Want To Become Agile? Stop Planning And Start Experimenting

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar May 28, 2017

Plan and predict is an essential part of management in traditional organizations. The budgeting, planning of resources, and strategic plans that get cascaded down the organization are all based on the outdated and foolish belief that we can predict the future. But as the environment of today's business gets more complex, it becomes harder and harder to make accurate predictions.

From Predict & Plan to Experiment & Adapt

In the unpredictable and complex world we live in, organizations are wise to step away from their predict and planning mechanisms and should operate with a continuous adaptation process. More and more organizations start to understand that they need to be able to be quicker on their feet. They realize they need to become more adaptive, responsive, and agile. It's therefore no wonder that these buzzwords are heard in organizations all over the world.

But all popular terms aside, the question is how to actually do it. While visiting over 50 of the world’s most progressive organizations, we studied in detail how they successfully bust inertia and bureaucracy and therefore become engaging and successful workplaces. Here are some important lessons on one of the 8 trends that separate the Bucket List companies.

Corporate Rebels Canvas

Forget about predictions and extensive planning

During our Bucket List visits we have heard the solution in many different shapes:

  • "Just experiment."
  • "Try something new all the time."
  • "Seize the opportunities that are in front of you."
  • "If you fail, try another thing."
  • "Keep moving."
  • "Solve the problems, one way or the other."

The majority of these companies focus on constantly starting new experiments. Experiments to improve their products, services, but also to improve their way of working. For them it seems to be more important to be able to adapt rapidly then to try to predict what might (or what might not) be coming their way. They prove that with rapid and small adaptations they are able to deal successfully with the increasingly complex world of work.

Experiment and acknowledge that mistakes will be made

One of the most harmful attitudes in business is the "we've always done it this way" attitude. A lack of openness to new experiments can kill engagement, innovation, and creativity. To overcome this, the progressive organizations focus extensively on challenging the status quo as much as possible. They promote experimentation through a number of ideas and practices. Here are a few interesting ones as a source of inspiration.

Safe to try?

We probably all know the reactions you might get when proposing to experiment with something new: "That will never work because of ...", "We might fail when we do that", or "Let's just do this according to the standard process". To overcome such obstacles, we see that organizations promote to "just give it a try". If you can't find any hard objection or actual proof that something won't work, just experiment and see what happens. We often come across practices and sayings along these lines; 'just do it if it's safe to try'

Make them visible and evaluate

Experiments should be tried for a serious and predefined amount of time. Make the experiments visible and make sure you evaluate the experiments after the initial trial period. Keep the ones that work and discard the ones that don't. We wrote about IDEO's vision on this: 'It's about trying out new ideas, and making evident-based decisions about how to move forward. IDEO’s study revealed that from the moment teams start to focus on 5 or more product ideas, they have a 50% more chance to launch a product successfully!'

Create a safe environment

Create a safe environment where people dare to fail. Forget about the rules and welcome failure. Realize that the world has became way too complex to do all things perfectly. Better learn from your mistakes faster than your competition, and improve before they do it. Just like Daniel Ek, co-founder of Spotify, said wisely: “we aim to make mistakes faster than anyone else.” Some organizations even increase their openness to failure by organizing so-called FuckUp Nights.

Learn from failure

Once a safe environment is created and people dare to discuss their failures, it's important to not make the same mistakes twice and to learn from failure. Understand that failure is a vital part of the experimentation process. In fact, the ability to fail is possibly one of the most important assets. Without failure there will be no real progress. Failed experiments are useful. Share them and learn from them, as much as possible. If there are no failed experiments you are just not moving fast enough.

Award experimentation

Another powerful practice we’ve seen is awarding experimentation. UKTV promotes innovation and entrepreneurship by rewarding the best new ideas every quarter with budget and expertise to execute them. At Zingerman‘s, employees even get the chance to set up their own business within the Zingerman’s community of business.

Time to experiment

Companies like Google and 3M, but also governmental organizations like the Belgian Department of Social Security, literally take the time to experiment. They devote a certain percentage of their working hours explicitly to experimentation. At Google (or at least some parts of Google) it's 20% of the time, while at the Department of Social Security it's 10%. If you decide to do this, it's important to find your own sweet spot. How to do this? Well, that's where experimentation comes in again!

Experiment with everything you do

Adaptability is one of the major strengths of highly progressive organizations. They embrace experimentation in their products and service offerings, but also in their way of working and organizational change efforts. Changing is something that is an essential part of their daily work, not just a once-in-several-years large scale reorganization.

They realize it’s better to experiment and fail then to never make any mistakes at all. They are constantly pushing themselves to reinvent the organization before the world demands it from them. Because they very well understood Charles Darwin when he wrote: "it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive 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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