How do you make decisions in an uncertain environment?
The coronavirus pandemic is creating times of unprecedented change and ambiguity. At a macro level companies are having to make hard decisions quickly to protect the health of employees, pivot supply chains and plan for scenarios without any idea of what will transpire. At a micro level we are each pivoting to social distance, to work and school from home and to collaborate in virtual teams. All this change can be disorienting.
The Cynefin Framework proposed by David Snowden is a great model for us to make sense of the world we are living in. It describes situations that require different ways to navigate. On the right side of the model are situations where there is high predictability. Cause and effect are clear. Best practice and good practice exist. For example, when a piece of machinery breaks down you have a manual to fix it.
The left side of the model are situations where there is unpredictability. The cause and effect are not clear. An example of this would be trying to improve the safety culture of a plant (complex). As the chart below shows, this is the land of no good answers and the path is created with every step. Our pandemic situation is mostly in this landscape. In a situation like this, the way to respond is by doing small experiments.
I sat down to interview Melanie Parish, Master Coach and author of The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators to learn how we can each become better experimenters.
Henna Inam: In times of change and disruption, why is it important to lead with experiments?
Melanie Parish: Everyone is already experimenting with the global pandemic right now. Many people are trying new things as they respond to working at home and having kids home. Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, is single parenting alone at home while his wife is quarantined in another part of their residence. He is experimenting with so many new things, as are all of us. What is important is to see them as experiments and to collect data to decide what is working and what is not. This helps to minimize overwhelm and helps us improve over time. Every time we try something new as leaders, we are experimenting. We need to remember our experiments are not permanent. We can collect data and make a decision about how our next experiment needs to be different.
Inam: What are the mindsets of an experimental leader?
Parish: As an experimental leader, curiosity is your biggest strength. It is also important to keep an eye on the bigger picture including checking in with your organization’s vision, mission and values.
As people in your organization start experimenting, encourage prototyping. The sooner they can get their experiment up and running and the lower the cost, the more it is in line with an experimental mindset. It is important to move quickly. Conceive the experiment and move into immediate action. Strategic plans that take months to create are the opposite of an experimental mindset. Having a strategic intent is important for an experimental leader, where a strategic plan can slow them down.
Inam: Is there a step-by-step approach you can share about creating experiments as a leader?
Parish: The first step is to start experimenting yourself. Find an experiment that is safe to fail by finding something you want to change and trying a 24-hour experiment. See what you learn and figure out the next experiment you want to try. As a leader your first job is to learn how to experiment yourself.
Inam: What are some examples or stories where taking an experimental approach resulted in great outcomes?
Parish: This is happening all over right now. We are all experimenting with whether self-isolating and staying home can flatten the curve of COVID 19. We are not sure it will work and it is not safe to fail. In your work you want to find places to experiment where the stakes aren’t so high.
All of the recent industry disruptors experimented in new ways to meet old needs—Uber, Air BnB, Netflix, Zoom. All of them experimented with how to deliver their products in new ways and they got better and more successful over time.
Inam: What are situations in today’s ambiguous environment that especially call for doing experiments?
Parish: There have never been more people experimenting than they are right now. Each day the landscape changes and people are being called to pivot to meet new challenges. This week I was having a coaching session with a Microsoft executive. “Hold on a second,” she laughed, “I have to kill a spider.” Her 5-year old was screaming in the background. “Just a minute, honey,” she said, “I have to choose my weapon.” She is experimenting with leading in a global pandemic while working at home with her daughter home from school. She is changing and iterating constantly. Those who aren’t working at all are experimenting with how they can make it through this time. Musicians are experimenting with putting concerts online and asking for tips. Yoga studios are trying online courses.
Inam: How do we create experiments that are safe to fail?
Parish: It is important to realize not all experiments can be safe to fail. Especially when you are learning to experiment, you want to focus on making each experiment as safe to fail as possible. If you can do them in 24 hours, you can usually undo them in 24 hours. You want to start with change only you can see and measure before you scale up.
Inam: What are some examples of experiments we can use to grow ourselves in our own leadership capacity?
Parish: A good experiment to try now is how you engage with others both in your house and as you are working remotely. Let’s assume your goal is to achieve a greater sense of well-being. In your home, do you have meals together or separate? Are there times in the day that work better to talk and others where you need to be alone? Experiment with when is a good time for you to only focus on work and connect with your colleagues or clients. What form of communication do you prefer? Do you want to hold your calls in the morning or afternoon? The most important step is to try small experiments and then collect data by reflecting on your own sense of well-being. Ask yourself, “what did I learn?” This can inform your next experiment.
Inam: What are behaviors by leaders that encourage experimentation in teams. How do we create cultures where experimental leaders can thrive?
Parish: The leader is instrumental in creating an experimental culture. By fostering open dialogue and communication they create space for experimentation. Curiosity helps open the minds of team members and promotes the sharing of ideas. Ask, “How is your work going?” or “What did you learn from that?” and “What is your next step?”
Back to you, the reader. These are disorienting times for most of us. Many of us are in reaction mode to the news of the day. Managing ourselves, renewing ourselves, and focusing on what we can control becomes really important. What you can control are the experiments you choose. Pick a small experiment and get into the experimentation mindset today!
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.