LearnFwd: Small Experiments with Radical Intent

A small experiment carried out by the Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival, built around the idea of the “butterfly effect”

Here at EmcArts, we design and deliver lots of different programs and services, some for individuals, some for organizations, and some for whole communities. One principle that appears in every one of our programs, though, is that of action research or action learning.  We put this into practice through the design and implementation of what we call “Small Experiments with Radical Intent” (SERIs). We believe these experiments are one of the most important tools you can use when grappling with a complex challenge.

When operating in the realm of complexity, there are no ready answers. You can’t simply bring in an expert to tell you what the best practices are for addressing your challenge. The only way forward, then, is through learning and experimentation. The principle here is learning by doing, not making a plan and then implementing it.

Good experiments should be small, at least at first, because by starting small, you lower the stakes. The main goal of this experimentation should be learning, and the more you invest in an experiment, the more focus is likely to shift away from learning and toward considerations of how much return you’re getting on your investment. Keeping experiments small also allows you to try out multiple different ideas, refine them based on what you learn, tweak them, and try them again. For the same reason, it’s a good idea to design experiments that you already have the capacity to carry out, without a lot of preparation or outside help.

Just because an experiment is small, however, doesn’t mean it can’t be radical! In the words of a recent workshop participant, “Yes, these type of experiments are small – but they are NOT inconsequential.” I couldn’t agree more ­­— SERIs are a great way to make progress toward your adaptive vision at a manageable, learning-loop scale.

In our experience, true innovation always involves discontinuity from current practice and a significant shift in assumptions. To be really useful, an experiment requires some vulnerability or risk, a moving outside your comfort zone. Because the scale is small, the risk is not that high, so why not try something truly divergent? The more willing you are to stretch, the more you’re likely to learn!

Some Questions to Ask When Designing SERIs

Before carrying out an experiment, we’ve found it helpful to answer the following questions (you can also download this worksheet to help you):

  1. What do you want to learn?
  2. What are you going to do to learn this?
    • What exactly will you do?
    • When and where will you do it?
    • Who will it involve?
    • What resources do you need?
  3. How are you going to capture data and make sense from the results? 
The Alutiiq Museum designed a small experiment to hold a “date night” focused on Indigenous approaches to disaster preparedness

Some SERI Design Principles We’ve Found Useful

  • Construct and carry out multiple simultaneous experiments, not just one

In complexity, you can’t afford to back just one horse early on; probe and explore repeatedly in many and unexpected directions so that promising new strategies will emerge.

  • Approach your goal obliquely

A direct attack on the complex challenge may seem the most effective, but in an unpredictable context it rarely pays off; being indirect, coming in at different angles to the problem, covers more territory and is more likely to yield results.

  • Make use of translated expertise

Experts in the field have only limited usefulness in the journey to discover “next practices” — bring in expertise from different but related fields to jump-start divergence.

  • Make the invisible visible

Metaphor and symbolism are fundamental to artistic expression, which is particularly good at embodying things that can otherwise be hard to capture or feel; imaginative leaps can be powerful pre-echoes of a transformed state.

  • Require community interaction, not just observation

SERIs rarely have the power to help shape a strategy that’s emerging in complexity unless they test new kinds of participation (internally or externally).

The power of experimentation to drive adaptive change cannot be underestimated, and it really isn’t hard to do. The most effective SERIs don’t take a lot of time and effort to plan — they should have a rough-and-ready feel, not be polished until they gleam. Ultimately, this is all about going out there, trying something new, and seeing what you uncover. Trust me, it’s fun, and you’ll be surprised by what you can learn!

Melissa Dibble is the Managing Director and Lead Facilitator at EmcArts, bringing over two decades of experience in cultural administration and development of new strategies in organizational innovation within the arts sector.