What’s Your Organization’s Tolerance for Experiments?

As I complete the Modern Management Made Easy books, I realize I need to explain how much tolerance an organization has for experiments.

The more clients I have, the more I realize most organizations have a sweet spot for how much they can tolerate experiments or bets.

Each person has an affinity for more or less change. And, most of us have some tolerance for experiments or bets. Most of us, in our non-work lives, flex more than our organizations do.

However, organizations reward certain behaviors. With those rewards, the organization reinforces more of one side than the other. That's why I said the “organization's” tolerance.

On the left side of the graphic, organizations which are more likely to want defined plans, tend to use “back” language:

  • We'll return to normal.
  • We've always done it this way.
  • It's not broken. Don't fix it.

I certainly use this kind of language at times.

On the right side of the graphic, people who are more likely to consider experiments tend to use “forward” language:

  • Do you think?
  • Are you willing to try?
  • How can we improve?

I definitely use this language at times.

When I work with managers, I listen for the shorthand: when I hear a lot of “back” language, I can be pretty sure the organization rewards conservators. When I hear a lot of “forward” language, I can be pretty sure the organization rewards experimenters.

Most organizations say they reward both conservators and experimenters. I don't see that.

Conservators vs Experimenters

In our personal lives, we choose when to conserve the status quo and when to experiment. The context matters to each of us. For example, I don't experiment much with what I wear. I tend to wear the same kind of clothing—modified for the season. However, I do experiment with what I eat to become more healthy and lose weight.

I exhibit both conservator and experimenter words and behaviors.

As you think about your organization, what words do you hear more? What actions does the management reward?

Both conservators and experimenters are good people. That's not the issue. The issue is what the organization rewards. Here's the question I often use to understand:

Does the organization reward “success” as opposed to learning?

The more the organization rewards success, the more the organization rewards conservators.

Why would people stick their (work) necks out for an experiment or a bet if the organization doesn't reward that?

If you're working on a culture change such as an agile transformation, see if you can understand what the organization rewards. If the organization does not reward learning, learn why. That might be your first step to creating a more agile culture.

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