WEadership Practice #4: Encourage Experimentation (and, of course, experiment yourself)

by  Kristin Wolff  |  Leadership Development

This post is the fourth in a series that began here summarizing the findings of a one-year study of workforce leadership. Through that process, we identified six practices next-generation leaders use to be effective; a new model of leadership we call WEadership, in a nod to its collaborative nature.


The Speed of Life

For today’s leaders, the speed and intensity of change in the workplace is among the most significant challenges they face.

Yesterday’s successful approaches may not meet the needs of tomorrow’s customers, employees, or communities. As change occurs, experimentation plays an important role in helping leaders identify new strategies and approaches better suited to emerging demands.

New Ideas Needed

Many leaders know they need new ideas and new ideas need testing.

We found that despite the widespread desire to experiment among leaders and organizations participating in our study, many factors work against trying anything new: risk-averse cultures, resource constraints, incentive systems that favor the status quo or motivate internal competition over collaboration, even just plain inertia.

But these constraints can be managed and appropriate incentives–from public recognition to financial rewards–can support experimentation and create a desirable balance between tried and true methods and innovation approaches.

5 Ways Leaders Can Create Space (and Support) for Experimentation

  1. Dedicate staff time and resources to exploring, integrating, and testing new ideas. There are an infinite number of ways this can be structured, but dedicating resources is important because it signals a commitment to innovation.
  2. Subject a few existing programs, initiatives, processes, services, or products to close scrutiny to identify needed changes that promise to improve outcomes or increase impact. Make one change. Measure the impact. Repeat.
  3. Manage risk openly. This means talking about failure–and owning it collectively. It also means addressing the risk of not trying new things.
  4. Document. Document. Document. With every experiment (or near experiment), there is intelligence gathered beyond the narrow set of data associated with a particular change. Why was a given experiment conceived? What was the theory of change in pursuing it? By making a habit out of asking (and answering) these critical questions, leaders can create opportunities to learn at all levels – this helps make everyone smarter.
  5. Opt for boldness (at least sometimes). It’s easy to get stuck in a series of new small ideas. These are important, but they also tend to be incremental. Leaders can also choose big bold disruptive ideas. They are higher risk, but extremely motivating. (Who doesn’t want to change the world?)

What are you waiting for?


Last Week: WEadership Practice #3: Embrace Openness

Next Week: WEadership Practice #5: Add Unique Value

Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. They were thrilled at the opportunity to link their professional pursuits (public policy) with their personal commitments to positive social change and innovation, and look to increase, accelerate, and intensify these connections within the field of workforce in the coming months. The entire project is documented at EnhacingWorkforceLeadership.org. Follow it (and them) at @WFLeadership, @kristinwolff, @kollerv.

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What People Are Saying

Christina Haxton, MA  |  27 Oct 2011  |  Reply


As a Board Member of our Chamber’s Economic Development Council, I was involved in our annual strategic planning session. Yesterday, we were discussing the timing and theme of our Economic Summit, an educational conference held for the past 20 years for our local business owners. It was all too familiar … “Hurry up and get the planning committee going, figure out what workshops and keynote speakers we need to get on board because we only have a few months and we have get this done ASAP as we put it on in May.” HURRY!!!! The theme is the unknown, planning without knowing, driving full steam ahead, but not staring in the rear view mirror as we are going forward. Why are we having this conference in May? (Yes, you guessed the response … Because that’s the way we’ve done it last year, the year before, the year before that …” Well, how about WE WALK OUR TALK?? Let’s give ourselves a break and have it in October? Let’s not GUESS what we THINK the local business owners want, LETS ASK THEM.

To quote my reining horse trainer and very wise coach, Lance Shockley, “Sometimes you just gotta get in there and change things … mix things up. Not because changing something will fix it. Sometimes, changing things just makes it different. At least it’s not the same mistake over and over again”.

#5. For Sure. I’m going to share your WEdership Lessons with my fellow Board Members. What a terrific resource! Thank you for posting.

Kristin Wolff  |  27 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Thanks so much for your feedback! Really appreciate it. We benefited hugely from the generosity of the 519 people who gave us their time and insight and are pleased that you find it useful too. We penned a Blurb book comprising chapters on all six practices and a couple of inserts – innovation and social media. If you are interested, it’s here: http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2427820. We also working on a lab concept. I’d be glad to have your feedback on that when it’s ready. I’m kwolff@thinkers-and-doers.com. Good luck with the newly rescheduled fall event ;-).

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