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How to get growth via experimentation: embedding the ‘test and learn’ culture into your business

Growth-OS Co-founder and Data Scientist Ewan Nicolson explains how to build a culture of experimentation into your organisation and why that brings business growth.

A culture of experimentation is all about using science within business, and building science into how your organisation operates. This short video from Richard Feynman (one of my top 3 physicists) is the most succinct description of science I’ve ever seen.

The steps to using a science-based approach to achieve business improvements are as simple as this:

  • Make a hypothesis

  • Test it

  • If your hypothesis is invalidated then it is wrong. (This is good because you’ve learned something).

There’s a lot written about a culture of experimentation, a learning organisation, a scientific mindset. Forward-looking organisations like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc talk a lot about this.

There are good reasons why people talk about this so much. Any organisation running experiments needs to have a culture that welcomes the experimental learnings back into the wider organisation. Running experiments and making changes from those experiments is shown to improve the performance of businesses. And fundamentally it is so much more fun working in an organisation with a culture of experimentation.

But it is difficult to achieve this culture of experimentation. It is difficult because you have to shift your mindset in some fundamental and uncomfortable ways.

It is really difficult to know anything for sure

There is more uncertainty in the world than people acknowledge. There’s a whole field of philosophy called Epistemology which seeks to understand if you can really be certain of anything. It is pretty difficult to be certain of anything at all.

“The only thing that I know is that I know nothing”.

This means that the strongly held opinions that people have are built on shakier foundations than we usually think about. This is very different to the world of emphatic statements, solid charts in Powerpoint presentations, Gannt charts, and spreadsheets quoted down to the final penny that most businesses operate in.

This is the power of using science in business. It gives you tools to get more certainty about things, and to operate in environments that are more ambiguous. You can pretend to yourself that you are certain about everything; or you can acknowledge that nobody really knows anything with complete certainty and equip yourself with tools to cope with that.

You need to be wrong sometimes to be successful

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” - Michael Jordan

Making mistakes is pretty uncomfortable for most people. Right the way through from your school days, where you are taught that you must never hand in an imperfect draft of your essay, it is drilled into us that mistakes are something to be embarrassed about.

But to experiment you need to have freedom to try new things and get things wrong and make those mistakes. If you don’t have this freedom then you are never going to try anything that is truly new. You’ll spend all your time being cautious and validating the things that you already know.

“If you’re wrong, be wrong quickly and cheaply. Also, be wrong visibly”

If you are acknowledging that you might be getting things wrong there are two commitments that you have to make so that you’re making your mistakes responsibly.

1. Be wrong as cheaply and quickly as you can

2. When you are wrong, tell everyone about how wrong you were

Everyone will nod and agree with the first point. It sounds like something that you naturally do – you don’t want to waste time being wrong.

But have a think back to the last tricky planning discussion you had where you weren’t sure of the outcome of the bit of work.

Did you really spend time thinking about how to make that work smaller? Or did you spend most of your time thinking of ways to make that work safer and less likely to fail?

Often our natural bias falls towards the second point, not making mistakes, rather than towards making our mistakes cheaper. This is often counterproductive. You put in a lot of work trying to remove every risk from your project, addressing every potential concern, and then it fails anyway.

I’m not talking about being reckless - you should still look both ways before crossing the road - but try not to focus too much on removing risks at the cost of increasing the required effort massively.

It is pretty natural to have a tough time with the second point. Nobody likes talking about when they’ve taken a risk and it didn’t pay off. You naturally prefer talking about your successes. So you don’t make a big deal out of your failures compared to how much you celebrate when it pays off for you. Or worse, you spend your time trying to make them look like successes, or throwing good money after bad trying to chase after a success.

This means that you miss the opportunity for other people to learn from your mistake. The bigger the mistake, generally the bigger the learning opportunity. Instead of sweeping the mistake under the rug, share it as widely as you can. Look at the attitude of a company like Slack to a recent outage:

“We deeply regret the disruption in service. Every incident is an opportunity to learn, and an unplanned investment in future reliability. We learned a lot from this incident and, as always, we intend to make the most of this unplanned investment to make our infrastructure better in 2021 and beyond.”

This is an inclusive cultural behaviour

Everyone in the organisation, no matter which part of the business or level of seniority, will benefit from having an experimental mindset. Everyone has a part to play in achieving this culture.

If you’re a leader then the best thing you can do is be a role model. Communicate about the importance of experimentation, shout it from the rooftops. Fail visibly yourself, acknowledge that you don’t know everything and that you are fallible.

Develop psychological safety around you for other people to get things wrong – don’t berate people if they make a mistake. If someone disproves you by experiment, then put your ego to one side and celebrate it. You’ve had a good day because you’ve been educated and ultimately your business will benefit.

Finally, I’ll round off by acknowledging that if you’re more junior in the organisation this can be pretty scary.

“You’re expecting me to be wrong a lot and to tell people about it?”.

I agree, yikes. What I’ve found great success with is translating these ideas into other people’s language, and using that shared vocabulary to communicate about what you’re doing.

If you work in a technology company, or with people who are interested in technology, then the chances are that people have read books like The Lean Startup. The build, measure, learn approach that they describe is very similar to the scientific method of think, experiment, validate. A minimum viable product (MVP) is a very good description of an experiment.

Sometimes the word hypothesis is a bit intimidating for folk, particularly if they didn’t enjoy their science lessons at school. Thinking in Bets from poker champion Annie Duke uses the language of betting to deal with uncertainty and making guesses.

Ultimately, ongoing experimentation within a business leads to ongoing learning, and therefore ongoing growth. And a key part of building that experimentation pipeline, is installing the culture of experimentation into your organisation. This becomes much easier if an experimental mindset is nurtured together with a psychologically safe environment where people feel safe to make mistakes and to show themselves as vulnerable in front of others without fear of being judged.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can bake long-term, sustainable growth into your company DNA then take a look at our GROWTH-OS tools, workshops and masterclasses and sign up for our free Growth newsletter below.

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