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Experimenting through times of uncertainty: a personal reflection

Updated: Mar 23, 2023



Throughout history, there have been countless innovators who have changed the world with their breakthrough inventions and ideas. From Thomas Edison (the lightbulb) and Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone) to Steve Jobs (the iPhone) and Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), these visionaries have pushed the boundaries of what's possible, defied convention, and transformed the way we live and work.


I’ve chosen these four innovators because they all have something in common - an openness to experiment. Whether they were tinkering in their garages, conducting elaborate tests in labs, or launching bold new ventures, these innovators understood the importance of testing their ideas and trying new things. They had no fear of failure and little tolerance for giving up. Experimentation was a critical component of their innovation process.


And in today's world, where uncertainty and disruption seem to be the norm, experimentation has never been more critical. As businesses and organisations grapple with unprecedented challenges and shifting market forces, they must be willing to take risks, try new approaches, and adapt quickly to changing conditions.


I’ve only discovered the true power of experimentation over the past number of years – maybe it’s because the world of work has changed so drastically during that time – but for some time I’ve wanted to share my thoughts, which has led me to write this blog.


So for the next few minutes, I’ll share why I believe experimentation is a powerful tool for driving innovation, and why I think it's something that every company should prioritise to unlock new possibilities.


The pandemic as a catalyst for experimentation


I’d like to start by sharing a personal experience of experimentation at scale. When the pandemic hit, I was working at Novartis - a company with 108,000 employees and over 760 million patients relying on its medicines, globally. I was brought onboard as a consultant to be part of the team tasked with leading the company's response to the crisis. The mission was twofold: to keep employees safe while continuing to provide the essential medicines the world needed. However, we soon realised that navigating through such an unprecedented time required an experimental approach to determine the best way forward for the organisation.


For us to establish a structured experimentation function, we put together a team of experts which composed of behavioural scientists, data scientists, and design thinking specialists, dedicated to design an experimentation approach and oversee and drive experiments throughout the organisation. We then built a community of practice, which brought together cross-functional and cross-geographical employees to crowdsource and brainstorm ideas and test them with us. By doing this we could generate a broad range of ideas and test them across different parts of the business to understand their impact.


We used a combination of qualitative and quantitative data to measure the impact of our experiments and gain insights into what worked and what didn't – the experiments that had a positive impact, would be turned into products and scaled. We would also share our findings with employee groups to promote knowledge-sharing but it was also a way to showcase what experimentation meant: that its ok to try and fail, learn, try again and succeed. This is what driving an innovation and growth mindset is all about.


Our efforts led to the successful scaling of several ideas into products, and we oversaw more than 100 experiments across 30+ countries in just two years.


Some of the experiments we ran included office redesign, flexible work arrangements, digital collaboration tools and the transition to a hybrid working model, among others.


By embracing experimentation, we were able to adapt quickly to the rapidly changing landscape brought about by the pandemic and equip employees with the tools required to continue delivering vital medicines to patients. And while the pandemic was undoubtedly challenging, it taught us the importance of staying agile and open to new ideas during times of uncertainty.


It’s time to innovate or stagnate


Even in the post-pandemic era, the business landscape continues to get more and more uncertain as time goes on. We have AI that is reshaping how people do their jobs. We have employees going against their companies hybrid-working policies. We have international conflicts which are impacting trade agreements and supply chains. We have hundreds of thousands of lay-offs across the technology sector. And we have tremors once again in our global banking system. It is impossible to predict what is coming next, but companies can take steps to ready themselves by focussing on innovation.


Innovation is all about finding new and better ways of doing things and differentiating yourself in the market – for example, adapting to customer needs, identifying new opportunities and streamlining operations and processes for efficiency. It's about challenging assumptions, taking risks, and experimenting with new ideas. And while innovation can be sparked by individuals working alone, I’ve seen it work most effectively when it's a collective effort, fuelled by collaboration and a shared sense of purpose from a diverse group of people.


Making innovation work is not easy by any stretch but there are certainly things which organisations can do to help it blossom. At a high-level, companies can start this journey by: 1) building a culture of trust and psychological safety (mindset) and 2) providing the resources to succeed. Building a culture of trust and psychological safety starts from the very top, where leaders empower employees and create spaces for them to share their ideas and take risks without fear of retribution. Furthermore, organisations can provide resources by investing in the support structures, people and tools to enable employees to pursue their ideas. Novartis, for example, invested in an experimentation function to help navigate the pandemic and with that, the correct mindset was instilled within the employees to try new things.


When I consider the companies out there that lead the way with innovation, Google always springs to mind first. They really embrace it. They have a "20% time" policy, where employees are encouraged to spend one day a week pursuing their own ideas and passions which has led to the generation of Google Maps, Google News, and Google Glass.


Another example is 3M, which has built a culture of innovation, experimentation and employee empowerment. 3M has a program called the "Genesis Grant" that provides funding and resources to employees who have promising ideas for new products or technologies. The program is designed to help employees turn their ideas into reality, and has resulted in many successful innovations, such as the Post-It note.


These are two simple examples of empowering employees but look at the huge outcomes they’ve achieved from an organisational growth perspective. Something companies should take note of.


Experimentation plays a central role for innovation


Experimentation is a crucial part of the innovation process. A real myth I hear around experimentation is that its only applicable to product development… incorrect. It also applies to processes, ways of working, and other areas.


Experimentation involves establishing a framework that allows employees to take their ideas and subject them to testing in a controlled setting. This enables them to assess the potential impact of their ideas using data and insights, before committing significant resources to their further development.


Netflix, a company known to everyone for providing on-demand television is also a company I’m very impressed with from an experimentation perspective. The streaming giant famously relies on data to inform its decisions, using A/B testing to try out different variations of its interface and algorithms. This experimentation has helped Netflix continually improve the user experience and stay ahead of the competition.


Another example of successful experimentation is Spotify's "Discover Weekly" playlist. The music streaming service uses machine learning algorithms to create personalised playlists for its users, which are refreshed every week based on user feedback. The success of the Discover Weekly feature has helped Spotify attract and retain millions of users.


Experimenting can save huge amounts of time and money by understanding what is going to make an impact and what is not. In the past, we’ve seen companies take big gambles on products that have flopped. With experimentation, you will know early whether your product, process or new way of working will be a catastrophic failure or not.


Looking to future


I get massively excited about the future because I know that so many companies are experimenting and trying new things at a rapid pace – it’s sometimes frightening. I also get inspired by the younger generations who are out there, taking their ideas to the next level and who are really trying to drive change in the world. They have the correct mindset to succeed.


However I also see huge opportunities missed by organisations. I hear from my network and read online about the many companies who are still adopting toxic cultures where employees don’t feel empowered, don’t feel trusted and live in fear of making mistakes. They are not instilling an innovation, experimentation mindset and certainly not investing in resources to do so.


One thing I know for sure: this will backfire. Innovation is the key to unlocking new opportunities and to be able to embrace the uncertainties of the future. It’s the companies that encourage experimentation that will set themselves apart, following in the footsteps of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.



"The only difference between success and failure is the ability to take action." - Alexander Graham Bell



"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." - Thomas Edison



“Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity, not a threat.” - Steve Jobs



"I think that's the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself." - Elon Musk


 

I hope you enjoyed this blog. Writing is something I am pretty new at doing and something a little bit outside my comfort zone. However, I have learned that collectively we have a lot in our brains, through both theory and practice and unless we share it to the world we are not going to gather diverse perspectives, learn from others’ experiences and fundamentally change the world for the better.

I’m going to continue putting pen to paper as it helps me to reflect on my own learning journey. I guess this is the practice of a growth mindset. Hope it can help and encourage others to do the same!

I welcome your feedback and I am also extremely curious to hear your experiences regarding innovation and experimentation. If this is a topic you are interested in and would like to learn more, let me know.

 

Credits: All images are AI generated using Midjourney v5, a tool the Innovation Lab at Rythmik has been experimenting with.


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