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3 Strategies for Creating a Culture of Everyday, Everywhere Experimentation

About Polly LaBarre

All change goes against the rules. Polly LaBarre arms leaders with a Maverick Manual to hack the status quo and ramp up originality, invention and game-changing disruption. The true work of leadership, she says, is inspiring, unleashing, and amplifying human creativity, passion, and resourcefulness — creating a cultural DNA where the response to change happens almost as fast as change itself. Co-author of Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win and founding team member of Fast Company magazine, Polly is co-founder of Management Lab, the think-and-do tank where she consults with top global brands.

When it comes to developing your capacity to adapt and invent in a world ruled by expanding complexity and exponential change, experimentation is the ultimate power tool. 

Why? Game-changing, future-shaping innovation doesn’t burst forth fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Nor is it the result of meticulous planning. Instead, it requires the generation and testing of hundreds of strategic options. It proceeds by trial and error. In other words, it’s a product of experimentation.

Experimentation is simply a process for cycling through many ideas quickly, testing assumptions, getting feedback, discarding what isn’t working, and building on what is. In other words, it’s a strategy for maximizing your ratio of insights over time and money spent.

As appealing as that sounds, it is not natural behavior for most organizations. When it comes to making decisions about whether and how to venture into new territory, running an experiment is not the first instinct of most leaders. Instead, the tendency is to turn to data and analysis, on the one hand, or personal experience and judgement on the other. 

Problem is: even the richest data set can only illuminate the past and personal experience is circumscribed by, well, personal experience. Neither are very good at helping you discern the potential impact of truly bold and innovative ideas.

Experimentation, on the other hand, has the virtue of being both evidence based and emergent. A well-designed experiment quickly tests the merits of your ideas, generates new and relevant insight into the deep needs and behaviors of your customers, and opens up new avenues that weren’t apparent before. It also has the benefit of being a lot faster, cheaper, and risk-bounded than launching a meticulously designed battle plan. 

So, how do you develop a deep-seated capacity for experimentation—how do you turn it into an every day, every where, every person activity? That’s a challenge we’ve been working on at the Management Lab in a range of real-world settings. Along with new structures, systems, and methods, it requires fundamentally new mindsets. Here are three crucial mind flips for embedding experimentation DNA into your organization:

1. Turn your company into a Lab

In too many organizations the work of invention is relegated to a single department or a single class of employees. Yet, in the relatively few organizations capable of keeping pace with relentless change, it tends to be deeply distributed. 

Take Amazon. The company unleashes new products, services, and whole new businesses at a dizzying pace. There’s Amazon Prime, Amazon Fresh, Amazon Web Services, Amazon Smile, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Amazon TV, Amazon Business, and on and on. Every one of these new offerings grew out of an experiment. The company runs thousands of “WebLabs” each year to prototype new offerings. Via those WebLabs and other mechanisms, “great innovations, large and small, are happening everyday on behalf of customers, and at all levels throughout the company,” says Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos, in his 2013 letter to shareholders. “This decentralized distribution of invention [emphasis added] throughout the company—not limited to the company’s senior leaders—is the only way to get robust, high-throughput innovation.”

Likewise, Intuit, the $4 billion leader in financial service software, has replaced the traditional big company way of making decisions via analysis, top-down review, executive judgement—or as founder Scott Cook puts it, “politics, PowerPoint, and persuasion”—with “decision by experimentation.” Today that’s both a mindset and a methodology embedded in Intuit’s DNA. Thousands of employees at every level in the organization have been trained to tune into deep customer needs, and to develop, test and rapidly iterate on solutions to those pain points—in other words, to run experiments. That has yielded a wave of customer-centric innovation—from a mobile app for filing taxes that even a millennial could love to text-messaging-based service called Fasal that empowers Indian farmers with vital real-time information about prices, markets, and the weather.

Ask yourself, what can I do to make my organization (or my corner of it) into a lab for perpetual invention—to equip and empower everyone to test and advance new ideas based on deep customer insight and real-world feedback?

2. Do to think

According to Julia Cameron, one of the leading thinkers and writers on the creative life, “art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite—getting something down.” Steve Jobs put it a little more bluntly: “Real artists ship.” Of course, the bias in so much of the working world is on planning, analysis, getting your ducks in a row. The problem is, the more time you spend mulling, plotting, refining your approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it and discount all other options. That’s a path to mediocrity, not originality

Take a page from the art of improv, where players act in order to discover what comes next. It’s ready, fire, aim—the small experiments of responding to fellow players’ leads, going out on a limb, recovering from a flub, picking up on an unformed idea, are what create the scene. At Stanford’s Institute of Design, known as the d. school, they call this “do to think.”In other words, get your solution out of the isolation of your head or your team room and into a context where you can start learning from the real world.

Usually this means building a simple prototype—something that illustrates how your concept could work in practice; something that your intended audience can react to. A prototype can be a cardboard model, a sketch, a storyboard, a website wireframe, a simple piece of code, a video, a dramatization—anything that lets you get feedback quickly and cheaply.

The goal is to get something tangible in front of potential users as quickly as possible.

The corollary here is that good enough is good enough. What’s the lightest-weight, shortest, cheapest test you can run on your hypothesis? In the world of agile software and lean product development, this is called a “minimum viable product” or MVP. Agile coach Henrik Kniberg prefers “earliest testable/usable/lovable product.” The instruction here might seem either refreshing or a little bit scary: do the absolute minimum required to test the core assumption behind your solution. What is the lightest-weight, shortest, cheapest test you can run on your hypothesis?

Kniberg details Spotify’s path to its earliest lovable product. The 10-year-old music streaming giant, started out life in 2006 “hell bent on making it feel like you had all the world’s music on your hard drive,” as founder Daniel Ek puts it. Pretty loft goal but they didn’t set out to become the dominant music streaming platform with 100 million users and 40 million paying subscribers from day one. 

Instead, they started by asking, what’s the simplest, quickest, cheapest solution we can gin up to generate real feedback? Their answer: ripping music from their laptops and trying everything they could think of to make playback instantaneous and stable. They came up with a completely rough, feature-free version that had the ability to play a few hard-coded songs—no legal agreement, no business model—which they shared with friends and family. They quickly got answers they needed: it was technically possible to stream music instantaneous and at high quality; people were enthused to stream rather than own music; and music labels, artists and investors were willing to support that activity. Many experiments later, you can argue that Spotify has achieved that dream state of “making it feel like you had all the world’s music on your hard drive.”

It’s important to note that experimentation is not a linear process, it’s not a one-and-done. It’s a cycle, a continuous loop of design-test-learn-iterate. You won’t run one test, but rounds of tests to build insight, prove or disprove your assumptions, and improve your solution—so the faster you get something out there to get real-world feedback, the faster you get to your solution.

3.  Make friends with failure

The inevitable consequence of all experimentation is failure— trial and error involves, well, error. There’s no way around it. If you want to be creative—as an individual or an organization—you have to be willing to try things that might fail. It’s how quickly and gracefully you metabolize mistakes, missteps, and misdirection that sets you apart

Now, there’s lots of sloganeering in the business world around embracing failure. “Fail fast, fail forward,” is the oft-quoted Silicon Valley mantra. Yet, the fact is, failure hurts. Being wrong, screwing up, flaming out—it’s painful, shameful, and a fundamental source of fear for most of us. It’s not surprising that most of organizational life is built around avoiding failure and stamping out risk. But playing it safe, refusing to venture down blind alleys, sticking to what you know, dooms you to same-old, same-old results at best. The more you try to avoid failure, the more likely you are to fail.

So, how do you make friends with failure?

First, redefine it. Fumbles, flops, and FUBARs are simply how you learn and grow—the only way you learn and grow. Think of it this way: in an experiment ANY outcome is a good outcome, because it offers up new data, insight, and possibility. Scott Cook calls this “savoring the surprises.” So, “learning from your mistakes” isn’t so much about avoiding them next time as it is about opening the door to the unexpected. Many of the biggest advances in science have come from experiments “gone wrong.”

At Pixar, “mistakes,” are just work in progress. The practice at the company is to share, pick-apart, push and prod work at every stage. In open screenings of a film’s dailies and all-company postmortems after a film is completed, Pixarians offer up relentlessly specific critiques, examine missteps meticulously, and extract every last lesson. This approach drains fear out of the process of producing extraordinary and original work. 

Second, put yourself in the position to fail. A lot. David Kelley, the founder of innovation firm IDEO and the d. school, says it’s crucial to “desensitize yourself to failure.” How exactly? He told us the story of encountering John Cassidy’s book, Juggling for the Complete Klutz. He thought it was brilliant. He said: “Cassidy spends the first half of the book just getting you used to the ball hitting the floor. All you do is desensitize yourself to the ball hitting the floor. It seems so silly. But it’s so easy to learn to juggle this way because after you’ve done it about 400 times, you have no fear that the ball is going to hit the floor.”

Getting fluent in failure requires a certain amount of grit and perseverance. Remember Thomas Edison’s 10,000 fruitless attempts to develop a viable lightbulb. It helps to cultivate a dispassionate attitude toward your mistakes. The next time you try something and it doesn’t work out exactly as you hoped, don’t bemoan the blunder, get curious about it instead. Ask yourself, What can I make of this? What kind of bonus might this be? What do I do next?

When it comes to building the capacity (and the appetite) for experimentation across your organization, there’s one final (and foundational) mind flip: fall in love with your problem—not your solution. Never forget who you’re building for. Aways go back to the user—their pain points, their experience, their behavior. And try to remain as open and as curious as possible for as long as possible—to the evidence, the feedback, the signals coming in—even if it means going back to the drawing board one more time.

To Learn more about Polly contact [email protected]

Derek Sweeney is the Director of Speaker Ideas at The Sweeney Agency. www.thesweeneyagency.com. For 15 years Derek has been helping clients find the right Speakers for their events. Derek can be reached at 1-866-727-7555 or [email protected]