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Overcome fear of experimentation to unleash your innovation

Happy colleagues looking at a laptop.
by Zoe Aitken

Experimentation was originally a tool used by start-ups and large tech companies to test their ideas quickly and leanly. But it hasn’t taken long for others to see the benefits, and it is now being used by all sorts of companies to test ideas in high levels of uncertainty.

Experimentation is a powerful tool for innovation and growth, but many people are held back by fear; fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of putting ideas out into the world that are less than perfect.

Fear can be paralysing and often prevent us from exploring new ideas and pushing boundaries. But the alternative is to play it safe. And ‘playing it safe’ has never been the mantra behind any great innovation. It only ever leads to ho-hum, incremental-type innovation.

Therefore, overcoming fear of experimentation is crucial to getting more game-changing innovation out into the market. Below are six ways to help you do this.

1. Reframe failure

Thomas Edison, inventor of the light-bulb, famously once said that “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Edison’s relentless experimentation and willingness to learn from each iteration is what ultimately led to his success. And we can all take a page out of Edison’s book by reframing failure as an opportunity to learn. This means taking the emphasis off whether the experiment was a ‘failure’ or a ‘success’, and instead focusing on and capturing what was learnt from each experiment.

2. Remove blame

One of the biggest barriers to experimentation and risk-taking is blame. The strongest characteristic of a blame culture is that fingers get pointed when an experiment fails. And if people are worried about being blamed, they’ll stop taking risks (and running experiments!). Therefore, set the tone for experimentation by explicitly stating that the outcomes are blameless, and the focus is on understanding and learning.

3. Reward the right behaviours

When it comes to innovation, you need to measure and reward what matters. And when it comes to experimentation, rewarding team members for a successful outcome can overlook the more critical ingredient of ‘how’ it was achieved i.e., the behaviours. To encourage experimentation, you must hero and reward the behaviour, regardless of the outcome. So, reward team members who are game enough to run an experiment and learn something new, even if the experiment fails.

4. Give signals that it’s OK to fail

Is failure a dirty word in your organisation? If you answered ‘yes’, you wouldn’t be alone. Providing signals that it’s OK to fail helps remove the stigma of failure. To do this, it’s particularly important for leaders to role model failure. (I’m sure ‘promotion’ isn’t exactly what springs to mind when you experience a failure, yet here we are). Therefore, start by sharing your own stories of failure with your team to help encourage them to do the same.

5. Set a learning agenda

To reinforce the focus on ‘learnings’ (as opposed to the ‘outcome’) create a learning agenda before you kick off any experiment. The purpose of a learning agenda is to outline and prioritise the riskiest assumptions (or hypotheses) that need to be tested. A learning agenda helps chunk your idea down into learning milestones or checkpoints which takes the emphasis off ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

6. Remove opinion from innovation decisions

Experimentation encourages an evidence-led approach to decision making. So rather than basing innovation decisions on opinion, decisions are based on real-time customer feedback. Therefore, if a team member asks for your thoughts on ‘next steps’, ask to see the evidence first, and anchor your thoughts around this. This evidence-led approach to decision-making will help promote the behaviour of experimentation.

There’s no doubt that experimentation can feel scary, however by consciously implementing strategies to help your team overcome their fear, you’re well on your way to launching your next big innovation.

About the author

Zoe Aitken is the Head of Consulting at leading behavioural science and innovation consultancy Inventium and has over 20 years’ experience helping organisations develop customer-centric growth strategies and innovation.

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