Why aren’t learning and experimentation corporate values?

child on skis in snow

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It’s 2023. We’ve had some version of agile ways of working for nearly 30 years. Lean has been around more than 70 years. Design Thinking has also been a mainstay of business language for a long time. Even The Lean Startup is over a decade old. Factor in other mainstream successes like Business Model Generation and The Business Model Canvas and you’d think, given the ubiquity of these concepts, every company values, supports and incentivizes learning and experimentation. Sadly, we know this isn’t true. The question is why. Why aren’t learning and experimentation embedded corporate values in the majority of businesses today? 

Experimentation is often theater

Many companies have invested heavily in continuous development and deployment systems. They’ve implemented analytics and reporting. They’ve even created tech stacks that allow teams to move from prototype to production with relative ease. The technical foundation is there to support lightweight experimentation and the subsequent learning that comes from it. The problem comes in with how teams are measured and incentivized. 

The overwhelming majority of the teams I work with are managed to velocity. Velocity is an agile term that, despite its humble origins, today means how much code has the team shipped in the last sprint. Managing to velocity means that anything that doesn’t lead to more, high-quality code being pushed out the door is deprioritized. 

What’s worse is that, on the rare occasion where a team does manage to get an experiment out the door, the learning they bring back will usually contradict, to some extent, the plan the team has committed to. The contradicting evidence would mean a reduction of velocity and is often ignored in favor of “the plan.” The experiment was theater. It was done to grease a squeaky wheel or check a box of “things a company should do” but the benefits of the exercise are ignored. 

Learning means admitting you were wrong

This is probably the hardest part of getting experimentation and learning to become ubiquitous corporate values. The only way to learn something is to find out you were initially wrong about it. No one just steps into a pair of skis and begins racing slalom. You wobble.

You fall. Your butt gets cold and bruised a bit. By the end of the day, though, you’re making those “pizza” turns. And by the end of your first season, you are crushing the green slopes. You learn by trying, failing, figuring out a better way and optimizing it. We have no problems admitting we don’t know how to ski. Why don’t we have the same ease at admitting we don’t know exactly how to solve a particular business problem or meet an expressed customer need? 

The answer is because no one is paying us to ski. It’s a leisure activity we’ve undertaken on our own for pleasure. At work, especially at leadership levels, there’s an expectation that our executives know what to do and how to do it. They’re executives after all. Most companies, and by default their leadership teams, have not created cultures where it’s safe for an executive to be wrong. If an executive cannot comfortably stand up in front of their colleagues and especially their teams and admit that something new they learned contradicted their previous directive we will continue to sink costs into initiatives that only partially succeed (or fail outright) while continuing to ignore the opportunities we have to experiment, learn and choose a more successful path forward. 

Model the values you want to see in your culture

An infinite amount of content based on experience and data is pushing us to build more responsive, nimble, learning organizations. If you find your organization lacking in the values that support learning, experimentation and agile course correction consider taking the risk and modeling those behaviors. Show your colleagues that nothing “bad” happens to leaders who learn and adjust their direction. Prove to your teams that you’re listening to their insights and building that evidence into your decision-making. By modeling the behavior we want to see in our culture we plant the seeds for change. The more teams and other leaders see the success that embracing learning and experimentation can bring the likelier the chance for real change to occur and for corporate values to evolve. I’m rooting for you. 

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