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Experiment and take risks

Leaders make risk safe, as paradoxical as that might sound. They turn experiments into learning opportunities.

6 min read



This article is excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations,” (6th Edition) by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Copyright (c) 2017 by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

Pivotal Software had long employed agile methodologies in their software development process but rarely used these practices in other parts of the organization. After taking a training course on agile development and lean startup principles, Cathryn Meyer was eager to put the concepts into practice. “I decided to take a more agile, iterative approach to a new project I was leading,” she told us.

Her challenge was a project to standardize the job titles used across the company into a coherent, simple structure. In the past, similar projects had involved a few HR people diagnosing the problem, coming up with a solution, and finally pushing it out to the organization. “Usually, the solution was developed in a vacuum,” Cathryn lamented, “and if it wasn’t perfect upon reveal, too bad — it was too late to change it.”

The lean approach I took with this project was very different. It involved identifying the end goal and a hypothesis for reaching it, conducting mini experiments to test the hypothesis, and using the feedback to learn and iterate on a solution. The project team recognized early on that none of us knew the ideal solution to our problem. We designed experiments to help us look for good ideas everywhere and gather as many possibilities as we could.

Cathryn and her team sent brief surveys to employees to gather opinions and ideas. They spoke individually with staff to probe deeper. They researched external best practices. They called in an expert on lean methodologies to gain feedback. “The result was a proposal we felt confident in,” she said, “one that had gone through multiple iterations based on feedback obtained from various sources. We finalized the proposal knowing that we had made the best possible choice based on the information we were able to gather.” Ultimately, Cathryn’s team gained approval from the necessary stakeholders because of the thorough and thoughtful process they had followed.

Their next challenge was implementing the new job titles across the organization. Cathryn broke down the implementation process into small chunks based on job function: “Implementing the new job titles one function at a time was an effective way to make incremental progress against our end goal while gaining further support for our approach with each successful milestone.”

Learning from their experiments in those initial phases gave Cathryn the inspiration to start streamlining and consolidating job families, further modernizing the company’s job title methodology. “This had always been an area that I knew needed work,” she told us. “After gaining momentum with our initial proposal, it gave me confidence to seize the initiative and make the necessary changes.”

Early on in the process, many people told us that our task was impossible and we’d never find a solution that met everyone’s needs. We took on this challenge with gusto and refused to give up, even when our research gave inconclusive results. We continued to learn, experiment, and tweak until we came to the best solution. I now know that I can challenge convention and confidently lead a team through a new way of doing things, even in the face of adversity.

To achieve the extraordinary, you have to be willing, like Cathryn, to do things that have never been done before. Every single Personal-Best Leadership Experience case speaks to the need to take risks with bold ideas. You can’t achieve anything new or extraordinary by doing things the way you’ve always done them. You have to test unproven strategies. You have to break out of the norms that box you in, venture beyond the limitations you usually place on yourself and others, try new things, and take chances.

Leaders must take this one step further. Not only do they have to be willing to test bold ideas and take calculated risks, but they also have to get others to join them on these adventures in uncertainty. It’s one thing to set off alone into the unknown; it’s entirely another to get others to follow you into the darkness. The difference between an exemplary leader and an individual risk-taker is that leaders create the conditions where people want to join with them in the struggle.

Leaders make risk safe, as paradoxical as that might sound. They turn experiments into learning opportunities. They don’t define boldness as primarily go-for-broke, giant-leap projects. More often than not, they see change as starting small, using pilot projects, and gaining momentum. The vision may be grand and distant, but the way to reach it is by putting one foot in front of the other. These small, visible steps are more likely to win early victories and gain early supporters. Of course, when you experiment, not everything works out as intended. There are mistakes and false starts. They are part of the process of innovation. What’s critical, therefore, is that leaders promote learning from, and building upon, these experiences.

Exemplary leaders make the commitment to Experiment and Take Risks. They know that making extraordinary things happen requires that leaders:

  • Generate small wins
  • Learn from experience

These essentials can help leaders transform challenge into an exploration, uncertainty into a sense of adventure, fear into resolve, and risk into reward. They are the keys to making progress that becomes unstoppable.


James Kouzes and Barry Posner are the co-authors of “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations,” whose sixth edition was released in 2017. They’ve co-authored more than a dozen other award-winning leadership books. Their awards include receiving the Association for Talent Development’s highest honor for their Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance. Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, and lectures on leadership worldwide to corporations, governments, and nonprofits. Posner is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, where he served as dean of the school for 12 years. For more information, visit The Leadership Challenge website.

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