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Irresponsible experimental leadership

It will come as no surprise to most of us that the future is inherently uncertain in times of turmoil. It is unnavigably complex. There are all sorts of risks, like whether or not a product can be bought or developed on time; there is a lack of clarity, like whether or not a stakeholder will spontaneously change his mind; then there are obstacles that only become visible after the project has been started; unexpected requests for changes by clients create all sorts of unforeseen problems; staff members leave the project team due to constant priority changes. These are factors that increase the risk of failure. No-one can predict them (no matter how hard we search for a blueprint). But true leaders are not disconcerted by this predicament. Simply by developing a consciousness for this state of affairs often creates a desire for recommendations.

The desire for recommended actions

The desire for recommended actions

High levels of complexity have been the norm for decades. That’s why pioneers have been producing all kinds of tools, methods and frameworks to help us navigate through the fray. But what are they all about? Are they tranquilizers in the form of “best practices” or are they actual useful recommendations? How high is the risk that their approaches will be ineffective? Perhaps they are error prone when applied to real world situations, perhaps they can’t even be applied to your context.

The Thought Pyramid

The Thought Pyramid

How blue and red make the big difference

Silke Herrmann, Gerhard Wohland and Niels Pfläging are trying to create some clarity on this  by visualizing the difference between complicated and complex phenomena in “blue” (non-living) and “red” (living).

Living and complex or dead and complicated

Living and complex or dead and complicated

If you are familiar with any of these authors’ books you will know that you cannot use a blue tool on a red problem. We need long-term plans in unpredictable situations. The following are some examples of scenarios in which you might need them:

  • When looking for a business idea—and business canvasing is not helping.
  • When looking for leaders and you find that placements tests are useless. In other words you have found that they are good at identifying experts but not at singling out the person who could achieve the greatest level of acceptance in the team.
  • When the quality of work has decreased because of defined goal’s affect on wages. The tool allows everyone to focus on getting bonus payments.

Quality: The effect is crucial

Hopefully nothing will happen when you use blue on red. If all goes wrong however there could be damage in the form of wasted time, money and energy. “Destructive behavior creates at least one more problem that wasn’t there before.” In other words, the leaders should be trying to choose constructive behavior. Proper preparation is crucial.

Now I would like to turn our attention to an approach that appears to contradict the initial approach. A recommendation that everyone seems to be making: “Conduct social experiments”. It is something that is being fervently discussed in agile communities.

Social experiments

Social experiments

First, it needs to be said that experiments are perfectly suited to feature- and product development. A presentable increment can be developed in between one and four weeks in development cycles, which is useful. The client can give feedback early on. That feedback can then flow into further developments, creating an acceptable product that meets client expectations.

Product development experiments that limit damage can be useful…

In general, the economic risk is calculable because of the limited time span and the transparent approach. Worst case scenario: a few weeks’ work will be thrown out.

… but experiments with people are irresponsible.

Things are different when it comes to social dynamics. A typical example is the introduction of scrum. This management framework is definitely very effective in risky projects. It can be set up easily. But it creates the need for some adjustments in the team and in organizational system. These cost time, money and energy. It is vital that all the participants are willing to make those adjustments. They need to be willing to make systematic changes in their way of working and thinking. The “bottom-up” introduction of scrum as an open experiment is not only negligent, according to LEAN principles, it is a form of waste. Why? Because generally it involves a sliding scale that forces the participants to change their behavior later, regardless of whether the experiment had been announced or not. “Let’s just give it a try” is the knock-out argument that is always thrown around. The initiator often makes no room for negotiation and the entire process can be seen as a form of change abuse.

The introduction of scrum cannot be done through an experiment

It requires preparation. When we hear the word “experiment” we tend to think of scientific experiments that make discoveries, or confirmations. What could go wrong, right? A lot. If objections are dismissed prematurely they tend to loom over their subject like a balloon. This balloon is present in every meeting, it rears its head in the way team members treat each other and in their work ethic. A counter reaction normally results, proving that the approach was faulty. Teams tend to react if they notice that an irresponsible experiment is being carried out – particularly when they are the object of the experiment. Ignorance could even make matters worse. The balloon of doubt has the following words written on it: “We don’t know if the chosen strategy will work”. That increases the level of uncertainty: “Will the experiment work?”

Experiments create problems they should be solving

A typical mindset

A typical mindset

Some people might bet on the approach working while others bet against it. This creates undercurrents of tension. It gives the participants the power to influence the results. But no matter what happens, one side is going to lose. It is a win-fail situation. The energy in the team is at odds with itself. The flow stagnates. What’s more, failure affects the leaders’ image. It damages trust. And it causes the general willingness to try a new idea in the future to be depleted.

Failure is not an option

Being too lax about failure is fatal both on an economic and a personal level. It spells disaster for everyone concerned. That’s why these kinds of cultures are absolutely destructive. It is helpful to create a plan A and an alternative plan B if things don’t work out. Both can be attained through cooperative action. If you do so the general quality and the degree of acceptance increases. That, in turn, increases the probability of success. There is no guarantee for success, but it creates social cohesion. By considering these issues together we create more space for ourselves to think. We create win-win situations.

The better approach to experimenting

The better approach to experimenting

Ecology and economics are relevant for organizational changes

What if a staff member were to conduct an experiment in the company? Should everyone be allowed to do so? Are organizational systems the place for experimental open heart surgery? Is your organization a research institution or is its goal to create value? Luckily we know from experience that this attitude causes most experiments to fail. That is because of the above-mentioned friction that they produce. Have you ever tried to apply the “law of the two feet” before? Did you fail to respond to your supervisor’s request for a meeting, or did you perhaps walk out of a meeting? Those are social experiments that could cost you your job. Changes with systemic consequences are even more important. Ask yourself who will profit from the endeavor, what will need to be sacrificed to achieve it and who should be included? That is the so-called eco-check. The proof of whether or not a hypothesis is correct or false, self-serving, creating limited value for others. That’s the main thing.


Hopefully you have seen in this article that experimentation is risky when done in social systems. It’s like drunk driving—at 160 km/h. Your brain is inebriated, it ignores warning signs. Whether or not you arrive at your destination is dependent on many different factors. You lose control. Similarly the reaction in a human system can be like a crash caused by a drunk driver. It has many consequences:

  • Internal conflict
  • Teams need to be re-formed
  • Staff members resign or are fired
  • Performance suffers, leading to dissatisfaction among clients
  • Threats of contract sanctions by the client

At the end of the day this is wastage that could be avoided. And no best practices or blueprints can help. Forethought is the only salvation. Models are not necessarily responsibly for damages. But it is the ordinary communication and its application that are the culprits. What is true for cars is true for experiments too. The only difference is: experience and the law both recommend that you shouldn’t drive under the influence of alcohol. The social context is complex and the boundaries are unclear. Rules are not helpful. Ethics, reason and systematic approaches are important for integrating your thinking—unfortunately they are not mentioned in most recommendations.

Testing system changes in advance

You can test your intentions in advance with the eco-check. By including people in this process you can improve the quality and the acceptance of the projects you are planning. The positive result will speak for itself, you will have fewer unpleasant emotions to deal with. And when it’s over you will see that recommendations tend to pacify people, but they don’t preparing them for anything. They can even be destructive. They stand in opposition to context specific thinking. Agile principles want help us to adapt to the context. “Inspect and adapt,” as it were. The unpredictability of life cannot be ignored, but if we create a conflict-free environment and work to foster unity, we will be more resilient and better able to achieve our goals.


As a consultant Patrick Koglin helps people to create agile organizations that are able to use the full potential of all their participants in order to create value. His five years’ experience in software development have given him an understanding the necessity of models and they have allowed him to familiarize himself with the management framework called scrum. Currently he writes books and articles about leadership in turbulent times. He also conducts training seminars on the same topic.

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