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What CEOs Can Learn From Scientists

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Science has taught us how to cure disease and even walk on the moon. These discoveries wouldn't be possible without big vision -- and some serious trial and error.

At Launch Academy, the immersive coding school I co-founded, one of our core values is to learn through experimentation. Team members are empowered to try new things, with the expectation that their experiments will have demonstrable and quantifiable outcomes.

To create great change, businesses also must embrace experimentation. The process is simple and I'll share some lessons I've learned from its most important steps.

Ask the Right Question. In my business, we like to ask 5 whys, probing into an issue to bore into the real cause of a problem we're encountering. Interestingly, when taking this approach, it almost always boils down to a behavioral or procedural issue.

Let's say, for example, customer satisfaction has declined over the last quarter. You could have the following dialogue with your customer service team:

  • Why are our ratings declining? Generally, customers are feeling rushed off of the phone when they call for support.
  • Why do you think they might feel that way? Call volume has increased dramatically, and the team has been struggling to keep up.
  • Why has the team been struggling to keep up? We've added customer service staff to help with the increase in volume. The new hires aren't as quick as some of our more experienced customer service reps.
  • Why aren't they as quick? They spend a lot of time searching the knowledgebase to address issues. Average customer hold time is up 30 percent since they've come on board.
  • Why do they have to search the knowledgebase so often? They're not adequately trained on the common issues our customers face.

At first glance, this appears to be a customer service problem, when it is, in fact, a training issue. Instead of designing an experiment around improving customer service outcomes, we can now design an experiment involving the training and onboarding process. Identifying the root cause will make our experiments more fruitful.

Document. When conducting a business experiment, it's important to document everything. Like when setting goals, it is easier to cheat when you don't have anything in writing. Document the root of the problem, your hypothesis or guess at how you plan to solve it, your procedure for testing that solution, and the results of your study.

Expect failure. Thomas Edison, one of the most notable American inventor and businessmen of our history, once said about his experimentation "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Failure is an expected outcome in experimentation. As business owners, we must view results of failure as another step towards a workable solution.

Make iterative progress. It is hard to see the value of experiments that are long running and complex. Identify a small window of time to run simple experiments for faster impact.

Expect and embrace side effects. While working on radar research during World War II, Percy Spencer invented the microwave by accident. While working on a radar component, he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket melted. Spencer studied this unexpected side effect and ultimately discovered that it was great for popping popcorn. Structured experiments in your business can often lead to unexpected and impactful findings outside the scope of study. Embrace these happy surprises.

Justify investment. Carl Sagan, the late astronomer, tells us "that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." In order to justify investment in your next strategy or project, use empirical evidence, or results from experimentation. Your Board of Directors and your team will appreciate actual results more than just a "gut feeling."

While experimentation can inform us, it does not substitute for sound decision-making and leadership in your organization. As entrepreneurs, it's our job to identify and digest the facts so that we may translate them into action. Running experiments can help us to isolate the facts, but ultimately what you make of them is what makes both science and business beautiful.

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