Ruthless Experimentation: 5 Best Practices

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar May 15, 2019

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one most adaptable to change.” This is arguably Charles Darwin’s most famous misquotation. He never said this. It is from a 1963 speech by American professor, Leon Megginson. It is his interpretation of Darwin’s central thesis.

No matter who said it, after visiting 100+ progressive companies we say “Amen!” to this quote.

The old days are gone

Megginson spoke his brilliant words decades ago. But traditional management is still based on annual plans and predictions. They still cascade down organization charts.

The familiar old days of ‘We’ve always done it this way; it must be the only way.’ are gone. They were always based on a belief that we could predict the future. It’s now impossible to be so precise about the future.

The Rebel Idea

Now, adaptability is important, and progressive organizations abandon guesses masquerading as precise predictions.

They focus on experimentation instead. And they embrace it in everything they do. They experiment with products, ways of working and structure. Change is no longer a once-a-year event.

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Their employees know this. It’s a part of every-day work. It’s better to experiment and fail than never make mistakes at all.

Ruthless Experimentation: 5 Best Practices
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Rebel Idea in Practice

But how do you create an adaptive, experimenting environment? What do you need to think about? How do you change the way you work?

Pioneers illuminate this path and with practices we can follow. This is our starting point. We start simply and work up to the more radical options.

1. Experiment ruthlessly

Nike had it right all along: ‘Just do it’.

Action is the most powerful antidote to ‘analysis paralysis’, a disease whose symptoms are phrases like: ‘That will never work here.’ and ‘We’ve never done it that way before, so let’s not start now.’

We need to dismiss this mindset. It’s better to experiment and fail than never try anything at all. Have an idea for a new product or service? Experiment! Want to improve your way of working? Experiment! Want to stop those useless alignment meetings? Experiment!

Try out new ideas. Make evidence-based decisions. Learn how to move forward. Take your experiments seriously. Don’t give up too quickly. Make sure you execute well.

2. Bust the budgeting cycle

Get rid of annual targets that are set via guesses and office politics. Get rid of detailed budgets with fixed yearly goals. If thousands of employees at Swedish bank Handelsbanken can do this, why can’t you, too?

Organize processes in a more dynamic way. Establish short-term (monthly, weekly) relative goals (e.g. performance benchmarking with other teams). But make sure everyone in the organization knows how the business works—so they can make sense of the goals and allocate resources where and when they are most needed.

3. Create a safe (to try) environment

Experiment properly; fail masterfully.

Whether you like it or not, these two go together. Before people start experimenting, they must feel safe enough to fail. Without psychological safety, you’ll get nowhere. Create an environment in which it is ‘safe to try’. If they fail, they should be rewarded, not punished. When an experiment is proposed, simply ask: “Is it safe enough to try?” That’s all you need know. Run the experiment. Then evaluate, learn and adapt.

Celebrate failures (as well as successes). See them as progress. Just make sure to learn, and adapt. Hand out awards for the best fuck-ups. Create special moments to celebrate experimentation. These will create the safe environment you are creating, and encourage more to join.

At the Johnsonville Foods factory, for example, they had a “Mistake of the Month Club” to stimulate discussion about mistakes and the learning from them. They also had a “Shot in the Foot Award” for someone who made the biggest mistake from which they learned the most.

Experimenting should be fun and exciting, not boring and scary. And remember, making mistakes is not a crime. Not learning from them is!

4. Crowd-source experiments

Build a crowd-sourcing platform for internal experiments, and invite all employees to join. Allow them to participate on the platform and give them the opportunity to initiate a change or experiment.

Simply provide employees with a platform on which to post suggestions. Let them recruit fellow rebels to their experiments and let them execute the most popular ones. This way you create a bottom-up change movement instead of dull, dysfunctional, large-scale, top-down change programs.

5. Rebel Time

Want to go all in? Give everyone in the organization some dedicated time to rebel. Allow them a percentage of their time for experiments. At Belgium governmental department employees are encouraged to devote 15% of their time to experimentation.

Change is no longer a once-a-year event. It’s a part of every-day work. It’s better to experiment and fail than never make mistakes at all.
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Google famously used to have their 20% rule: employees could spend 20% of their time on self-initiated projects. This produced some wonderful results. Important products like Gmail, Google Maps, and AdSense came out of this dedicated experimentation time.

These are our 5 Best Practices for Ruthless Experimentation. And remember Meggison’s advice: Species that survive are those most adaptable to change!

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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