Last week I went on a field trip with a third-grade class to a state park. The class had the opportunity to explore a cave that holds four world records for various features, and it was a great chance to learn some of the intricacies of cave and earth science.
Science is a topic that many find fascinating, and yet when we have the opportunity to behave like a scientist in the workplace, most of us prefer to go with a tried and tested method instead. But what if we took the time to look critically at what we do and how we do it? Would we keep up the same practices, or would careful testing illuminate new paths and options that we never even considered?
The Scientific Method
Back in elementary school you probably learned the basic steps of the scientific method. Here’s the list:
- Ask a question
- Construct a hypothesis
- Test your hypothesis
- Draw a conclusion
- Communicate results
This can easily be adjusted to fit workplace innovation and problem-solving needs:
- Figure out what to improve (What’s the problem?)
- Form a hypothesis (I think xyz will solve the problem.)
- Create an experiment (Let’s test xyz.)
- Measure results and determine next steps (Did xyz improve outcomes?)
This is incredibly simple when we break it down, but as strange as it sounds, many companies do not follow this type of process. Each of these steps is important, but the ones I see most often lacking are experimentation and measurement.
In the big scheme of things, it’s relatively easy to guess a problem (#1) and guess a solution (#2). It takes more time and effort to actually test an idea on a pilot group of employees/managers or customers/clients and measure the results to determine a path forward.
A Real-Life Example
One of my good friends previously worked for EMC Corporation in an HR role. One of his favorite sayings was “use employees as guinea pigs.” This wasn’t meant to demean the employees or their contributions. Instead, it was a chance to try new ways of rewarding, supporting, and engaging the workforce that hadn’t been tried before. The idea is to test new ideas for engagement, development, etc., on a smaller pilot group before attempting to roll it out to the larger group of employees. The benefits of that approach are multiple: low risk, low cost, and an experimental data set.
There are two other obvious approaches: do nothing (status quo) or try something new with the entire employee population. Neither of those is particularly helpful, and there are numerous challenges in attempting to try a new approach when dealing with a global organization and tens of thousands of employees. That’s why this idea of testing and experimentation makes so much sense.
We often talk about HR and learning as a hub for innovation within the enterprise. This is our chance to demonstrate that in a meaningful way. I’d ask that you take a moment to think about one of the challenges that you and your team are facing right now. Then ask these questions of yourself (or your team):
- Do we have a firm understanding of the core problem?
- If so, do we have any ideas about potential solutions that might resolve the issue?
- If so, how can we test the solution(s) on a small group of employees to determine efficacy?
- And finally, how will we measure to determine if the solution is truly effective?
If all of us, me included, were more willing to test, experiment, and try new ideas, then innovation would be more of a natural extension of work than the separate activity organizations make it out to be. Give in to your inner scientist and give this experimentation idea a few tries—I think you’ll find that you enjoy it!
—Ben Eubanks, Learning Analyst, Brandon Hall Group