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How do we Experiment?

June 16, 2016 by Deborah Gilburg

I’ve been learning a lot about experimentation lately. For me, it’s not necessarily a comfortable concept, especially when the stakes are high. I prefer plans, strategies, accomplishing the goals I’ve set my sights on. Experimentation sounds kind of “iffy” to me – not really a solution, if you know what I mean. And experiments can fail, which is another thing I have trouble with. I like to get things right, especially when I feel pressured to do so!

So why experiment? We’ve all heard the rhetoric – complex problems, uncertain future, the call for more collaborative, innovative, sustainable solutions — and the adaptive mindsets to go with them. These messages are coming from many different sectors across public and private spheres throughout the world. And I believe those of us who have some career time left on the clock are pretty clear that change is needed, but the nagging questions remain… what kind of change? And more importantly, in a world littered with failed change initiatives, how?

This is where experimentation comes in. Basically, it means trying stuff to see what happens. Experimentation is a critical part of learning – including collective learning – and helps us to adapt and improve. I’m sure those of you who are scientists know this well; experiments help to build understanding which eventually leads to answers. The same is true when working with organizational challenges. What outcomes are we looking for? What will help us get more of what we need/want? What approaches will work? Which one’s won’t? How will we know? Well, we need to experiment.

I recently watched a webinar hosted by the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) entitled: “Getting Real about Experimentation.” The webinar featured a story about Social Transformation Project (STP), an organization dedicated to working with leaders across movements to build power and make structural change in service of a more just and sustainable world. Clearly STP is already in a fairly innovative business – leveraging networks to create social movements – yet they realized they needed to learn about experimenting, and started practicing within their own organization. STP started their learning process by running several small, iterative experiments on their own internal capacity to increase collaboration. You can watch a video recording of the webinar and view slides on LLC’s website if you want the details, but meanwhile, here are some of my takeaways from their story.

1. Sometimes "failed" experiments uncover deeper issues. In trying to measure how much capacity people felt they had for collaborating by recording their priorities at the beginning and end of each day, experimenters discovered that priorities kept shifting, almost on a daily basis, thus impacting how much capacity and energy one felt one had. This led to a deeper inquiry about why, and the reflective realization by the Executive Director that she was one of the major contributors to these shifting priorities (sound familiar?). She had no idea how her thinking and leadership were impacting her staff energetically, as well as their mutual alignment around organizational priorities. This learning informed more experiments that led to daily practices that create a more transparent and collective prioritization process, and have ultimately increased energy and feelings of collaborative capacity among staff.

2. Space and time for making meaning of results and outcomes is crucial to running a good experiment. This reaffirms the old adage, “we don’t learn from mistakes, but from reflecting on them.” And the same is true of successes! Good experimenting is iterative, so you can amplify what is working or alter course when you hit a dead end. STP was interested in tracking their learning experience and making it as collective as possible. They created a virtual dashboard that lists the ideas, tests, results and learnings from ongoing experiments. To encourage diverse perspectives, experimenters invited anyone interested to participate and help make sense of the outcomes. This collective invitation had the secondary benefit of engaging and focusing the energy of many of their younger millennial staff, who welcomed the opportunity to contribute to and influence organizational learning.

3. Its important to isolate the assumptions you are testing so you can improve quickly based on what you are learning. Small scale, low risk, focused experiments help to limit variables and facilitate rapid learning. This notion is at odds with the more typical, large scale initiatives that so many organizations wage to create address challenges. In the desire to see “results,” leaders often push for big programs that ultimately miss the mark, then spend years recovering from the fall out. STP put it this way: working smart means we need to “slow down to speed up.” This still means focusing on results; STP performed 18 experiments in 8 months, but they were very specific, involved short timeframes, and developed as a build on what they were learning.

4. Leadership needs to support individual agency and sanction good experimentation, including the possibility of failure, to reap collective learning benefits. Fear of failure is chronic in our workplaces, and in my experience many leaders reinforce this, intentionally or not. Giving permission for individuals with interest and energy to try stuff, holding them to good experimentation process versus specific outcomes, turns failures into “flopportunities,” which ultimately become part of the learning experience. STP talked about the need for the organization to support experimenting through different stages of development in order that it ultimately result in collective action (see slide). Again, one of the benefits from encouraging individual agency was diverse engagement in the work of learning.

5. Many of us are probably experimenting already, and can benefit from viewing it as a strategic practice. Ah, now there is a word I appreciate! Strategic! For me, this is really the key mindset shift. As I’ve started to see how experiments can be strategies for achieving the goals I set, it becomes easier to employ them and let them unfold. But it does require intention, attention, and most importantly, reflection. Whether I’m trying to figure out the most effective way to communicate with my teenage daughters, or help my local education foundation inject more teacher appreciation into the system, or support clients in the many experiments they are embarking on in an effort to adapt to their realities, being clear about the questions we are trying to answer and paying attention to the way we conduct and make meaning of our experiments is an important strategy for long-term problem solving.

I’ve become a fan of experiments, and to my surprise, am experiencing a profound increase in my ability to stay engaged and energized in the process, even when addressing overwhelming, complicated challenges. And I am witnessing many leaders in the organizations we work with begin to take on this “experimenting mindset,” though many feel varying levels of cultural tension or resistance to the nature of experimentation. This is all the more reason to keep the experiments small, and the learning visible. In the words of Nicholas Sparks, recently shared with me by one such client, “It’s the possibility that keeps me going, not the guarantee.”