Business Experiments: A better way to manage your business?

Business Experiments: A better way to manage your business?

In our last post we looked at various management approaches to reduce risks. One of them pertained to business experiments. In this post, we’ll dig a bit deeper to better understand this approach.

You have most likely heard of business experiments. The Harvard Business Review, as well as many other business management publications, published multiple articles on the topic in the last few years.   They were mostly in the context of innovation.

What is a business experiment?

Lean Startup - Baker Marketing If you have not, a business experiment is simply testing a concept (idea, program, process, design, product, strategy, etc.) with stakeholders (customers, suppliers, distributors, employees, etc.). The experiment’s goal is to provide pertinent data to assist with decision making (usually with go/no go decisions or sometimes fine-tuning).

So yes, you do know what a business experiment is. It’s been around for, well, pretty much ever. Now you’re asking yourself; Why this article is drawing my attention to it?

The reason is that business experiments are no longer used as an occasional management tool, they are transforming into the way businesses are managed.

Why are companies experimenting at an increasing rate?

Business experiment - Baker Marketing As we mentioned, business experiments are used to collect data that assists management with decision-making.

Decision-making in the business world is becoming a more demanding task (to say the least).

  • Companies are significantly leaner (i.e. less resources and more work for everyone, including managers).
  • The amount of information available, from secondary sources, is enough to make any manager’s head spin.
  • There is a higher supply than demand for managers hence making bad decisions is a riskier proposition for your longevity in a given company than ever.
  • In many sectors, markets are moving at a faster pace than ever before with competitors coming in from everywhere and customers’ choices exploding.

Hence managers are turning to ways to reduce the time and the risk involved to make the best possible decisions.

Running a business experiment to gather pertinent and timely data quickly answers the needs of over-burdened managers to reduce the risks of the decisions they make.

This explains, in part, why organisations are experimenting. What explains the increasing rate at which they are doing it, and transforming it into a management approach, has more to do with the following reasons:

  • It’s cheaper and faster than ever to run business experiments (many can be done in minutes with free tools)
  • An increasing number of employees or outside consultants have the skills to run experiments, analyse and interpret the collected data
  • The costs to store, process and communicate the data/result are very low (compared to a decade ago) and falling constantly.

Business experiments and the Lean Startup framework

So how does an organisation go about implementing business experiments as a managerial approach? There is no one way to do so. There are however experimentation frameworks out there that can structure your approach.

One of these is the Lean Startup framework.

The base of Lean Startup is the experiment. The Lean Startup experiment is based on the scientific experiment model. It follows a build, measure, learn process.

Build Measure Learn - Baker Marketing

 

Build (designing your experiment)

Building your experiment is a 3 step process

 1. Identify the critical assumption associated with the concept to be tested

When you stop to think about it, there are thousands of assumptions we could test to assist with decision making when managing a business. If we tested all of our assumptions there would be no time or other resources left to run the business. Hence, you only want to test the critical assumptions. The ones that, if not validated, pose a business risk that you (or your organisation) are not willing to take.

2. Transform your critical assumption into a hypothesis statement

Your critical assumption was a thought you put into words. Your hypothesis statement is one sentence that can be validated (or invalidated).

3. Design the experiment that will validate (or invalidate) your hypothesis

Designing your experiment is only limited by your (and/or your team’s) imagination. The way you choose to render the concept of your hypothesis (how you present it or illustrate it) is called your Minimum Viable Product (MVP)[1].

An important part of the MVP is the minimum part of it. In the design of your experiment, you will be aiming at spending the least amount of resources in order to obtain the maximum amount of learnings from your experiment.

This doesn’t necessarily mean bootstrapping your experiment. It simply means that you will make sure that whatever learnings you need to get from your experiment, you get by using the least amount of resources possible.

This can mean it will cost you nothing but a few minutes of the time of one person or tens of thousands of dollars, if that’s the only way to go about getting the information you need. Of course, the cost of your experiment must be proportionate to the financial risk associated with it.

Measure

The reason you are making the experiment is to get data that will help you with your decision making. Hence, you want that data to be reliable.

This is where you need a bit of knowledge about primary data gathering. You need to make sure the data you collect is not biased. You won’t be looking to get statistical quality data. That would take too long, cost too much and be an over kill for your purpose.

You’ll simply need the clear direction that your data in headed for.

In business experimentation instead of gathering a lot of data once, you gather a small amount of data repetitively. Although not as precise as statistical data it does provide you with a sufficient amount of information to de-risk, to a great extent, your decision. It is also a more suited approach to an environment that changes rapidly.

When deciding on the data you will be capturing in your experiment, remember these three important rules.

Your data should be:

Actionable

If it doesn’t go in the direction you thought it would then you can change something in your business strategy or product or program that will make the data go in the direction you want.

Accountable

You need to be able to re-produce the exact same experiment, in similar conditions and get similar results. For example, if you are testing the design of a snow shovel and are doing it during the storm of the century, the data you collect won’t be accountable.

Accessible

The more people who interpret the data you collect, the deeper and richer your learnings will be. So make sure that the data captured during your business experiments is shared throughout your organisation. Ensure that everyone knows they are welcome to share their interpretations on the data. Making your experiments, the data collected and the results accessible throughout your organisation will also accelerate business experiments process as some parts/resources of one experiment can be used for others.

The more experience one has at conducting experiments, the faster and more accurately they are done.

Learn

This part of business experiments, although it may seem like the easiest, is the hardest.  Learning means you are either

  • absorbing completely new information (rarely the case) or
  • you are changing in some way (sometimes drastically) already stored information in your brain

The second type of learning is the hardest. The more contradictory the data you have is to the one you previously had, the more difficult it is to learn from it.

This stored information in your brain will create a filter that will impact how you interpret new data.

Also, the more resources that has already been invested in a project, the more difficult it is to pivot on a previous course of action.

The benefits of using business experiments to manage

Business Experiment - Baker Marketing The main benefit, as mentioned previously, is to reduce the risk of your business decisions. This in turn will minimise your losses on various projects.

Another benefit, that is not obvious, is the improvement in work relationships.  This happens for multiple reasons.

First, employees get a sense of empowerment. If they submit ideas to upper management with supporting empirical data, they know their idea will be considered.

Also, managers don’t need to spend as much time justifying their decisions. They let the data speak for itself. They do however need to include questioning the quality of the data into their process.

Finally, as mentioned, organisations that use business experiments on a daily basis to manage usually encourage employees to share the results of their experiments. This not only improves internal communication and efficiency it also creates an environment where mistakes, that bring new learnings, are valued.

This type of environment is essential to not only foster innovation but pro-activity.

Getting started with business experiments

Business experiment - Baker MarketingIf you think that using business experiments may be a profitable management approach for your business, start with one project (which will be a meta experiment) during which all higher risk decisions will be taken with supporting data. The project you select should be one that has high inherent risk within it (like launching a product in a new and different market). It should also be a type of project that is somewhat recurrent in your organisation. This will help you have a baseline scenario in order to compare the results of the meta experiment.  Make sure to identify the metrics you’ll be evaluating before starting your meta experiment.

Some metrics (there are many others) you may want to look at would be:

  • How long the project took from start to finish
  • Overall budget
  • What % of the initial planed output was achieved
  • Variables pertaining to team cohesion
  • Variables pertaining to employee (the ones who worked on the project directly and indirectly) satisfaction
  • ROI projected vs achieved on a timeline (3, 6, 12, 24 months)

Implementing any new management approach takes a while. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe. You need to…yes you got it…experiment and find the approach best suited for your organisation.

If you need coaching or help getting started with your first experiment Baker Marketing can definitely help.

[1] Although MVP most often refers to a prototype of a product, it also means the representation of your hypothesis you will present to participants of your experience.

Lean Enterprise’s Business Model

Lean Enterprise’s Business Model

 

You may have already heard about Lean Enterprise but, because it is a relatively new concept, you most likely haven’t yet.

What is Lean Enterprise?

Lean Enterprise Business Model - Baker MarketingIn short, Lean Enterprise is the Lean Startup approach adapted to large organisations. It has already been adopted by many large organisations such as GE, Toyota, the White House (about 4 years ago), NPOs  and many startups that became large such as Zappos.

 

How can Lean Enterprise be used?

Lean Enterprise can be used as the guide to an entirely new innovation program. However, since most large organisation already have an innovation program, Lean Enterprise can simply build on the existing program, improve it, make it more efficient and, over time, permeate the entire organisation with a culture of innovation.

Explaining Lean Enterprise

Explaining Lean Enterprise could be a very long process given that it touches all aspects of business and will take a very distinct flavor in each or the organisation that adopts it.

When entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs (folks responsible to make innovation happen in large organisations) want to explain their projects to me, I usually ask them to describe their business model.

Hence, I’m thinking that describing Lean Enterprise’s business model is will be a good way to explain this approach to manage innovation in large organisations succinctly.

Understanding Lean Startup first

Lean Startup approach - Baker MarketingIf you are unfamiliar with the Lean Startup approach then I suggest you brush up on it. Lean Enterprise requires a very good understanding of the underlying principles as well as the capability to run Lean Startup-type experiences.  There is an abundance of Lean Startup documentation online including the many Lean Startup related posts on this blog. Here is a sample of them that you can check out as a primer.

The Lean Enterprise Business Model

The image below (click to make it larger) is Baker Marketing’s version of what Lean Enterprise’s business model would look like. This version would not make for a good investors’ pitch but it’s also not its purpose.  Hopefully, this business model canvas will help you to understand, at a glance, what Lean Enterprise is all about.

The Lean Enterprise Business Model Canvas

Lean Enterprise's Business Model - Baker Marketing

Click for full view

Although this canvas is pretty straight forward, I will detail the Customer Segments and Value Proposition sections of the Lean Enterprise business model for better comprehension.

 Targeted Customer Segments

Lean Enterprise's Business Model - Baker MarketingThe Lean Enterprise innovation approach can be used is just about any large organisation that needs to innovate. The more disruptive the innovations it produces, the more gains it will get from the Lean Enterprise approach.

 

 

For profit organisations

This segment has the most straight forward application of Lean Enterprise for innovation purposes.

There are already dozens of large organisations incorporating Lean Enterprise in their existing innovation programs to make them more efficient. It is the case of such companies as Google, GE, Intuit, Toyota, Adobe, etc.

 

Non profit organisations

NPOs around the world all have a common pain; they are struggling to get enough resources to achieve their goals.

In many cases they are also faced with the task to innovate in order to keep being relevant to both their users and benefactors. Lean Enterprise helps them by ensuring that all the resources they do have are used as efficiently as possible when they innovate.

Lean Enterprise also helps large NPOs develop a more innovation-friendly culture.

 

Public and para-public organisations

Given that efficient use of resources is a basic principle in the application of Lean Enterprise, most public organisations could benefit from its implementation greatly. Government institutions are also in dire need of catching up to economies changing at the fastest pace ever in history.

The White House initiated the Healthcare.gov portal re-design in 2011 with a Lean Startup (not yet known as Lean Enterprise) team. The embryonic project was then taken over by CGI. When CGI was unable to deliver on time and on budget, the project was reverted to the Lean Startup team. The results they achieved were so spectacular that the White House eventually adopted Lean Enterprise for all of their innovative projects.  The approach also spread to other American government agencies and departments.

Aneesh Chopra, who was appointed CTO of the United States by Obama in 2009 (until 2012) was one of the catalysts in propagating the Lean Enterprise approach through the US government. [1]

 

 

Value Proposition

Lean Enterprise's Business Model - Baker MarketingThis is, in part, what a large organisation can expect to obtain with the implementation of a Lean Enterprise approach to innovation that their current program may not be bringing them.

 

Help innovate more efficiently

The efficiency is obtained in large part with the fact that an innovation project that is completed, within a Lean Enterprise-based innovation program, will necessarily answer the needs of its target customers/users. Hence a product/market fit or a service/user fit will be achieved every time.

Efficient use of resources (especially human) being an underlying principle of Lean Enterprise, it is therefore a constant preoccupation of the project participants.

 

Use existing resources more intensively

If you work in a large organisation, I am certain you are aware of either unused resources or resources not fully used that can be put to contribution in innovation projects. If not, I suggest you ask and snoop around. You will find some in no time. The infusion of entrepreneurial attitude, brought by Lean Enterprise, makes using these resources second nature.

 

Build on existing innovation programs/practices

Lean Enterprise is based on principles, tools and techniques borrowed from many existing and proven management theories such as:

  • Lean production
  • Customer development
  • Agile development
  • Design Thinking

Most innovation programs already make use of the principles, tools or techniques of some of these theories. Lean Startup implementation can ‘’surf’’ on these existing programs in an organisation and add to them.  This greatly flattens the learning curve and is more easily adopted.

Implementing a Lean Enterprise approach to innovation is like any other change management program. It must be done incrementally, ensuring all are onboard.

 

Increase speed to market of innovations

Lean Enterprise is based on rapid iteration testing of the various parts of a business model until you reach a product/market fit or service/user fit[2].

The approach has a built-in control mechanism to ensure innovation teams don’t go astray, lose focus or momentum.

 

Pivot quickly on ideas with no positive ROI

All of the products or services that get to market with a Lean Enterprise approach are successful. This, however, doesn’t mean that these successful products or services look anything like what was imagined initially.

Lean Enterprise does not prevent or fix product or service ideas that would flop in the market.  It does however quickly show which ideas need to be discarded thus avoiding the waste of resources to bringing them to market.  Luckily, most ideas simply need a few pivots (okay many pivots) to achieve success with their markets.

 

Better manage innovation financing risks

The use of innovation accounting in Lean Enterprise innovation programs allows for incremental financing with a known risk coefficient of each of the projects increments.

It bridges the gap between corporate innovators and financial managers.

You can read more about innovation accounting in these previous posts.

 

Creates innovation culture in the long run

The real prize, at the end of the journey of implementing Lean Enterprise, is the creation of a true culture of innovation.

Some of the most important barriers today in achieving a true organisation-wide culture of innovation are the following:

  • Mistakes are neither welcome nor tolerated
  • Resources (human, financial, physical, etc.) are kept in silos
  • Decision making power is diluted (with a heavy weight at the top of the pyramid)
  • Over-abundant and rigid processes that result in slow reactions to market changes

The Lean Enterprise approach to innovation, intrinsically, removes those barriers.

As any other change management program, Lean Enterprise takes time, effort and commitment. Commitment from the innovation project champions but also from top management. Although still in its infancy, the Lean Enterprise approach shows promise of integrating innovation into large organisation’s main stream of business instead of treating it like a special cousin, as it is now.

If you want to learn more about Lean Enterprise and its application, you can pre-order Eric Ries’ new book due out in the fall, called TheStartup Way.

If you have a Lean Startup Circle community in your area, you can contact the organisers to locate experienced coaches or attend their meetups and see how entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs can help each other innovate more efficiently.

[1] This hour-long talk with Aneesh Chopra explains how Lean Enterprise came to be in the US governement

[2] Characterised by a sharp increase in the sales or adoption growth for a sustained period.