Leadership in the Age of Agility Experimentation

Here’s the punchline: the role of today’s leadership is to “remove the speed bumps in the experimenters’ way!” according to Scott Cook, co-founder and chairman of Intuit.

Nobody worth arguing with argues whether search, social, and mobile technologies have impacted customers’ minds and changed buying behavior over the last five years. Today, while companies worry about keeping ahead of their competition, the truly critical issue is keeping pace with their customers. Technological and social advances are forcing companies to embrace authenticity (hint: you can’t fake this), dramatically improve customer experiences, or suffer the inevitable.

We all embraced the mantra that advertising only accelerates the inevitable. Today we must add that social and mobile dramatically increased the velocity of that inevitable outcome. Unfortunately, few companies have embraced the structure that allow a strategy and agility to leverage this need for real-time marketing. Certainly events like Oreo’s “You can still dunk in the dark” campaign during the Super Bowl highlight the impending transition to real-time marketing, while the rest slept through it.

After so many years of evangelizing the use of data to get a better understanding of your customer so that you can create delightful experiences for her, of why you need to create a culture that believes that they should “Always be testing,” and that uses their analytics data to function as a digital nervous system, I realize that in order for this to succeed at a grand scale, the executive leadership of a company needs to buy in wholeheartedly to this worldview.

Big organizations get committed to the way things were. The traditional corporate structure virtually mandates the status quo. However, visionary leaders like Scott Cook have the authority to kill the giant speed bumps on the way to success in today’s marketplace. I frequently call these speed bumps BPUs: business prevention units. They include:

  • Technological limitations, imagined and real
  • Legal limitations, imagined and real
  • Organizational culture

This is why I was so excited to see Scott Cook’s presentation at SXSW “Innovation & Leadership in the Agile Age.” I was curious as to what he would share about the transformation of Intuit, the company he founded 30 years ago after his stints at P&G and Bain & Co. He shared how the traditional role of leadership’s (Avinash Kaushik, a former Intuit employee, would call them HiPPOs) job was to make decisions based on their experience and predictions. Intuit has transitioned into a more entrepreneurial organization whose goals are to get its “leap of faith assumptions” into an experiment in front of real customers as fast as possible. He shared multiple internal examples out of Intuit’s 1,800 ongoing experiments and several other examples from government experimentation, and concluded with the same premise that Coca-Cola Company’s global boss of advertising and content excellence Jonathan Mildenhall preaches:

“It’s not what data you have access to but what you do with it,” he said, citing one of his favourite quotes from Harvard University’s John Kao. “Creativity is the crucial variable in the process of turning knowledge into value.”

Research for research’s sake is dead; what matters is using the “lean experimentation loop” to turn an idea with “leap of faith assumptions” into an experiment and then learn and adjust from there.


He also shared a bit on how Intuit has removed the barriers to experimentation. From legal they received a one-slide document that everyone could understand. That slide outlined what didn’t need legal review for an “experiment.”

The company has been able to overcome some of the cultural barriers by making sure leaders and teams are super clear on what the team’s goals are and they all understand the problems everyone is trying to solve. They have also shifted the internal language of the organization to begin asking leaders questions such as “What were the experiments you can point to that prove your thinking?” or “What are the leap of faith assumptions and when can you start running experiments to prove or disprove them?” By shifting the focus and having the courage and commitment to say no they are seeing some great success and avoiding major failures. As he summed up Intuit’s results in its Indian Fasal business where the company has tried 14 experiments, 10 were failures, two were successes, one was in a pivot, and the last one was too early to tell.

I have always heard great things about Scott Cook from several of my friends who work or have worked at Intuit. I’ve highlighted in my book “Always Be Testing” how they embraced testing failures with “Stinkies” but the highlight for me was the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with the legend after his session. The most amazing thing was to see him in action with a customer in the field. There he was asking a customer what he missed from the old product he was using and what he would like to see in QuickBooks while he jotted down notes. I am sure those notes will go into a list of things to test and experiment so they can use that data to delight the customer.

What have you done in your organization to remove the barriers to experimentation and to become more agile?

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