Updated: Feb 20
I was recently talking with a leader in his 20s about the value of experiments for expanding his leadership skills and pool of ideas. As an example of an experiment, I offhandedly suggested giving up coffee for a month and trying smoothies. His eyes almost exploded out of his head. I could tell that was not an experiment he was interested in trying out.
Leadership experiments give you a structure to develop your skills by trying new things. Not every experiment is an amazing life-changing success but a well-constructed experiment will give you useful information and insights you can’t get any other way. The actual experience of carrying out an experiment builds your adaptability while giving you insights.
It’s ok to tell people you’re trying out an experiment. Being open to learning and growth inspires that in the people around you. Your teammates might notice that you’re trying something different and not saying anything only makes the situation confusing.
What makes a good leadership experiment?
Purpose - what do you hope to learn or change from the experiment. Finding a purpose for an experiment can start with feedback you’ve gotten or an analysis of leadership situations that didn’t go as well as you hoped such as a challenging conversation, decision-making process, or miscommunication. In these situations you can flip the challenge into an opportunity - if there was a miscommunication then an experiment might have the purpose of trying out a different communication style.
It is popular to use the word “balance” to describe an optimal proportion for things but I’d caution you in that balance often implies a 50/50 split - which is not what you’re looking for if you operate as a compassionate leader because this would mean that you need to experiment with being a callous autocrat 50% of the time for balance. Spoiler alert - you don’t. In understanding purpose for leadership experiments a better model than balance is wholeness (or well-roundedness). What pieces seem to be lacking or underdeveloped in your leadership? How can you accentuate your strengths? What can you try to achieve better outcomes for yourself and your teammates?
Template - Make the experiment a process/system that you can replicate. If you know you have a challenging conversation that needs to happen, for example someone needs to be accountable for their actions and it’s on you to bring it to their attention, create an intentional process for the situation that you can repeat in similar situations. Find or create a template to try that has clear steps or a structured process involved. And pick one that is a notable departure from what you’ve been doing (or not doing by avoiding doing anything). The “pick one thing” part also means to be intentional about not changing too many things at once. This helps you understand the results.
Duration - the experiment needs to be long enough to see a pattern of data emerge. If your purpose is to try a different decision-making process do it several times to see what it is really like when you’ve gotten over the potential awkwardness of the change.
Reflection - review what happened, what results you got and identify the value of the experiment. When your duration has given you enough opportunities to run the experiment and gather data, be intentional about reflecting on what happened. Were there unexpected results for you or others? Did things go as you expected? Was it easy/hard/weird? What were the actual results? What parts were a success? What parts were not worth repeating? What are you taking away from the experiment to use again in the future?
Good luck with your experiments! I hope they give you amazing insights. Let me know what you try, but more importantly, I’m so curious to hear what you learn.