The Importance of Experimentation on your Transformation Journey (guest post by Warren Trakman)

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    Hi everyone,

    I'm very happy to share with you today's blog post written by Warren Trakman a.k.a. the Transformation Guru.



    Hello! My name is Warren Trakman and I’m a member of the International Change and Transformation Team where I work with customers in EMEA & APAC to help transform their business, technology & culture.

    Google portraits 10/12/12..Pictures Must Credit©Gareth Davies.Photographer.+44(0) @gdaviesphoto.


    I have had the privilege to be a part of several large business, technology & culture transformation programmes before and while working at Google.


    The programmes I worked on before joining Google predominantly focused on the need for a step-change improvement in an organisation’s digital security and tended to be initiated through an urgent need. For example, a company may have been subjected to a security incident or wanted to ensure their business complied with industry standards such as PCI DSS. The goal to invest in strengthening their security function through technology, business process and employee awareness in order to reduce any future risk. However, this approach could be applied to any business function, not just security.


    A “Top-down” approach to Transformation


    These types of large programmes tended to follow a “top-down” approach, usually a “waterfall” methodology. The programme is initiated and funded by a senior member of the company, usually a CIO or CEO. Setting up such a large transformation program begins with a LOT of upfront planning and stakeholder management: you’re debating prioritisation, scoping and planning of the programme for several weeks, followed by similar governance structuring for projects within the programme. It’s usually months before benefits are actually realised, if at all, as by that time some of the improvements are already out-of-date.




    Senior stakeholders are bought-in upfront

    A long time before anything is actually done

    Funding is available up-front

    Slow to adapt to change

    Better idea of programme outcome

    Lack of ownership of initiatives by employees 

    Table 1: Benefits & challenges of a “top-down” approach to Transformation



    A “Bottom-up” approach to Transformation


    Google’s Transformation Lab methodology is an example of a “bottom-up” approach to Transformation. It is based on “agile” methodology principles which encourage collaboration, adaptability and continuous improvement. Whereas ideas for a “top-down” approach to Transformation come from a CxO, this approach provides the opportunity for everyone in an organisation to create such ideas for change. These ideas don’t have to be big or expensive, and some of the changes can be fairly simple but highly impactful. The important difference is that everyone becomes responsible for improvement, and this leads to transformation.


    Most attendees in a Transformation Lab are performing a business role and my most common participants tend to be from a marketing, HR and internal communications role. Most attendees are not familiar with such an experimental approach to solution development which tends to be more commonly used with software development projects. Allowing for anyone in your organisation to become an inventor or innovator is extremely powerful. One just has to look at some of the Google projects that have originated from such a principle: Gmail, Google Now and Google Cardboard were all products developed out of 20% time.




    Giving employees the freedom to experiment will yield greater improvements overall. Peter Skillman created an interesting exercise called the Marshmallow challenge. The exercise is for teams to be given 18 minutes to build the tallest freestanding structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, some tape, string, and one marshmallow balancing on the top of the structure.


    However, Tom Wujec (a recognized thought-leader in creative exploration and problem-solving) took this one step further: he ran this experiment hundreds of times over, with designers, architects, students, and even the leadership teams from Fortune 50 companies. Tom’s findings were fascinating: among the worst performers are recent graduates of business school; who on average are outperformed by recent graduates of kindergarten!


    Why? Most of us would approach this challenge with a single plan and execute to this plan.

    However, children work differently: they experiment by building a quick structure, it fails, but they play around (eat a marshmallow!) and learning fast will add more and more to their structure. Again and again, they experiment with building experimental prototypes. On average, their solutions not only outperform other teams by the height of the structure but the creativity of their structures are wonderfully unique: some look like trees, elephants or spiders. Through experimentation (and fun!), they instantly adapt to the challenge in front of them. It’s a fun exercise to run within your organisation to convince people on the benefits of prototyping.


    The Transformation Lab approach empowers teams to work together quickly, creatively and adaptively. Technologies, businesses and markets change so fast these days that transformation solution must as quick and adaptable for future improvement.


    Not all solutions using this approach will succeed. However, if a solution is going to fail, it’s better for it to fail fast rather than to fail months later after heavy investment. Also, ideas that originate from an employee as opposed to being handed down from a CxO will more than likely be closer to meeting the requirements of the employee for whom the solutions are created for: employees “know the user” of the solution because they are often the person who is most familiar with the business process being changed!


    One last important point around experimentation: it’s really fun! I have yet to meet someone who is not excited in being given the freedom to massively improve their day-to-day job, give themselves hours back in their week and/or save their organisation money. It’s exciting to be a part of something as creative as this and it’s important to keep the creativity fun and positive (bring some marshmallows!). Of the 130+ Transformation Labs that we have received feedback from, over 96% of the attendees found the sessions useful, and I strongly believe this is a result of them having a lot of fun while participating.




    Speed: some results can be instantaneous, for example some simple processes can be implemented immediately.

    As solutions grow in complexity, senior stakeholder management becomes more important for success

    Adaptability: a launch-and-iterate approach means that the solution is highly customisable and can quickly incorporate user feedback

    Accountability and ownership of experiments - because something is “experimental”, it is often perceived as unimportant

    Closer collaboration between the business teams (and IT)

    As solutions grow in complexity, some custom development may be required which may be beyond the available time, skill-set or funding within the business or IT teams

    Table 2: Benefits & challenges of a “bottom-up” approach to Transformation


    To help you overcome the challenges listed in Table 2, we recommend developing an Innovation Council within your business. This is a virtual team of senior stakeholders who can help to continue the momentum and provide necessary support, organisational change communication and funding for initiatives that come from Transformation Labs.


    So, in closing, here’s a summary of my thoughts:

    1. Transformation is best initiated using an agile and experimental approach, so try the Transformation Lab methodology within your organisation;
    2. An Innovation Council is invaluable for continuing the progress initiated in a Transformation Lab; and
    3. Don’t forget to have fun along the way...and go on, enjoy another marshmallow while you’re doing so.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.