Experimenting outside the bounds of experience […more thoughts from The Talent Code]

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 03-20-12

Experimentation is at the core of lean improvement. It is what PDCA: Plan Do Check Act is all about. It’s what drives learning, and knowledge development.

But what happens when you’re experimenting outside the boundaries of known experience and knowledge. We build knowledge and experience from our own experiments, but that knowledge is less useful when you’re operating outside the boundaries of your own experiences, or outside the boundaries of any experience.

This is like asking someone why they think they would make a good President – there is no job that compares to this, or prepares you for this. Yes, going from hotel front desk clerk would be a slightly bigger jump than going from Governor to President. But either way, you are operating well outside the boundaries of your experience. This is likely what contributes to the rapid visible aging most Presidents seem to experience.

It is also a helpful perspective when looking at the most recent banking / financial crisis. Who could really know what would happen if they let the banks fail? Or let the autos go bankrupt? Theories abound, but there is little empirical evidence to tell how you to model what would actually happen.

Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, helps us understand this experience though his explanation of the flight simulator. He explores the usefulness of the Link flight simulator. The flight simulation was first designed for pilots, ignored by pilots, turned into a carnival game, and then after high rates of fatal airplane crashes, reapplied toward pilot training. In this case, the impact of failure was severe: it was fatal. But people still struggled appreciating the role of creating safe failure through the flight simulator. Here’s why it was so important:

…spending hours inhabiting the sweet spot at the edge of his capabilities in ways he could never risk in an actual plane.

The point is, you can’t know what’s it’s like to experience the failure and consequently, how to react, without actually experiencing it. So when experimenting, ask yourself:

Is this within the boundaries of our known experiences, or outside?

If outside, what might some of the risks be?

How can we test safely?

Reflection question: How do you know you’re experimenting outside the boundaries of experience?