Why Intuit Says ‘You Never Know’ about Ideas until You Test ‘Em

By Scott Kirsner |  August 7, 2014

Software-maker Intuit is best-known for products like TurboTax and Quicken, and it is one of those companies often celebrated for its culture of innovation. The company is a big believer in grassroots innovation, helping employees develop new ideas from the ground up. Employees are encouraged to spend 10 percent of their time pursuing their own ideas via “unstructured time,” and Intuit holds an “incubation week” each month for a cohort of teams. The Intuit Labs site showcases some of these new ideas bubbling up, and there’s an annual event called “Create the Offering” that about a quarter of Intuit’s employees attend. The company has also embraced the “lean startup” methodology, encouraging teams to move fast and generate evidence for their ideas.

Bennett Blank, InnoLead at Intuit, says there’s an important evolution that has been taking place at the company over the past several years: from having employee ideas reviewed and filtered by groups of executives, toward empowering employees to test their ideas in market with real customers. Rather than green-lighting initiatives based on senior managers’ hunches about market opportunities or notions about what customers may want, employees run experiments with the goal of gathering evidence — in the form of data and customer insights — for or against their new idea. This evidence is then used by the idea teams to determine whether or not to continue pursuing their idea. Bennett explained the shift in a recent interview.

If we go back about 5 years, the problem was that it was taking too much time and too much money to launch new ideas, and we were not happy with the number of ideas succeeding in the market. There were plenty of things that didn’t get funded because they didn’t initially look like big opportunities. We were spending lots of time on planning and thinking, rather than testing ideas with our customers. We’d do market-sizing and traditional analysis. We’d put together decks and do presentations with the best of intentions, and then use this information as the basis for our decision to say yes or no. You simply can’t pick successful innovations this way.

Fast forward to today and we develop new ideas quite differently, empowering employees to pursue the ideas on their own. We combined lean startup methodology with our existing “Design for Delight” program to create a powerful new way to help employees surface their ideas. A group of our Innovation Catalysts created a workshop called Lean StartIN, which teaches this new way of developing ideas to our employees. (We also created a software platform called Brainstorm to help innovators connect and develop ideas.) Employees come in with an idea, and we help them break it down to its riskiest assumptions, then develop a series of hypotheses to test. Then we help them create rapid experiments to test their hypotheses with potential customers. 

Teams might create Google AdWords campaigns to promote their ideas and find customers, or reach out via their social networks. We make the teams go get their own customers, so that these teams learn what it takes to move their ideas forward. I’m consistently impressed with the creative ways our employees test their ideas, which is a testament to the power of letting people pursue their passions. 

We let them use the Intuit Labs site for their tests, and help these teams create a working MVP (minimum viable product). Our legal team was a tremendous help, creating simple guidelines for teams to follow.  For example, if you’re reaching out to fewer than 2000 customers, you don’t need legal approval, and if you’re going to collect small amounts of revenue, you can use PayPal; you don’t need approval from Finance. We created these systems to support grassroots innovation, and to remove barriers for the idea teams. 

Here’s a slide that captures the evolution that has been taking place at Intuit:

(Click to see a larger version.)

This new strategy seems to be working. Over 1,500 employees have taken part in our various experimentation training workshops, generating tens of millions in new revenue and business impact. These teams are also learning how to work better on their daily projects, which further amplifies the impact. 

What remains a challenge? There are still some constraints on how those market tests turn into real, supported products over the long-term. Ideas may have revenue, customers, and new features which add value to QuickBooks, TurboTax and other Intuit products. But we’re still experimenting with how those teams can take these promising ideas and scale them in a major way.

Now, when people here have ideas, we tend to say, “Go test it.” So we let the teams do the work to create their own evidence. We’re not going to pick winners. We’re going to let teams harness their own passion and learn from their customers. The people working on the idea are the ones who are most passionate about it, and those are the teams with the biggest likelihood of success. I’m very proud of the hard work and creativity these teams are exhibiting, as well as the leadership support we receive for our innovation efforts.