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Leading Through Experimentation

How everything you’ve learned about being a leader can work against you when creating a culture of experimentation.

Think back to when you started out in your career.

Chances are, you jumped in way over your head and learned as much as possible, as quickly as you could.

At some point, you became pretty good at what you do. Ok maybe even really good at what you do.

Then something magical happened.

Your peers began to seek out your advice on that thing you are really skilled at. Your boss recognized your expertise and promoted you. Eventually you found yourself leading a team and then a series of teams and finally a business unit.

What I’m describing above is the path of Heroic Leadership.

Heroic Leadership is all about you.

It’s ego driven. It’s transactional. It’s about what you can do and what you know.

You can quickly spot heroic leaders by listening to them talk to their teams for 10–15 minutes.

Count the number of times you hear “I” and “Me” and “Myself” in a conversation. These are the tools of a heroic leader.

Listen for a conversation dominated by I, Me and Myself

There is nothing inherently wrong with this style of leadership.

But what you may not know, is that Heroic Leadership can unintentionally unravel any type of experimentation culture you try to build within your organization.

Let’s start with how it impacts accountability.

When I ask people in organizations about the term accountability, it typically skews towards the following definition.

Accountability — a. the condition of being held accountable.

Heroic Leadership lends itself to a command and control style. People are held accountable for completing tasks and hitting numbers.

However there is another definition of accountability that you may not even be aware of.

Accountability —b. the ability to be able to give an account.

This version of accountability, an environment in which your team can give an account, is exactly the type you’ll need to nurture when building a culture of experimentation.

Teams need a safe environment in which they can give an account to leadership on what they’ve learned and how they are turning that learning into action.

You’ll notice in making this shift with accountability, the terminology used will also change.

Instead of only using “I” and “Me” and “Myself” in a meeting, leaders use “We” and “Us” and “Our”.

I call this style Anti-Heroic Leadership.

Listen for a conversation with We, Us and Our

Anti-Heroic Leaders realize that they don’t scale.

Your job as a leader in building an experimentation culture, is to create more leaders around you.

What Books You Should Read

If this is resonating, then I recommend reading a few books with slightly different takes on the subject:

  1. The Serving Leading by Jennings & Stalh-Wert:
  2. Leadership Agility by Joiner & Josephs:
  3. Turn The Ship Around by Marquet:

Steps You Can Take

As a leader, here’s what to keep in mind when building a culture of experimentation in your organization.

  1. Have an opinion, but be open to data that disagrees with it. When Heroic leaders are unable to check their ego at the door, they quickly find themselves explaining away any data that doesn’t agree with their world view. It demoralizes a team when their experiment findings are attacked by leadership. I suggest using a format that allows your teams to give an account of their progress. You can download the template I created if you need help.
  2. Teams need to own their experiments. Teams won’t learn if Heroic leaders are always prescribing the experiments. Product, Design and Engineering need to work together to create experiments that address the riskiest assumptions. The teams I advise use a canvas, map out the assumptions from the canvas and create experiments from the assumptions. They own it and they give an account of how they own it.
  3. Lead with questions, not answers. Building an experimentation culture requires that we acknowledge the fact that we don’t know the answers, at least not right away. Therefore, leading with answers will often undermine your efforts. Practice leading with questions and getting to the why behind the experiments.

Peter Drucker once said:

“The bottleneck is at the top of the bottle.”

Once you become more aware of your own language and leadership style, you’ll find that building a culture of experimentation isn’t so impossible after all.

Interested in how to test your business ideas? Feel free to contact me.



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