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WEadership Practice #4: Encourage Experimentation (and, of course, experiment yourself)

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Oct 24, 2011

This post originally appeared on LeadChange. It is the fourth in a seven-part series summarizing the findings of a one-year study of workforce leadership in which we identified six practices next-generation leaders are using, comprising a new model of leadership we call WEadership in a nod to its collaborative nature.

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Photo credit: Flickr frienc eleaf

The Speed of Life

For today’s leaders, the speed and intensity of change in the workplace is among the most significant challenges they face.

Yesterday’s successful approaches may not meet the needs of tomorrow’s customers, employees, or communities. As change occurs, experimentation plays an important role in helping leaders identify new strategies and approaches better suited to emerging demands.

New Ideas Needed

Many leaders know they need new ideas and new ideas need testing.

We found that despite the widespread desire to experiment among leaders and organizations participating in our study, many factors work against trying anything new: risk-averse cultures, resource constraints, incentive systems that favor the status quo or motivate internal competition over collaboration, even just plain inertia.

But these constraints can be managed and appropriate incentives–from public recognition to financial rewards–can support experimentation and create a desirable balance between tried and true methods and innovation approaches.

5 Ways Leaders Can Create Space (and Support) for Experimentation

  1. Dedicate staff time and resources to exploring, integrating, and testing new ideas. There are an infinite number of ways this can be structured, but dedicating resources is important because it signals a commitment to innovation.
  2. Subject a few existing programs, initiatives, processes, services, or products to close scrutiny to identify needed changes that promise to improve outcomes or increase impact. Make one change. Measure the impact. Repeat.
  3. Manage risk openly. This means talking about failure–and owning it collectively. It also means addressing the risk of not trying new things.
  4. Document. Document. Document. With every experiment (or near experiment), there is intelligence gathered beyond the narrow set of data associated with a particular change. Why was a given experiment conceived? What was the theory of change in pursuing it? By making a habit out of asking (and answering) these critical questions, leaders
    can create opportunities to learn at all levels – this helps make everyone smarter.
  5. Opt for boldness (at least sometimes). It’s easy to get stuck in a series of new small ideas. These are important, but they also tend to be incremental. Leaders can also choose big bold disruptive ideas. They are higher risk, but extremely motivating. (Who doesn’t want to change the world?)

What are you waiting for?

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Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. They were thrilled at the opportunity to link their professional pursuits (public policy) with their personal commitments to positive social change and innovation, and look to increase, accelerate, and intensify these connections within the field of workforce in the coming months.
The entire project is documented at EnhacingWorkforceLeadership.org. Follow it (and them) at @WFLeadership, @kristinwolff, @kollerv.