Experimentation

Do you make a point of conducting frequent experiments? Do you permit others to conduct them? If you’re not, then you’re not achieving much innovation.

In my days as a reporter, I had a tendency to overreach a little on projects, to sometimes take on stories that were as challenging technically as they were journalistically. One such story was an in-depth series on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the high technology scanning used to map the human brain. fMRI is based on the same basic technology as hospital MRIs but much more powerful. Picture a magnet the size of a small truck, with a magnetic field so large that there are pacemaker warnings on the fences outside the building!

For a science buff like me, this was a very cool story and so we set out to videotape this world class research. There was however a problem we had not anticipated. Videotape is a magnetic recording medium; cameras are full of sensitive electronics; and TV monitors (such as the viewfinder on our cameras) use magnetically guided electron beams to create an image. The first camera we used to approach one of those giant magnets promptly ceased to function and was pretty much “fried” on the spot. On a second attempt, the cameraman showed me how the image in his viewfinder distorted and then was “pulled” right off the screen as the camera entered the room. It’s hard to shoot what you can’t see.

Only briefly deterred, I rescheduled and persuaded my colleagues to return with a newly available (and expensive) digital camera with an LCD viewfinder. Instead of trying to record inside the camera, we hooked up a cable which we ran out of the room, down the hall, through the lobby, out the door and down the steps to a truck parked at the curb, and recorded onto videotape there. We got the story (and images of my brain I later showed off like they were baby pictures of my kids).

In the midst of all this, my boss came over to my desk to find out how things were going. He noted how complicated it was getting—and that it wasn’t the first time for me—and commented sarcastically, “Stauffer, you really know how to pick ‘em.” In a moment of courage I probably would not have mustered earlier in my career, I said, “Instead of criticizing me for hitting some obstacles, you could compliment me for being determined and resourceful in going after a great story. We’ve had some setbacks because no one has ever done this before.” I’m not sure he was convinced but he let me proceed.

Clearly, I was experimenting. Not because I chose to but because I had no other choice, if I wanted to pursue that story. For someone else, the challenge might be a new product launch, a strategic initiative, some reorganization or a new business venture. It might be raising kids. Whatever the project or the objective, we can never be completely sure of the outcome. We always face some degree of risk. So the question is not so much whether we should experiment but how to do it thoughtfully. The challenge of innovation is to lean out over the edge of what’s possible, in order to discover what new things can be put into that category.

Most experiments don’t require any test tubes or higher math. All they require is a little curiosity, an active imagination and the courage to try something new and untested—and than learn from both our successes and our failures. Yet in the business world, we tend to value assurance and predictability more than curiosity. We prefer competence over creativity. We’re encouraged to develop expertise and rely on our (past) experience. Admitting to any failure is perceived as…well…as a failure.

Fortunately, I was allowed to complete my experiment, solve the problems I faced, and in this case redeem myself. That’s of course not always how it works. Had my boss said, “Sorry, we’re going to kill the story,” (as I had happen sometimes) then I would have only suffered the downside of failing to meet a challenge, without any payoff. That doesn’t need to happen very often before it takes a toll on someone’s standing in the organization—as well as with themselves.

Are you taking personal risks? Is your organization willing to take them? Innovation requires experimentation and experimentation requires that we risk failure. It can be scary but it’s necessary. Otherwise, we’re just confirming (or rationalizing) what we already think we know and that only takes us where we’ve already been.

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