What is Culture of Experimentation?
1 Apr 2022 • People & Culture, Strategy & Business Design, Trends & Signals, Ventures & Startups
In this blog series, we’ve explored ways of thinking about how to make your organisation’s business and technology more adaptable. How do you tune your corporate culture more adaptive and what is culture of experimentation?
What is Culture of Experimentation?
The world is changing so fast that the traditional (and stubbornly alive) design culture needs to be turned into a more experimental one.
No business can adapt without people, and this requires a culture of experimentation.
In simple terms, an Culture of Experimentation (Experimental Culture) means not trying to guess too much in advance what will happen, but challenging assumptions by testing them in practice. The definition sounds so obvious that most people will probably think that their organisation is already following the model. However, a few companies are actually good at a culture of experimentation.
The fear of making mistakes is built into human nature through evolution, which can lead to (over)careful preparation, which delays getting things done. The less tolerant a company culture is of mistakes, the more planning tends to take place, because in the process of doing, potential mistakes become visible to others. Moreover, it may be felt that the more planning, the more valuable the idea. However, it is only the acid test of real life that reveals the value of an idea.
Business adaptation requires the right environment
Adaptable business is the ability to re-adapt (micro-pivot) to the market demands as quickly as possible. When it comes to explosive speed, movement is everything. How is movement created and managed in an organisation? How is movement directed at things that are unknown to people?
Some people dive into the new naturally open-minded, others are more burdened by change. When adapting business, you have to get everyone on board, but at the same time accept that people will go through the change process in different ways. Fortunately, spontaneous experimentation is a built-in trait in all of us (think small children), but for a variety of reasons, the skill can be forgotten.
Organisational culture plays a crucial role in fostering a willingness to experiment. Would you believe that your colleague will learn (almost) any skill if they are motivated and supported by the organisation? What I mean is that, for example, a salesperson becomes a programmer, or vice versa. For some reason, the world of work is so highly siloed that we imagine that formal education, for example, somehow guides what we are best suited for.
Experimentation is also important because, unlike in school, there are an infinite number of right solutions to building a business. It is enough to identify one good enough by trial and error. We may try to reduce risks by increase the amount of planning, but paradoxically we happen to increase risks. Indeed, process-like operations works optimally only in environments that remain as stable as possible. As we know, the whole lives in a contact VUCA mode.
Towards a bolder organisation
Let’s assume you want to become a qualified marathoner. You read up on the subject, interview experienced marathoners and build a personalised training programme. However, your transition to the running path is constantly delayed and you are finally forced to postpone your first marathon (once again) by a year.
Fear of the unknown is a very typical unconscious reason to increase the amount of planning. No matter how brave we feel, we know how easy it is to organise “a one more planning meeting”, even though deep down we know that by now we should be having conversations with real clients. Moreover, the more time you commit to planning, the harder it is to accept the message if the idea doesn’t initially fly. In quick and small experiments, “failures” doesn’t feel so bad.
It’s only on the trail that we learn whether or not we will become marathoners.
In an experimental culture, individual and organisational courage is key. Do we dare to challenge ourselves – but especially – do we let others challenge us? Psychological safety is a term that describes the mental state of group interaction. What will others think of me when I make a mistake? Psychological safety comes from the way we behave with our colleagues in interaction situations.
Psychological safety is different from trust between individuals. Trust between individuals is something that the organisation can influence on so much. It is up to each individual to decide whether or not to place their trust in someone else. Instead, by ensuring the spirit, culture and behavioural norms of the company, it is possible to influence the psychological safety experienced by groups within the company.
Adaptive business requires a bold organisation.
Controlled business adaptation
I propose that planning be divided into readiness and preparation. Readiness describes the individual mental threshold for change. The lower the threshold, the faster a change can be implemented. Preparation describes the actual steps taken to gather assumptions or data in order to start doing (the change).
Only, once we feel ready and prepared, we can move on to action.
Let’s go back to the marathon example. Readiness is the mental quality by which a person accepts that they might be able to become a marathoner. If there is no mental readiness, no amount of preparation (planning) will suffice, and it is very difficult in practice to get into an actual running routine – let alone commit to it. This is where organisational culture can come in handy. If you can identify people’s latent talents and encourage them to try new things, you can make a difference in developing a readiness to change.
Think of (change) readiness through the eyes of a high jumper. Every time you raise the bar and cross it, your readiness to make the next change is lowered. Enough repetition and you will soon find that changing things doesn’t actually feel painful anymore, but even addictive. Courage grows as you go on.
The next point where the organisation can be of great help is to encourage people to reduce the time they spend preparing. The temptation is great to put off the first leg until “next week when the weather is supposed to be better”. If you can move your left foot in front of your right, you can quite probably get on with a light jog straight away. The goal should not be a full long marathon straight away, but a light jog of a couple of miles and then draw conclusions about what to do next.
I therefore suggest that the agenda for the planning meetings be changed to a execution meetings. Let’s use the valuable time together to make a first draft. Let us be merciful to ourselves and accept that the first version is most probably not finished. In an organisation that embraces a culture of experimentation, the first version has a magical effect on the people involved, it makes things concrete and helps you see how to move forward. And if it is felt that no worthwhile action can be taken, it’s better to just minimize the waste and move on to something else.
In an experimental culture, the “plan” is actually formed through practical feedback and action.
This blog series was about building a more adaptable business. Adaptability requires not only a modern digital infrastructure, but also a culture of experimentation.
Fortunately, digitalisation has matured to the point where adaptability models are more business-driven than they used to be. Moreover, they are suitable for both smaller and larger organisations. If the will is there, almost any growth-oriented organisation that wants to evolve can decide to apply them.
Read the other parts of this blog series:
Part 1: Adaptable business
Part 2: What is a Composable Business?
Part 3: What is a Composable Commerce?
Part 4: What is low-code and no-code?
Part 5: What is Culture of Experimentation? (this blog post)