For the next several posts, I’d like to dig deeper and plant a few more thoughts deep in the soil of your mind as you think about innovation. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve liked to plant things and watch them grow. I’d dig a shallow hole in the rocky soil of the backyard lawn of my childhood house on the northwest side of Chicago, plant some seeds, water them, and then watch and wait. Eventually, if I cared for the seeds correctly (ensuring adequate soil, sun, and water), I was always amazed to see what emerged—breaking through the dark dirt up into the light and then further up into a stalk that ended up forming some kind of fruit or flower.
As I’ve gotten older, I still like planting things. But nothing is more enjoyable for me to plant than powerful little ideas that can germinate, spring up, and bear fruit. And when it comes to innovation, the idea seeds I’m planting these days are experiments.
One of my favorite Harvard Business School professors, Stefan Thomke called experiments “the engine of innovation.” I like to call experiments the seeds of innovation. But whether they are the engine or the seeds, the point is, as Thomas Edison once famously quipped, “The real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into 24 hours.” The right kind and the right number of experiments often lead to innovational success.
So WHAT is an experiment? WHY do you want to experiment? And HOW often do you experiment?
WHAT is an experiment? An experiment is an intentional test aimed at learning how to meet your target’s core need, solve their core problem, or overcome their core challenge. Jim Collins calls experiments “bullets” (more on this later). They are low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction, but high-learning tests. Experiments are the seeds of innovation; they are the deliberate moves that spawn innovation.
Experiments are surfaced and shaped through a team’s use of what our team calls the EDIPT model, which is a tremendously practical design thinking model developed by Stanford’s d.school: Empathize > Define > Ideate > Prototype > Test. Insisting we use this process of innovation ensures repeated practice toward what Tom Kelley calls “guided mastery” and “creative confidence” in his excellent book The Art of Innovation. The idea is that repeated practice of this process leads to the crucial realization that innovation is way more method than it is magic.
WHY do you want to experiment? You and your team or organization must answer this question for yourselves. For me and my team, here are the reasons that compel us to want to experiment in our ministry context:
We want to challenge our team toward experimentation because…
- Being made in and reflecting God’s image means ever-innovating out of a loving motivation.
- Living in an ever-shifting culture and trying to reach an ever-shifting target means constantly adjusting, tweaking, and trying new things that could bring even more value to our target for Christ’s sake.
- Achieving our mission to help people far from God become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ demands it.
- Making experimentation an instinctive leadership behavior will ensure our deepest development and highest impact as individual leaders and a church that seeks to lead/influence other churches.
- Experiments are the seeds we plant to grow a culture of innovation, so plant we must.
- We want to right-size the urgency and pressure we need to feel—enough to get us regularly experimenting but not so much that it becomes burdensome.
- We need to provide and prove “catalytic permission” for one another to try, fail, learn, and try again until we succeed. Giving the stated freedom to fail forward is liberating to any team.
- NOW is the best time to best leverage all our best strengths to ensure our best impact (see my “Urgency Expansion” post). The stronger and healthier you are, the more you should be experimenting.
That’s our “why.” How about your team’s? Knowing why you want to experiment is a must.
HOW OFTEN do you experiment? Another way of asking the “how often” question is to ask “how many.” You need to experiment enough to keep an appropriate level of urgency and progress on your innovative efforts but not so much that you over-rev and develop “innovation fatigue.” Each team or department is unique in its own experimental energy stewardship and will need to feel-out what is the best rhythm for them.
It may be helpful for a team to ask: “What is our Threshold Level of Innovation? Low, Medium, or High?” This comes out of a discussion that seeks to answer a) how much experimentation is too little?, b) how much is too much?, c) how much is just right? The goal is to find out at what level you’re doing enough experimentation to reach a critical mass of forward momentum.
If you’re getting stuck here, it may help to ask each department to run 12 experiments per year (one per month). That could be a stretch goal for some and an easy target for others. But the number really isn’t as important as the intent to force yourselves toward more process repetition which will again lead to guided mastery, creative confidence, and the realization that innovation is method, not magic.
- How do you GREEN LIGHT an experiment?
Here’s how we do it. Every department’s team with its Director has the authority to green light an experiment. But you may want to run a loop with more senior leadership before executing your experiment if the experiment costs above a certain amount (for us, in our ministry setting, that’s $500; for you, in your corporate setting, it may be $5 million). But be sure you’re clear on this and how the fuse of an experiment gets lit—doing everything you can to avoid bureaucratic blockades and pushing decision-making freedom as close to the “front lines” of a team’s realm as possible.
- How do you FUND each experiment?
Ideally, you should budget for experiments as your chief tool of innovation. What would it communicate to your teams to literally have an “Innovation Experiments” line item in your annual budget where you actually put your organization’s money where your organization’s mouth is and prove that you are expecting and encouraging teams to try new things, to learn, to fail forward?
Ideally, each department or team should have full discretion in how to allocate its own experiments resources between its various experiments (i.e., to invest all your experiment resources on 1 large experiment or spread them out over 12 smaller experiments)
- How can you collect and share LEARNINGS on experiments?
One of the highest purposes of experiments is to learn. And the most sophisticated teams catalogue and cascade their learnings so that other teams build on their learning. How can you do this? Select a person on your team (ideally, the senior leader who champions experimentation and innovation) and send him/her an email with 3 brief bullets of information:
a) What was the experiment, and what did you hope to achieve?
b) How did it fail forward or succeed?
c) What did you learn?
Learnings can be captured and cascaded in team meetings, regular newsletters, videoblogs, etc. Key learnings should be shared broadly as they help advance innovation across an organization.
- How would you define experiments? Can you think of any key metaphors (like seeds) that capture what an experiment is and does?
- What are the ways your organization encourages or discourages experimentation?
- Why do you want to experiment?
- How many experiments do you think are right for your team per year?
- What are the ways you capture learnings to spread and build on from your experiments?