Pilots are everywhere – from marketing to innovation to manufacturing to research. But one of the places they are often missing?


It’s widely known that when strategies fail, they do so in execution. Some studies put that failure rate around 60-90%.

Given the number of hours invested in deciding where to take a company, let alone the direct and indirect impact of failing to meet your strategic aspirations, this stat seems unacceptable.

Yet it persists.

So let’s talk about the point of a pilot.

The point of a pilot is to ensure your approach goes as you suspect it will, learn about where you may have under or overestimated certain aspects of the design or calculations, and adjust your approach before committing significantly more resources to the effort.

In marketing, it means testing a couple campaigns to see which one resonates before committing to a large-scale launch. This saves you the expense of paying for something no one will pay attention to.

In innovation or R&D, it means soliciting feedback on an initial protype to see how and why customers might use it. This saves you from fully developing something no one actually needs – and saves your sales teams from later trying to push product no one wants, rather than have valuable conversations where you already know there is demand.

In manufacturing, it means running a small pilot before you schedule full production. Discovering areas where the line runs slower, cleanups go longer, or the final product doesn’t meet spec saves you the time, resources, and expense of storing or trying to dispose of a large volume of product that didn’t turn out as expected. It also potentially saves you from eating into your margin if it turns out the process is more involved than you thought it would be.

In research, it means trialing questions or procedures to make sure people respond as you think they will. This allows you to adjust your questions or methodology so that you get the information you need, rather than spending time, dollars, and resources gathering information that isn’t actually meaningful to the decisions you later need to make.

See where I’m going with this?

We all have ideas of what will work. These ideas are based on all kinds of things – our own expertise, our own view of what others need based on our own values and experience, our own calculations, our own hopes and dreams, our own view given the resources we have access to and the conversations we have, etc.

As it turns out, our own view of what others need and how things will work is typically skewed towards whatever seat we hold and whatever experience we’ve had up to that point.

That’s not to say that our experience doesn’t offer a valuable lens – it’s just so rarely, if ever, the whole picture. Even when it’s our whole responsibility.

When it comes to strategy, those at the top of an organization clearly hold the responsibility for ensuring the company has a strategy.

That also means they hold the responsibility for designing it in a way that it can be adopted.

I love what this HBR article says: “strategy making is a collaborative process of discovery.”

Isn’t that what any good pilot is?

Without a pilot, your “process of discovery” happens in the execution.

And at that point, you’ve already committed to the final idea. You’ve likely communicated it broadly to several key stakeholders. Which means there’s so much more pressure to make it work and push your idea, rather than discover what’s truly possible.

You also miss what you get as a result of a good pilot – an opportunity to generate ideas, test assumptions, solicit feedback, see where the excitement lies with those who will adopt it, and uncover any glaring gaps.

If you don’t have the time do it now, are you willing to deal with the physical, financial, and emotional consequences later?

Would you rather spend resources testing now and making something as strong as it can possibly be, or resources later trying to scrap, message, position, salvage, or adjust to what may have been uncovered with proper strategy design? 

While no one design will ever eliminate all of the challenges of execution, considering strategy design through the lens of piloting a final product can certainly help reduce much of the strain.

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