Culture of experimentation: Why failing may be the best thing you’ll ever do

Hans Hoogenboom

Senior CRO strategist

Culture of experimentation isn’t a new thing. It’s been around for decades as a business mindset, and it’s been the foundation of some of the biggest companies in the world – like Amazon. But there’s been more discussion around it in the last few years as conversion rate optimisation (CRO), experimentation and split testing have all become more accessible.

What is a culture of experimentation?

At its core, culture of experimentation is a mindset that allows every employee to contribute and try new things, regardless of seniority or department. Every idea has value, as long as it’s supported by evidence. This doesn’t mean every idea needs tonnes of evidence, or that every idea will be tested – it just means everyone is listened to.

It’s also a culture based on experimentation principles – using quantitative and qualitative research, hypothesis testing and having a curious mindset. It means aiming to explore the unknown through research and testing.

And the best thing is, it’s not limited to your site or app – it should be ingrained into every team member. They should question if they can work more efficiently, play with process flows or even try to do a task in a completely different way.

Essentially, every employee should be able to experiment with their work and processes, and put forward new ideas to help grow the business or make it more efficient.

Amazon: Culture of experimentation in practice

Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is a big advocate for experimentation at any scale. 

He’s also a firm believer that you can’t innovate without experimentation, and you can’t experiment without accepting failure. In a letter to the Amazon shareholders, he boldly wrote: “I believe we’re the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent, you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.”

A lot of Amazon’s successful products and services have launched through experimentation, like Prime services and the Kindle. But Amazon also has a string of failed experiments, like the Fire Phone and Dash Buttons. Although these products no longer exist, Amazon learned a lot.

Benefits of a culture of experimentation

  • Fresh ideas – As employees become open-minded and curious, they celebrate failures as valuable insights and learn from the experience.

  • Enhanced productivity - Employees that feel involved in the success of their company can have higher job satisfaction which can positively impact productivity.

  • Audience insights – Experiments should focus on your users. Allowing all employees to participate means learning more about your audience from the perspective of different departments.

  • Improved decision making – For experimentation to be successful, data needs to be front and centre. Changing the company culture can help promote a data-driven approach.

  • Big-picture thinking – Experimentation isn’t limited to a site; employees can look at the bigger picture, trying out new products and services or internal processes.

  • Better company culture – As it becomes the norm, experimentation means that success will be felt coming from all areas of the business.

The race to truly understand who your customers are (and who they aren’t) has begun.

Several high street brands have collapsed over the past decade – from Blockbuster in 2010 to Toys R Us more recently. This could arguably be down to their inability to adapt systems and processes to work in an omni-channel world. The digital-first brands that have taken their place – Netflix and Amazon respectively, understand each customer on a finer level.

How to create a culture of experimentation

Creating a new culture within a company isn’t easy. People might be resistant to change, question why you’re doing certain things and want to see the benefits of it first. So, how do you prove the value?

In a previous post on a structured approach for CRO we outlined why having the right process, skills and culture should form the basis of an optimisation programme. Here, getting the basics right will also help you persuade the company that a culture of experimentation can be beneficial.

There are a few ways to amplify this:

  • Set rules and values - This can help guide the quality of tests, and can help create a curious mind-set. For example, “All ideas have a purpose”, “More tests don’t equal more money”, or “Research is part of efficiency” help people assess the value of their idea. It might be that not all ideas are run with, but they’re still valuable.

  • Use senior stakeholders – Get them on board to give the programme an extra push, as they can lead the company in the right direction.

  • Involve and praise – Make people feel a part of the company’s success. Praise those who come up with the idea behind an experiment, as well as the people who designed and analysed the results.

  • Gamify – Making experimentation a game can boost the initial engagement drastically. Attach rewards or a points system to ideas – this is a great way to get people involved.

  • Share your results – All of them. Remember: this is all about not being scared to fail. You’ll often learn a lot from failed tests, which can lead to bigger wins in the future.

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