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With 84 percent of companies admitting that their new projects were stuck in pilot mode for more than a year, it’s time to ensure that initiatives deliver on time and on target. Here’s how to turn an experiment into success.

Even the best idea championed by a dedicated team working with the best intentions can struggle to gain the momentum needed to take off, data suggests.

Research conducted by management consultancy McKinsey & Company found that fewer than 30 percent of pilot projects are at the point of starting to scale, even after a few years.

“Eighty-four percent of companies were stuck in pilot mode for over a year and 28 percent for over two years,” Enno de Boer, a Senior Partner with the firm, said of the findings.

Pilots can fail to scale for myriad reasons, but looking at those that succeed can reveal common success factors. Here, a cohort of researchers, consultants and entrepreneurs offer their advice for getting a pilot out of neutral and into gear.

Ron Ashkenas, Partner Emeritus at United States-based Schaffer Consulting and a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, says focusing on quick wins can help get a pilot moving.

“Identify a limited number of sites, teams or functions where the results of the pilot should be applied first,” Ashkenas tells The CEO Magazine.

Those sites, between eight and 15 for maximum impact, should be ones that make a difference to the business or the customer, and where there is readiness to change, he adds.

“Don’t waste time or resources forcing everyone to change at once. Focus on where you’ll see an impact most quickly.”

For each of those 8–15 scale-up sites, Ashkenas says a challenging goal should be set to keep everyone motivated and on track.

Teams should be tasked with achieving those goals quickly – within 100 days or less – by applying learnings from the pilot phase.

“The key is to make sure that the results goal is front and center and that whatever has come out of the pilot is a means to achieve that goal,” he explains.

“In other words, the goal is not to scale up the pilot, but rather to get some significant business result from scaling up the pilot.”

According to de Boer, winning is a great way of sustaining momentum, but you should be wary of declaring victory too early.

“Start simply, execute relentlessly,” he suggested in a McKinsey & Company blog post. “Pick a simple use case and follow through relentlessly until you capture value.

“Successes help land support of frontline employees and expose vulnerabilities around the need for process reengineering, talent, culture and alignment and go-to-market.”

Australian entrepreneur Sarah Moran is Chief Executive of Girl Geek Academy and Co-Founder of AI-powered health startup PatientNotes.

“One of my biggest tips is making sure you spend roughly 30 percent of your budget – be it money, staff, resources or energy – on telling people about the pilot project,” Moran explains to The CEO Magazine.

She and her PatientNotes partners treated scaling up users as building their “marketing ops”.

They identified which channels work together to get people hearing about the product, signing up, using it and then telling others about it.

“Most people undercook the marketing because at the pilot stage they don’t know what works yet,” Moran says. “But if you don’t give enough resources to seeing what works in the first place, you’ll stunt your growth before you even get started.”

There can be a tendency for those involved in the pilot phase of a project to step back during scale up as new teams are formed.

Ashkenas suggests holding a planning workshop where those involved in scaling up can learn about the pilot from those involved at the beginning.

“Bring together leaders or teams from the first wave of scale-up sites, either physically or virtually, where they can learn about the pilot and then lay out their own plans to implement in their areas,” he says.


“If possible, resist the temptation to force everyone to do everything in exactly the same way. Every site or team will have somewhat different conditions, capabilities and cultural issues and will need to adjust accordingly, so allow for creativity.

“You also want to foster learning, and friendly competition, across this first scale-up cohort.”

Moran advises that spending money on untested marketing in the early stages of a pilot can help you understand who your customer, target or audience is, as well as how to get them.

But it can be easy to fall into the trap of only investing in one type of marketing channel.

“For example, a frequent mistake is only doing paid ads or public relations, instead of working out how they best complement each other to attract a customer to your pilot,” she says.

Throughout the scaling process, Ashkenas says teams should be encouraged to regularly check in to review their progress and examine what’s working. Whether weekly or monthly, these catch-ups can provide help or guidance where it’s needed.

Teams should be encouraged to share ideas and “shamelessly steal approaches that work”.

More formal report-outs should be conducted at 60 days and 100 days from the start of scaling to celebrate what has been accomplished and capture learnings.

“Give the teams the assignment of creating their own plans for sustaining and expanding on the gains,” he adds.

Larry Cooley, the Founder of international development consulting firm MSI, based in the United States, wrote something of a guidebook called Scaling Up – From Vision to Large-Scale Change.

In it, Cooley notes that successful scaling rarely “proceeds in a straight line” or follows a pre-determined path. Such is the nature of pilot projects.

“The same kind of tinkering that was needed to develop the original model is likely to be needed as the roll-out process encounters unexpected obstacles and opportunities,” he wrote.

“The most successful scaling strategies therefore include resources to monitor the scaling process and the flexibility to make changes based on experience.”

Ensure action plans and budgets are in place, that responsibilities of teams have been clearly defined and that mutual accountability has been established to help resolve any issues.

In its guide Pilot Next Steps – Ditch, Iterate or Scale, education resource The Learning Accelerator emphasizes the importance of recognizing failure.

Some pilots do not work out. If that is the case, teams should accept the reality and not be discouraged. “All pilots give us important information on the way forward,” the guide reads.

“Take time as a team to document your learnings from this experience.”

A range of questions should be asked. What did we learn? What might it mean? Where could we go next?

“Be sure to document your learnings, as hopefully your design team will be motivated to repeat the design process to tackle another problem of practice or explore another solution.”

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