Leveraging Small Pilots to Drive Successful Technology Adoption
Conventional wisdom advocates for swift technology implementation to secure a competitive advantage. However, a more deliberate, iterative approach frequently yields better outcomes. A McKinsey study revealed that 70% of large-scale change programs don’t achieve their stated goals, often stumbling over hurdles like inadequate employee engagement and lack of management support. Eric Tanner of BeCloud advocates for starting with small proof-of-concept projects, especially when exploring modern technologies like serverless computing and AI, to ground learning in real business scenarios without high stakes.

Initiating with miniature pilots when possible allows for testing new technologies in controlled environments prior to a wider deployment, enabling data collection, system refinement, and gradual user acclimation. While quick wins might be tempting, enduring success usually stems from a measured, phased adoption strategy.

The Perils of Hasty Implementation

It's understandable why executives feel compelled to rapidly roll out major technology initiatives in hopes of leapfrogging competitors. In today's fast-paced business climate, standing still equates to falling behind. Once the C-suite green lights a new solution, they expect swift action and immediate ROI. However, rushing into wide-scale deployment without iterating through pilots risks project failure and wasted resources.

Consider companies that hastily migrated workloads to public cloud platforms only to hit snags, forcing some to revert back to legacy infrastructure. Without proper planning, they struggled with challenges like misconfigured security rules, unpredictable costs, and app compatibility issues. A more prudent approach involves first migrating non-critical workloads to garner learnings to apply for larger migrations.

Likewise, organizations that plunged headfirst into AI deployments often scramble when their models underperform in the real world. The datasets used for initial training in the lab almost inevitably differ from real usage patterns. Teams that build flexibility into their architectures to continually fine-tune models based on user feedback are far more successful.

Take the case of a retailer that integrated recommendations into its mobile app. During A/B testing, the new feature only lifted conversions by 1.2%, falling well short of expectations. However, they pivoted to launch personalized recommendations for a small segment of loyalty users first. Analyzing usage data and reviews enabled improving the underlying algorithms before expanding the rollout. End result? Conversion jumps of over 20%.

Start Small, Think Big

So what's the alternative to big bang deployments? Savvy leaders are shifting to an agile approach grounded in launching small pilots, collecting user feedback, and iterating based on learnings. While individual pilots may be limited in scope, they serve as stepping stones towards ultimately realizing larger strategic goals.

Consider running a pilot focused on a particular region, department, or user cohort. This contained environment provides a low-risk method to gain real-world validation. For instance, one retailer piloted electronic shelf labels in just a few aisles of a single store. This enabled working out hardware kinks, gauging customer reactions, and fine-tuning content prior to equipping the entire chain.

For complex organizational change initiatives, do dry runs focused on a limited set of processes. Work with groups open to change to showcase potential benefits. For example, switch a few teams to agile frameworks, demonstrate faster development cycles and user feedback integration, then expand from there.

Regarding newer technologies like AI and robotic process automation, don't attempt to boil the ocean. Start with a tightly scoped use case like analyzing support tickets or automating invoice processing. As the systems prove themselves, identify additional applications. Think big, but start small.

Questions to Ask Before Piloting

While mini-pilots can pay big dividends, they require meticulous planning and execution. Teams should align on success metrics upfront and commit to sharing findings, especially from "failed" tests. Ask these questions before kicking off a pilot:

- What are our objectives, and how will we measure results?
- Who is the target user group or department?
- What resources are required in terms of budget, personnel, infrastructure, etc.?
- How long will the pilot run to collect sufficient data?
- How will findings be evaluated and shared with stakeholders?
- If successful, what is the broader rollout plan? If not, what pivots do we need to make?

The Power of User Feedback

  A core benefit of staging smaller pilots is the ability to incorporate user feedback in the development process. But there is an art to soliciting and acting upon user opinions.

First, avoid leading questions that steer users toward validating predetermined notions. Ask open-ended questions like "How did this impact your workflow?” Suggestions often arise from frustrations, so listen for pain points.

Second, focus groups and surveys should segment users. Feedback from tech-savvy early adopters likely differs from that of less technical users. Differences in age, background, and role may also lead to divergent perspectives.

Third, don't equate more feedback with better outcomes. Prioritize addressing critical common issues over implementing every piece of user input. Incrementally roll in changes and continue testing.

Lastly, ensure user feedback actually links back to pilot objectives. If goals involve increasing engagement, test ease of use and clarity of actions, not simply user interface colors. Isolate feedback tied to key desired behaviors and metrics. 

Celebrate Wise Pivots

Executives often view deviations from the initial game plan as failures. But course correcting based on learnings separates successful agile teams from stagnant ones. The best leaders celebrate wise pivots, not rigid persistence.

Construct pilots to test hypotheses, not just confirm assumptions. For instance, if initial user engagement lags expectations, dig into why via surveys and interviews. Integrate feedback, refine the approach, and keep testing.

Agile teams understand they won't get everything right the first time. Build backlogs to prioritize ongoing system enhancements. Balance being vision-driven with evidence-based. And establish a culture that rewards smart pivots.

Moving at scale demands patience. But a series of small, iterative steps -- guided by user data -- can collectively yield enormous progress over time. With a clear roadmap and a measured foot on the accelerator, leaders can still move fast without reckless speed. Pilot thoughtfully, pivot wisely, and drive impactful change.


James Phipps 8 October, 2023
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