10 Scraps of Knowledge from 50 Pilot Projects

In the innovation space, piloting, experimenting, trying and finagling are all critical to learning about what is possible. For me, innovation is creativity implemented, and piloting is a great way to test out theories, always be successful and learn valuable lessons. If an idea works on a small-scale pilot, you can learn lessons and deliver better 2.0 services. If an idea doesn't, well, you tried. And pilots are about trying, even if the concept proves to be a flop.

10 Lessons from 50 Pilots

In my career, I have led, managed or otherwise been a strong partner in over 50 innovative, boundary-pushing pilot projects. There are countless lessons inside of those pilots, but here are 10 that stand out for me:

  1. Benevolent, educated, and thoughtful dictatorship is the best environment for piloting. Having organizational leadership that is willing to try things is critical. The best ideas don't often come from "groupthink" or full buy-in, which can occasionally dilute and drain the creativity out of a concept via fear-based decision making. Sometimes you just have to have the courage to try, and having a leader who is willing to say "we are doing this" is a huge advantage in doing pilot projects-and innovating afterwards.
  2. There are two types of credit: idea generation credit and implementation credit. Give both. Look, there's enough credit to go around. The person who comes up with an idea very often isn't the person who has to implement it, or is most affected by it. Be sure to give credit to and celebrate those teammates that actually implement the pilot. Both count in successful innovation and should be recognized.
  3. Innovation does not always require investment. But it's a lot better if you have some! Truth is, some of my favorite pilot projects happened with a mandate, a direction, a desire and no budget. Necessity is the mother of invention and scarce resources breed creativity.
  4. Persistence is required. Of these 50+ pilots, there are at least 8 of them that I had to fail multiple times before I could even try the pilot. Don't just be persistent in implementing it, be persistent in going after what you need to try it.
  5. Sometimes trust is given after a pilot works. Hard truth is that not everyone will see what you see when it comes to an innovative idea. Not everyone has your same risk tolerance. Sometimes you get the trust to innovate after you try an idea. Which leads to the next point...
  6. Asking forgiveness, not permission. Trust your talent. Trust your abilities. And don't be a permissaholic (someone who asks permission for everything just to cover their ass). Sometimes you shouldn't ask for permission, you should ask for forgiveness. It's a riskier route to take, and you have to lose the fear of failure, but that's how great innovation happens sometimes.
  7. Ask others what they are passionate about, and use that in the pilot. It's all about Team UsMany of the ideas that led to these pilot projects came from the passion of others--or were shaped and driven by them. Harnessing the passion of others as part of the project inspires and encourages others. It's a powerful way to get things done with very little resources, so be sure to ask people "what are you passionate about," and then help them innovate and implement around their passion.
  8. Start every conversation by finding a way to get to yes. It may not be the yes you're looking for, but start every meeting with the goal of finding a way to get to yes. Then seek out the yes. Yes is more powerful than no, so inviting people to find their "yes" helps everyone find a way forward. And take the power away from the "no" people.
  9. Track, measure, take pictures and communicate. People need different kinds of information to believe in the power of pilots and innovation. Some want ROI, measurements and hard numbers. Some want pictures and visuals that tell a powerful tale. Be mindful of what sells the pilot best to different audiences before you begin and track, measure, photograph and advertise the heck out of it. Then package it up, pretty it up and communicate like crazy...giving credit along the way.
  10. Take the fall. As often as you need to. But always try again. In three different pilots, I have failed at levels where my job was in jeopardy. Big pilots that failed politically, financially or socially. The network of support evaporated and I was alone on "failure island". Hey, that's going to happen. I took the fall (no blamestorming), took the heat and moved on. People respect someone who gets knocked down--and get's back up again. So take a risk, take a fall, but always try again.

Not all of these lessons apply to every situation, but they are powerful and overarching themes weaved throughout a career of innovating. To be effective, sometimes you can't ask to be safe or get the buy-in you need, and you often times don't have the resources to get the project done the way you would like, but pilots are the safest and most effective way to create, iterate and innovate bigger. Pilot a project today!


Special thanks to Jay Anderson, Alicia Archibald, Brian Conly, Penny Culbreth-Graft, Frank Kinder, Carrie McCausland, John Olson, Hannah Parsons, Allison Plute, Brian Rockey and LeeAnn Westfall for their thoughts and illuminating conversation throughout the years that contributed to these lessons. Team Us.

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