Mind the pilot project trap : no change without faith.

by Nick the Unbosser and Kris Debisschop, PhD – Unbossers Fellow

Changing organizations to an envisioned future state through pilot projects and experimentation has become a common approach. But organizations appear to differ in how they deal with disappointing results of these initiatives. This made us reflect on the allocated role and intent of pilots, hacks and experiments in the early stages of a transformation journey.

Failed pilot projects, thus questioning the vision?

Over the last few years, we had the privilege of studying and observing many organizations during their transformation processes.  Among others, two things stood out in successful transformations:

  1. for these organizations, the drivers of change indicated that the status quo was simply not an option
  2. they were extremely loyal to their vision: there was no need for (early) validated evidence of it, because they had and kept faith in its legitimacy.

This was much less the case in organizations struggling with their transformation journey: first, there was the initial enthusiasm to launch a new vision, then the first pilot projects were set up, followed by a wave of resentment, resistance and conflict due to disappointing results of these pilots, delaying or even halting the whole journey and falling back into the status quo … .

Most organizational change projects enter into such a valley of despair, because of lack of clarity, ability or willingness to change. When initial pilots succeed, they reinforce – at least temporarily – faith in the vision and its legitimacy, but when they fail, the envisioned future state seems to be immediately questioned … .

How to (mis)use pilot projects and experimentation

We have a firm belief in the value of transforming an organization through pilots and experimentation as part of a continuous participatory change approach. Provided they are well designed and serve the right purpose: based on hypotheses, discover something unknown or test a principle or supposition within short term cycles, scale what works, keep testing and learning.

We noticed that organizations that are in a constant pilot approach become more agile and also more humble. Such a change approach also helps to understand and experience that change is a constant, and so any approach, no matter how hard someone defends it, is only as good until the next one is found that is better … . Integrating experimentation into daily practice eliminates the persistent need to stick to the status quo.

But what we often see happen, is that pilot projects are set-up to prove the legitimacy and rightfulness of the elaborated vision. This is wrong for several reasons. First, the quest to manifest an envisioned future into reality is reduced to methods: the use of pilot projects and experimentation. First and foremost, it shows a lack of confidence in the envisioned future state. Launching a new vision requires first and foremost a leap of faith of the leaders, managers and employees of the organization, and thus trust in its true future potential. Looking for evidence or confirmation of this potential through pilot projects is merely an act of doubt instead of deep faith. Here comes the pilot project trap: the success or failure of a pilot project is considered direct evidence of the organization’s future potential. Quod non. Such projects or experiments should be linked to the How, the ‘game plan’ for realizing that future potential, instead of the What, the potential itself.

Second, the time horizon of such projects or experiments should be rather short (e.g. of 16 weeks); they are accompanied with some very concrete learning metrics to know if the hypothesis to be tested is right. But the hypothesis of what specific change one believes the pilot project will create, can never be linked to the organization’s future potential, which is long term and more abstract. After all, the future is fundamentally different from the past, and therefore cannot be predicted. Just because a pilot project works today, does not mean it will work tomorrow (and vice versa!).

Third, embracing experimentation means – by default – embracing failure. If you conduct an experiment, there is a chance it will fail. That fear is normal and understandable.  Add a high price tag or management pressure to “deliver the vision”, and experimentation feels risky rather than rewarding.  Changing your organization towards an envisioned future state through pilots and experimentation involves shifting the definition of success from “We confirmed what we always thought” to “Wow, interesting, we didn’t know that yet“.  This is about forward looking and emergent learning, not classic cause-and-effect thinking.

How to avoid the pilot project trap

Without unconditional faith, one cannot turn the potential of the future into reality.  To realize an ideal future state is to stop repeating the past based on the belief that something new and better will present itself without knowing exactly what it will be or what it will look like.

The very early stages of the transformation journey should be considered as an initial test of faith in the organization’s future potential. Everyone is testing in their own way whether the new vision and the change that comes with it is not just another blah blah blah … Pilot projects that fail, people who resist – these don’t have to be symptoms of a poorly functioning organization. They shouldn’t be remedied, but accepted. Because most critics are simply using this moment to make their voices heard on issues they have long struggled with … . 

Instead we advize to use this crisis to work on that belief, and not, as most do, on the methods … . So, in case of disappointing pilots or experiments, or when performance deteriorates shortly after the start of your transformation journey, as a changemaker …

Keep faith

  1. in the vision and its legitimacy (and keep on explaining again and again the why and urgency of the change)
  2. in the change strategy (and keep on explaining what the game plan is)
  3. in your team (and invest in human connection, trust, commitment and ability to change)
  4. in yourself (and find out what (external) support you may need)

Speed up emergent learning

  1. by not shying away from the brutal facts and adapting where necessary
  2. by retrospecting regularly and folding lessons learned into next experiments
  3. by not killing pilots or experiments too early
  4. by continuing to train your organization’s experimentation muscles

Don’t get discouraged, and remember, even the organizations being most successful in their transformation journey out there, had to do it. But for them, it all started with a leap of faith in the organization’s intended future and remaining loyal to it …


our Unbossers Network

Build a people first-organization the unbossed way:

Do you want to learn concrete steps on how to combine the pursuit of business success with putting people first? Just take a look at our Unbossers Network which offers low-key accessibility into global connections and teachings for you and your organisation.

We will be happy to welcome you there!