By Antony Mayfield, March 2023. Posts

How To Get Breakthrough Change With Test–Learn–Lead™ From Brilliant Noise

Flywheels. Loops. It’s what organisation design and systems thinkers obsess about and, since Steve Bezos bought the concept wholesale from Jim Collins, it’s how change-makers and entrepreneurs of all stripes think about realising their ambitions.

Loops matter. From decision to action to feedback. From test to learn to lead. How quickly and how well you complete loops sets you up for success – or the absence of it. The most famous loop, so often referenced in studies of decision-making, is the ace fighter pilot John Boyd’s model for aerial combat: orient, observe, decide, act (OODA). If you are moving through that loop faster than an adversary or competitor, then you are winning. 

The loop for learning, adjusting tactics, and acting decisively differs across a marketing organisation. In some areas, like automating aspects of media buying or adjusting pricing in a large ecommerce operation, it’s moving at the speed of the fastest computers available. In others, the learning and action loops are painfully slow, even by pre-digital age standards. Data flows from teams activating campaigns in different formats, sometimes trapped in PDF or slide decks that do little to make the organisation smarter, much less make better decisions about the next campaign.

In two previous articles, we have talked about our work speeding up performance loops at Brilliant Noise, which we have been using to boost performance and unblock transformation programmes for global  brands for over a decade now. We explored what the Test–Learn–Lead™ framework is,how it is used to create breakthroughs with the biggest challenges in marketing, and the three step process of mapping challenges, running experiments, and scaling success. In “Why Experiment-Led Marketing Is A Business Critical Capability“ we looked at why starting with experiments and learning beat “Grand Plan” approaches to change, and showed how companies that took this to heart dramatically outperformed the rest of the market. 

Now let’s take a close at the “how” of experiment and learning, as experienced with Test–Learn–Lead™ from Brilliant Noise. 

A method makes a mindset that makes a movement

Test–Learn–Lead™ is often applied where transformation programmes are stalling or having difficulty starting, as well as when urgent business challenges are not being acted on quickly enough despite goal-setting and apparent alignment between teams. The organisation is willing, but the culture is inexplicably slow to move.

As we described in the first article in this series, there are three steps to using the method to unblock or solve a major challenge.

Start small with the whole organisation in mind

Everyone runs experiments. Everyone tests and learns. But if they only do it as individuals, it stays in their heads. If they only do it as teams, excitement will turn to frustration as their efforts diffuse or die when they hit the rest of the organisation. 

The scientific method evolved and spread slowly at first. The Greeks developed a method of observation and the idea of testing hypotheses, but it was more than a thousand years until Francis Bacon sparked the scientific revolution. 

Why did this method start a species-changing revolution? A consistent method for experimentation, it allowed people around the world to collaborate and push forward scientific knowledge at what became an exponential rate. For those who used the method, it created a mindset: experiments need to be based on empirical data, and they must be repeatable, something that someone else can recreate elsewhere. 

It created a movement that has lasted to the present and continues to drive progress: a movement called science. 

In most organisations, experiments are run in different ways in different places. Even when there are fantastic results and evidence, the effects and benefits of the experiments can stay localised – to a team or sometimes to an individual. The hard-won knowledge is blocked. Why? Because without a consistent method for experimenting and sharing knowledge, different parts of an organisation are speaking a different language, thinking with a different mindset.

Test–Learn–Lead™ is Brilliant Noise’s method. It wouldn’t be rocket-science – or maybe it would – to create your own consistent method in your organisation. But like any change, from the scientific revolution to the more humble objective of tackling modern corporation’s biggest problems, the challenge is: how do you get started and t keep it alive long enough for the method to shape enough mindsets to create a movement that lasts?

1. Get ready: Map the possibility

The first lightbulb moment executives experience in a Test–Learn–Lead™ programme is realising that no existing solution is available and to stop looking for one. Instead, there is a vast space, a possibility space, of things that they could do to reach their goal. In this moment, they understand that they need to invent their own future, go into an unexplored space with their teams, and discover what will work.

The first job is to map the outline of the space; the second is to find a way in. 

It begins with a mapping phase, which is completed within a few weeks (the emphasis is on preparing for a team action rather than over-analysis). In many design or creative projects we might call this “discovery”, but it’s really just the beginning of a process that will lead to a long series of discoveries (by running experiments).

This phase involves a team immersing itself in the issues: conducting stakeholder interviews, analysing feedback, and examining competitors’ approaches to similar challenges. The goal? To generate and capture a range of possible solutions and ideas. If we’re thinking like an explorer it’s a map of the coastline, an assessment of where we might land on a large island. Thinking like a scientist, we might think of it as defining a field of study, a specialism, or something like a periodic table – placing known things in a pattern that leads us to intuit where there might be previously unknown elements.

At the end of the process, we have hundreds of ideas and possible next moves – potential experiments. These are tagged and categorised in the BN Overture™ strategic planning platform to analyse which experiments will be most valuable to run in order to discover more.  

A handful are selected and moved to the next phase…

2. Get going: Run experiments

“The only way to do it is to do it”
— Amelia Earhart, aviation pioneer.

This is where the method creates the new mindset, where the first curious folk become the foundation of a movement. 

Depending on the problem being addressed, experiments can be developed as creative executions. 

This phase is sometimes called “Learn to Fly” because the team is doing two things – looking for breakthrough results that inspire more change and also developing the skills and experience that will form a new mindset for the marketing team.

Turning the most viable experiment ideas into experiments means finding out how to form a hypothesis that can then be tested and measured. 

Take the example of a company looking to find ways of telling its sustainability story well – it’s been working hard on ESG initiatives, but the organisation is set up more for promotional marketing and product storytelling. Well-meaning and ambitious attempts to tell the story of their hard-win progress have fallen flat.

Working with a retail team narrows the focus and ideas are selected for in store storytelling at different points in the customer journey through the stores. Each experiment is creatively developed to be easy to implement in a set of stores, while things carry on as usual in a control group. The experiments are manageable without overly-disrupting operations, and time-bound to get results quickly. 

Another example would be in content marketing hubs, such as the one developed with BMW Motorrad in Europe, where more efficient and effective content creation was the challenge. Ideas generated about how to change parts of the process were measured through a season start.

The hypothesis–test–results process is simple, the outputs and implications can be surprising. As well as improvements, the process of trying to do something new can reveal where there are hidden issues – something simple, like the lack of a consistent messaging hierarchy in peer teams or measuring leads differently in two different territories, can show where dramatic progress can be made.

3. Scale and repeat: A movement makes change stick

Innovation is all about exploring new possibilities and ideas, and that’s exactly what a company is doing as it moves into the third phase of an experiment-led change process like Test–Learn–Lead™. 

During the first phase, the company mapped out a range of possibilities and imagined a space of potential, while the second phase saw starting to test ways to change small pieces of the overall challenge and reveal more opportunities. Now, in the third phase, the company is taking even more promising ideas and breaking them down into smaller, testable chunks. And it’s spreading not just the new knowledge but the method of experimentation. Each of these experiments is evaluated for ease, impact, and resources, allowing the company to identify the best way to move forward.

To make this process work, the team establishes a programme of constant improvement. This includes a range of tools and training methods, as well as clear planning and prioritisation strategies. The team also evaluates each experiment and uses these learnings to improve its marketing efforts. In short, the company is embracing experimentation and constantly pushing the boundaries to drive innovation and change.

Test–Learn–Lead™ unblocks progress, making vital change happen faster and transformation stick. Contact us to find out how we can help you start today.