Moving Past Pilots: Innovation & Insights Leaders Embrace Experimentation

Takeaways from the 2019 Digital Innovations Insights Summit. Leaders from companies like Visa, Walmart, and Levi’s discuss how to use experimentation


Now more than ever, companies are under immense pressure to embrace innovative practices and drive change at their organizations. The go-to solution on the path to innovation is frequently pilot programs.

Pilots, meant to quickly validate concepts and initiatives, are a well-meaning step toward moving fast and making data-driven decisions. But all too often, pilots for new projects or strategies stall. In fact, a McKinsey survey found that less than 30% of pilots are starting to scale. Even worse, 84% of companies were “stuck in pilot mode” for over a year — and 28% for two years.

Clearly, pilots have their pitfalls.

How can large organizations find new ways to implement forward-thinking initiatives, whether it’s a project, a product, or a strategy?

That question brought Anuraag Verma, Global Head of Strategic Transformation at Alpha, to the Digital Innovations Insight Summit in Carlsbad, California, last week as a roundtable moderator. Over the course of three days, he spoke to insights and innovation leaders representing multiple industries and trying to solve the challenge of getting business to embrace new ways of working.

He stressed the value of experimentation every step of the way, particularly how important it is to move from a pilot mindset to an experimentation mindset. From his perspective, experimentation gets a bad rap, but the belief that it’s risky or costly is a common misconception. In fact, experiments are one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to demonstrate ROI, decrease the risk of failure, and get change to stick — and scale.

From our experience, without senior leadership actively championing a change effort (and themselves adopting a new mindset), it’s very difficult for change to scale.” — Anuraag Verma

Identifying Challenges 

Each person at the roundtable was in charge of innovation or digital transformation in some capacity, and the first day was spent discussing business challenges, both unique and universally applicable across industries. Similar themes began to emerge during the discussions throughout the day, and nearly everyone admitted to facing challenges getting projects past the pilot phase.

Their obstacles were easily bucketed into three key areas of concern:

  • Results/ROI: How do you best demonstrate and communicate the results or ROI of a pilot to the wider business?
  • Resources: How do you convince the core business to channel resources towards scaling beyond a pilot?
  • Risk: How do you reduce the risk (or perceived risk) of scaling a pilot?

Exploring Practical Solutions 

Conversation each day built on discussions from the previous day, with the roundtable participants moving from talking about challenges on day 1 to discussing solutions on days 2 and 3. After three days of thought-provoking group discussion, some tactical solutions for success were agreed upon:

  • Get early commitment and buy-in: Work with cross-functional stakeholders from the beginning, instead of at the end of the pilot.
  • Establish proxies for product-market fit: Find ways to demonstrate early market traction, using actual metrics, or proxies.
  • Be prepared for a slow, linear, hand-holding process: Negotiating with the business can be a slow process, and it often involves one-on-ones with individuals stakeholders to secure buy-in.