Why We Should Experiment More (Episode 33-39)
In both life and work
It is easy to get, and stay, caught-up in routines and old ways of being and doing. Both as individuals, but also as companies, which of course are merely groups of individuals organized around a particular purpose or product and/or service offering. Simply continuing doing something because that just is the way it always has been done, is risky business. We need to question our ways of being and doing. We need to experiment more and learn to venture off away from the beaten path.
Benefits of experimentation
In the book ‘The Power of Experiments’, an example is shared of the Behavioral Insights Team of the UK tax authority, who experimented with the wording of a letter sent out to people defaulting on their taxes. Simply by engaging in experimentation, and through trial-and-error testing of different wordings of the letters sent out, the UK tax authority was able to bring in tens of millions of unpaid taxes (Luca and Bazerman, 2020). Only because of some different wording! That’s a worthwhile experiment. We would all do very well to get out of our usual rut, try out new things and experimenting more. Both in our work, and how we live our lives in general. Closely connected with this is of course the topic of spontaneity, which I’ve written and talked about before. When we experiment, we lower the bar in a way. We then let go of perfection and allow ourselves and others to make mistakes. ‘When we’re experimenting, we’re willing to do all sorts of things we might be embarrassed to do otherwise’ (Bregman, 2010). That’s a good thing. That’s how we arrive at new pathways and that’s how we can connect as imperfect fellow human beings.
Experimentation is also important in science. It helps us test theories and provides the basis for scientific knowledge. It can also help us formulate new theories and help test and expand old ones (Franklin and Perovic, 2021). Experimentation on a small scale allows us to predict outcomes on a larger scale (Hill, 2022). Continued experimentation then increases reliability of our findings and helps us distill best practices. Peter Bregman wrote about this very well. He stated, ‘when we live life as an experiment, we are far more willing to take risks, to acknowledge failure, to learn and develop. That’s what experiments are all about: discovery and growth. There is no real failure in an experiment because it’s all data. If something doesn’t work, that’s simply data that leads to changing behavior to see if something else does work’ (Bregman, 2010). Thus, it really makes a hell of a lot of sense to approach life and work more experimental. Therefore, to learn more about this experimental approach to life and work, I have talked to Lennard Toma, an organizational psychologist and practical experimentalist who has conducted a ton of experiments for new ways of working and being in, amongst others, the companies Keytoe, KeytoeY, and Evanthia.
Experimenting, learning, and experimenting some more
Lennard and his colleagues are a great example of people understanding the many benefits of experimentation. In a response to the many reactions to the book ‘99 Problems But The Boss Ain't One’ and the podcast in which Lennard Toma and his collogue Cedric Muchall discuss their learnings and failures while experimenting with newer and more free ways of organizing and working. Ultimately, this led to the founding of a new company KeytoeY, and online course platform, and even a theater show, all as vehicles for yet further experimentation (Toma, 2022). The last step in this list of explorations and experimentations is the start of a University program in Modern Business Administration in cooperation with SDO Hogeschool.
When talking about the reasons for many of these experiments and new ventures and explorations, Lennard’s reply was almost always ‘why not?!’ (Toma, 2022). Which, if you ask me, is a permanently good question to ask ourselves. Too often we are restricting ourselves and our organizations in old ways of being and because of fears about what might go wrong. Instead, when we dare to experiment, we can learn, grow, and find new opportunities to thrive. As Lennard said, ‘Let’s try it in a different way, and see how it goes’ (Toma, 2022).
Trusting people equals buy-in and commitment
Lennard Toma is the perfect person to talk to if you’d like to hear some fine examples of experimentation, and learn what works, and what didn’t. What they’ve been very big on, is trusting people and being transparent with each other. Although this started as experimentation, ultimately it led to the formation of a very close and engaged team with true heart for their companies. For instance, at Keytoe and KeytoeY, employees and colleagues are setting their own salaries, firing each other when necessary, and are having the freedom to work where they want, how they want, and when they want to (Toma, 2022). There is also complete freedom to experiment at different functions of the business. Learning new things of interest is encouraged to everyone. For KeytoeY, they went as far as letting people hire themselves, determine their own salaries, and formulate their own contracts; the founders signed blindly.
They approached this with a ‘fuck it’ mentality, to see what will happen and learn from the experience (Toma, 2022). As it turned out, this proved to be a great filter for selecting the right kind of people for their organization. Some said, ‘oh no, this is too crazy for me, I’m out!’ while others hired themselves at minimum wage even though they would have had the freedom to allocate themselves any salary. Thus, giving people real much trust and freedom, as it turns out, leads to reciprocal behavior benefiting everyone while engaging in true win-win forms of cooperation. To me, these experiments as conducted and implemented by KeytoeY are very fascinating. They prove that when people are given responsibility and treated with transparency, they will act accordingly. They feel and act as if the company is their own.
Trust, transparency, and reciprocity
Transparency, and flat decision-making structures help facilitate organizational experimentation (Toma, 2022). As it turns out, this also elicits trust and reciprocity. ‘Sometimes you set certain rules in order to prevent certain things, but if you do it the other way around and trust people, then they’re less likely to do the “bad” thing that you think they will do’ (Toma, 2022). Trusting people and giving them freedom and responsibilities leads to people behaving as such as it turns out. Lennard gives the example of unlimited holidays. As it turns out, instead of people being flaky and barely working, they actually had to be sent on holidays at times. In general, people are not freeriding. Everybody knows they need to upkeep the business and generate income in order to pay salaries (Toma, 2022). For this, they have ‘one rule, to rule them all’ as Lennard shared, which is to ‘make sure your clients and your colleagues are, and stay happy’ (Toma, 2022). If you can keep clients and colleagues happy and in balance, things will go well. In our talk on the topic of experimentation, Lennard shares many more inspiring examples how freedom, transparency, and trust equals buy-in, commitment, engagement and simply a happier place to work.
Learning more about ourselves and others through experimentation
I asked Lennard about what he had learnt about himself, his colleagues and his clients when working in such an explorative and experimental fashion. With a big smile, he told me he learnt about himself that he really enjoys experimenting and trying new things, considering the companies his playground (Toma, 2022). He also shared how the positive results of the experimentations encouraged him and his colleagues to explore more, try new things, and push further. The feedback gave him confidence that this was the right way to go. This is an important thing, I believe. Because we need to try and learn by experience, instead of stretching ourselves theorizing and planning. It's when the rubber meets the road that traction happens. With regard to his colleges and clients’ responses to experimentation, Lennard learnt that many people are afraid to lose control. As he correctly added, this is of course a false sense of control to begin with. Nonetheless, people are afraid of losing this illusion of control (Toma, 2022). When asking questions about this imagined sense of control, people can begin to realize that they indeed aren’t in control to begin with. Hence, allowing for more openness to experimentation and trying new things.
Continuous experimentation versus routines and habits
When we only experiment and explore, ultimately this will result in chaos. We also have to commit, and finish what we start. We have to follow through. Therefore, as I discussed with Lennard, only experimentation is also detrimental for progress. Routines and habits are very important in life and business. However, we have to keep questioning what we are doing and why.
Asking why, why, why?
‘As humans, we think certain things need to go in a certain way. But if you ask enough questions, you see that some things are really stupid […]. I like to see if there is another door to open, or way to go’ (Toma, 2022). Any time is a good time to ask why, according to Lennard, and as he elaborated, it beneficial to ask why a number of times instead of just once (Toma, 2022). Asking why multiple times helps us get to the bottom of things and understand what drives our decisions and behavior. Lennard share three red flags for poor behavior which signal the need to change, or experiment with how things are being done (Toma, 2022). Find these listed below:
‘We’re always doing it like this’ Simply continuing something because it has always been like this is not a good reason for any behavior or actions. Ask why, and find a better way of doing things;
‘Because then I have control’ Of course control is an illusion and not a good reason in itself to do something. If you’re doing things for the sake of control, mix it up and question your motives. There are better ones out there;
‘I don’t know’ Obviously, not knowing why one is doing something is certainly not a good reason to keep it going and is an indicator for a need to change and further exploration.
Three tips for shaking things up
Lennard Toma aims to inspire people to do things completely different. Therefore, during our talk, I asked him to share three things he would recommend people to try when wanting to experiment more, and shake things up (Toma, 2022). Find these three tips listed below:
Ask questions. You need to realize you have the power to change things; to get things in motion. Everyone has influence, often more than they are aware of. Many things aren’t thought through well and are thus prone to improvement. Therefore, ask questions, and instill change, being a ‘fire starter’;
Position ideas as pilots. What really helps with getting buy-in for new ideas and experiments, position them as pilots. This way, people feel safer and recognize the change isn’t final and there is a way out if things don’t work out as expected. In this regard it’s also good to set up evaluation metrics and moments, making it clear there is an exit possible, and people are in control and can go back to their old ways, or try yet something else;
Make sure you understand what people want and desire. Asking people personal questions, or learning about their frustrations with their current project/work helps you better understand them, and what drives their behavior and choices. With that information, you can frame your ideas so that it reflects their needs and desires, eliciting their buy-in to your proposed shake-up. Anyhow, it is always beneficial understanding what drives people, and being considerate of their drivers. Therefore, be interested, curious, and ask questions.
This project of 39 Ideas for Life started as an experiment. As a project to clench my curiosity. I didn’t know what I’d be finding, or even which topics I’d be researching. I approached it with open arms and an open mind. So far, I am very proud to say that although I felt stressed and anxious about making the next (self-imposed) deadline at times, I did not regret starting this experiment. I’ve learnt so much and have gotten to know a great many interesting new people. Not only those who I’ve interviewed, but also those who’ve reached out, and shared with me how they benefitted from this little experiment. I hope that through this episode you too will experiment a bit more. Try something new and be surprised about what you’ll find and become. Enjoy, and don’t bother being perfect, just give it a go!
Image: An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby.
To learn about experimenting more, both in life and work, I have had a highly interesting and engaging talk with Lennard Toma, an organizational psychologist and experimentalist. He wrote a book about his many experimentations and the problems which emerged from that in the marketing and IT company Keytoe titled, ’99 Problems but The Boss Ain’t One’ and co-authored the book ‘Bedrijf Bamischijf’, which launches today, about more sensible, healthy and fun ways of organizing business.
Lennard also cofounded a spin-off KeytoeY, with the sole purpose to inspire and awaken people to new ways of working and flourishing, while experimenting even more. For this, amongst other things, they have performed in theaters and launched the ‘Hoe Dan?!’ podcast.
I greatly enjoyed this talk and the many fresh perspectives and funny anecdotes shared as well as the curious and laid-back character of Lennard. In case you could do with some new views on life, what’s possible and enjoy getting your current perceptions questioned, you’ll love this talk. Enjoy!
Personal website of Lennard Toma: https://www.lennardtoma.nl
Website of Keytoe: https://keytoe.nl
Bregman, Peter, 2010, Live Life as an Experiment. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2010/08/it-was-an-experiment-i.html, accessed on April 8 2022.
Franklin, Allan and Slobodan Perovic, "Experiment in Physics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/physics-experiment/, accessed on 8 April 2022.
Laloux, Frederic, 2014, Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness. https://amzn.to/3NU0Sn5
Luca, Michael and Max Bazerman, 2020, The Power of Experiments: Decision Making in a Data-Driven World. https://amzn.to/3v2pUrq
Hill, Brian, 2022, The Importance of Experimentation in Business. Chron. https://smallbusiness.chron.com/turbotax-taxes-13771756.html, accessed on 8 April 2022.
Semler, Ricardo, 1994, Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World's Most Unusual Workplace. https://amzn.to/3LGFBvc
Semler, Ricardo, 2004, The Seven Day Weekend: A Better Way to Work in the 21st Century. https://amzn.to/3rb1xqk
Toma, Lennard and Cedric Muchall, 2018, 99 Problems But The Boss Ain't One:
Met vallen en opstaan naar een vernieuwende organisatiecultuur. https://tinyurl.com/ntzcs6a8
Muchall, Cedric and Lennard Toma, 2022, Bedrijf Bamischijf: Van onzinnig ‘bedrijfje spelen’ naar zinnig organiseren. https://tinyurl.com/mrxhk6nr