Change is hard for leaders, teams, and organizations. How we position the need for change and its execution is critical. In the practice of adaptive leadership, we refer to these first steps as intervention and experimentation – tests we run to facilitate learning and/or behavior change.

The practice of leadership interventions often feels uncomfortable for you and your target group. This is because facilitating others to make progress on difficult, complex, or ambiguous problems is risky. You’re asking others to experience some form of loss: loss of stability, loss of competence, loss of comfort. Therefore, making progress on an adaptive challenge requires an experimental approach in which we take smart risks. The goal in leadership should be to strengthen the ability of those around us to “step into uncertainty” and build their tolerance for disequilibrium – becoming comfortable in discomfort, as the cliché suggests. This practice helps develop the adaptive capacity of your team and creates incremental progress on your adaptive challenges.

Designing your first experiment: Slow, incremental success is always better than ambitious failure. It’s best to start small on your first experiment.

What is the adaptive challenge? Restate your challenge. Who are the major stakeholders? When and how did the challenge appear? What are the conflicting perspectives and interests in the organizational system? What actions are you considering?

What assumption are you testing? Surface conflict. What is my perspective on the challenge? How does the issue look to other players? What possible interpretations have I or others understandably been unwilling to consider? Be specific with what assumption you plan to test.

How will you test the assumption? The experiment should be observable and involve the people who need to work on the adaptive challenge. Again, think small.

How will you evaluate the success of your experiment? Use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals and known indicators of success where possible. Determine the evaluation criteria as part of the experiment design.

10 Tips And Traps To Get Your First Experiment Off The Ground

1. Beware of experiments that are merely elaborate justifications to do what you always do. Challenge or change the status quo! It should feel risky.

2. Surface conflict; don’t avoid it. Work on a known pain point, ex. Siloed teams.

3. Involve the people who need to do the work. Adaptive problems require involvement, learning, and/or behavior change from those   experiencing the problem. (Think global warming)

4. Manage content of the work and the “politics” of it. Tailor the work to a specific audience and situation. Be transparent with communication and keep the work impersonal.

5. For big, risky issues, start small. Have a healthy respect for the status quo. If the status quo – the way we normally do things – works 80%-90% of the time, perhaps only a relative small amount of change is required.

6. Getting the ball rolling on the first experiment is more important than getting it right.

7. It’s an experiment. That means it can fail. Absence of failure is directly linked to the absence of innovation.

8. How will you know if it’s a success or failure? Ensure the evaluation criteria are quantifiable so the outcome is clear.

9. You’re asking people to behave themselves into a new way of thinking, not vice versa.

10. Remind people about the risks they’ve already taken to get to where they are. What’s a risk from their family history? Work history? For what purpose did they take those risks? What’s worth taking a risk for now? Connecting to that purpose is an important resource.

Examples of Simple Leadership Experiments

1. Interviewing team members on their perspective of a core challenge.

2. Ratchet up the heat in a team meeting by creating a timetable on specific metrics.

3. Increase in-person contact to determine if there is correlation to performance or development.

4. Communicate definitive messaging that may contradict the status quo on the team and see how others respond.

5. Assign accountability partners.

6. Refusing to provide answers to specific questions in team meetings to see if and who steps up to offer answers or guidance.