Experimentation Matters

“Experimentation matters because it fuels the discovery and creation of knowledge and thereby leads to the development and improvement of products, processes, systems, and organizations.”  -Stefan Thomke Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation

Never has there been an easier time for us to ask more what if questions, while actually having greater access to the tools and means to actually explore those questions; cheaper, easier, faster. However, far too often, we often continue to be satisfied in playing it safe, staying content with what is, what we have, and what we’ve always done. Yeah, we all know, change is hard.

And yet, as we have all heard at one time or another, there will be no innovation without exploration and experimentation.

Which is healthy to consider, as we see the rising importance of creativity and innovation in almost every profession is vital to the ongoing growth and progress of today’s organizations. In a time of turbulent change, accelerated through an overwhelming growth in data, both experimentation and discovery learning will be vital to keep our organizations vibrant, flexible and future-relevant.

As Emilia Saarelainen shares in the article Why There’s No Innovation Without Experimentation,  “Experimentation is a bit like innovation, a word that can mean different things to different people and in the worst case, it is just an empty word without meaningful intent. However, experimenting itself doesn’t need to be complicated, in the purest form it is about trying thing out in small-scale. We don’t need to know the extensive experimentation vocabulary to test our ideas or to experiment. We can spend ages on brainstorming good (or bad) ideas, but without testing them, they are just concepts without any evidence to prove that they would work. So the question to ask is not “what’s your idea?” but “how have you tried to test it?”

The funny thing is that we are often experimenting continuously on an ongoing basis, both in our personal and professional lives, without even knowing or acknowledging we are doing it (utilizing what Henry Mintzberg consider more of an emergent than a deliberate strategy towards experimentation).

The problem with this approach, especially across an organization, is that without creating any type of process and/or systems for engaging experimentation, as well as a lack of determining any goals or outcomes up front for the experimentation, we find ourselves spinning our organizational wheels.

First, lacking any organizational process or system the learning from the experimentation is often lost, or remains stasis, stagnant and fails to have any level of reach by its limited ability and access to create flow across organizational learning networks.

Second, without setting goals and outcomes up front for the experimentation, it is difficult to determine if you have hit the target you were working towards, or not. Setting goals and outcomes up front allows for greater feedback and learning from the experimentation, as the point where end up becomes a valuable space for improvement. The in-between gap of where we wanted to be and where we ended up serves as our learning gap. It is that space, that gap, that we gain feedback that loops back to us providing important information for progress. This learning gap provides the impetus for iteration and next steps, as well as providing new learning and knowledge along the way.

Third, when experimentation happens in individual pockets lacking any organizational processes or systems, the learning and knowledge gained from the experimentation fails to scale to any level across the organization, leaving that learning and knowledge in static pockets. If we are to scale innovation across our organization beyond bright spots, we have to make sure that the learning and knowledge gained from ongoing experimentation flows to all levels of the organization.

As Thomke puts forth, “Indeed, at the heart of every company’s ability to innovate lies a process of experimentation that enables the organization to create and evaluate new ideas and concepts for products, services, business models, or strategies.” For which he adds, “All companies have some experimentation process at work but not everyone organizes that process to invite innovation.”

In their Harvard Business Review article The Discipline of Business Experimentation, Stefan Thomke and Jim Manzi provide a set of question that can serve as a pre-flight checklist for running any type of organizational experimentation:

  • Does The Experiment Have A Clear Purpose?
  • Have Stakeholders Made A Commitment To Abide By The Results?
  • Is The Experiment Doable?
  • How Can We Ensure Reliable Results?
  • Have We Gotten The Most Value Out Of The Experiment?

Just remember, experimentation is not easy and it is often accompanied by fear; a fear of failure, a fear of the unknown, a fear of stepping out the status quo and the pushback that it will create, as well as the fear of the changes and course adjustments it might require as it creates new data, new learning, and new knowledge that will eventually lead to new behaviors, new ways of thinking and new ways of doing.

Experimentation often shifts not only behaviors, but mindsets. Especially in its action-orientation.

We are beginning to understand that we live in an exponentially evolving world, a world in the throes of constant change, a world that pushes us to live more and more in a beta-state. It is that beta-state, that beginners mindset, that allows us to be more open to experimentation and more open to the often unexpected answers it provides and the plethora of new questions it provokes. It forces us to not predetermine our solutions and answers up front and then make the results fit what we already think we know and have previously decided.  It requires us to be open.

Which can be a heavy leadership lift.

Too often we feed people a false narrative about creativity and innovation, instead of the reality, which is that it is and can be really hard work. It can be difficult and even a bit scary. It requires resilience, a willingness to persist, and to consistently practice experimentation that leads to engagement in discovery learning.

For innovation is founded in a constant search for better, which necessitates ongoing bouts of experimentation. For creating greater value, be that for an individual, a team, or an entire organization, requires ongoing not only greater levels of awareness for today’s leaders, but ongoing cycles of experimentation, discovery, implementation, iteration, adoption, standardization, and disruption.

“Innovation is not driven by a single great idea or the result of magical serendipity; innovation is a process of disciplined exploration and experimentation.”  -Lisa Kay Solomon