Get in touch

The road to experimental culture: Five themes for 2022

Picture: Getty images

Through experimentation comes knowledge: Here are five themes to get you started this new year

Experimentation goes hand in hand with innovation. Often, in organisations with clearly defined objectives and processes, there’s very little room for an activity that cannot ensure a contribution to those objectives in advance.

Uncertainty must be reduced and revenue and margins maximised. Herein lies no room for experimentation: A logical mindset when looked at from a traditional perspective, but no good for the long-term position and involvement of employees, customers and stakeholders. The more an organisation grows, the more stringent the rules and processes become. And in turn, there’s less and less room for innovation and thinking outside of these rules and processes. Processes and rules are, of course, necessary to ensure repetitive tasks are carried out consistently and to a high quality. Processes within management, HR, product development, finance etc. Each layer within a process, however, reduces the degree of lean and agile thinking. More importantly, it reduces the level of rapid response to threats and new opportunities. However, we live in a time when the answer to many complex issues is not readily available. We need new ways of finding solutions, using creativity and connection, defining how we look at the world and the sort of positive impact we can make.

How do you ensure there’s room for experimentation and thus opportunity for innovation? 

Daphne Laan, founder of The Board Whisperers and Menno van der Steen, founder of SilverLabs and partner at Onbrdng both champion embracing radical openness for an experimental culture in organisations. They believe that space must be given to enable experimentation and colouring between the lines. The two driving factors behind their advocation of an experimental culture are job satisfaction and sustainable commercial success. People like to make a positive contribution to world problems. Therefore, they prefer to work at companies that offer them the opportunity to do this. This is essential for the commercial success of companies, as staff shortages are a permanent problem. In addition, experiments are crucial if an organisation wishes to remain competitive. 

Incidentally, this article is also an experiment. One in which we take two perspectives, merge them together and see what happens. Starting with a repetitive dialogue with which we take steps towards an unknown result. This encourages us to look both above the water, at what you can see clearly, and below it, at the less visible but just as important factors.

Creation vs process

Every business begins life as a small start up: Flexible, responsive to customers and market developments, agile and vulnerable. Risks are taken, new customers won, the targets and the mission are clear but flexible. As these companies grow, the need for their processes to be defined grows with them. This is essential for their survival and prescribed by all business courses and consultants. The bigger and more successful a business becomes, the more value is placed on ‘process’. Furthermore, less attention is paid to product innovation and solutions that add something essential to the world. What is to be expected from people differs with the creation of the product. Large companies then become defensive towards innovations and rely on the legislator, takeovers and lawyers to keep out new(er) innovative entrants to the market. The innovation in such a sector then disappears completely. In governments, roles with a focus on the process are so dominant, innovation is outsourced to freelancers and external companies. A bad mix, because both the people -who prefer to maintain the secure and predictable status quo- and the freelancers -who earn good money and risk losing it due to change- do not benefit from radically new systems and solutions.

‘Organisation & Innovation Theatre’

According to the Harvard Business Review attempts at remaining innovative are known as ‘Organisation & Innovation Theater’. Innovation is packaged into new processes in the following ways:

  • The board decides on a reorganisation, usually accompanied by a large consultancy firm: Often including the introduction of a matrix organisation. Everyone is occupied for the next year, with new targets and focus points. However, this does not result in any rapid innovative product development.
  • A miriad of innovation activities, such as hackathons, scrum sessions and design thinking workshops are organised. Sounds great, and is good for promoting a more experimental culture. However, as one-off stand-alone actions and not a regular occurrence in the organisation, it rarely leads to radically innovative products or services.
  • Ultimately the management realises that the processes (HR, security, legal, purchasing, etc.) and figures form a barrier to innovation: So the processes are reformed, and new people are sought and hired. Well-intentioned, but without an innovation strategy, the result is often ‘Process Theatre’.

An example from marketing – what doesn’t work

From a marketing perspective, teams often have to focus on optimising ROAS (Return on Ad Spend). To do this, predictive econometric models are often developed, for example, using Marketing Mix Modeling. They learn from the past, so need new data to continue learning. In other words, you can’t predict what the future effect will be for something you have never done. So radically new things have to be tried, and that’s where it often stalls: an experimental culture has to survive in all areas of an organisation. This can be facilitated by a clear vision, preconditions, central hypothesis generation, test strategy and methodology that is embraced and supported by all teams (and agencies). Without experimental culture there’s a risk that investments will only be made in proven activities. Hindering innovation, and ultimately leading to a loss of market share and impact. In principle, everyone in the boardroom likely agrees with this. Unfortunately, that does not mean that there is an experimental culture. Objectives, (wrong) KPIs, (unrealistic) targets, bonus structures, (ingrained) routines, procedures, focus on short-term profit maximisation and (too high) work pressure can all lead to a very different practice than otherwise intended.

Experimental culture

The question is, how can large companies make room for creativity, flexibility and innovation? Innovation is born out of play; unfocused exploration, musings, wild hypotheses, curiosity and ambitious ‘what ifs’, dreaming. Connecting themes and subjects that are not affiliated at first glance. Dabbling and just trying things out without calculating the rates of success. In a word: experimentation. If experimenting is ‘healthy’, there is room for play, fun, cheerfulness, freedom, adventure, curiosity, creativity and daring. Encouraging, preserving and embracing creative power is a first crucial step. Create a working environment where the customer, the product and co-creation are central, not the processes. From planning to experimenting.

Psychological safety is an important condition, a foundation for experimenting which is receiving a lot of attention in the world of science. Psychological safety means knowing that you can be yourself without negative consequences. Psychological safety is fundamental in order for people to be creative and innovative. The key to this lies in the word ‘identity’. Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading put it simply in an interview with Stephen Fortune: “To be creative or share a new idea, you have to feel that there is a chance that it will be accepted: that someone will actually listen to you. And if, at this level of identity, you feel like people are going to laugh or judge you, that you’re laughed at and mocked, or that people just say, “Well, that’s bullshit,” then you’re clearly incapable of sharing your ideas. That is why psychological safety focuses on the feeling that it is okay to make mistakes. It gives people that freedom to say, “I want to tell you what I’m thinking right now. It could be great, it could be bullshit. But can we just talk about it and see what we get out of it?’ That’s creativity. The real joy of creativity is to throw up ideas that are far-fetched and then realise that we could actually do it. That we can actually make it happen. That is innovation.” Team members who dare to contribute what they think and feel, even if it’s against the tide and the status quo, feel, as Harvard professor Amy Edmondson puts it, psychologically safe. They are extremely valuable to any organisation.

Five themes to experiment with in 2022

Where do you even start with getting an experimental culture off the ground? We propose that you start the new year by developing the following five themes:

  1. Radical Openness
    The way people connect and collaborate is undergoing a global transformation. Smart organisations embrace transparency: They offer transparency with regards to how an organisation is doing, as well as its dreams and ambitions. Collaboration and radical openness are important ingredients. By the way, this is not about putting all of your cards on the table for all to see, but about working by default with openness. So share what you’re working on, so that others can build on it. How you share that information and knowledge with each other is largely determined by generation. For the first time ever, there are five different generations in today’s workplace. Between those generations (from baby boomers to Gen Z), there can easily be half a century of work experience. So experiment with different ways of sharing, then scale what works.
  2. Change-ready Mindset
    If the environment offers the room for play and experimentation, the question is whether that space is felt and used. On what basis do you act? People with a “change ready” mindset know that change is continuous and see it as a source of opportunity. Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset comes into play here. Then you see both large and small changes as opportunities for personal development, and ‘failed’ experiments as a source of learning and growth. The door is open to look for ways to break through old ways of thinking, remain curious and challenge the status quo. In increasingly unpredictable careers, where people switch roles more frequently and more fluidly and progress in different directions, the ability to unlearn, learn, and relearn is vital to long-term success. It helps increase readiness for the opportunities that change presents, and our resilience to the inevitable challenges we encounter along the way. Investing in learning leads to career advancement dividends in the long run.
  3. A creative memory
    A company that continuously experiments must ,of course, also learn from the results. As far as we are concerned, Marketing Communication, for example, is a continuous behavioral experiment. However, results and insights from different campaigns are usually only used for the following campaign. Then they simply disappear as PPT or Excel files in a folder on a disk. In addition, the people involved tend to change jobs every three to four years. In short, there is no longer-term memory for these experiments. There are plenty of processes related to the product development of companies, but hardly any processes regarding the maintenance and management of the intelligence and knowledge of the company. While best practices and experience may represent the most value. Therefore, create a blueprint to improve creative memory. Tech can also play a role in this; KMS (Knowledge Management Software) for example, are systems in which market, company and other relevant knowledge are combined. Modern KMS systems unlock knowledge searches with intuitive databases and visual search technology. Systems are nice, but the crux here is of course the willingness to share, tag and store knowledge. But how do you determine how much budget may be involved? Predictive models are crucial and make it possible to predict the activities with which financial objectives can be achieved. In this way, it is also possible to calculate the scope for investing in new, experimental activities.
  4. Design for the greater good
    In the words of Bruce Mau, “Virtually everything we do today has to change. We still do most things as if we own nature and have unlimited resources. We work as if waste is not a problem. We treat nature like a pantry and trash can. We think short term, party like there’s no tomorrow and pass the check on to future generations. We dump problems we can’t solve in places we can’t see. And many of our solutions create more problems than they solve. Things have to change.”

    New experiments can be devised and proposed by anyone inside (and outside) of the organisation. Not just those with a creative function. This includes ‘what if’ statements, assumptions of things that might work, adjustments to previous experiments, hypotheses and ambitions. It is important that the customer is central, so that everything ultimately contributes to a better experience. This flow of creative ideas must be facilitated, curated and assessed. Develop and communicate a clear step-by-step plan. The starting point for this is also to see in which sub-areas experiments will be conducted in 2022. Make this part of the 2022 annual plan.

  5. Every experiment ends with a new beginning.
    Every experiment deserves an evaluation and final judgment. Are we going to continue with this or not? Of course it is important to have determined the KPIs and Critical Success Factors here in advance. What do we learn from this? Do we include these in a new, modified experiment? Then a new cycle begins. We have summarised this process and the five themes in the below chart.

And go back to start :). Cheers to an experimental 2022!

This article was written by Menno van der Steen and Daphne Laan.

Written by:

Commercial Growth

Schedule a call


Sumatrakade 9
Amsterdam, NL
+31 20 369 79 77


1 George Yard
London, UK
+ 44 20 3807 7689