Catalysts: Build Organizational Resilience with a Culture of Experimentation
Prophet’s 2023 Catalysts research reveals how low-risk test-and-learn strategies can build organizational resilience.
This is the third article in a series based on our latest research series, Catalysts: How to Build an Adaptable Organization That Thrives During Uncertainty. In the previous article, Catalysts: Transform Purpose From Catchy Slogan to Growth Engine, we explored how the most adaptive companies use their purpose to drive compelling business strategies.
A culture of experimentation is essential for innovation and growth. And while virtually every business leader knows that’s true, at least in theory, relatively few companies know how to build that culture. Through our research, we uncovered plenty of reasons organizations resist experimentation. Fear and short-term thinking top the list.
Today’s economic uncertainty makes many organizations even more timid about investing in experimentation. “Since the Great Depression, there have been nine bear markets,” says Mark Jamison, former Global Head of Design and Innovation and currently Head of Global Accounts for Visa. “Humans are not designed to take a longer view. They tend to be reactive, particularly in times of stress. Leaders need the fortitude and the foresight to step back and ask, `What strategies might we put in place to go after opportunities this uncertainty has created?’ You can then use this foresight to focus the organization’s energy on delivering outsized impact while competitors are inwardly focused.”
But too often, organizations shut down that scientific spirit. Experiments often fail, and that scares people. A 2020 Gallup survey found fewer than one in ten respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “I take risks at my job that could lead to new products or solutions.”
Ironically, the same leaders who struggle with encouraging experimentation are often the same ones lauding data-driven decisions. To foster an organization that effectively uses iterative experimentation, leaders must promote the discipline of regularly testing hypotheses. And, like any scientist, they have to learn to view every outcome, failure or success, as progress. Only then can innovation flourish.
Encouraging an A/B Ethos
Firms born in the digital era, such as Amazon and Netflix have repeatedly demonstrated that experimentation through A/B testing can help identify how to generate more value.
Amazon, for instance, discovered that making a mobile game called Air Patriots easier unexpectedly increased the enjoyment of its end users, leading to more revenue. Netflix runs constant experiments to determine how best to personalize artwork so that each customer sees images with actors and genres they like best.
Ghost kitchens have given rise to new levels of innovation for many large restaurant groups over the last three years. These kitchens are used to test new menu items, new restaurant concepts and even branding. They provide an efficient way to offer food delivery, of course. But these kitchens have also proven to be ideal testing labs. Since many have no visible connection to their existing brands, companies can measure market demand and consider how to scale winning concepts with relatively little risk.
Increasing Organizational Experimentation
There are specific actions organizations can take to lower the costs of experimentation and increase innovation. At Prophet, we use our Human-Centered Transformation Model
.™ to think holistically about an organization. We view the organization as a macrocosm of the individual, with four distinct components.
DNA: Define the Strategic Destination
A company’s DNA is its purpose and core beliefs, which should inform all decisions and strategies. If innovation is part of these core corporate values and most companies recognize that new ideas are essential to survival, make sure the definition of innovation includes the idea of experimentation. Innovation often becomes synonymous with “new,” neglecting the disciplined experimentation required to hatch ideas.
Mind: Enable Employees With the Necessary Skills and Knowledge
Leaders must also examine the skills and competencies needed to encourage test-and-learn thinking. Knowledge, capabilities and skills compose the mind of an organization. Our research finds that the most innovative companies are reinforcing employee learning in multiple ways, including:
- Invest in bringing in knowledge from outside the organization, including secondments with other companies, university relationships, entrepreneurs-in-residence and speaker programs.
- Build experimentation into the performance review for every role. Embedding innovation into the reward and performance structure is vital.
- Make agile methods, design thinking and innovation skills standard training across functions.
Body: Provide Structure and Governance to Deliver the Strategy
Leaders may also reconsider organizational structure. Companies need to be designed in ways that facilitate experimentation. Not only does that differ from company to company, but it also calls for various operating models within each enterprise. Groups working on near-term innovation likely require different teams, funding, processes and incentives than those working on long-term horizons. And organizations need ways to astutely assess the risks and rewards of each flavor of innovation.
“We use the concept of one-way and two-way door decisions,” says Gabriel Mas, chief marketing officer at Amazon Mexico. “A one-way door decision is almost impossible to reverse. A two-way door decision is easy to reverse. For one-way door decisions, more analysis, discussion and senior leader input are provided. If a decision is a two-way door, people closer to the decision are empowered to move quickly and execute, and we have mechanisms in place to learn from each decision, good or bad.”
Soul: Motivate and Ignite Belief in the Strategy
Finally, the organization’s soul must celebrate experimentation, especially when an exciting hypothesis is disproved. That means developing traditions, symbols and rituals that make people feel safe. They must be encouraged to test ideas, even when their work results in negative data. It’s easy for a company to say it sees failure as a learning opportunity. But genuinely living that conviction is difficult.
Leaders need to model and promote the scientist’s mindset, releasing any attachment to the positive outcomes of experiments in their organizations. They need to demonstrate that all experiments deliver valuable information.
All businesses can lower the social and literal costs of experimentation. Doing so makes them more adaptable by fostering the psychological safety required to design and execute more experiments. Embracing disciplined experimentation is necessary to increase a company’s ability to flex, pivot and thrive in changing market conditions.