There’s a recurring and dangerous executive leadership response to innovation that is the organizational equivalent of a ‘Doubting Thomas’ syndrome.
A ‘Doubting Thomas” leader will only approve an idea if they can metaphorically put their ‘fingers in the holes’ and feel it for themselves. In other words, unless you, as the innovator, can show your leaders and colleagues’ irrefutable proof that something is true they won’t believe it – especially if that idea relates to changing how to do things.
Such a phenomenon only serves to sustain the status quo as the collective and conventional wisdom informs everyone that the new idea won’t work.
I’ve previously explored the double-edged nature of intuition and it’s in this particular situation that it can reveal its most negative facet.
Of course, things get even more difficult for the innovator if there is no data available to prove or disprove the effectiveness of the idea in question. The frequent reality is that what data and information that is available is inevitably about past behaviour and reveals nothing about whether or not a new idea would or wouldn’t work. In such circumstances the absence of compelling evidence, as it directly relates to the particular organisation, renders the idea dead in the water.
It’s at this point that leaders should be taking a leaf from their scientist cousins who apply the rigour of the scientific method to progress their particular fields of study.
No less a person than Thomas Edison recognised back in the 19th Century that trying and failing are an integral part of the innovation process:
“Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t. ― Thomas A. Edison
The modern reality in many organisations is that many leaders have an expectation that all experiments must succeed – and, as a consequence – don’t fund anything that looks to be outside their intuitive feel for what will and won’t work. Add to that reluctance the collective ‘doubt’ of other senior colleagues and the would-be innovator is really up against it.
However, not all organisations are trapped by the status quo, with Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon showing a refreshing approach towards experimentation:
“If you decide that you’re going to do only the things you know are going to work, you’re going to leave a lot of opportunity on the table.”
The fact that Amazon recently overtook Wal-Mart as the biggest retailer in the Unites States would indicate that the power of experimentation could deliver real and substantive results.
For an experiment to succeed in changing practice it must have a number of key features, which can, if carefully applied, lead to real change in organisations.
From the outset the innovator must clearly define the overall purpose of the experiment expressed as a specific hypothesis to test the effect of a change in a singular independent variable, e.g. will people an annual subscription for guaranteed next day delivery service (Amazon Prime)?
Secondly, there must be a commitment to use a proven statistical model to deliver reliable and unambiguous data that can endure challenge form the ‘doubting Thomas’. If the innovator intends to rely upon purely on subjective judgement then her/his case is too vulnerable to challenge, i.e. ‘numbers count’.
In addition to investigating the primary impact of the experiment the innovator must be conscious of secondary effects and unintended consequences – in that sense the innovator adopts a rounded perspective on the entire experiment.
The wise innovator also establishes, from the outset, a commitment from the leadership to abide by the results and not cherry pick those parts that fit with their view of the world.
This notion of precommitment is a difficult concept to sell to leaders – but it’s a critical element of the experimental process – especially is the organisation is serious about implementing real change. The idea of precommitment comes from the field of behavioral economics and is based upon a strategy to increase chances of success by doing or agreeing things in advance to make it harder, if not impossible, for your future self to find a way to “back out”.
So, if you are working in an environment where the status quo predominates and leaders are biased against anything that might challenge their fixed view of the world, then perhaps the judicious use of experimentation is just the key to unlock the door.
But innovators beware, heed the key lessons – identify your purpose, your hypothesis, and the specific variable you want to change (take small bites, i.e. don’t bet-the-company); design a robust experiment using valid methodologies; generate reliable and valid data; look for unintended results; and, if possible, gain a precommitment from leaders/colleagues that if the experiment succeeds that change will be implemented (remember, experimentation for experimentation’s sake is pointless!).
Good luck – but remember that you are in good company:
“What really matters is that companies that don’t continue to experiment – companies that don’t embrace failure – they eventually get into a desperate position, where the only thing they can do is make a ‘Hail Mary’ bet at the very end of their corporate existence.” Jeff Bezos