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It’s time leaders democratize experimentation. Here are 4 ways how

Your teams are bursting with untapped ideas but need the tools—and the authority—to help drive continuous innovation, says this digital optimization CEO.

It’s time leaders democratize experimentation. Here are 4 ways how
[Source image: Tetiana Garkusha/iStock]
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It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the world hangs on experimentation. Vaccinating the 7 or 8 billion people needed to stop COVID-19 will be a vast, interlocking set of experiments, not a monolithic achievement. Overcoming vaccine hesitancy and refining the way vaccines are stored, delivered, and administered as well as adjusting for cultural differences in reception are just a few of the variables involved. 

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Despite the scale, the vaccine rollout will proceed along the same lines as any other experiment. Anywhere in the world where you can see rapid and noticeable progress, whether it’s new software or better infrastructure, you can bet there is a rigorous experimentation process behind it.

So why is it that in our working life so many important decisions are not made on solid experimental footing? How can we make experimentation work everywhere, not just in science and high tech? Here are a few of the ways I’ve been able to successfully integrate an experimentation mindset into the way I and my teams operate every day.

Democratize experimentation

I guarantee you that there’s not a single person in your company who isn’t already hungry for the ability to try out new ideas and measure their effectiveness. Leaders don’t need to awaken this hunger. They just need to give their people the tools and permission to satisfy it. 

I guarantee you that there’s not a single person in your company who isn’t already hungry for the ability to try out new ideas and measure their effectiveness.”

For too long, we have held to a preconceived notion of who should be given permission to experiment. It’s either been for “people in white coats with beakers,” as Adam Grant says in his latest book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, or those fully initiated into the mysteries of data and analytics. But this artificial limitation on who is allowed to experiment has done a disservice to other teams, like HR and marketing, who have just as strong of a need for continuous improvement.

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It’s one of the few silver linings of the pandemic that solid data is more accessible to everyone. For every bit of subjective input we have lost in our largely digital working environments, we have gained quantitative feedback loops to compensate. Digital spaces have also given us access to as many inputs as we want. After all, there’s no limit to the number of people you can invite into a digital room. 

If you’re in a leadership role, be intentional about encouraging your teams to find and rely on data and to experiment based on the feedback they’re regularly receiving. Empower them to uncover the most statistically significant paths forward for success. Assure them that, as long as you have reliable data, experimentation is the surest way forward. 

Congratulate your team when it doesn’t work

If you’ve come to the end of a project and it flops, stop and celebrate anyway. If you had a trusted framework for experimentation in place, you’ve just eliminated a strategic path forward, one you no longer have to spend the cognitive energy, time, and money to pursue. 

Congratulations are in order because it took rigor, honesty, and open communication from your team to get to this point. Encourage those qualities, and you’ll see experiments popping up everywhere.

Don’t forget to be qualitative, too

Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” As much as we use data to inform our experimentation, it’s important not to rely on data and market research exclusively, as it can mislead you if it’s not weighted correctly. 

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So seek out creative and emotional input from your team and see to what extent it’s consistent with what your data is telling you. Today, there are a lot of off-the-shelf tools to help you do this. Whether it’s surveys or ways to gauge actual behavior, you’ll be able to discover more about what really works and what doesn’t. And if you’re measuring only one aspect of a process, you’re almost certainly not getting the full picture.

There’s no finish line

Experimentation is a process that requires constant and meticulous optimization. It never actually stops. That’s where much of the value in creation lies.

Take any company’s website, which is effectively the front door of the customer experience, especially today. You can treat it as a tactical IT project with a fixed start and end point, and you’ll end up with something that works for a while until it needs an overhaul. 

But if you set up some framework for experimentation, you can turn it into a source of data about how your customers or stakeholders see you. Adding some experimental element to any project allows you to build in added return on investment. And in a digitalizing world, that means most projects. Take a look at your professional (and even personal) life, and ask yourself, how can I take what I have to do and turn it into a way to discover what I should or what I can do in the future. Empower others to ask this question with you. From there, anything is possible. 


Alex Atzberger is the CEO of Optimizely, a tech company that helps organizations personalize and optimize digital customer experiences.

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