Why your business needs to experiment

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By Lynda Gratton

Something that is becoming increasingly apparent in the discussion around corporate resilience is that creativity matters. Large organisations are building vast banks of talented and creative employees to ensure they are ahead of the competition. However, when it comes to tapping into the potential inherent in this talent pool, they can find themselves at a loss, frequently going back to the same small group of people for their next big business idea.

With employees scattered over the world it can be challenging to find out what your people are thinking. In an attempt to mitigate this, many companies already have open innovation programmes to help them discover the thoughts and ideas of individuals both inside and outside their organisation. Practices such as sharing business plans with a wider audience and inviting employees to provide input are proven to have a positive impact on sales.

One avenue for surfacing ideas which I think too many companies ignore is experimentation. This can be a particularly valuable process when you are faced with problems to which no-one has a ready-made answer.

It seems obvious to me that if you are faced with an unknown, you need to experiment around the issue to find an answer. All the breakthroughs we have seen in medicine, for example, have come through a process of hypothesis, experimentation and clinical trials where several different options are tried out and compared. Despite the scientific record, very few companies dare to experiment. Recently, when I was seeking out examples of corporate experimentation for my book, The Key, I found that they were few and far between. In fact, the only two that made it into the finished book were at Roche and Xerox. This is despite the fact that one of the biggest changes in the workplace – flexible working – was the result of repeated experimentation at BT.

Looking at the examples of experimentation I did find, most of them were led by scholars or academics, such as Professor Ruth Wageman, who led the self-managing teams project at Xerox. This is another indication that companies are apprehensive about experimenting themselves.  And if companies as a whole are poor at experimentation, their HR departments are worse. And yet, I feel that if companies would only dare to try, experimentation has a wealth of benefits to offer. Take, for example, the sphere of performance management. HR teams, managers and employees all agree that current processes are ineffective, but none of them have alternatives. Experimentation would be an ideal way to find methods that really work – and, as with BT, for your organisation’s discovery to become the model that others follow for decades to come.

Lynda Gratton’s latest book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving Some of the World’s Toughest Problems will be published on June 1st and is available to pre-order through Amazon now

2 thoughts on “Why your business needs to experiment

    Vicky Ferrier said:
    April 1, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    I am afraid I see a future increasingly less creative and not more, at least in traditional large caps. In her book Daring Greatly, shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown explores shame in the context of innovation. Brown asks Appvance CEO and Inc. Magazine’s 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year Kevin Surace what the most significant barrier to creativity and innovation is:

    “I don’t know if it has a name, but honestly, it’s the fear of introducing an idea and being ridiculed, laughed at, and belittled. If you’re willing to subject yourself to that experience, and if you survive it, then it becomes the fear of failure and the fear of being wrong. People believe they are only as good as their ideas and that their ideas can’t seem to “out there” and they can’t “not know” everything. The problem is that innovative ideas often sound crazy and failure and learning are part of revolution. Evolution and incremental change is important and we need it, but we’re desperate for real revolution and that requires a different sort of courage and creativity”

    Brown concludes that shame crushes our tolerance for vulnerability (defined as uncertainty + risk + emotional exposure), thereby killing engagement, innovation, creativity, productivity and trust. Thinking differently in order to learn and create is inherently vulnerable. There’s never enough certainty. People want guarantees. Most of us just can’t stand the uncertainty. As a former Head of IR and FD in large caps, that certainly chimes with my experience. Until leaders recognise that failure is a prerequisite for success and create human-friendly cultures that support those who are prepared to voice their ideas and possibly fail, then very few companies will have the courage to dare to experiment.

      hotspotsmovement responded:
      April 1, 2014 at 1:48 pm

      Hi Vicky – thanks for your comment! We very much agree with your comment about creativity being stifled by the fear of making mistakes. One of the companies Lynda has researched is Tata Consultancy Services – where they encourage employees to “dare to fail” by not only recognising successful innovation, but also giving awards to daring failures. By removing the shame associated with failure, they encourage experimentation. At our Future of Work Research Consortium today, Faroukh Chaudhury from Akram Khan Dance Company stressed the importance of accepting failure as well as success and creating a culture where people can experiment without having to worry they will lose their job if their experiment is unsuccessful.

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