If you follow anything at all about our work at TomorrowToday, you’ll know we’re passionate about understanding the changing world of work. We are also always on the lookout for people and organisations who are attempting to make adjustments today for the world they see coming tomorrow. Right now, we’re in such a time of disruptive change that some of what needs to happen to make our organisations more “future proof”, by necessity, will be experimental. So we’re thrilled when we discover companies and organisations prepared to experiment.

There are two dangers with workplace experiments. The first is more obvious: some of them will fail. We’ve spoken at length about this being a new reality of the 21st century workplace and of the need for bosses and leaders to accept some level of failure in order to find the gems. The second danger, though, is that you think you can appropriate other peoples’ experiments and make them your own. In some cases, it is acceptable to a be a good follower, and to wait for others – braver, bolder, with more resources than you – to try and fail and try again until they come across a clever formula. However, especially when it comes to management techniques, it’s not always appreciated that the culture which allows mistakes is often a prerequisite to the success of any experiments within that culture. Put more simply: you cannot simply copy the outputs or models another company comes up and expect them to work in your company.

Having said that, it’s still worthwhile keeping an eye out for the workplace experiments other companies are trying, and at very least getting some inspiration for experiments of your own.

Here are a few of my favourites:

Rotating Your CEO

Chinese mobile phone company, Huawei, announced last year that they will be rotating their CEO every six months in order to stay fresh. Three Executives will share the CEO position. Read the letter from their CEO last year that launched – and explained – the experiment. In part, he said:

A rotating system for leaders is nothing new. In times when social changes were not so dramatic, emperors could reign for several decades and create periods of peace and prosperity. Such prosperous periods existed in the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The rotational period for each emperor lasted several decades. Some companies in traditional industries rotated their CEOs every seven or eight years, and these CEOs experienced some prosperous times in their industries. Today, tides rise and surge; companies are springing up all over the place while others are quickly being swept away. Huawei hasn’t found a way to adapt well to a rapidly changing society. Time will tell if the rotating CEO system is the right move or not.

Time will tell, indeed. This is an experiment worth doing.

Crowdsourcing: inside and outside your organisation

Crowdsourcing has been around (in name at least) since 2006, and is growing exponentially thanks to sites like Kickstarter and 99designs. Many companies are experimenting with versions of both external and internal crowdsourcing. Read about the benefits and the top six crowdsourcing sites in an excellent article here.

Many companies are trying this (see a seriously long list of crowdsourcing projects at Wikipedia), but one I know reasonably well is IBM. Read about their approach here.

For some deeper insights into the value and processes of crowdsourcing for innovation, I’d recommend the April 2013 HBR article by Kevin J. Boudreau and Karim R. Lakhani. (Note that a login is required to read the full article).

eLance, oDesk, Fiverr and other micro-outsourcing support services

It amazes me that audience after audience I ask about micro- and personal-outsourcing just stare back at me blankly. The concept is obvious and if you think about it for a moment, you must realise that the concept is obvious and must exist. Websites that operate like eBay auction sites for skills abound around the web. eLance is the big daddy, but there are some specialised sites too, like Fiverr.

Companies are now starting to use (or at least authorise the use of) these services. Some larger organisations, especially those requiring high levels of security, have created internal micro-outsourcing capabilities. The first company we came across to do this was Pfizer, who launched such a system (essentially an internal call centre) back in 2009. Read about it here. This is about outsourcing tasks (not jobs). It is genius, and can give your professional staff a few hours – or even days – free a month, by getting someone else to do mundane work for them (we used to call this secretarial services – but micro-outsourcing is at an even higher level, and much cheaper).

A new approach to employee reviews: just five words

Paul English, cofounder of Kayak.com, the travel search engine, fundamentally disrupted the process of giving employee reviews when he decided to make them all five – and five only! – words. Most HR professionals I know believe that reviews as we know them are dead: they don’t deliver the value they’re supposed. I don’t believe that too many of their colleagues would argue with them. So, why not experiment. Paul English’s idea is not as crazy as it sounds. And I definitely think it’s worth a try – at least with one of your company’s stronger teams. Give it a go.

Maybe first read an interview with Paul in a recent Fast Company edition. Note that it’s not just five words – each word gets some explanation. But the focus on five key things. Paul says he aims for a balance between positive and negative too. Here’s an example of one he gave an employee recently:

“1. FAST. 2. ATTENTIVE – People feel you listen to them, you’re someone people like talking to because you completely focus on them. 3. UNTRUSTING – Although you try hard to understand people in your group, you don’t completely trust people outside of your organization that you can’t control. And it creates a really bad dynamic when a manager likes people who work for him but doesn’t trust people outside his group. 4. TOO CAUTIOUS – I said you’re too cautious, and it sets the wrong vibe because our vibe is very much about forgiveness not permission. We want people to just ask. And if somebody feels like you’re judging, it gives them pause. And 5. TECHNICAL – Because you are in a very strong tech team and you are extremely technical.”

I like it. I am going to try it with our team.

37Signals Workplace Experiments

Cloud solutions company, 37Signals (who supply our company with a cloud based CRM system) famously started a few workplace experiments five years ago. Here’s the post that kicked it off. You can read their blog to follow some of the progress of their project to experiment more.

Don’t copy. Imitate!

Again, I remind you to be careful of simply copying other companies’ experiments. Not everyone is going to benefit from Google’s 20% discretionary time rule for example (which Google are actually basically shutting down now anyway). Part of what made that successful was the entire ecosystem around the programme, and not just the thing itself. These examples are mainly for inpsirational purposes.

Part of the benefit of workplace experiments is the very process itself that you and your teams will go through to devise and select the best experiments for your organisation and ecosystem. Even having the conversation about experiments in the workplace is a good thing. So, go on, start a good thing today.

Your input

Please use the comments section below to tell me of some interesting workplace experiments you’ve heard of or been part of. I am really keen to build this list. Tell us what happened and what the results were.

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