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  • Writer's pictureBarb Bickford

Leading Change

Updated: May 2

How Leaders Shape Organizations with Experiments

A headshot of Dr. Carrie Goucher smiling

This is a guest post by Dr. Carrie Goucher, founder of FewerFasterBolder, who has done cutting-edge resources on meetings. Dr. Goucher believes that problems with meetings arise from culture and behaviors, not processes. In this post, she describes two approaches to organizational change. Both are essentially experiments, but one is more likely to result in lasting improvements.

A quote by John Fletcher about how all launches are experiments.

Let's talk about changing mindsets, behaviors, and habits across your organization

  • Collaborating more seamlessly across the organization

  • Taking more risks and failing forwards

  • Embracing helpful conflict and leveraging multiple perspectives

  • Lowering the center of gravity of the organization

Four examples of mindset, behavioral, and habit shifts that many organizations I talk to are trying to make.

Four good examples of shifts that require a systems approach*.

*by systems approach, I mean addressing the many inter-related factors that contribute to this problem, often in unseen ways - not just fixing individual things on the surface

But how on earth do we approach big cultural shifts like these?

There are two main ways to try and change behavior in an organization.

Approach 1: Big plan, big launch

This is the acceptable way to get something big done in most organizations.

  • Do a lot of research and planning

  • Create a proper strategy with a plan and a budget

  • Get sign off from ‘above’

  • Launch it as a Thing and tell people how to do it the new way (and why it's better)

  • Promote it hard to counter any resistance

This is the way we’ve traditionally done things in companies - Big Plan & Big Launch. Lots of planning feels reassuring. Getting sign off checks all our boxes. And it feels good to launch. We did it! It’s live!

The problem is that it usually doesn’t succeed.

Our plan never truly understood people’s lived experiences.

Our plan doesn’t survive contact with the real world.

The ‘push’ style launch invites resistance.

Suddenly we’re scrambling.

Not good.

The reality is that to shift behaviors, we need to do a whole range of things:

  • Find new norms that work well for us

  • Seed these norms in helpful ways

  • Shift people’s mental models

  • Take away other constraints that hold people in old ways of working

And in truth - we know very little before we've started doing any of these. We are in no position to roll out a plan, even if we've done a lot of good planning in a meeting room.

So here's another way.

Approach 2: Experiment your way to better

It goes like this:

  • Get clear on the root problem

  • Experiment

  • Share what works

Or in a bit more detail:

  • Create a problem statement in the form: “How might we…”

  • Enroll some like-minded people

  • Try things, start some fires, and see what catches

  • Give lots of people a great experience of new norms and create social proof

  • Learn and refine what works - and what works for different people, roles, and situations

  • Develop a unifying philosophy through this discovery work

  • Share and scale what works via a Community of Practice

This is a discovery-based approach that acknowledges we don’t know enough at the start to make a big plan. It’s messier, but the idea is it more naturally matches the way new patterns are established ‘in the wild’.

John Fletcher puts it this way:

“ALL launches are experiments [even the really well-planned ones]. No one knows what business results an initiative will really drive until it's in the hands of users. Big planned initiatives = high risk. For some reason, these big planned initiatives feel safer to many. The opposite is usually true.”

This is a topic that’s worthy of a longer conversation. Are you playing with some of this thinking in your own organization? Did this spark any thoughts? Thoughts are very warmly welcomed.

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