Success Conditions – Experiments

It was midnight and I was ready to give up.

My son Caleb was in the 4th grade and was participating in his first science fair. As a parent, I was still naive about the time it takes to make your experiment a success. I mean you don’t want to be the parent of the kid with the hand-drawn presentation board about some run-of-the-mill coke and mentos experiment. You want your child to shine. You want your kid to learn something useful. You want your kid to know that they can make a contribution to the world!

By midnight, I could care less about his supposed “contribution”, I just wanted to go to sleep. Unfortunately, we had just finished building our last bridge. Building a bridge? You heard correctly. In all my desire to make an awesome science fair project that reflects what an amazing dad I am.. I mean to educate my son… I had taken on a significant research project building model popsicle stick bridges to see which construction technique could hold the most weight. It was well after 2:00 AM by the time we had finally finished the stress testing on all three bridge models. I knew right then and there that next year’s science fair project was going to be along the lines of coke and mentos.

If you ever did a science project like this as a kid (or if you’ve ever done one as a parent for your kid 😃), you know about creating repeatable tests. This is the heart of the scientific method. You make a hypothesis, then design a series of tests to prove or disprove your theory. For each test, you keep inputs constant and only change a single variable, which leads to observations of results. The process leads to explicit and quantifiable learning about what works and doesn’t work. If the tests are designed well, this learning should allow us to prove or disprove our hypothesis.

The origins of the scientific method can be traced back thousands of years, but our modern understanding of using observation, hypothesis, and experimentation can be traced to Roger Bacon in the 13th century. The combination of these elements is so powerful that our world has been completely changed by the scientific advancement they have ushered in.

Running Experiments in Your Business

So, if this is such a powerful process, why aren’t you applying this in your business? Just think about what type of learning you would gain if you started? What would happen if could simplify the scientific method in such a way that you could apply it to find answers to difficult problems? What if you attacked those problems head-on by devising a hypothesis around how to solve it then designing experiments to test the theory to see if it is true?

If a 10-year-old can use the scientific method for learning in the 4th grade, surely you can do the same in your own business. But you most likely aren’t. Why? I can think of three lies that we tell ourselves that hinder the process:

  1. I don’t have time. This is of course a lie because if you aren’t spending time to learn and grow in your business you won’t have a business to run. So, this isn’t a time question, this is a what is the most important way to spend your time question. In order to create small experiments, you need to make a decision that this is important. You have to set aside time to think about a hypothesis and then think about tests to prove or disprove the theory. None of this will happen by accident, it takes purposeful activity planned in advance. In the middle of the craziness of life, it is just hard to do this well.
  2. I don’t have the training. It is easy to believe that you need a more formal education as a “real scientist” trained in the halls of academia. This is simply not true. For the types of small experiments needed to learn in your business, you need to stop thinking about white lab coats, fancy equipment, and massive budgets. You aren’t trying to find a cure for COVID-19. You aren’t dealing with life or death circumstances, but how to serve our client better. To do these experiments, you just need some orderly, logical thought to come up with a guess and then to test the validation of that guess. To do this well, you don’t need any more training.
  3. It’s risky. To do the scientific method, you have to do experiments. Usually, experiments fail, which is good because that is a part of learning. But in order to get results, you need to keep testing. This takes time, which translates to spending money. As a small business owner both time and money and real constraints affect your ability to take risks. While there is truth in the risk it will take, the reality is that not learning is a bigger risk.

Science Fair IRL

“You need to take bold bets and if you take bold bets they are going to be experiments. Experiments that you don’t know ahead of time if they are going to work. And experiments by their very nature are prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”

Jeff Bezos

The answer to overcome the lies is creating a culture of experiments. We don’t need to put pressure on ourselves to create university-level experiments requiring million-dollar budgets and years of effort. We can break down problems into smaller problems, and then create mini-tests to experiment with potential solutions. This learning process can take weeks not years. And the learning can be applied immediately in real life.

To do this, you don’t need to be a “real” scientist. You do need to take time to think about your problems and potential ideas to overcome them. You do need to take some risks in trying small-scale experiments that might lead to solutions. But these risks are inherent to life in a small business. In fact not taking these risks might be the biggest risk of all.

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