Donna Rae Smith: Expert experimentation

Donna Rae Smith, founder and CEO, Bright Side Inc.

Imagine your country is experiencing a terrible drought. You’re forced to drop out of school because there is no money to cover the basic school fees. Reading a book in the local library, you discover that windmills can generate energy. So what do you do? If you’re 14-year-old William Kamkwamba, you resolve to build a windmill in your village. Undeterred by age, lack of formal education or resources, Kamkwamba spent months building a windmill out of scrap materials. As he worked on his project, the villagers mocked him and told him he was crazy, but he refused to let that stop him.

Keep in mind Kamkwamba had never seen a windmill in real life. He could have easily decided that building one was too challenging or even infeasible. But he was convinced that if someone, somewhere had built one, he could do it too. And he was motivated by necessity. He understood the great benefit a windmill would have for his family and village.

Reading Kamkwamba’s story I thought about what makes great experimenters and innovators:

Curiosity. Curiosity fuels learning and drives experimentation.

Need. Experimenters and innovators identify unmet needs. They look for ways to create new things or improve on what already exists. They don’t settle for the status quo.

Belief. They believe in their ability to create something better.

Perseverance. They aren’t deterred by what others say or think, and they never quit, even in the face of ridicule.

As leaders, one of our jobs is to promote experimentation and innovation in ourselves and in others. We create conditions where employees are supported to be curious, identify unmet needs, believe in the outcome and have the courage to follow through.

How can you create an environment where experimentation flourishes?

Here are a few ideas.

Assess and respond.

A necessary first step is to assess your organization’s current “experimentation climate.” Begin by asking yourself some questions, such as:

  • Do I (and other senior leaders) make it easy for people to introduce new ideas?
  • Does the company have a process for idea review, evaluation and feedback?

If your assessment reveals that you aren’t doing enough to promote experimentation, identify a few concrete behaviors that you can use to energize the environment. Set personal and team targets for idea generation. Post the numbers of ideas generated on a daily basis. You might also set a challenge for increasing the number of ideas submitted on a daily basis for the first week. Be bold when you set your targets. Whatever number that first comes to mind, raise it higher.

Sponsor a contest, create innovation spaces and showcase great innovations to send the message that you’re serious about experimentation.

Use personal, positive reinforcement.

One strategy for overcoming negative, discouraging self-talk is to say to yourself and others, “I have a hundred more ideas where that one came from.” If one approach doesn’t work, you’ll figure out ways to modify it or reorient it, and you’ll keep doing that until you find the approach that does work.

Reward success.

One common characteristic of the world’s most innovative organizations is that they celebrate success. Recognize and reward all ideas and act on the good ones.

Ask yourself and others questions.

  • What could we do to make this process or product even better?
  • What would I, as the customer, want this product/service to do more of, less of or differently?
  • How could we reduce the cost?
  • How could we increase the value for customers?

Post these types of questions around your facility to stimulate ideas. Then encourage people to respond to them on a flip chart or internal website or blog.

New and improved ideas and products are born out of an intentional desire to improve ourselves and the world around us, an enthusiasm for the possibilities and a willingness to try and try again until we get it right. You may not be facing the kinds of challenges Kamkwamba was up against, but that’s no excuse to rest easy. Start applying the behaviors of experimentation and innovation personally and watch the positive impact on your business results.

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She has forged a career, enterprise and an applied discipline on the practice of teaching leaders to be masters of change. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company with an emphasis on the behavior-side of change. Bright Side®, The Behavioral Strategy Company, has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, please visit or contact Donna Rae at [email protected]