Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

7 Ways To Improve Your Work Culture Through Experimentation

A marketing firm CEO shares 6 tips from his company's experience on using experimentation to improve organizational culture.

The following is a guest piece by CEO Matt Rizzetta.

As our business has scaled, one thing that we’ve carried with us each step of the way has been a commitment to experimentation in the workplace. Some of our best ideas and biggest cultural differentiators were borne from experiments we created.

Make no mistake about it. While I’m incredibly proud of the culture of experimentation that we’ve cultivated through the years, it’s come at a steep price. Lots of time, commitment, sleepless nights and many painful lessons along the way as experiments have been developed, implemented and scrutinized at every step of the test lab.

If you’re a business leader looking to inject a dose of experimentation to improve your culture, here are seven tips to keep in mind:

1. Find the Right Rhythm and Balance in Your Symphony
Think about experimentation in your workplace as if it were a symphony. You need to find the right mixture of instruments in order to create the perfect piece. Rhythm and balance are key.

Create experimental initiatives that are customized to the structure of your org chart and the various roles and functions within your company. In our case, this means individuals, teams, and company-wide initiatives.

All of our experiments are geared toward one of these buckets, with balance and parity being spread across each. In addition to the org chart, use your experiments to find the right balance between performance and attitude.

All experiments cannot be performance-based, otherwise you risk sending the wrong message to employees. There needs to be an attitude and values element attached if you are going to get the most impact from these experiments on your culture.

2. Look Outside Your Industry
Remember that experimentation is fueled by creativity and intelligent risk taking. The best places to find this is usually from outside your industry, and from innovators that have nothing to do with your business at all.

Our best experiments as a company have come when we’ve looked at aspirational brands from other industries, studied their playbooks and then put our own experimental twist on something that they’ve done to make them successful.

Some of our most effective service initiatives were conceived thanks to innovative ideas we saw from leaders of other industries, and then we made alterations in order to make them unique to our own culture and identity.

Case in point, a long time ago when we were trying to come up with an experiment that would improve our responsiveness we studied Nordstrom, a brand that has a top notch reputation when it comes to lightning quick response time. We looked at various practices that Nordstrom implemented in order to create a culture of rapid response.

From these studies, our “6 Minute Response” experiment was borne. This was an experiment that was based on something Nordstrom had created, but with our own unique twist to make it specific to our culture.

Years later, this has become an important part of the fabric and nature of our customer service culture, and something that staff, customers and our partner network have gotten behind. It all started by looking outside of our line of work and then putting our own twist on it.

3. Sensical Experimentation is Key
When coming up with experiments, use the boundaries of common sense and your core company values to guide you. Ask yourself the following question; “does this experiment reflect the values of our company culture?”

Many times over the years I’ve had ideas that I thought would make for fascinating and motivational experiments that I wanted to test out on our company. However, when I took a step back and asked myself it the experiments stayed true to our company culture and values, the answer was no.

Remember, you need to be able to justify experiments with some sort of logical reasoning as to why they make sense for your culture. Experimentation for the sake of experimentation is not the answer.

4. Don’t Try to Fit Square Pegs in Round Holes
It’s great to test out new experiments that revolve around people and personnel in your organization. Testing out new team structures, creating unorthodox client service exercises, developing buddy systems that match up senior and junior staff that aren’t used to working with each other. All of these experimental initiatives can keep things fresh in the workplace, create a stimulating service environment for your people, and break up the monotony of the daily grind.

However, always look at the strengths of your people and make sure when you run experiments they are intended to accentuate the strengths, not the weaknesses. Some of my biggest mistakes have come from running experiments where the idea was great, but the people were wrong. Ultimately, you’re accountable for those failures as a business leader.

Your responsibility is to set your people up to succeed. Your experiments will only be as successful as the people that you run them with. Look at your people first and then create experiments based on their strengths. If you create the experiments first and then place the people around them, they are destined to fail. Take it from someone who has learned this lesson the hard way.

5. Don’t Force the Experiments
Let experiments come naturally to you. In my experience, the most successful experiments have come from the most unlikely of places.

As an example, I remember being in a restaurant in Italy several years ago when a waiter introduced me to an incentive wheel that they spun any time a customer would give them a compliment in front of the restaurant’s manager. The concept fascinated me.

Years later, when we were experimenting with new company-wide customer service incentives, I remembered the restaurant wheel that I had been introduced to. We took this concept to the next level, and turned it into one of our signature customer service exercises today. If we hit certain customer satisfaction goals across our company each month we spin a wheel of incentives. Each spoke represents a different perk or reward.

The wheel has resulted in an improvement in our customer service practices, and has rewarded our company with some pretty cool things such as month-long sabbaticals and spa days. It all began in a small town Southern Italian restaurant. Word to the wise; when it comes to experimentation, don’t force the issue. You’ll get the best ideas from the most unlikely of places.

6. Cut Losses Quickly
The thing about experiments that nobody wants to tell you is that many of them will fall flat on their face. Everyone wants to talk about the experiments that work, but I’m here to tell you that for every successful experiment you run there will be two or three that will fail.

I’ve developed an instinct for experimentation through many failures over the years. Whenever we roll out a new experiment I can usually tell within the first few days if it’s going to work. You need to let the experiments play out in entirety once you commit to making them. Don’t interrupt the experiment mid-stream no matter how badly your gut is telling you that it was a stupid idea.

However, once the experiment is seen through to completion be brutally honest in evaluating it. And be even quicker to pull the plug so that it’s the last time you roll that experiment out.

We’ve done some innovative things through the years. But we’ve also done some stupid things. It’s all about committing to the experiment, letting it play out, and then being smart (and quick) in evaluating whether or not it makes the cut as a sustainable part of your business over the long-term.

7. Move the Barn, Not the Farm
While creativity is the lifeblood of experimentation, risk assessment carries equally as much value in determining which experiments make it to the pilot stage and which ones get left in the dust. It’s important to do a risk versus reward analysis before any experiments are implemented. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the best case scenario from this experiment?
  • What is the worst case scenario from this experiment?
  • Can this experiment cause severe damage to the business?
  • Can this experiment have a counterproductive impact on morale in the workplace?

Once you’ve answered these questions it will make the decision to implement the experiment a lot easier. I have a saying about experimentation that I use to guide me on whether or not a specific idea makes it to prime time in our company. Never bet the farm, but don’t be afraid to move the barn to find sunlight.

I’ll always experiment if the reward outweighs the risk. But when you feel like you’re risking too much, hold back. It means the experiment could backfire in a toxic way.

Matt Rizzetta is the President and CEO of N6A, a leading brand communications agency based in New York City and Toronto.

Under Rizzetta’s leadership, N6A has been ranked among the fastest-growing agencies in the United States in its revenue category by O’Dwyers, as well one of the 50 most powerful agencies in the United States by the Observer and as a finalist for Digiday’s “Most Innovative Culture” award.

Rizzetta has been instrumental in creating a culture at N6A that has been lauded as one of the most rewarding, collaborative and unique in the agency landscape. More about N6A’s culture, perks and innovation programs can be found at www.CompeteandCare.com.

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