Learn to learn from experiments

Depending on your age, the ‘cyberspace’ seems to have been around forever. Science fiction writer, William Gibson, first coined the term in the early 1980s as shorthand for a shadowy world populated by mad scientists, IT geeks and societal fringe-dwellers. Now, while still vaguely sinister, it’s moved mainstream. In this emerging world, knowing which way to jump – to stay ahead of the curve – is a challenge that keeps many leaders awake at night. For innovators, experimentation is a proven way forward. “For whatever reason, when God created the world, he made data only available about the past,” says Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, co-author of The Innovator’s DNA. “If you’re trying to be innovative, and you have this data-driven mindset, you can’t go forward. So experimenting essentially says, ‘I don’t want to wait until somebody provides data. I need to get out there and create data’.” Christensen’s project identified experimentation as part of the so-called innovator’s DNA. “In a complex world, it is close to impossible to predict or control the future,” says University of Queensland innovation researcher, Tim Kastelle. “But we can try to influence by experimenting.” Yet trying new approaches in itself is not enough; we have to learn from experimentation in a disciplined way, argues Tuck innovation expert, Vijay Govindarajan in The Other Side of Innovation. “When we speak with executives about the overriding importance of learning from experiments, we sometimes sense a degree of impatience,” Govindarajan says. “The overwhelming goal, in the minds of some, is not learning; it is results.” To counter this common view, he and co-author Chris Trimble devoted half their book to the how-to elements of disciplined experimentation. “Some experiments will fail,” Govindarajan says. “There is never any excuse, however, for not learning in a quick and disciplined fashion. Doing so minimises the cost of failure and maximises the probability of success.”

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