7 Steps to Executing a Pilot Project

Altitude Branding - 7 Steps to Executing a Pilot ProjectHave you read Switch by Chip and Dan Heath yet? If you haven’t, go over here and order it. (Amazon affiliate link) I’ll hang out.

Good? Okay.

One of the concepts they talk about that I utterly and completely believe in is the idea of having a “learning phase” for new initiatives. It’s somewhere between the initial concept and the full-blown strategy, and allows for dedicated and purposeful time to test an idea before rolling it out fully.

This is something that I think more companies need to do, especially given their risk aversion for the unproven world of new media.

So how, exactly, do you do that? It’s as much a sales job as it is an execution job, but here’s my take.

1. Create Your Hypothesis

In science, your hypothesis is your proposed explanation, a testable statement that says what you think is going to happen based on your research. Same thing here. For you, it’s an educated guess about what’s going to happen if you do said project. For example, if you’re going to start a corporate blog, one hypothesis might be that you’ll capture 50 subscribers in the first 90 days, and generate five qualified leads from the blog within the first six months.

You’ll form that hypothesis by looking at your current website traffic to get a sense of what’s reasonable, the density of your social networks (how much trust and connection power you have online to draw interest in the blog), what your current lead generation numbers are, stuff like that. You’ll have to do some reasoning here.

2. Stage the Experiment

This is where you sell in what you’re planning, step by step. The key to the first and second steps is that this is a finite trial, with a start and end date. That helps mitigate risk against something that doesn’t work, and provides a dedicated stopping point for you to pause, take stock, and review your efforts.

Tell your management team exactly the steps you’ll take to prepare for the project, execute it, and how you’ll wind down the pilot (or roll it into a more permanent program should it be successful. You’ll want to address:

  • How much capital/budget this will require, if any
  • How long it will last
  • How you plan to communicate this initiative both internally and externally
  • What time commitments you’ll need and from which staff members in order to support the program
  • Any technology or infrastructure needs you’ll have
  • How the experiment will impact existing processes and projects
  • Risk assessment: What’s the worst case scenario? Best case?
  • Who the point people are for questions, concerns, etc
  • Where the feedback mechanisms are for people to share their input about the project, both internal and external
  • How you’ll evaluate the success of the trial and present your findings
  • Your transition plan to roll out the project more permanently (if successful) or shutter it (if not)

3. Communicate the Pilot

I’m a fan of telling folks they’re participating in a pilot program, or what you’re testing and trying. Publicly. If you’re not sure that your Facebook page will work, tell folks when you launch it that you’re doing so as a trial, and a way to find out what works for your company in the Facebook community.

Being up front about that can actually help elicit stronger and more active feedback, and give you the more graceful exit or the flexibility to change your approach should things not quite go to plan. Setting that expectation from the get-go can really be helpful, and generate some great open discussion and dialogue.

4. Execute

This is the meat of the process of course, but it’s where you take all the stuff you outlined in step 3 and actually do it. If you’ve done that part carefully, this ought to be rather straightforward.

Don’t forget to continue with regular status reports to your team and management so they can keep tabs on how you’re doing, what you’re learning, what your impressions are, and what feedback you’re receiving. Weekly or bi-weekly updates are usually good, depending on the length of your trial program.

5. Capture Feedback

This is concurrent with step 4, but should be a continuous part of your learning phase project. From the beginning, you should have indicated three or four key data points that you’ll track against based on the hypothesis you outlined. In our original example of the blog, it might be as simple as tracking number of subscribers on a weekly trend graph, and number of qualified leads that come through a dedicated link on the blog.

It’s also important to capture qualitative feedback, both from your colleagues and the external audiences you’re trying to reach or engage. Ask them whether they like this idea or don’t, and why. Solicit suggestions. Set up an ongoing feedback email address, ask your social networks to give their opinions, use a short survey at key points during the process to inquire. Whatever the mechanism, keep the doors of communication WIDE open and don’t discount any feedback until the end of the project.

6. Shutter the Pilot

At the end of your prescribed time period for the project, you’ll need to make a decision about whether you’re going to end the project completely, or roll it into a longer or more permanent effort.

By now, you probably have a pretty good sense of whether your hypothesis is going to hold up. If the program isn’t as successful as you’d hoped, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to communicate it’s end. Honesty and openness are good here. If your blog isn’t flying, perhaps you put up a post that says that you’re grateful for the attention of your readers to date, but that you need to step back and evaluate how you’re going to carry it forward (or just say that you’re ending it all together, and thank them for their interest).

Remember: failure isn’t permanent. It’s a temporary state. And while one thing might not work, something else may. That’s the point of this kind of project, to fail in a controlled environment where you’re prepared for the possibility that things won’t take off, and that you don’t put all your eggs in that basket before you know how strong it is.

If the pilot goes really well, this is the time when you want to maintain the status quo while you take a few weeks to draw out a transition plan. This is the map you’ll write to take you from temporary experiment to resident program. That transition plan could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on how much you’ll need to scale out the existing effort, and what temporary changes you’ll need to make more permanent in order to support it for the long term.

6. Present Your Findings

Accountability time! This is where all the work you’ve done to track, tweak, measure, get input, and all of those things pays off. Keep in mind that measurement and reporting can be brutally simple and straightforward and still be compelling. At this point, the only thing you care about is answering the question of whether your initial hypothesis was right or wrong.

If it was right, illustrate why you think that was, and what factors contributed to its success. If you were more successful than you imagined, analyze and discuss what assumptions made your initial estimates conservative, and how the reality of the project’s execution and adoption may have turbo charged the results.

If you were wrong, remember that there are varying degrees. Were you completely wrong, and you got a handful of blog subscribers and no leads whatsoever? That’d be missing the mark completely. Or did you miss the mark by a few degrees that indicate more that you need refinement rather than abandonment? That’s an important distinction. What factors do you think contributed to not getting the results you wanted? (Hint: be sure your analysis is brutally honest, which includes not just external factors, but things that YOU could have done better or differently).

7. Transition

Just what it sounds like, this is the part where you execute the transition plan.

You’ll likely need to repeat your initial business case presentation to management, this time wrapping in your learnings from the experiment, and outlining your longer execution strategy (revisiting all of the impact factors we talked about in step 2).

Why This Matters

For those that are struggling to make a long term, predictive business case for a new initiative, this is the stop gap. It’s the bit in between that helps management teams see that they’re not committing to forever, they’re just endorsing testing the waters.

This is going to be much more of a culture sell for you than anything else. You’ll have to understand the personalities involved and whether they’re going to see the risks or the potential first, and tool your presentation and updates accordingly. But the purpose is to buy yourself a proving ground, a safe sandbox where you can tinker with some things based on ideas you have and be accountable for the outcomes, which makes it beneficial for everyone involved.

So what do you think? Have you tried this approach as an alternative to the full-blown megaproject? Is your culture open to this kind of thing, or are you already seeing how they’re going to resist it?

Let’s talk about it in the comments.

image credit: Christian Haugen

  • http://ripcordentertainment.com/ John Pisciotta

    Fantastic Post.

  • http://ripcordentertainment.com/ John Pisciotta

    Fantastic Post.

  • http://patalexander.com Pat Alexander

    Amber, such a useful and fantastic post. And so timely. I am working on a client presentation on their new social media plan. This is so helpful in guiding them through the process. Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Pat Alexander´s last blog ..Social Media Can Drive Traffic to Agency’s ‘Home Base’ – Insurance Journal – March 2010 =-.

  • http://patalexander.com Pat Alexander

    Amber, such a useful and fantastic post. And so timely. I am working on a client presentation on their new social media plan. This is so helpful in guiding them through the process. Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Pat Alexander´s last blog ..Social Media Can Drive Traffic to Agency’s ‘Home Base’ – Insurance Journal – March 2010 =-.

  • Dan Phelps

    Amber, thanks for laying this out in one place. Nicely concise. Well done!

  • Dan Phelps

    Amber, thanks for laying this out in one place. Nicely concise. Well done!

  • http://davidcasasblogs.wordpress.com David Casas

    Amber, while your process for framing new initiatives makes perfect sense, how truly reasonable is it to expect a corporation that has lost 20% of its workers and is struggling to keep margins inline with Wall Street expectations to take the time to do this exercise?

    Your last paragraph hits it dead on when you mention this is going to be a culture sell more than anything else.

    I think its time for corporations to stop blaming the economy and go back to strategic planning but in a way that embraces new media. Your framework is great tool to start that conversation, especially for pilot programs.

    For a long-term strategic planning framework, I suggest Scenario Planning. It incorporates most of the stuff you recommend but with a focus on the long-run.

    I have a great Harvard Business School article I would be willing to share with you. Email me if you want a copy.

  • http://davidcasasblogs.wordpress.com David Casas

    Amber, while your process for framing new initiatives makes perfect sense, how truly reasonable is it to expect a corporation that has lost 20% of its workers and is struggling to keep margins inline with Wall Street expectations to take the time to do this exercise?

    Your last paragraph hits it dead on when you mention this is going to be a culture sell more than anything else.

    I think its time for corporations to stop blaming the economy and go back to strategic planning but in a way that embraces new media. Your framework is great tool to start that conversation, especially for pilot programs.

    For a long-term strategic planning framework, I suggest Scenario Planning. It incorporates most of the stuff you recommend but with a focus on the long-run.

    I have a great Harvard Business School article I would be willing to share with you. Email me if you want a copy.

  • http://writingonpurpose.com Teresa Basich

    This post reminds me of something I’ve been chewing on for a bit now: The concept of “patient capital” coined by the Acumen Fund. As far as the Acumen Fund is concern, patient capital is the start-up funding provided to help a concept flourish and develop, to help it be piloted to some degree. Acumen Fund is all about financing businesses in third-world countries that solve serious health and cultural crises, like lack of clean drinking water or sanitation, and patient capital is exactly what allows entrepreneurs in these countries get their businesses off the ground; without it, there would be no business development, no solving of country-ruining issues.

    While the concept of patient capital is rooted in finance, I feel like the idea it presents — the idea of investing in the possible long-term outcome more than the immediate return — is something we need to grab hold of in a broader business development context.

    Your post is a fantastic starting point for folks who need a starting point to justify trying something out. This process is what will get buy-in and support because it’s simple and lacking in the heaviness finality.
    .-= Teresa Basich´s last blog ..Words, Meet Numbers: “Standardizing” Social Media Measurement =-.

  • http://writingonpurpose.com Teresa Basich

    This post reminds me of something I’ve been chewing on for a bit now: The concept of “patient capital” coined by the Acumen Fund. As far as the Acumen Fund is concern, patient capital is the start-up funding provided to help a concept flourish and develop, to help it be piloted to some degree. Acumen Fund is all about financing businesses in third-world countries that solve serious health and cultural crises, like lack of clean drinking water or sanitation, and patient capital is exactly what allows entrepreneurs in these countries get their businesses off the ground; without it, there would be no business development, no solving of country-ruining issues.

    While the concept of patient capital is rooted in finance, I feel like the idea it presents — the idea of investing in the possible long-term outcome more than the immediate return — is something we need to grab hold of in a broader business development context.

    Your post is a fantastic starting point for folks who need a starting point to justify trying something out. This process is what will get buy-in and support because it’s simple and lacking in the heaviness finality.
    .-= Teresa Basich´s last blog ..Words, Meet Numbers: “Standardizing” Social Media Measurement =-.

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  • Taniacafe

    Excellent article. It has given me a course to set sail to in my sea of ideas. Thank you!

  • Divine824

    Thank you for this information. Exactl what I needed.

  • figuecda92

    Thanks for this post. It really helped with the design of a healthcare pilot program.

  • Cheena

    Great post and information/practices that I can use!

    One thing… you have two number 6′s. So it’s the 8 steps… :-)

    • Math243

      The problem with many pilots (and subsequent projects) is that, for a variety of reasons (saving face, continued employment, confirmation bias) the people involved have a vested increase in their success. This leads to selective reporting and spin doctoring of results, with a knock-on to the project itself by creating a biased business case. Project Assurance through impartial peer review of the methods and findings is crucial.