Drop the Pilot.

Conventional wisdom has it that organisations that want to experiment with new models should do so using ‘pilots.' Conventional wisdom is wrong.  


I am pretty sure these small self-contained low risk prototype experiments get in the way of change. And this comes from someone who has designed and run these kinds of pilot interventions for years.


So here’s the Damascene conversion: far from being a safe way to innovate, pilots get in the way of change – they are silent and invisible sideshows that make it easier for the rest of the organisation to carry on regardless, safe in the knowledge that there’s a little pilot team in the corner working out the future while ‘business as usual' marches towards the edge of the cliff. 



"Big bets are fast, scary, public and engaging."
"Big bets are fast, scary, public and engaging."


Don’t flirt with change

Bold leaders – Jeff Bezos, Andrew Witty, Steve Jobs – all have the determination to press on with big bets. But they are in the minority – most brands are led by boards who have to weigh up pros and cons and balance innovation with ‘protecting the core.’  To them, the ‘pilot’ approach looks smart – a slow and gentle, easy-does-it way to eat your cake and have it.


But a big bet grabs the organisational attention, feels like something I have to be part of, and generates a wave of consumer enthusiasm and opt-ins that you don’t get with a ‘pilot’ approach. When a brand goes big, it can successfully imbue innovation into its organisational DNA. If you treat your experiment as a pilot, as just a mere sideshow, those efforts won’t ever alter the fabric of your organization.


Consider iPlayer and the BBC: iPlayer was developed by a team of outsiders, then grafted onto a bunch of somewhat reluctant senior folks who weren’t that keen on what iPlayer meant for the existing channel/programme hierarchy. iPlayer was a huge success with consumers, but the team moved on, leaving little or no innovation DNA within the BBC. Just a glimpse of what could have been.


Count the sectors that have big, life-or-death imperatives to find a new way now. Pharmaceutical firms; banks; national mail carriers; agriculture; comparison sites; online travel agents; video rental companies; publishers. Not tomorrow. Now. They have no choice but to work out their futures—in public.


Pilots are too slow for these challenges. And they rob the organisation of the chance to inject innovation and energy into its DNA. Big bets are fast, scary, public and engaging.


So here’s the hunch – in today’s fast-moving markets, slow and gentle just won’t work. When your business model is screwed you need to find a new one fast. When there’s a huge prize up for grabs you can’t inch your way towards it.



Alter your DNA

Really successful companies, the brands that dominate our futures, gate-crash categories, and bend all the rules, don’t take experimentation lightly. They make it part of their operating DNA. And they tend to bet the farm (or large parts of it) on delivering the new model. For them it's not an optional experiment that can be cast aside later, but a big, high profile, high-risk venture that changes the game.


Amazon with Kindle; GSK establishing its DCMA operating unit, which brought its medicines and vaccines further into developing countries; P&G seeking innovations from outside; Virgin Atlantic introducing the first seat-back TVs as part of its entertainment experience model.


None of these were brands on the brink of extinction – they were all smart brands, at the top of their game, who spotted an opportunity and went for it.


No baby steps – they all took a deep breath and plunged into the new and exciting game-changing models. No spreadsheets. No ‘quant research.’ No ‘conjoint analysis.’


The leaders of each brand were convinced these were the right bets to make – so they just got on and did it.



Define your own future

So how do you choose the right bet?


First up – if your business absolutely must change, it’s a life or death situation, and someone suggests a pilot scheme, then throw them out of the room. If it feels optional it’s too small.


Second – if the bet feels right for your brand, if it aligns with your purpose, then it’s probably right. Think carefully about what your business is (really) in the world to do, then do everything you can to fulfil that role.


Third – give it your best shot. Put your best people and your best resources on it. Let everyone know it is the direction you want to go in, not an interesting idea you’re flirting with.


And then you’ll be defining your own future.


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