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10 things we learnt about experimental leadership and how to put it into practice in big business

  1. Constraints fuel results. It’s often under limitations that the greatest breakthroughs are achieved. Scarcity creates the need for great people to be at their most inventive.
  2. Big businesses struggle with small. Whilst their world is large and complex, experiments should never be. Keep the investment required small, shorten the timelines, test small assumptions - and build momentum.
  3. There is a new model for an experimental leader. Instead of the usual leadership competencies, they make things small, look for simplicity, encourage action over analysis, have a massive and inclusive sense of team, and are obsessively curious.
  4. Nobody truly celebrates failure despite talking about it a lot because in reality, it isn’t OK to just fail. Leaders must talk about it in a more nuanced way – asking people to make sure their experiments minimise investment and risk, to get clear on what they’ve learnt, and go apply those learnings to move forward at pace.
  5. Space to experiment has to be earned. Experiments will inevitably lead to failure at least some of the time. The experimental leader needs trust and air cover from those above them - and this only comes from a track record of delivery.
  6. Establish the difference between a piloting mindset and an experimentation mindset. A pilot is a complete idea, takes time, costs lots of money, etc. Experimentation precedes - testing individual assumptions and critical conditions, whilst encouraging rapid iteration to uncover what works with each element of the idea.
  7. 'Intrapreneurs’, not entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are ruthlessly unreasonable and build fortresses around their idea. Intrapreneurs are a different breed - able not just to get early wins but then bring more and more people on board until scale becomes inevitable.
  8. Stay hungry. Change can be hard fought; experimental leaders must hold on to their hunger for change if they are to discover new ways of getting things done, whilst always balancing it with pragmatism.
  9. Hold the tension. Modern leaders must bring diverse perspectives together and create productive friction - a journey that will always be bumpy early on. In this tricky phase, the experimental leader creates a safe space for those arguments to happen, and allows the tension to play out knowing that great leaps forward will soon follow.
  10. Be real about failure. Create a culture around experimentation of openness and honesty. One where small failures are analysed without anxiety and the groups learnings serve only in designing the next iteration.