Why companies don’t experiment.

A recent HBR article by Dan Ariely, “Why Companies Don’t Experiment,” posits that listening to experts creates a false sense of security.

When we pay consultants, we get an answer from them and not a list of experiments to conduct. We tend to value answers over questions because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking. Never mind that asking good questions and gathering evidence usually guides us to better answers.

He goes on to say that

Companies pay amazing amounts of money to get answers from consultants with overdeveloped confidence in their own intuition. Managers rely on focus groups—a dozen people riffing on something they know little about—to set strategies. And yet, companies won’t experiment to find evidence of the right way forward.

I think that in a larger sense, the experts might take the form of internal Lean Six Sigma Black Belts, the senior engineer, the department chair, even your mother (“always make the chicken soup *this* way, with the parsnip added last”). Even if you don’t have direct authority from your position in some organizational food chain, you might have authority that stems from your expert status. And that’s something to be wary of.

As a consultant, this issue — leading with no authority, combined with the danger of prescription — is on my mind. My clients consider me an “expert” (which makes me squirm) on time management. The truth is, I’ve worked at dozens of companies and with hundreds of people, so I see patterns that are often repeated — but that doesn’t mean that I can prescribe an off-the-shelf solution for an organization struggling with getting the right things done. Each organization is unique — and for that matter, each individual is unique. Not only are the root causes of their problems likely to be different, but the solutions and countermeasures will differ. The only way to find what will work is to really understand what’s behind the problems and then experiment with changes.

And yet, most managers I see are reluctant to try different ways of working. I think that’s partially due to inertia — after all, they’ve done pretty well so far by working the way they have. But that reluctance is also driven, in part, by fear. What if people don’t like working in this new way? What if the CEO doesn’t like the fact that emails aren’t being answered within 45 seconds?

Ariely says that Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, is

trying to create a culture of experimentation in which failing is perfectly fine. Whatever happens, he tells his staff, you’re doing right because you’ve created evidence, which is better than anyone’s intuition. He says the organization is buzzing with experiments.

Experiments require evidence and data. So if your gut tells you that you’re not working as efficiently as you could and you want to change in the way you work, benchmark the current state, run experiments, and measure the change. You don’t need experts to tell you what will work for you.

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