Come On In, The Water's Warm – Why Dipping Your Toe In Before You Commit Can Save You A World Of Pain...

The US election, the GFC, Y2K.

These examples show us, rather embarrassingly, that we’re not as flash at predicting the future as we’d like to think we are.

Despite this fact*, when it comes to making decisions as a leader, there’s huge pressure to be all crystal ball gaze-y, to leap in head first, to be “all in” or “all out”. We’re constantly and relentlessly urged to commit UP FRONT AND IN FULL.

There’s an alternative to this line of attack that’s not used nearly as often as it should be.

It’s a thing that entrepreneurs tend to do much better than corporates and the public sector. It’s called the Dip Your Toe in the Water tactic – and it’s an approach you should embrace.

You don’t have to go in boots ‘n all when faced with a decision. In fact, using a test case or running a pilot programme to check your ideas gives you a world of advantages.

Namely, it:

  • helps you reality test your assumptions
  • lowers risk
  • let’s you co-create with your users and understand their needs better
  • allows you to bring real-world experience to your decision
  • enables you to bring along the naysayers and prove your ideas as you go

Testing the waters with small experiments gives you the chance to get feedback on the potential idea and refine the solution to make it better.

It puts you in Kaizen mode or a state of seeking continuous improvement – with “kai” in Japanese meaning ‘change’ and “zen” meaning ‘for the better’.

Bonus? You often get little (and in many cases, nasty) surprises along the way that would have a much bigger impact if you’d leapt in boots ‘n all.

We use small experiments in science to test our hypotheses, so why don’t we do it more often in leadership? As Chip Heath and Dan Heath point out in their book Decisive, “Why predict something when you can test it? Why guess when we can know?”

Here are just a few ways you can adopt the ‘dip your toe in the water’ approach:

  • When you’re deciding between two competing strategies, ask, “Can we trial both ideas with a small group of customers or with just one division of the business?”
  • Make a prototype and then test it with your end user
  • Launch a MVP (minimum viable product) on a small scale and course correct once it’s launched before you go hard out telling the world about it
  • Employ a contractor in a newly-created role to test if it’s a workable new position before getting someone in permanently
  • Use secondments between departments or create ‘acting’ roles to place people in different positions within your organisation. This allows you to clearly see people’s strengths and development needs but with the ability to easily change them out of the role again at a later date. This tactic is especially useful when you’re talent mapping. It can be a nifty way of retaining key talent who are a flight risk because they’re ready for a new position but when there isn’t a new role available
  • Give several potential suppliers a small piece of work with clear boundaries and see who performs the best before signing them up longer term or larger scale

You might think you’re being indecisive if you don't go all out on a strategy from the get go, but testing is crucial because it means that results are measurable at the other end, once you’ve launched the full strategy.

And let’s be honest: you don't know what you don't know until you do.

When it comes to our love life, we’d never get engaged after the first date unless we were a bit cray cray. Go on a few dates and spend some quality time with your ideas before you walk down the aisle with them.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It can be a little “something”.

What’s an area in your business where you can you dip your toe in the water right now?

*Read the chapter on “ooching” in Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Decisive for some sobering research on just how crap we are at predicting stuff. Even the experts get it wrong scarily often.

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