Posts Tagged ‘learn’

Seek Rigorous Evidence

August 27, 2011

Both scurvy and infant crib death offer insights about the value of evidence.

  • In 1747, British naval surgeon James Lind conducted an important experiment. He wanted to find a treatment for scurvy. Scurvy begins with gum disease, progresses to open wounds, internal bleeding and ultimately death. A variety of cures were proposed. Lind selected a dozen sailors from three dozen who suffered with scurvy. To six pairs he provided different treatment. Some were given cider, some oranges and lemons. Since we now know that scurvy is caused by lack of vitamin C, those who ate oranges and lemons recovered. Lind’s trial designed, collected and reviewed evidence.
  • Standard advice, years ago, was to place an infant to sleep in a crib on its stomach. In Baby & Child Care, the famous pediatrician Benjamin Spock advised against putting a baby to sleep on its back. It took almost twenty years to review evidence which conclusively identified the dangers of front-sleeping. Some estimate 60,000 infants died between 1970-88 because of this delay.

Useful Experiments

Good intentions and bad advice can certainly yield disastrous results. The imperative of life and death impact suggests we ought to get faster and far better at experiments that provide rigorous evidence for decisions. The choice about front or back-sleeping infants was never designed or intentional. Parent behavior and death incidents were studied for patterns. But, Lind’s action research did provide different antidotes to sick men.

 Ethical Design

It is strange that arbitrary decisions seem to have little ethical review while designed experiments face severe scrutiny. Yet, it is possible to establish a trial without denying others.

 It is simply a matter of locating an appropriate contrast or control. In early reading skill development research our clients did not deny service to any preschool students –  they simply identified children similar to those who participated in a special, enriched intervention program. This provided the experimental design which ensured claims could be made about the distinct contribution of the enriched intervention.

 Knowing is Not Doing

Despite Lind’s work centuries ago, scurvy is, regrettably, a disease that still affects malnourished people today. Knowing is not the same as doing. Spreading awareness of evidence or  transferring knowledge is an important process that requires time and resources. They are part of the reason that it took a long time for school districts and parents to adopt Kindergarten or for the public adoption of seat belts. Decades after the evidence is in, social marketing is actively promotes awareness about placing infants on their backs to sleep safely.

 Experiments  or “Wander-Squander”

Complex problems we barely understand preclude  making change. Discovery of what works requires experiments. A mindset that actively designs and executes trials is a critical step toward adaptation – a precursor to learning. What experiments are relevant to your work? Are you consistently seeking evidence for your own advice and actions?

Tim Harford, Adapt author, writes: “The alternative to controlled experiments are uncontrolled experiments.” We think this is an accurate description.  At our office we reference the thoughtless, uncoordinated  busyness of many activities as “wander-squander.”  Unfortunately, uncontrolled experiments dominate many work days for most people. And, there’s little or nothing that they teach us. Controlled experiments help us learn what works, what doesn’t and why.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also n author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

The Size and Speed of Change

May 24, 2011


Recently, a professor and a marketing consultant, suggested creating a $300 house. They punted it up publicly. The response has been overwhelming. Their target could transform the lives of millions of desperately poor children and families across the globe. If it happens – it is a breakthrough innovation.

This goal challenges what’s feasible, alters expectations and prompts innovation. These are vital levers for big, fast change. Name the intended result, assemble the case, articulate the implications. Then, gather the knowledge, skills, insights, experience, enthusiasm and possibilities for strategy and execution.

 Progress & Pace

Reflect for a moment on two dimensions of change – scale and time. A continuum of scale could cover polar ends: from none (simply preserving  the status quo) to boldly disruptive. A range for time can span from instant to perpetuity. What’s a “fair” expectation for progress and pace?

An insulated and isolated organization (or community) may not make much progress year after year. The adjacent possible is severely oppressed and any change comes grudgingly.  Even incremental, minor movement may be difficult. Although essential to growth and vitality, substantial change won’t happen until there are new people with different training, experience, expectations and habits. Moreover, disruptive change doesn’t occur until there’s a sudden tip point, often the result of a power shift.

 The Best Attitude

“Let’s go slow to go fast” is commonly said in organizations that must improve. This can translate to “I’m risk averse” or let’s quietly move the goal posts. Alternatively, it  may mean there needs to be more knowledge, skills and trust to do the work ahead. Sometimes it is appropriate – sometimes not. If for-profit organizations don’t change fast – it’s certain they will fail. Current and emerging marketplace competitors ensure that. Although far less sensitive to market forces, non-profits must adapt to perform, too.

Many organizations affect internal culture by clearly describing expected attitudes. For example, a “humility and a hunger to learn” is one of several Kellogg Company leadership values.  The San Diego Food Bank operates with an “acute sense of urgency.” ConAgra identifies simplicity, accountability and collaboration as key internal principles. Nestle wants a “willingness to learn” commitment among their employees. All of these declarations signal an environment which supports change.

 Target & Timing

If nearly anything is possible: What’s your stretch goal? What’s the deadline? Perhaps a 28% return on investment or no domestic violence for one month. Maybe, in six months, it’s a $25 toilet or no drunk driving in your county. By 2014, what about a 60% reduction in teen pregnancy, creating a $1,000 car, or every high school graduate in your town will be college-ready.

Thought leadership can be an essential prompt for the size and speed of change. We know most people are deeply motivated by satisfaction and results. By specifying an audacious goal and deadline, expectations for scale and pace are set. Why not start with these?

 –Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

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