Where’s the pilot?

Published by Tony Quinlan on

When did you last try something new? Or test a brilliant new insight? What have you done differently in your job recently?

There’s a trap that’s easy to fall into – improvement comes from just doing the same, only better/harder/more efficiently. There’s so much to do, there’s only so much time in the day, the only thing we can do is keep slogging away.

And our organisations don’t help – by their very nature they demand success. And only consider new ventures that will succeed – fail-safe projects. But most of us work in complex environments these days – where prediction is difficult, where uncertainty is an inherent part of our worlds. And when we do produce fail-safe projects, what do we learn from them? Very little – if they succeed, we learn that our planning was good (or at least we believe it was, getting more complacent about our own abilities) and if they fail, we look for the factor that we didn’t plan for and we build it into the next plan.

We need to change that – to start trying new things, testing new ideas in our jobs. But doing it sensibly – making sure that when the projects fail, they fail safely: safe-fail, not fail-safe.

I’ve been talking at conferences recently, calling for a new addition to the roles we give ourselves.

Pilot officer

As Pilot Officers, we should be looking for small-scale, low-key pilot projects to run with enthusiastic people. All the time:

  • Make them small – it means you can do it for low-budgets, it doesn’t get too much attention while your idea is still being worked out
  • Label it a “Pilot” – it tells others that you’re thinking about new ideas, but recognise that they need testing first. And it gives you the space to get it wrong, to fail.
  • Get enthusiasts to participate. They’ll be more forgiving, more willing to work through the kinks. And enthusiasts love to think they’re in the forefront of new things.
  • Approach the dissenters. The idea of “I hear what you said, would you be willing to join in a pilot project on it?” can be a powerful tool – gets them onside, puts them in a group of forward-thinkers, gives them a constructive outlet for frustrations and tests the idea against the most vehement critics.
  • Put your time into monitoring, engaging and working with them. At the moment, with pressure on budgets (as opposed to all those times when there was no pressure on budgets…), pilots are cost-effective. They can be done for little financial outlay, but instead budget for your time.
  • Design them around what you think/believe and what to learn about. Pilot projects should fit into your thinking – but in a way that allows you to move forward. “Aha, I was right about that, but need to adjust it because…” or “Interesting – it doesn’t work like that, although there’s something interesting happening here to look at next.”

The final thing about pilots is around failure. Some must fail. If all your pilot projects are successful, either a) you’re the most amazing predictor since Nostradamus sat down and thought “If I make this as enigmatic as possible, it’ll apply to everything that ever happens” or b) you’re not being ambitious enough.

Pilots are designed to test new concepts and learn in order to build larger, full-scale systems. Continuous success in a complex, uncertain environment isn’t possible.

Indeed, as one current conversation on a mailing list has it:

Do we need a Minimum Level of Failure (MLF)?