Book Review - The First Mile: A Toolkit for Innovators

The First Mile: A Toolkit for Innovators by Scott Anthony.  Harvard Business Review Press, 2014.  242 pages.  US$25.00.

All engineers are innovators.  We design processes both large and small. We improve existing products for more efficient manufacture and to minimize waste. We work to improve the environment while simultaneously increasing the quality of life around the world.

The difficulty with innovation, however, is in translating a radical idea into the first trial. Scott Anthony’s new book, The First Mile, is a guide for innovators, engineers, and entrepreneurs to launch new products, projects, and programs.

In the 1990s, telecommunications firms had no difficulty in upgrading the main “pipelines” for speed and quality. Rather, the so-called “first mile” presented the challenge. It was both difficult and expensive to upgrade the infrastructure from people’s homes to the main lines. Anthony plays off this term in the title and theme of this terrific book.

An innovation system

Part I introduces a toolkit for engineers and entrepreneurs to conquer the first-mile problem in innovation. Deploying a simple system, innovators need to:

  • Document the idea,
  • Evaluate the idea from various perspectives,
  • Focus on key variables, and
  • Test and learn.

While these concepts seem to be straightforward in theory, many companies tend to skip some or all of these steps in progressing an idea toward commercial launch.

In particular, research and development (R&D) engineers are invaluable during the test and learn stage. New ideas should be evaluated for specific uncertainties. A best-case scenario will identify a handful of pivotal decisions in a new product or process. Rapid testing of key variables can quickly eliminate strategic uncertainties and frame the development effort for future success.

Anthony gives a great example in Chapter 5, “The Experimental Cookbook,of a quick thought experiment to eliminate a key uncertainty. McDonald’s had considered expanding its menu to include a new shrimp salad for health-conscious consumers. The thought experiment revealed that in order to offer shrimp salads at all of their target locations, they would exhaust the U.S. shrimp supply. This would, in turn, force the price of shrimp up drastically, causing the project to be completely unprofitable.

Innovation leadership

Part II of the The First Mile outlines pitfalls and challenges for teams and leaders working in the field of innovation. Chapter 7 describes four traps into which innovators fall, while Chapters 8 and 9 designate challenges at large companies and for leadership, respectively.

One mindset that vexes innovators is optimism bias. Engineers and entrepreneurs get caught up in the excitement of developing a new process or product. A fundamental reality check for the team should ask one simple question. “If it’s such a great idea, why has no one else done it before?”

The author also offers tips to innovation leaders, who must grow their knowledge and networks differently than line management. The First Mile closes with an appendix listing a set of assessment questions to verify the attractiveness of a new idea.

The First Mile is a concise, easy-to-read book reminding innovators, engineers, and entrepreneurs of the strategic importance of early testing. Scott Anthony shares real-life experiences and examples to reinforce the toolkit presented in Part I. This book is recommended for all engineers working in new product and process development to gain a new perspective on early project challenges.

What is the biggest “first mile” challenge you face in your industry?