Consider this: the stronger a company’s growth performance, the more likely it will prefer experimentation as the first step to identify an opportunity. In the Babson Executive Education analysis of 635 global companies, just under a third of companies with 1-10% growth preferred experimentation over other methodologies, such as statistical analysis, to identify revenue and operational improvement opportunities. Approaching half (46%) of companies with 11-20% growth prefer it, while well over half (56%) of companies with more than 20% growth do.
No wonder more and more executives are championing experimentation over (or as a precursor to) time-honored analytic approaches like strategic planning and market research, as we showed in our previous post. Yet many tell us that they struggle to democratize experimentation. They can’t seem to move it from R&D labs into the offices and factories.
The rationale for democratization is clear, since R&D labs have numerous natural constraints that can limit the true potential of experimentation. R&D personnel are often detached from the day-to-day running of the business and hence are not the best people to experiment on the problems and solutions of interest for today. In addition, these labs are often physically secluded from the operational centers of the business, so transporting ideas from the lab to where they are needed on the ground is a problem. Most importantly, perhaps, the number of individuals working in an R&D lab is usually minimal compared to the overall employee population. No matter how brilliant your R&D lab personnel are, if you don’t democratize experimentation you lose the knowledge and skill of 85-90% of your organization’s employees who do not work in the lab.
The question is, how can experimentation become a part of every employee’s work? Below we offer 8 tips that we’ve discovered in our research:
Increase managerial attention. The effort to move experimentation beyond the R&D labs needs to be a conscious one. Managers should not only encourage their employees to experiment with their ideas, but even go so far as requiring experimentation when ideas are being developed and proposed. In addition, employees should take responsibility to engage with the experimentation process and be aware of methods and practices for conducting experiments.Train employees on the basics of conducting experiments. It helps if all workers have rudimentary knowledge on collecting data, ensuring reliability and validity of results, and analyzing and communicating outcomes.Accept that experimentation is a messy and untidy process. Experiments usually don’t lead to fruitful results. Make sure you focus not just the outcomes, but also the process of experimentation. This helps advance knowledge of a domain.Deploy organizational resources and assets to give employees the time and space to experiment with their ideas. Some organizations we studied maintained a policy where any staff can gain access to lab facilities and expertise to help them conduct and experiment.Build a process whereby experiments can be conducted in a systematic manner. The process should be tailored to the various units and product segments of the organization. In addition, there should be accountability in terms of how the process is applied in the organization. The process should be constantly refined and updated as experiments yield new learning. Create a platform or bulletin board. Use a public space where people can share their current experiments, intermediary results, or issues they face. Most experiments are done in secret, outside the confines of the organization or outside the normal working day. Often, the organization will not know how many experiments are being conducted, by whom, and for what purposes. This results in a large amount of waste and inefficiency in the system. An up-to-date and comprehensive approach to sharing knowledge and data will address these classic challenges. Give intrinsically motivated experimenters the same care provided to “sanctioned,” large-scale experiments. For those organizations that have R&D labs, consider the possibility of providing mentors and supporting visiting positions in the labs. Another alternative is to require researchers to spend time in the functional units of the organization to share their knowledge of experimentation and technical analysis.Start a working papers and presentation series for both researchers and practitioners. Events can be used to share experiment results and get feedback. These can occur either as conversations where the work in process is shared or as full-blown research talks.
In order to develop a culture of experimentation, organizations should provide employees with a multitude of opportunities to question, observe, and engage in new experiences. What have you observed in your experience?
H. James Wilson (@hjameswilson) is senior researcher at Babson Executive Education. Kevin C. Desouza is an associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington. His next book is Intrapreneurship: Managing Ideas within Your Organization (University of Toronto Press, 2011).