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5 Principles for Becoming an Experimental Leader

Melanie Parish
Melanie Parish

Elevate the dialogue around leadership. Give people a clear path to help them try new things, and create space for innovation with experimental leadership methods.

We are not having the year we expected. In fact, almost everything in the world is unexpected in multiple ways. In the last two months, leaders burned their strategic plans and began experimenting like never before. Businesses are either suffering or flourishing and there isn't much in between. Leaders are trying to adjust as fast as they can with the ground shifting under their feet.

Each week is different than the week before and those who lead businesses and organizations are trying new things because they have to – their livelihood depends on it. But they are often experimenting without a safety net. They are forced into experimenting in ways that aren't safe to fail. The experiments people are trying often have high stakes and that experimenting will continue for quite some time. Sometimes as leaders we get pitched a curveball and we have to do the best we can.

As people try new things there are a few skills that can help it create a better chance for experimenting to yield practical and positive results.

These five principles can help focus experimenting toward long-term results.

Fail better.

Failure is a part of the process. Experiments will fail. Create the smallest experiments you can do – your failures are small. Try prototypes, proof of concept, and single-channel experiments to mitigate failures, and keep them as close to safe-to-fail as possible. We tend to think in terms of big sweeping changes. Instead, look for the smallest possible experiment you can try. If you are introducing a new product, consider a small free pilot project. Often you can try something free while you are testing something new. If people don't want it free, no amount of marketing will make them want to pay for it. On the other hand, if you do something free for a short period of time and then stop, you might see people clamoring for that offering. This is good data that this is a good place to invest in a larger scale experiment.

In Canada, the way they rolled out the funding in the pandemic is a good example of this. They rolled out a series of benefits for a variety of people and businesses without knowing whether it was "merited" or right – they knew it would fail in some places. They provided funds to people without having these individuals first prove they qualified. Some may have to pay it back (if they don't actually qualify), but it got people the help they needed quickly, and Candian authorities then adjusted shortcomings where they failed to catch the people who fell through the cracks. They failed but adjusted multiple times. 

Iterate more.

As you experiment, try something. Xollect data, think about what you learned and plan your next experiment. Conduct very short experiments. Gather information. Think about what you learned. Iterate again. Iteration speeds up your information gathering and your ability to change and shift. Sometimes we are enticed by thinking through and creating big strategic plans. They make us feel safe. Instead, try small experiments you can conduct in succession. Try the first experiment and then see where your curiosity and the data take you next.

I have a client who offers summer camps and tutoring. Their business could have stopped overnight, but they shifted very quickly to offering online products. They switched their tutoring to Zoom and are working to offer an online summer camp. They are trying new things every week to figure out what their customers and their parents need and want.

Extend your timeframe.

Make sure that you consider longer timeframe goals of your organization. It helps you decide on the direction to invest your time and energy. Good vision, mission and values statements can help you find your true north as you evaluate changing conditions as they emerge. Mission, vision and values are very sexy right now, but they are full of information that is useful for experimenting. Extend your view to a six-month or one-year time frame. This helps create clarity when the immediate future is unclear.

I work with an organic farm that does home delivery. Their sales when doubled the first week and went up the same amount the next week. They put the next round on a waitlist so they can grow in a way where they continue to offer great service. They are growing in a way they hope will allow them to retain their customers long term. They are using this as a strategic opportunity, and they are checking in with their vision to stay on the right track.

Avoid reactivity

Leaders sometimes display reactive behaviors when they are faced with uncertainty. These are uncertain times. Notice when you feel you are out of options and feel stuck. You can identify reactivity by the way you behave when you are scared. Do you yell? Make a lot of rules? Charm people to your point of view? Avoid conflict? Double down on the status quo? Try to manipulate others to your point of view? These are all reactive behaviors. Reactivity is the opposite of creativity. Develop skills to quiet your reactivity to stay in the work of grappling with the work – engagement and effort without frustration. Become a blank slate as you shrug off reactivity, and foster neutrality and curiosity.

I once worked for a guy who owned a restaurant. He used to throw chairs when he got angry. It wasn't pretty and is the epitome of poor and reactive leadership. He only wanted his way but he didn't inspire his staff. He didn't survive. He wasn't able to change with the times and to engage the help of his staff to offer an experience that was fresh and exciting.

Empower other experimenters.

Once you have figured out your own path to becoming an experimenter, start to empower others on your team to experiment better. When your team has challenges, start using a scientist's mindset. Ask, "What is the next thing you are going to try?" Ask what they have learned and what they will try next. A team of innovators overcomes learned helplessness and looks for ways to improve everywhere. It supercharges improvement in your organization.

Good leaders are warm and help their team feel like great individual contributors. In turn, the team is generous with their thought and ideas in service to the business. Empowering a team of experimenters can help a business creatively look for what is next.

These principles will take you on a path to becoming an experimental leader and will help you experiment safer, faster and more intentionally. These are uncertain times and can leave leaders feeling off-balance and anxious.

There is a better way to think about your own leadership during these uncertain times: You can open yourself to the curiosity of a scientist. You can use these principles of becoming an experimental leader as a way to create a safety net in times of crisis. Beginning on the path of becoming an experimental leader can help you step into more solid ground and can help you feel more certain about your own leadership.

Image Credit: Kritchanut / Getty Images
Melanie Parish
Melanie Parish Member
Master Certified Coach Melanie Parish is the author of the best-selling book, The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators. Melanie offers over two decades of working with Fortune 500, global IT and start ups. She is also a public speaker, popular podcast host, workshop leader, founder of Experimental Leader Academy and Prism Award winner. Her expertise is for any leader who has had to quickly pivot to become the new kind of boss this unprecedented time requires or really anyone who wants to step up and help lead.