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.

Marshmallow-Challenge-Are-You-More-Creative

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.

How To Fast Track Innovation

fast-tracking-innovation

If you speak at conferences about innovation you’ll almost always encounter some frustrated people.

They approach you at the end, or contact you a few days later. They often have one thing in common.

They, and others like them , have ideas that are being shut down because they don’t fit the system.

They tend not to be the loud ones, the self styled boat rockers and rebels at work, but just people who are quietly trying to make a difference.

They see a refusal to identify, create, embrace, explore, develop or adopt new ideas. They see missed opportunities for new products, better processes or different ways of doing business.

fast-tracking-innovation-1

This week we spoke at an event at Alder Hey Innovation Hub on the subject of fast tracked innovation.

  • The NHS is 68 years old.
  • Bromford is 53.

That means we have at least two things in common.

  1. We’re successful. Our vision and purpose has remained relevant across decades.
  2. We’re in danger. The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today.  We shouldn’t really still be here.

If you’ve been around that long you’re going to have a huge amount of organisational wisdom. You’ve become very good at what you do.

However – older companies are really bad at innovation because they’re designed to be bad at innovation.

Older companies are designed to execute on delivery — not engage in discovery.

And this is where all those frustrated people come from. They are explorers locked in a system focused on repetition.

Smart organisations know that innovation has to happen by design. They know that you have to build non-linear processes that encourage purposeful deviation.

It’s project unmanagement.

Project management as in methodologies like PRINCE2 can be anti-innovation. It’s about defined steps to make something logical and organised. PRINCE actually stands for PRojects IN Controlled Environments.

Control.

Let’s be clear – I’m not dismissing the importance of controlled projects. However my experience of talking to a lot of frustrated people is that organisations are confusing control and exploration.

As I heard this week – “I just keep getting told to take my idea to the project team, but they don’t seem to get it”.

No. They wouldn’t get it.

NEVER take an idea to a project management team unless you want it come back with a risk log, a contingency plan and a Gantt chart.

fast-tracking-innovation-2

As this diagram from Tom Hartland shows – there’s a whole fuzzy front end to deal with first.

The conundrum we face is that the very processes that drive toward a profitable, efficient operation tend to get in the way of developing innovations that can actually transform the business.

Until organisations invest in a test and learn framework to accompany their efficiency models they are doomed to disappoint a lot of employees and see ideas go nowhere.

Creating a safe place for intrapreneurs to test ideas and gain supporting evidence so they can justify requesting funds is now necessary whatever the size of your company.

What’s the ROI?

A better question to ask is how you measure the return for an idea that does not yet exist.


The latest Lab slide deck is below. Thanks to Tom for the awesome illustrations.

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