How did the other pilots go? An innocent question to ask anyone talking about their ‘pilot project’.
Phased implementation of a single big idea, quite often gets disguised as a ‘pilot project’. In reality it is just a Trojan Horse. A sneaky way of introducing a single idea as a method of solving complicated problem. This sort of phased implementation is not a pilot. It is certainly not an experimental ‘safe to fail’ pilot to test different ideas. (Link here to previous posts on ‘safe to fail’ pilots.)
I’ve had a couple of conversations recently about managing risk and learning from failure. These were with people who had seen more than their fair share of public (and private) sector projects over very many years. We ended up agreeing on the following:
- A large number of projects are developed on the basis of working towards a single well-defined ‘perfect’ product or outcome,
- This often doesn’t account for the context of the situation or the fact it is complex;
- Frequently, as part of the planning stage there will have been very few alternative options considered;
- Ideas generation is at best restricted to a carefully controlled focus group, or brainstorming session (packed with groupthink);
- If you are lucky there might have been some ‘stakeholder consultation’;
- If options have been considered, most of them will be variations on the same theme;
- There will always be a ‘do nothing’ option thrown in for dramatic effect;
- Many of these projects claim to have gone through a testing or pilot stage, in reality they haven’t;
- What this ‘testing’ and ‘piloting’ actually amounts to is phased implementation;
- The ‘pilot’ phase is actually a Trojan Horse for getting the idea introduced beyond the point of no return;
- Very few (if any) of these tests and pilots are ever killed off, or substantially changed; and
- Learning from failure isn’t a phrase you will hear very often (if ever).
Apologies if that sounds a bit sceptical. I just wanted to get across the point that the phased implementation of a single clever idea is not a real pilot exercise.
How to spot a real pilot exercise. If someone starts banging on about their pilot project, be suspicious, in a nice helpful way…
Here are five questions to throw into the conversation. Check for the reaction and listen for the responses. Be prepared to deal with a tumbleweed moment…. (got there at last, that’s what the picture is about):
- How did you generate different ideas for your pilots?
- How have the other pilots gone?
- Did you learn much from the ones that failed?
- Do you have anything in place to stop this pilot if it starts to fail?
- How will you be sharing the learning from your pilot?
Possibly a bit cruel, but remember; Trojan Horses (single idea, phased implementation) are very different to Trojan Mice (multiple safe to fail experiments run in parallel).
So, what’s the PONT?
- Pilots (testing things rigorously) are very different from phased implementation. Trojan Horses are not Trojan Mice.
- A good pilot exercise is best done with a diverse range of ideas to test.
- Ask the five simple questions to test if something really is a pilot, and be prepared for the tumbleweed moment.
Picture Source. How did the other pilots go?…. a tumbleweed moment. I particularly like the person leaving the scene in the road sign….
Tumbleweed at a gas station in Chelan, Washington by A.Balet. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tumbleweed_in_Chelan_WA.jpg
Trojan Mice – explanation here. http://whatsthepont.com/2013/07/28/continuous-improvement-why-matters-to-squeeze-the-pips-release-trojan-mice-and-win-small/
Agile Project Management link. http://whatsthepont.com/2012/12/02/agile-project-management-and-a-naval-bombardment-in-newport-south-wales/
Safe to Fail Pilots & Dave Snowden link.http://whatsthepont.com/2013/11/04/loving-and-learning-from-failure-great-idea-but-how-does-it-work/