Like many companies at the beginning of the pandemic, we knew that if we wanted to survive, we couldn’t wait for lockdowns to end. We had to think differently and make experimentation the ethos of our company.
In the past, we looked at trying new things as another “goal” to add to the list. But we couldn’t get hung up on perfection as revenue declined. So we decided to experiment and launch short digital workshops in lieu of our traditional offerings. To our delight, they were well-received, and we began trying more untested ideas and moving at lightning speed.
It wasn’t our goal to become agile. It was just a fortunate accident. The same thing happened to companies in other industries, too. Today, their businesses’ responses to the pandemic have become mainstream trends. (Think contactless payments, telehealth and other advancements.)
Moving forward, experimentation must become the ethos of your company. While we might have stumbled into agility, we now see that the landscape demands rapid iteration. Current obstacles, such as the Great Resignation and the supply chain crisis, can’t be overcome without experimentation.
As a leader, you can push your company forward by applying these three strategies.
1. Understand the distinctions between failure and experimentation
As humans, we don’t want to fail. We take fewer risks and avoid experimenting with untried concepts. But experimentation is the key to long-term success. For instance, click-and-collect shopping was originally deemed too risky. During the pandemic, however, it was a lifeline for companies that might not have survived months of social distancing and lockdowns.
While the cost of absolute failure may be high, the cost of experimentation is usually low. After all, experimentation is the process of trying out new ideas, methods, or activities. Failure is expected and controlled, and each “failed” experiment leads to new learnings. So when you apply experimentation, you lessen the impact and cost of absolute failure.
Try asking yourself, “What happens if this succeeds?” and “What’s the impact if it doesn’t?” This helps with perspective and seeing the limited risk. If you’ve hired great people, you can rest easy knowing your employees will think things through.
But what if your team is nervous about experimentation? Acknowledge and celebrate when something doesn’t work out. Take the pressure off and remind people that it’s OK to make mistakes. Insights gleaned from failed experiments are still valuable, so encourage your team to use what they’ve learned to make adjustments.
2. Focus on developing minimally viable products
Your first experiment doesn’t have to be groundbreaking or successful. All you need is a minimum viable product, a prototype with enough features and potential to attract customers. Figure out what’s good enough to test, and then build on it.
Just don’t confuse MVPs with bare minimum effort. MVPs still contain the core aspects needed to solve a problem or address an opportunity. Think about it this way: Is your prototype small in scale and able to solve a problem simply, quickly and effectively? You’ve probably got an MVP.
For example, we recently created an MVP when designing a forum for HR leaders about the Great Resignation. We had the content that addressed the topic, but we didn’t want to use the same old, tired webinar format. Instead, our team tried a more interactive approach. The risk was low: Even if no one registered, we’d still be OK. But our experiment paid off, and we had a great turnout.
With an MVP, you’re not going out unprepared—you’re trying what might work and giving it your best. That’s what Toyota did with its online vehicle stock locator during the height of the pandemic.
Toyota’s director of customer experience and network quality says the global car manufacturer needed a quick way to virtually connect dealerships with car buyers who couldn’t browse in person. Rather than spending several months developing a full-fledged solution, Toyota unveiled its portal in three weeks—a wonderful example of an MVP. Speed was necessary to ensure sales weren’t lost during the crisis.
3. Identify the problem and dive in headfirst
Many companies were forced to experiment when Covid-19 hit, and they survived. Learn from that experience and be proactive with experimentation. The world isn’t going to slow down, so you shouldn’t either.
Maybe you’re experiencing recruitment and retention issues related to the Great Resignation. Perhaps your culture needs work after switching to a remote workplace arrangement. Name your biggest headache, and then move forward with brainstorming. No approach is too wacky to consider. Just start small and take it one step at a time.
Will you feel tempted to play devil’s advocate? You might. We have a natural tendency to focus on why something can’t or shouldn’t be done. It’s part of the human condition to stop ourselves before we begin. We don’t want the stress of feeling like we’ve fallen short because it might impact us in other areas. Caroline Beaton, speaker and freelance writer, calls this the “loser effect.”
To combat this, remember Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan. It’s important to get started somewhere, even if you’re not sure how the experiment will end. Cisco tried this with its one-day “breakathon” event to identify the most important HR-employee interactions. Some ideas failed, but others led to a revamped onboarding process.
Experimentation is a process that can change-proof your organization. All it takes is one small idea to get started.
Contributed to EO by Gloria St. Martin-Lowry, the president of HPWP Group, which promotes leadership and organizational development through positivity, coaching, and problem-solving. HPWP is driven to create high-performing workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members.