The Best Companies Experiment

When I was a child I loved to experiment. I remember getting a chemistry set from my parents when I was barely in Junior High School and I could not believe my good fortune. Later, in high school, when given a choice to make most anything, I decided to make a Morse code machine (and it worked!).

I remember participating in all kinds of experiments in high school. I attended the Bronx High School of Science, and its name tells you a good deal about the school. With its heavy emphasis on math and the sciences, experimentation was deeply embedded in the DNA of the school.

However, as we got older, experimentation became less important. We don’t have those chemistry sets anymore, nor do we sit in classrooms mixing fascinating compounds to create some surprising effect. The further we go in life the more we are taught to go along, to conform. By the time we get our first job out of school we want desperately to fit in and not make waves. All of this has the effect of making us less likely to come up with some great new idea or breakthrough. But of course, senior managers of large firms and small understand that experimentation—innovation—is the key to the company’s future. Here are a few examples of firms that have experimentation built into the fabric of the organization:

If it isn’t Broken, Fix it Anyway: Proctor & Gamble has been a top-rated company by most every metric for decades. However, when the 160-year old firm brought in a new CEO in 2000 he was determined to find a better way of doing things. One practice he set his sights on was the way the company did research. For years it would do blind tests (Tide vs. Wisk) by giving consumers these products in unmarked bottles to take home. It also did one-on-one interviews and focus groups. Many people felt that was more than sufficient for testing its products. But its new CEO insisted on taking the process further by making sure that P&G researchers go into the homes of consumers and observe the way these products were being used and ask questions in real time in the laundry rooms of customers, so says Robert Herbold, who was SR VP at P&G (and later became Chief Operating Officer at Microsoft). Even P&G’s CEO, A.G. Lafley. got into the act by visiting the laundry room of a consumer when traveling in South America. That story spread like wildlife around the company and sent a powerful message.

Challenge the Status Quo: is a firm that teaches its people to come up with new ideas all the time. CEO Chris Perry says his “most powerful leadership technique is to tell everyone who works for that one of their main responsibilities…as an employee is to constantly challenge the  status quo and relentlessly work to improve whatever product, process, or system they may use to get their work done. “Our company grew from zero to $100 million in revenue in just five years,” Perry told the author of the Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs. “And the main source of our success was the way our employees took the initiative to reinvent their part of the company at least once every six months.”

Innovate. Rinse. Repeat. Innovate Some More: That could be the mantra of one of the world’s most innovative firms, Google. The company is an innovation machine. Its founders insist that its engineers take one day off each week to work on their own pet projects. There is also an “ideas mailing” in which anyone in the company can contribute new ideas and be sure that they will get a hearing.  It even searches for innovative types when hiring. Why a willingness to experiment? According to VP Jonathan Rosenberg, “Non-routine problems call for non-routine solutions and there is no formula for success: it’s easy to educate for the routine, and hard to educate for the novel,” he explains.

Those are just three examples of companies that “get it” when it comes to the importance of experimentation and innovation. How does your firm stack up in this area? Does your company behave more like a Google, or more like a company that is afraid of change, improvement and innovation?





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