Complex Problems Require Rapid Experiments

“Multiple iterations almost always beat a single-minded commitment to building your first idea”Peter Skillman

Most of you will have taken part in the Marshmallow Challenge or a variant of it. It’s the team exercise where you get a load of spaghetti, some tape, a marshmallow, a piece of string, and 18 minutes to build the tallest freestanding structure.

Peter Skillman, who devised it, found something fascinating when he tested it on multiple participants.

Children out performed most groups – including business school students and CEOs.

When Vicky Green repeated this experiment in Bromford Lab a couple of years ago – the team that did worst were…..our Project Managers.


How is it that a bunch of kids can beat trained professionals at a fairly basic task?

First of all they are unconstrained by assumptions. In one of the tests they did something that no other group did – they asked for more spaghetti.

Instead of wasting time figuring out team roles and who should do what they jumped straight in and started creating. They experimented endlessly, and just built the tallest tower they could.

Essentially – they didn’t waste time with status games, they were willing to experiment and they weren’t afraid to look stupid and fail.

Messy problems require creative exploration, not management toolkits.

Lessons in Change and Transformation

As part of a work project I’m involved in we’ve been kicking around a problem for the past few months: how do you turn around one of our most demand led services from reactive to pre-emptive?

I’ve come to a realisation over the past couple of weeks that despite all the knowledge and expertise in the organisation – none of us really have a clue. The only way out of it is to start experimenting.

The art of management is an endless search for silver bullet solutions.  For certainty where there is often none.

Chris Bolton has written a great couple of posts recently on management fads and silver bullet syndrome.  This is the belief that the next big change in tools, resources or procedures will miraculously or magically solve all of an organisation’s problems.

Once you recognise Silver Bullet Syndrome you will see it everywhere. In management reports, in public policy, and in the final week of UK election campaigning – on every single news bulletin.

It’s actually very easy to sell Silver Bullets. To stand in front of people and do a PowerPoint presentation with a perfectly articulated way of getting from A to B, without any actual evidence.

It takes real bottle though to say you haven’t a clue how to resolve this.

That you can’t solve this on your own.

That you need everyone’s creativity and input.

That you know the first solutions you come up with will almost definitely fail.

It used to be cool to pretend you had all the answers but today’s complex problems require rapid experimentation not silver bullets.

If a problem has existed in your organisation for a long time it’s almost guaranteed not to be solved at your first attempt.

I’m looking at a test plan from Tom Hartland and thinking how to sell it. It essentially says “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue – I’ll tell you after the first 20 tests”. He’s right.

The best way to combat uncertainty is to spread your bets with small experiments.

None of us can afford to wait for the opportunity that’s perfectly safe.


9 thoughts on “Complex Problems Require Rapid Experiments

  1. Great article – I find people do their best work when they’re given the freedom to experiment and iterate. Do you think the NHS is too risk averse? Perhaps some failure should be tolerated, as long as it helps us get to the goal? Would love to hear your thoughts on this

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Generally I think that organisations look for risk in the wrong places. Lots of time is spent auditing areas that are highly unlikely to ever cause major damage.

      This can be a huge inhibitor of potential innovation. Most policies don’t prevent your company’s downfall – they just stop colleagues from doing the right thing for the customer or patient.

      I think risk aversion has a media and political dimension – we are terrified of criticism. But if we want to innovate we need to establish a new relationship with the public where humility and failure is seen as a positive attribute rather than a weakness.
      We don’t need to celebrate failure – but we do need to become more comfortable with it. It’s normal.

  2. I find it incredible that leaders can ignore some of the basics in life… when we learnt to walk we did it by falling over…. but not just falling over… by getting up, learning from it and trying again until we got it right – and the best thing is all of that comes naturally – no MBA necessary.

    We have to create an environment where we talk about experimenting and learning instead of failure. When we try something new and it doesn’t work we don’t go back to square one… because we will have learned and be a step closer to a solution.

    People don’t come up with good ideas if they are worried about what might happen to their livelihood if things go wrong. People rarely come up with implementable ideas by themselves.

    We need to nurture an environment where crazy ideas get kicked around and around by our people who know they are empowered to deliver – we can’t promise amazing results every time but we can ALWAYS learn.

    1. Well Chris this goes back to the old debate about when in life are we most creative? Do we peak when we are young and energetic, or old and experienced?

      Maybe older companies lose some of their childlike explorative behaviours over time..

      I think it depends but think there’s a definite culture you pick up in organisations where it’s OK to kick crazy ideas around. There’s often a sense of playfulness either physically or intellectually – and a culture less about rules and more about values.

      Thanks for great comment

  3. Maybe we need to unlearn our thinking that says we need:
    – exactly what the outcome will be before we start.
    – how long it will take.
    – what the solution will be before we start.

    These project management characteristics are, of course, developed from tame down problem solving, Undertaking projects we already know how to do
    Adaptive, complex and messy problems require a very different set of approaches, that you highlight in this article. So, it will be helpful if this approach is infused into public sector leadership thinking.

  4. Totally agree with the concept of dealing with complex (or wicked) problems. However it takes a very mature organisation to work in this manner.

    When seeking project funding execs generally want the costs and end results up front. This is especially true if a Board is involved.

    An org must have a specific resource or structure to work in this manner.

    Would love to hear about orgs who have this type of thinking as their default and how they measure the benefit of this over waterfall…

    1. Thanks Gareth – we’ve very much developed an approach to deal with wicked problems at the front end with resource attached. It’s taken a fair time to build though and needs constant tweaking and development!

Leave a Reply to Paul Taylor Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s