How Can We Create a Culture of Experimentation?

If you’re a leader at any level in a business, government agency, school, church, non-profit, or you-name-it, you know how vital innovation is to the health and future of your institution. In a rapidly changing world, standing still is a precursor to lying still six feet under. In order to survive, not to mention thrive, we need to be innovating.

Yet not all innovation is equal. Some ideas are great; many are not. Thus, we who lead need more than just innovation. We need a culture that encourages innovation and, at the same time, carefully measures where new plans are good or bad. In other words, we need to be innovating and learning.

Yet we struggle with learning. We feel fond of the status quo. We like the old things we learned a long time ago. And we have a deep concern that our wonderful new plans will flop, so we’re afraid to test them in advance. New Coke, anyone?

A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times addresses the problem of a lack of learning in our day. David Brooks, in “Is Our Adults Learning?” focuses on the inability of the government to engage in a process of learning. Brooks draws from the work of Jim Manzi, who has been a leader and consultant for several major businesses. Here are some excerpts from Brooks’ column:

What you really need to achieve sustained learning, Manzi argues, is controlled experiments. Try something out. Compare the results against a control group. Build up an information feedback loop. This is how businesses learn. By 2000, the credit card company Capital One was running 60,000 randomized tests a year — trying out different innovations and strategies. Google ran about 12,000 randomized experiments in 2009 alone.

These randomized tests actually do vindicate or disprove theories. . . .

Finally, the general lesson of randomized experiments is that the vast majority of new proposals do not work, and those that do work only do so to a limited extent and only under certain circumstances. This is true in business and government. Politicians are not inclined to set up rigorous testing methods showing that their favorite ideas don’t work.

Manzi wants to infuse government with a culture of experimentation. Set up an F.D.A.-like agency to institute thousands of randomized testing experiments throughout government. Decentralize policy experimentation as much as possible to encourage maximum variation. . . .

The first step to wisdom is admitting how little we know and constructing a trial-and-error process on the basis of our own ignorance. Inject controlled experiments throughout government. Feel your way forward. Fail less badly every day. [I added the italics.]

I expect Brooks is right about the failure of government in general to create a culture of experimentation. But surely government is not alone here. I am most familiar with the institution of the church. And, while some notable churches have tried new things, in general churches tend to resist the kind of learning that is essential to their survival.

It seems to me that one of the main reasons we fail to experiment is that we’re afraid of failure. We don’t want to experiment because we sense that many of our experiments won’t work. So, we don’t take the risks that are required for experimentation. Either we get stuck trying to think everything to death so as to avoid failure, or we simply don’t innovate much, or we try something new and defend it endlessly even if it’s not working.

How can we create cultures of experimentation in the places where we work? Of course, the answer to this question depends on the extent to which we have authority in those places. If you are a leader in your workplace or community organization or family or whatever, you might consider the following:

• Learn to value innovation, experimentation, and learning, if you don’t already.

• Encourage people to experiment, to take risks, especially relatively small ones (“little bets”). Make sure they understand that the majority of experiments will not work, and that’s okay.

• Reward experimentation and those who experiment.

• Experiment yourself and let your people know how things worked out, especially when your experiment did not work. Model learning from failure, your failure.

• Do not penalize people for experiments that fail, but reward them instead.

• Emphasize the importance of learning in your organization and be an exemplary learner.

• Freely admit when you need to learn, when you don’t have all the answers.

I’m sure there are more ways to help create a culture of experimentation. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I recently read a book that addresses this question in a wise and sometimes surprising way. I heartily recommend Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims. Little bets are relatively small risks from which we can learn without “betting the farm,” as it were.

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  • I’ve learned that some people need help understanding how to experiment and interpret results, too. 

    Thanks for this, Mark!

  • markdroberts

    You’re welcome. Thanks for the comment.