo and simply experiment. Is that your goal?

Experiment is actually a tricky word because it's used so much that it's really hard to know what it actually means. Scientists use it in one way. People in marketing use it in a different way. I actually even go beyond the word ‘experiment.’ What you need to do is actually ‘explore.’

Explore is the word I use throughout the book because you don’t really know what you're doing. People tell you, ‘Get a team. Get an idea. Go for it. Find your user,’ and I agree… if you do find all those things, you're done! But all of those things are variables and going to change. If you narrow your views to just one user before you really know what you're doing, then all you're going to end up doing is designing something for that one user. You need to open your view and, once you do, all those other things are going to change. They are not things you set in stone at the very beginning. The idea first needs exploring.

How do students respond to this?

It's been changing over the last ten years. Ten years ago, it was okay. They felt relieved. Yet, with the advent of many other books on the topic of innovation and the emphasis on design for your user, it has changed.

These days, they resist the idea because they would really like to have a recipe. However, in all the experience of watching new ideas succeed, we know no recipe actually works. What I get from students these days at first is some skepticism. Some people have anxiety and then they start to apply those recipes to what we give them in class – Sometimes to technology and sometimes to solve a problem. Applying the recipe, what they see is that it fails. At first, they blame me for it failing… It takes about a month for people to try out all those recipes until they give up and realize these don't work.

Then what happens?

Most of them figure out that what I've been asking them all along is open up their views; not to set sights on one idea absent of information, not to narrow, because that's effectively gambling.

Once they begin to explore they start to actually enjoy the process. They start to realize that all the information they've gathered from the world, from people, from technologies, and so forth is actually useful – not only for the original ideas upon which they would have settled – but for many ideas. They become explorers and there is a lot of relief. The sentence that triggers the most relief is when I say, ‘I'm going to teach them mostly how to be wrong.’

Exploring takes time. Many would say time is a privilege. How should an innovator deal with this?

I know. But look at the alternative… People think time is pressing, that you don't have time to actually explore. I feel that myself. Even when I was writing the book, I felt, ‘oh, my God. I need to finish this. I have many other things I'm giving up to write this,’ but now look at the actual alternative – That is what people don't tell you.

The alternative is betting on one idea, where you go through with it for as long as you can, and then fail. Okay, fine… And fail fast, by the way. Okay, fine, again. I'll fail fast. It's still going to take you about two years to fail that way. Well, that's two years. Now my question to you is this: Is there another way to use those two years where instead of aiming for failing and get over the urgency (it turns out to be very hard to push away urgency) and instead you explore?

Why is this so hard to push away urgency?

It is hard. What we don't really realize is that it takes about the same time to explore as following the urgent list – and you get more out of it! Whereas, if you base all your efforts on that one idea, that one user, that one market, that one design… you take the same amount of time that you would have used for exploration that would get you further down the path to innovation. On average, people don't really learn how to transport their learning and lessons to any idea until they are two years down the road. So regardless of how you tackle it, to be an innovator, it’s two years. How you use those two years is your choice. I propose you explore.

You stress “hunches” over ideas. You write that traditional business strategy is often applied too early to a hunch. How?

Many people phrase their ideas in terms of a revolutionary product. They pitch it with all those recipes. But frankly, if no one has used the product, if you haven't built it yet, and if all you have is a vision for the future, we know that idea is going to evolve, enormously. I think that instead of obsessing as to whether your idea is actually earth shattering, you're better off acknowledging the truth. With so little tested and so little known, what you really have is a hunch.

No matter how precisely you phrase it in terms of business words, it is a hunch, not an idea. The reason why I propose people think about it this way is because if you’ve already phrased it as a business and you give yourself all those keywords, you may delude yourself into believing you actually have a business, when you don’t. At this point, it’s a hunch and if you phrase it as a business or as an NGO, or as an organization… that will lead to failing. Instead, phrase it as a problem that needs solving. Every single business idea I have seen over the past decade has changed enormously from its hunch. So, given how much it's going to change, why corner yourself into believing you already have an idea that 's going to revolutionize the world?

I can see how it limits the possibilities and set one up for disappointment. Why do you think we do that?

People will tell you we fear uncertainty. I think it’s nothing more than the modern age where we've been taught to think about ideas this way. There's been a lot of good teaching on how to pitch an idea, how to get funding and that's good that people know how to do that. And yet, there's been so little explaining of how you actually get to a good idea, of how you actually conceive it.

Today, if you have a new idea, you think the first thing you need to do is present it to others and then people want to be liked and want to be right. It’s the pitch mentality. And you start to dream and you sell your dream – which is a good thing to have by the way – but then you sell it before you even know what you're going to do with it. As a result, you're stuck with this idea and it feels like the more you supply people with this vision, the easier everything will become. Wrong. It’s good to have a vision and it's even better to know what to do next.

Be honest with yourself. Make it real and as you make it real, the vision that you see associated with this hunch will also become real for them and then they may or may not like it. It's okay. They'll either come along or they won't. Do not worry. There are a bunch of people out there that are ready to support visions and dreams that are tangible.

How does one recognize when they've finally gone from hunch to idea?

The question is will you be able to recognize that solution once you see it? Eventually you're going to get to it but the way you're going to see it has nothing to do with how you thought it would be at the very beginning. The key is to continuously update your idea before you even know that you're actually going to be almost right.

You do not really need the stress about whether you have an ‘idea.’ That's something you'll talk about in hindsight. All that matters is that there is a problem you don't yet fully understand and you have a hunch. The real question is do you understand the problem you're solving well enough that you could recognize a solution when imaginary aliens showed it to you?

Have you ever found yourself in a situation when the solution was staring at you all along and all it took was for you to catch up in your understanding of the problem to realize that the way to solve it had been there all along? 

O.K. so how does one explore?

Look at the problem you are trying to solve. The first thing is to realize that you don't know the answer yet. You just don't know. You're doing it because you actually like the idea. Then as people come and give you feedback – if you expose yourself to that feedback, which you should – you really don't know when or if that feedback is actually going to be relevant for you. Mostly, they're going to tell you, you are wrong. That's okay. There's got to be a reason why they think this and that reasoning is what you should really crave most. They may or may not be right themselves. It's okay. Absorb that information. Trust that your brain is actually primed for this. It will eventually click into something. And remember, obsessing beforehand as to where it clicks is the best way to waste your time. They key is to remember there's no recipe. There's no guarantee that you're actually going to innovate at the end of the road.

We read so much today about success stories and you warn about looking for that narrative too early. Why?

Once you're done, you're going to spin a story about how you came up with this fantastic idea and that story will resemble nothing about what you actually did, but it will actually be very useful for you to synthesize and for others to see and see you as a role model. But while you're actually doing it, you don't really have a clue of what's going to happen next.

Most stories of entrepreneurship and innovation that we like are because we already know they're done, they’ve been created and succeeded, and the uncertainty is removed. We rationalize the way it happened. We can even see connections and dots and links and we plot a continuous story around them. In reality, none of the people that I've actually talked to, none of the startups that have come out of my class or case studies I’ve read follow a narrative. When you actually look at the very beginning of those stories, there is no way for you to differentiate a good story from a bad story. You need to accept the fact that there will be a time for hindsight. The narrative comes later.

You say that innovation is the reconfiguration of existing elements and not about creating something new. Explain?

Before we began this interview, you asked me why no one had invented a simple digital, iPhone-friendly podcast solution for you yet. Instead, in front of us you now have a computer, two mics, and an iPhone. And you have assembled them into a solution that works for you.

I want to be able to have quality audio for the interviews I choose to podcast and I couldn’t find a portable single solution so I created this.

Yes, you assembled parts. The beauty of it is the need you’ve discovered – for someone to come up with a revolutionary podcast machine for you to be able to do a podcast on the fly. [Editor’s note: Any MIT tech grad that wants to do this with me, call me!] That's what people lose track of about innovation. It's just a couple of mics, it’s whatever, but it's actually a completely new and revolutionary way we spread content. But when innovation starts, it's just a bunch of old parts put together.

What's shocking to most people is that every single piece of novelty starts out this way. I'm trying to persuade people that this is much easier than it looks. You don't need to have that earth shattering idea. You don't need to start with a full podcast machine to build on your example from the get-go. At first, you can assemble a few things. At the very beginning, it's not the podcast machine. That's the end.

Is there any method to how one pulls in different parts?

It is the same way you do it in the kitchen when you're trying to experiment with a new recipe. You're mostly going to get it wrong. Once you accept that as an operating principal, then your single objective would be to choose parts that allow you ‘to be wrong the most’ so you learn the from them which is not necessarily the way you might think about it. Everybody wants to get it right at first but it never happens that way. You must accept that and simply bring in parts. The most preposterous combination of parts, the more you stand to learn.

Why do we like Elon Musk, for instance? We like Elon Musk because he's brutally successful with pretty daring ideas and he produces amazingly preposterous thoughts. I mean this as a compliment. Amazingly preposterous thoughts bring thoughts and parts that people have not put together before. Don’t ask if it's right. Ask instead, why is it wrong? That's a very engineering mindset: You put forth the idea and don't restrict the idea; maybe it was really wrong in so many ways, but you do learn from that process.

You discuss how important it is for innovators to go out and experiment with parts in the everyday landscape. What are you suggesting?

We are fortunate. There's been a number of movements over the last several years that have made it even easier: the do it yourself movement, the maker space movement. You can get pretty much anything you want from Amazon in a couple of days nowadays. The question really is: Is there a way to try out your idea at a scale? Your first job should be to figure out the way in which you can test out your idea at the room scale in a place where you don't need all that expensive equipment that would force you into spending lots of money. That said, I'm not just simply proposing that you go and make everything. It's not simply a cry to just go and start making. It's more of a cry to invite people to ask: Is there a problem that bugs you? It's easier today then it was for Dr. Theodore Maiman who first invented the laser in 1960, as I explain in the book. As long as you try to sell people on the big dream, you're mostly postponing the work and you're persuading yourself that the idea even has merit.

Are you trying to change the innovation process in America?

What I don't want is for people to think they have to have an earth shattering idea. If they've actually been trying to do entrepreneurship and they've gotten into classes on business planning and pitching and marketing, etc. - that those are important skills to have along the way but that is not innovating. Even more important is to actually figure out a way to push for what your passionate about. No matter how you try to innovate your hunch, it's going to be four years in the dry dock. Statistically, that's what it's going to be. So, it is incredibly hard to spend four years in the dry dock – or more – on something that you started based on a tactical move because you felt it was something you could get funded. You're way better off trying out something you really want to spend your four years on.

There are a lot of people in business saying forget all the doing, just pitch your idea to the world. Yet the STEM part of my brain feels like they're asking me to postpone all that part of my background until someone has liked my idea, which is the opposite of what I was taught. I feel strongly that if you start with exploration, you actually learn much more about what you want to do.

Has entrepreneurship become too polished today?

There is a substantial difference between entrepreneurship and innovation and that difference is very important. They've been tangled together to a point where everybody thinks everything is a buzzword and what I'm trying to do with this book is bring clarity to the difference between entrepreneurship and innovation. Entrepreneurship is all about producing a new business the way we actually see it today that includes users, the team, whatever but by then you really need to have a very clear idea of an organization.

Innovation is when you're committed and decided there's a real world problem out there that needs to be solved with something new and you're going to figure out a way to bring it together. Now, in the process, you may need to become an entrepreneur. That's an okay thing to be as well. It's excellent. And yet, there is no need for you to go all innovating to be an entrepreneur. That's completely different.

What do you think about Generation X?

When I was growing up, I kept on hearing ‘Generation X, Generation Y, Baby Boomers’ and now I'm hearing about Millennial and I kept asking my friends, ‘which one are we?’ And then I discovered I'm GenX. Growing up in Barcelona in that demographic, I've been very geared towards individuality of people – not individualism as in preventing others from doing other stuff but rather respecting people's individuality.

The Internet took off in the '90s when we were studying and building our early careers – how do you think that has affected our generation in how we see the world or create?

I can tell you the way it felt for me at that time. I was growing up in Spain and we got a computer, which was supposed to be for my brother but I sort of commandeered it at my home. I started playing with it and one of the first things I did was actually open it up. I broke it and then I repaired it. It felt like a perfectly okay thing to do. I'm not sure if there's a trait that unites us in terms of personality but I can tell you about what I was experiencing when I was growing up and it's that idea that I could open up things and break them and then repair them. I remember once my father, who’s probably still mad about this, tell me that when I announced I was going to take it apart, he asked that I back everything up. I did back it up everything except that we forgot the movie database. I tried my experiment. I don't really know what I did but computer went out in flames.

Also, pretty Gen X.

It’s that idea that everything was easier to experiment with. Now even cars are built in a way that makes them more efficient but it makes people scared about that kind of experimentation.

What I'm trying to do is bring people to this again. Your phone might be closed - locked - or super miniaturized but it turns out you can actually build your own phone. There are pieces out there you can build for fifty bucks and then you only need a SIM card. It's not going to be as pretty. It's not going to be designed beautifully at the end, but that comes later. You can innovate.

There’s always been a chance to innovate. Maybe it's no longer with building computers. Maybe it's with building the next thing. Maybe it's the next bio device with DNA. There's such a well of things to experiment with these days. It's a game. It was a game when I was growing up. It should be a game nowadays and it’s even easier. I can get a wind turbine for the backyard for $400. Okay, not everyone can afford $400 for an experiment, but it's not a million dollars. It's not $10,000. It's getting close to a point where you can experiment with so many things and it’s very low risk.

Even if you don't know anything about energy, if you get the pieces and you can assemble them, you'll learn something. What's important is that before you go out and pitch to the world that you have a way to solve the energy crisis, you could actually try it in your backyard and people don't seem to realize that.

Do you think there is too much pressure?

Yes, too much pressure for something that starts out not actually being new. What I'm trying to have people realize is, ‘you know what? Maybe, you'll produce the innovation or maybe you'll just change the community, and maybe your community will be maybe twenty people. It's not about placing products everywhere like crazy. You change something for the better. Once you do, you've already had an impact. If you figure out how to scale to more people, the impact stays the same because the problem is solved. You just have more people. Innovation starts out by actually solving a problem.’

Now, if you actually solve a real world problem, and in the book I explain how to think about those, it only matters that you actually had the impact. From there, people will realize it's new because the problem is no longer there. But they will not realize that until then end, not at the beginning. And then when you explain the story, you'll talk about how you pivoted here to there and you never did, but you'll say that because to explain the full story is very boring when you outline every single mistake you made.

[We both laugh at this reality. By now, Luis is laughing and shaking his head as we sit in the Venture Café at the CIC in Kendall Square, where people are buzzing around outside the padded podcast room Tim Rowe has lent me for the interview.]

We do behavior analysis on the stories of people that were successful and we know they disrupted society. We know that they induced behavioral change, but at the end of the day, when they started they didn’t know. It’s only when they ended, or at least when they were sufficiently far along that we have a story to tell.

The illustrations throughout the book, by Cambridge artist Nick Fuhrer, are amusing and compelling themselves. Why did you choose to collaborate with an artist for a business book?

I was so fortunate to find Nick. Two years ago when I actually produced the proposal to the MIT Press, I told him I don't want academic charts or diagrams or flow charts because I don't want to treat people like robots. I want to actually appeal to their creative side. I want to have a visual summary that's going to be artist of every chapter and I didn't know how to do that but I said it's going to happen. A month before the book was due, I found Nick Fuhrer, a kinetic sculpture. His illustrations are awesome and we started working together and he said, ‘can you tell me what you imagine and I'll draw it?’ and so we had these wonderful collaborations. The goal was actually fulfilled thanks to Nick's amazing drawings.

Where do you go for cocktails?

I have two kids. I haven't gone for a cocktail in a long time. We do go to get wine and then we drink it at home and we go to Central Bottle.

Where do you go to explore?

I have specialized in making my backpack my office. I have everything I need in there, or at least everything I think I need.

You do know GenX invented the-backpack-as-an-office?

I actually have an office at MIT but I try to work in different places, coffee places. I find new places every other day and so if you ask me what's my favorite place in Boston, it's so hard.

It's all about exploring for you isn’t it?


You write: ‘There is no way you can design a yet to exist product around non-existing people.’ What are you trying to say?

You live your life in uncertainty, right? So, why is it for everything else you do you need so much certainty?