Small Experiments


We’ve been thinking about “confident leadership” recently. So how can leaders exhibit confident decision making in complex situations? One solution is to try “small experiments.”


Small experiments involve a commitment to a specific action over a limited timeframe. Add to that an extra commitment to re-evaluate the actions taken and make changes, if needed.

Here’s an illustration. Let’s say you want to become more collaborative with those you manage. Specifically, you want more feedback and interactive decision making. Great!  Here, you could work with team members to try out a new feedback system for three months. At the end of that time, you discuss with each other what you learned from this new process. Then, you determine whether to continue the new system. The decision is less stressful both for you and for your colleague. Why? Because you’ve got a built-in system for catching problems and addressing them if the method doesn’t work.


The biggest advantages for small experiments are that you don’t have to get it right the first time and even when uncertain, you can still make progress.

  • You don’t have to get it right the first time. This feels contrary to how most conscientious leader types want to work. But the problem of trying to always get it right on the first attempt is that you often feel the need to delay action while waiting for more information. So “small experiments” are a tool for when you don’t have all the information, but you still need to make a decision.
  • Even when uncertain, you can still make progress. This follows from the point above. Once you are clear on the goal, even if your action doesn’t produce the result you want, you still make progress. How? Because you’ve found an option that doesn’t work, and you can cut it from the list of options. At this point, I can’t help but think of an apocryphal story about Thomas Edison. He supposedly said, “I have not tried and failed 1,000 times. Rather, I have found 1,000 ways that don’t work.”

Leaders must make decisions. Often, we do so with limited information and under significant time pressures. To help you manage both these obstacles, try “small experiments.”

While it may not sound like a “big deal,” small experiments are powerful. They allow you to minimize risks when trying new things. You also maximize learning for you, your colleagues, and your organization.


See this Harvard Business Review post to learn more leadership strategies for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous situations.

See Ron Heifetz’s work on adaptive leadership which includes the need for running small experiments.

Two books that can help you better appreciate the power of “small” changes are Debra Meyerson’s Rocking the Boat and Caroline Arnold’s Small Move, Big Change.

Small experiments are part of being a “learning organization” as discussed by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline and this Harvard Business Review follow up article and video

When stuck on making decisions, I often fall into a “satisficer” mindset to help me make progress. You can learn more about “satisficing” in this New York Times article.

For more on change leadership, take a look at Claremont Lincoln University’s blog and courses.

Stan Ward, Ph.D.
Dean, Capstone Studies and Director, Center for Action Research
Claremont Lincoln University.

 Claremont Lincoln University is an educational partner with Southern   California Leadership Network.