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Experiment your way to success and a life you can call your own

Data a la Warhol by SuziJane via FlickrExperimentation is Gen Y

You may have read Four Hour Work Week and you might have noticed, but not paid much attention to the tagline on Tim Ferris’ blog : Experiments in lifestyle design.

Tim Ferris has many answers.  And many people read his blog (and his book) for ideas and inspiration.  I haven’t see too many people copy Tim Ferris in one essential aspect:  he actually runs experiments on a lifestyle to see what works and what doesn’t.  Tim Ferris may just seem a data nut.  He is not.  He experiments.  He actually puts to work those laboratory lessons we learned in psychology and related disiplines.

Ready, Aim, Fire

Few other people take this approach.  Creatives are willing, in Karl Weick’s terms to Ready, Fire, Aim, meaning try it, see the response, and learn what is important.  They are often disciplined at using agile methods and may have groups where people stand up weekly and sum up how far their project has got  in terms of {need, Approach, Benefit, Competition} (nABC).

A B experiments in web design

Google, of course, epitomizes a experimental approach.  If you sign up to Google Analytics, you can test two pages in classical A B design.  Which one attracts more hits?How an experimental approach differs from science

An experimental approach to life is radically different from a scientific (or pseudo scientific approach).

At university, we are trained to compare the average (actually the mean) score for two groups – say men or women.   We aret trained to look for associations in cross tabs and scattergrams.  We are reminded that correlation is not causality and we repeat that as a mantra.  But something even worse happens.  We start to confuse the statistical relationship with action.  We really come to believe that if women score more than men, the answer is get more women and improvements will follow.  We believe that if there is a lot of chatter about drink driving and around the same time alcohol sales fall off that in the future we only need to chatter about drink driving for alcohol sales to fall off.

No.  In every case, we still have to make something happen.

Why an experimental approach helps us succeed

Oddly, an experimental approach helps us become more active.  It looks like “science” that establishes “rules of life” that we can ape and be successful.  But an experimental approach is more.   An experimental approach draws us in to the moment and helps us concentrate on what needs to be done with the people we will be doing it with.

Our actions and judgments are not replaced by scientific laws.  We exert our judgment and act on the situation in an orderly way so that we see the effects of what we do and learn more about the situation itself.

Our results don’t tell us what to do. They don’t tell anyone else what to do.  Indeed, if they copy us they will fail.  Our results tell us about our situation and our understanding improves.  As our understanding improves so does our judgment.  As our judgment improves so do our results, our resources and both our faith in others and their fath in us.  We are an upward spiral begun and maintained by an open, inquiring, curious and essential  positive view of life that looks for what works and celebrates what works.  But we can’t be inquiring without the feedback of data.  Without data we simply gossiping.

An experimental approach draws us in to the moment and helps us concentrate on what needs to be done with the people we will be doing it with.

An experimental approach to training

McKinsey published a report today that brilliantly showed the return on investment of training leaders in a youth organization.

Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) did some basic reseah on their leaders. They measured each leader’s ability on 50 aspects of leadership.  Then they they regressed local organizational performance onto their measures of leadership.  Basically, they made a model that leadership, on the 50 aspects of leadership, leads to growth in members, funds raised, etc.

They found 4/50 aspects of leadership to ‘disproportionately’ contribute to performance: ability to build an effective board, find and pursue revenue-development strategies, use an investor’s minds-set toward programs and resource development, and lead and pursue with personal tenacity and perseverance.  They built their training program around these four aspects of leadership.

Now for the experiments.

a)       BGCA compared the performance of a local organization before and after a leader received training (Pre and post or AB design).

b)      BCGA compared the performance of a local organization where a leader had been trained with the performance of another local organization of similar size and circumstances.

c)       They triangulated their results by interviewing local board members to find out how leaders behaved differently after training.

In all, BGCA concluded that trained leaders did better than untrained leaders on every measure of organizational performance.  By extrapolation, they worked out that when all 1100 leaders had been trained, they would see an increase of 2-3% increase in local funding translating into 350 000 new members and more than $100m more revenue per year for the entire organization.  These improvements were more than 4x the cost of the training.

The trained leaders also varied in performance.  The top 25% of leaders improved 3x to 5x more than middle pack.  The most successful leaders were aspirational, set clear and quantifiable goals and taught what they learned to the rest of their organization.

Why the McKinsey study is ‘scientfic’ rather than ‘experimental’

We could give this study to a third year class and indeed, the top 25% would tear it apart, in many respects.

What I am interested in, though,  is the relinquishment of responsibility. The report read as if BCGA “discovered” some secret.  To be fair the article does go on to discuss the metrics that might be used in other organizations. What I would have like, though, is a description of leadership.

  • Who came together to discuss what mattered in the leadership of the 1100 local organizations?
  • Who drew up the list of leadership activities and how confident were they in the list?  How did they feel about their ideas being put under the microscope?
  • Was this the first time they had compared the performance of all 1100 local organizations?  What were people’s reactions when they saw all the data in one place?
  • How much did the past data vary for any one local organization from year to year?
  • Who decided and with whom that these aspects of leadership mattered and that they were sufficiently confident to test their ideas openly?
  • Once they followed through, how did leaders who were not in the top 75% feel?  What happened to them when the results came out?

The data being collected here is data about these leaders.  What information did these very same leaders get to guide them towards aspirational clear goals?  In other words, this study helps the central leaders steer.   What informaton do local leaders have to steer?

Good leadership is a narrative of who did what with whom

We can shoot holes in the analysis.  We are all trained to do that.  But lets do something different (and positive).   Lets tell the story and the story of 1100 local organizations.

Once upon a time . . .  and we were here.

Then this happpened and came together and decided to  .  .  .

This group agreed to try this way and this group agreed to try this way.

And they further agreed to come together on this date to compare what they learned and to exchange tips.

A story did happen at BGCA. But it is concealed.  We’ve carefully not been told who did what and, most importantly, who decided.

Leadership is about action.

An example of excellent leadership

If you want an example of fine management where the decision making process is super clear, watch this video of Randall Howard, the former General Secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union shows you what I mean.

He gives a clear narrative of a situation, a collective decision and an action.  The action itself is an incredible story of blocking arms shipments to Zimbabwe.  It’s worth watching in an of itself.

Randall Howard begins speaking at about 1:55.

For more information on the stopping of the An Yue Jiang, look at Waging Nonviolence.

Importantly we see an experimental attitude.

We must do something.  Do you agree?

What is our goal and what is our first step?

Do the Courts agree?

Can we serve the papers on the boat? No.  Then what?

We collect data by following the vessel electronically.  When that data dries up, we find alternative data and we track the vessel.

And when the story ends, we stop and say.  What did we do?  What path did we follow?  What were our signals and how did we know how well we were doing?

Most importantly of all, we ask what did we learn about the situation.  We learned about solidarity and maintaining the institutions of democracy.  That’s not the same as stopping the boat.

We paid attention.  We worked together.  And we learned.

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