It’s All an Experiment

Every year, it seems I come across one, lasting piece of advice that leaves an indelible mark on me — something that not only has an impact when I hear it but lingers with me far into the future.

And this year, I have to thank my best friend, Dave Hall, for providing that piece of advice.

Two months ago, I found myself at his kitchen table when Dave shared something that he and his company, DAI, have been working on since reading this book.

From what he tells me, the very high-level gist of the book is this: If we aren’t laser-focused on providing and delivering value for the world, we’re ultimately going to go out of business. Of course, that’s a gross over-simplification of what they’re reading, but it’s the piece that spurred a much deeper discussion between us.

Because it’s a concept that deeply resonates with me.

As we talked, I began to share some of my own experience with him and what I’m working through at GAN with our team and our community. I told him about everything we’re doing right now, and what we could do down the road. But, I also shared how I’ve been pretty afraid to jump into anything new. I’ve been so bombarded with ideas that I haven’t been sure what to actually implement. What will provide the most value? What will actually help others the most? With all of this overwhelm, I’ve felt like a deer in headlights — totally frozen.

And that’s when Dave dropped the wisdom of the year.

He asked if I’ve been experimenting.

I had him unpack the question a bit more and his point was that I’m not alone. CEO’s feel this way all the time. We are insanely focused on providing value. It’s our job. But where we tend to struggle is actually launching anything. We’re so afraid to launch the wrong thing that we end up launching nothing.

And this is exactly what my issue has been. I’ve been stuck because I didn’t want to make the wrong decision.

Changing the Tapes

Dave went on to talk about how DAI is thinking about this exact problem. They’re an incredible organization that’s solving some of the world’s toughest problems. Because of their ambitious mission, though, they have to be very thoughtful and intentional about their growth strategies. Making the “wrong” decision can impact thousands of people who are already in incredibly challenging situations, which means they’re naturally cautious about implementing anything that might cause harm. There’s a built-in temptation to be risk-averse. Plus, like any company that’s grown to their size, remaining agile is difficult.

But DAI is starting to change the way they think about their growth initiatives. Rather than making investment decisions — with all the weight of expectation and finality that the term implies — they’re starting to “experiment” instead. Rather than creating the perfect solution to a particular problem before rolling something out, they’re now trying a few things at a smaller scale and testing what ultimately works in the field. Instead of developing the perfect strategy in a lab before launch, they are doing faster due diligence and making a few small bets with quicker turnaround times for real-world feedback before narrowing their focus.

If an experiment fails, as most do, it means they haven’t lost all that much. In fact, they’re now saving a lot by not betting a whole lot more on final success. But if an initiative shows promising signs, then they know they might be onto something.

They now see each new launch or initiative as an experiment.

In other words, it’s causing drastic changes at the company. And, now it’s doing the same for mine. Here’s why.

A New Sense of Freedom to Try

Since Dave and I talked, I’ve been much more inclined to try things out.

Why? Because everything is just an “experiment.” After all, when we’re being honest, no one is ever truly sure if something is going to work. We’re mostly just making a continual series of educated guesses and learning from the process.

And that is the disconnect for so many CEOs like me. I want security that an idea is going to work perfectly before rolling it out the door. It’s hard to take risks when there are both personal (and personnel) and financial implications at stake.

But now, I feel so much better about giving things a shot. I don’t have to have 100% security before rolling something out. I can have the freedom to push things forward because we’re just seeing if this one particular idea will work. We’re throwing it out there and seeing if it provides real value.

This new freedom is something I tried out for GAN Summit this year. We implemented a new format for the event that looked like spending more time asking why we do the work we do instead of just learning how to tactically do our jobs better. But making the change was a bit scary. I asked a lot of our members if they felt okay moving forward with the new format, and they gave me a green light. But I had no idea how the broader community would actually react to it. It was an experiment.

Fortunately, this time, the experiment was received well and people came away enjoying both the new format and the discussions it encouraged.

Freedom For CEOs to Mess Up

Dave told me that one other benefit to DAI’s new mentality has been more grace for their CEO and more excitement about the company’s growth throughout the entire staff.

I love that.

DAI’s employees have a ton of respect for their CEO, but just like any organization, people are looking to their leader for the right answers.

Now that their CEO is sharing new rollouts as “experiments,” though, everyone gets to relax a bit. They all know they’re being invited into the experiment and to grow, right alongside the CEO. They feel involved in the process and invested in the company’s success.

It’s a shift from, “We’ll see if our CEO’s ideas work” to “I’m so excited to see how the world perceives this particular initiative.”

And you can hear it, just reading that sentence. There’s a new sense of collective curiosity, rather than individual judgment. It’s a small nuance, but this slight shift in mentality has flipped their mindset from negative in nature to much more positive in tone. It’s less black-and-white and far more gray. And, I’m guessing, it means failures and victories feel more shared, rather than the sole responsibility of the person at “the top.”

So they experiment. And then they watch to see how those experiments are received — allowing them to continue iterating on the experiment.

Freedom For Our Teams to Mess Up

Since introducing this concept to the GAN team, everyone has already started making changes they might not even be aware of themselves. They’re already experimenting well.

They seem to feel lighter. Like less is on the line. They’re not trying any less hard, but you can tell they feel supported, no matter the outcome. And they’re saying things like, “I’m going to build this as best I can, but at the end of the day, it’s just an experiment, right?” They’re more empowered to be creative, to offer solutions or new products because they’re not as scared that something won’t work out. Basically, we have a growing sense that we’re all allowed to throw ideas against the wall and see what sticks. Which is great for them because they’re able to test things they feel excited about and it’s great for me because I don’t feel on an island, like the only one driving new ideas.

And it couldn’t be more well-timed. As we go into 2019 planning at GAN, this shift in mindset is helping tremendously. We don’t have to make the right or wrong decision. Instead, we get to “choose which experiments we want to make next year” and to let them go more easily when they don’t meet expectations.

More importantly, it’s great for our customers and (hopefully) the broader world because we’re providing more and more value that helps make people’s lives, and the world, a bit better.

So thanks, Dave.

Here’s to more experiments.

Originally published at on October 22, 2018.




Helping to give startups the power to create and grow their business wherever they are as CEO of GAN: @GANconnect

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Patrick Riley

Patrick Riley

Helping to give startups the power to create and grow their business wherever they are as CEO of GAN: @GANconnect

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