Stuck in a business rut? Start closing the “experimentation gap”

Testing new ideas doesn’t have to be painful.

When you think about what makes a great improviser — or an innovative company — you probably think of the same key trait: the ability to generate creative ideas fast.

Of course, the best improvisers and most innovative teams are both great at brainstorming, but that’s only one ingredient (in fact, there are at least eight). And, if rapid ideation is the sausage of that improvisational gumbo, well then, let’s call experimentation the… okra? Sure, let’s go with that.

The Harvard Business Review writes that “to successfully innovate, companies need to make experimentation an integral part of everyday life — even when budgets are tight.”

In other words, building an agile company isn’t just about coming up with crazy ideas; it’s being crazy enough to see them through. And as operators, we have to learn how to give those sparks a fighting chance, even if we don’t have $10 million dollars worth of lighter fluid –sorry– ‘runway.’

If experiments are so important, why don’t companies do more of them?

In short, resources. In long (that’s a phrase, right?), culture.

The risk of spending resources on failed experiments can give leadership pause (in a study of Booking.com’s 25,000 annual tests, only 10% succeeded). Organizations that emphasize “efficiency, predictability, and ‘winning’” are especially wary of wasted cycles (ironically, HBR notes running more tests actually reduces the burden of individual failures, not the other way around).

But, even when a business verbally commits to testing new ideas, their actions don’t always align; employees might not feel safe to challenge leadership decisions, empowered to run their own experiments (via training or team support), or informed on why past tests failed or succeeded.

For example, IBM was able to increase their annual experiments from 97 to 2,800 in just 3 years, by investing in centralized infrastructure like:

  • Easy-to-use, transparent data collection tools that fostered trust and increased accountability
  • A shared framework for conducting disciplined experiments
  • Free training on best experimentation practices for all employees

Oh, and budget increases/bonuses based on the number and speed of quality tests run. Because we live in a society.

Moving from ideation to experimentation

Struggling to get your team to run their own tests? Here’s you’re (over)simplified 5-step experimentation launch kit:

  1. Cultivate curiosity
  2. De-stigmatize failure (and define success)
  3. Automate & centralize data collection
  4. Make tests transparent
  5. Support accountable execution

We could write an entire blog post on each one of those steps (and actually, we’ve already started). But it comes down to this: the only “failed” experiment is an inconclusive one — and it’s not a “pivot” if you never got off the sidelines.

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