The first car that I bought on my own was a red Chevy Cavalier. When I saw the car I fell in love with it, and quickly rationalized that the fact it had no power windows, no air conditioning and no power steering was really not that big of a deal. (This from someone who had never driven a car without these fairly standard features.) Within the first couple days of purchasing the car, I quickly learned that when you don’t have power steering, it is much easier to turn the car if you are already rolling.
I’ve applied that life lesson to many a new project or change initiative. I have never seen a plan on paper — no matter how much time and energy went into its creation — that didn’t have to “adjust the steering” a bit once it started rolling. And if that’s the case, why not just get the basic framework in place and then pilot the project with the intention that it is a learning experience that will include adjustments on the way toward the end goal.
From my perspective, there are many benefits to getting the car rolling through a pilot project approach.
1) Speed. Piloting a project allows you to get from concept to hands-on application much more quickly. It generates excitement and enthusiasm among participants that they (who are usually much closer to the actual work than the administrators who typically develop plans) have the opportunity to shape what the project will ultimately look like. Sure some of the ideas won’t work, but when you give staff permission to “fail faster” you will get a better product more quickly, and with more buy-in.
2) Permission to work outside of current systems. Systems and processes are critical to the smooth operation of an organization, but can be the death knoll for an innovative start-up project. Now let me be clear, pilots still have to meet certain basic standards of operation. However, providing some latitude keeps a project from being mired down in systems and processes designed for a different kind of project — which can ultimately suck the life out of what, if allowed to flourish under its own power, could be the next big thing for your organization. Pilots need to be allowed to color outside the lines. If you decide to take the project to scale, then you can decide where the lines should be for this new approach.
3) Honest feedback. When staff know that the plan is to “get the car rolling” and then make needed adjustments as they go, they are much more willing to raise concerns about things that aren’t going as planned, and often have suggestions about how to improve the situation. Why does this happen more readily in a pilot? First of all, staff know making adjustments is part of the plan, so it doesn’t feel like the project failed if they have to make a change — that’s supposed to happen. Also, when people spend huge amounts of time putting something on paper, they become convinced that they have identified the best way to reach the stated goal. That makes it much harder for someone to speak up when an aspect of the plan isn’t working (you know, that whole kill the messenger thing). Pride in a plan can significantly diminish the final project. We focus on pride in the final project, and expect that there will be several course corrections in getting there.
4) Increases comfort with ambiguity. Change is a constant today, and yet many of our organizations are so laden with rules and requirements that staff come to expect that they will be told exactly how to do something. Creativity and critical thinking are muscles that have to be developed, and pilot projects provide the perfect opportunity for staff to get comfortable with exploring options and living in the “gray” rather than black and white. This has positive ramifications for the organization far beyond a single project as staff become more comfortable with asking “what if.”
5) Minimum risk for maximum reward. Pilots are little projects. You aren’t trying to change the entire organization/system/world . . . unless of course you do. Just because someone hasn’t done it before doesn’t mean that your organization won’t come up with a game-changing idea. Even if you don’t, you win because your staff is more prepared to deal with a volatile, ever-changing environment (see #4 above). And if you do . . .
I was lured in by a little red car and learned the lesson the hard way, but you don’t have to. It’s really not as difficult as you might think to get your car rolling before you try to turn the wheel. And once you’ve figured that out, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride!