Stop Talking, Start Experimenting

Thinking different isn’t enough, you have to act different – Jorge Barba

I took a call this week from a person working for another organisation, we’ll call her Bill.

Despite having a hugely supportive executive team the problems Bill faces are numerous:

  • Managers are asking why are we working on a new initiative when the priority is just to keep income coming in.
  • People are questioning when we will ever see any results? They say projects take too long and cost too much money.
  • It takes a long time to get new projects approved – there are exhaustive reports to be submitted to make a business case.
  • There are four tiers of management between Bill and the CEO and a lot of internal stakeholders to get on board.

The big problem here is divergence of priorities.

Senior management anticipate the brand new shiny innovation ideas and front-line colleagues can’t wait to be rid of their daily frustrations. However there are a whole group of people in the middle who don’t have an interest in either of these things and have the potential to slow things down.

The role of the middle manager is to hit targets and keep the business running. They are not intentional blockers but anything new that gets thrown at them is just another thing that threatens efficiency.

They have a different set of values to the innovators and creatives.

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What often happens is organisations confuse these two things – innovation and business as usual. As Victor W. Hwang has written – the values are opposed. Successful companies must exist in both worlds—innovation and production—simultaneously.  That’s hard to do.

Good ideas fail because they can’t cross the cultural barrier between innovation and production. What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these to co-exist and establish a handover point from innovation to business as usual.

My advice was built around four points:

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 11.00.08Most organisations understand incremental change – change that doesn’t fundamentally challenge how the organisation works. Radical change is where we struggle.

Innovation is not a commodity or something you can contain in a project. It means creating space – physically and mentally – where we are free to challenge business as usual, actively take on the dominant culture and think beyond existing roles, budgets and structures.

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Managers are often right to question new initiatives as they are often solution focussed rather than problem focused. One of the most crucial causes of failure is the right questions were never asked at the outset.

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • How do we know this is a real problem?
  • Why is it important to solve?
  • How will we know if we’ve solved the problem?

Answering those first will save you a heap of time and get your innovation efforts taken a lot more seriously.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 11.00.56When you don’t really know the way forward the best strategy is to spread your bets with small experiments. It’s these practical tests that show whether the fundamental assumptions about radical innovation are correct and what they mean for your business.

The challenge we all face is shifting our learning from slow and expensive to fast and cheap.

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We need to move from reporting about things we are going to do and shift it to things we have done.

Spend less time talking about ‘What would happen?’ and start demonstrating ‘What happened’.  That means we need to get comfortable reporting on intelligent failure and what we learned as a result.

Having a strategy based on small losses takes most of the risk out of innovation.

To transform our organisations, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously. 

We need to be boringly effective and radically disruptive at the same time.  That sometimes happens by keeping the right people apart from one another.

The trick is knowing when and how to bring them together.

Thanks to Tom Hartland for the illustrations. 

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.

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