Experimentation in management is about moving beyond opinion, guesswork and shaky research methods to robust testing of what really works – and what doesn’t.
Experimentation underpins organisational decision-making with a reasonable dose of scientific rigour. Its method and the mindsets it encourages are hugely valuable for organisations seeking agility in fast-changing environments.
Experiments are an incredibly useful way for organisations to learn and catalyse effective change. As the business environment becomes more volatile and uncertain, the need to foster agility and ‘free up’ thinking has grown. Whilst other forms of research, analysis, planning and execution remain useful, for some organisational challenges they cannot provide the answers. Rather than calculate, predict, assume and estimate, it can be better to explore, try, test, learn and refine.
Experiments are usually conducted on a small scale at first, making them easier and faster to implement than typical organisational changes. Designed well, they can produce insights very quickly – and often these insights are more robust than those produced from conventional methods. For example, focus groups might suggest that lots of customers would buy a new product – an experiment can show that they actually do! Experiments are also often less expensive than alternative approaches to gathering insights – and because they typically help to reduce risks, can offer significant financial returns if these insights lead to wide-scale implementation of changes.
Experiments have led to some of humankind’s greatest achievements, and have the potential to stimulate extraordinary innovation and change within organisations too – by challenging assumptions and fostering action learning.
Crucially, experimentation is not just ‘trying out new things’ – which most organisations do all the time. Experiments are systematic procedures. They use the fundamental building blocks of the scientific approach – relying on clear hypotheses, careful sampling and management of bias, systematic observation, robust measurement and so on.
Also important in this definition is the point that experimentation involves changing conditions. Most other forms of research commonly used in organisations are observational – for example conducting survey questionnaires or focus groups. Although these can be useful, by themselves, they are not experiments: they don’t change the conditions of respondents in the way that experiments change the conditions for their subjects.
Experiments are not like typical change initiatives. They don’t by themselves deliver specific outputs or have direct business performance outcomes. They are explorative, focused on discovery, insight and learning. However, most experiments will inform or develop into change initiatives – making them highly impactful.
Those who experiment in conventional organisations have to be careful not to fall back on a ‘big project’ mindset – planning to deliver ‘perfect’ and complex solutions over long time horizons.