The Oxford English Dictionary defines experimentation as ‘the action or process of trying out new ideas, methods, or activities.’ Testing assumptions is fundamental if we want to gain fresh insights and acquire new knowledge. Conducting experiments allows us to explore different options without fully committing all our time, energy and resources. Then we can put the learning to good use by making better-informed decisions as to which option to pursue. Many organisations use pilots or trials where they can limit the downsides and learn from results.

One famous example of experimentation is X, The Moonshot Factory. Established by Google in 2010, X enables people to invent and test out incredible new technologies with an end purpose in mind. The failure rate is high, but that’s the point as failure is encouraged so that learning from the experience can be used to advance other innovations. Of course, Google has vast resources, but this doesn’t mean that smaller entities with more modest resources should ignore experimentation – quite the opposite. Properly scoped out and sensibly managed testing can save time and money by providing valuable proof of concept.

According to Vijay Govindaran, Professor, Tuck School of Business, “The key is to fail quickly and cheaply, spend a little to learn a lot.” Running several small-scale experiments can help you to do just that. By trying things out on a limited basis, and as early as possible, you can learn fast what works, what doesn’t, and why. Great for business, but what about as an individual?

Thinking about experimentation from a career point of view can be daunting as it can be hard to know where to start. You can design an experiment to test drive your potential new career or a business opportunity. Here’s how:

Gain clarity about the purpose of your research. What do you hope for by conducting the test? Without knowing this, it is unlikely that you will gain valuable insight from the results. What assumptions do you intend to evaluate? Be clear about what you know and what you assume. List the facts then list your assumptions. What questions do you want to answer?

Give each experiment an adequate level of resource and emotional commitment. Running several tests at a time is possible and may be desirable; however, beware of firing off in too many directions as this is likely to be less rewarding and potentially exhausting. You might find it helpful to ask the following questions:

  • How much is emotional commitment required from me to conduct a meaningful experiment? Can I sustain more than one test at a time?
  • How much of my practical resources will it realistically take to do simultaneous tests? Am I prepared for this?

Weed out the bad fits before you begin. Do this by reviewing your strengths (the things you love doing and are good at).  If you are not sure about your strengths, try taking the free VIA Personality Test. Created by a team of scientists led by Dr Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, the survey has been used in hundreds of research studies and taken by over 5 million people in over 190 countries.

Then audit your resources (time, energy, money and people who might help and support you). Think through your potential options for experiment with this in mind. Where would you like to spend your time? Visualise the practical steps you would take on each of the shortlisted options starting with your favourite and working down to your least favourite. Whittle the list down further by asking yourself:

  • Do I buy into this option? If successful, will it play to my strengths
  • Will this option stretch me?
  • If successful, so I think it would make me happy, proud and feel personally fulfilled?

Design and run your experiment. Now you have a shortlist of potential tests it is time to act. Trying something out is the only way to know if it is for you. There are a countless number of approaches to trying out different ways of working and exploring new horizons. Remember the idea is to collect as much as information with as little effort as possible, so keep it simple. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

  • Talk to people who already earn their living doing what you would like to do. Be open about your motives and polite with your request as it will impact on their time. Ask how they became expert in their field, what they enjoy about it and what tips they can offer you. Be prepared to share something in return.
  • Create a small pool of trusted advisors by identifying people willing to support and help you. Explain what you are attempting to do. Be specific about what you would like. Perhaps you could offer to run a test pilot of your new business idea for someone you trust who can review and provide you with critical feedback?
  • Try volunteering as a way to try out new possibilities in a field that you are testing. You’ll gain experience, and it will allow you to network with the kind of people who work in your target sector, doing the type of work you hope to do. One connection can lead to another, which might result in exciting opportunities you didn’t know existed.
  • How about signing up for a short course in the subject matter of your career experiment? You can blend quality digital learning, such as edX with in-person workshops run by adult education centres. Doing so will maximise the benefits of exposure to fresh ideas and enable you to test given assumptions while enjoying a shared experience.
  • Go Zen and foster a “beginner’s mind” by being open to possibilities. Embark on each experiment with curiosity and eagerness to learn. Work hard at it. If it succeeds, then you can take the test to the next level and begin to plan for the longer-term. If it doesn’t, you will still have discovered something useful. Experiment, learn, then decide which options you will carry forward.

Beverly Landais, PCC (Professional Certified) Coach. Beverly works with individuals and teams to help them hone their performance which leads to better professional satisfaction and helps them deliver more value to the businesses in which they operate.