A Culture of Experimentation

This magazine broke the silence on a topic rarely talked about – budgeting for disruption. Now Brad Ferguson, former CEO of Edmonton Economic Development Corp., gives us his experiences on the topic, with a focus on creating a culture of experimentation.


THE LAST EDITION OF THIS MAGAZINE DEMONSTRATED TREMENDOUS COURAGE TO BREAK THE SILENCE On A TOPIC RARELY TALKED ABOUT BUDGETING FOR DISRUPTION and the limitations that come with measuring ROI strictly in financial terms. As the former CEO of Edmonton Economic Development Corp., (“EEDC”) let me share my experience on this topic.

  • As a country, we are losing our tolerance for risk taking;
  • As business leaders, we are reducing our investments in R&D; and
  • As employees, we are losing our culture of experimentation.

No wonder we are losing our competitiveness, no wonder we are under-developed in global markets, and no wonder we are not realizing the full potential and engagement of our younger workforce.

Creating a culture of experimentation is critical in today’s work environment, as it not only encourages product, market, technology and business model innovation which can be easily measured in financial ROI terms, but it also is a key driver of culture, purpose, branding, marketing and recruiting which are often tougher to measure, but have more impact on your long-term performance.

A culture of experimentation pushes the responsibility for innovation out to every front-line employee, giving them the accountability and the authority to constantly identify, present and try new things. Keep those things that work, fail fast at those things that don’t, and celebrate the hell out of every little success – from innovations found by your receptionist, to your controller, to your sales teams.

Middle management, often found in large organizations and bureaucracies, are often the biggest barrier to experimentation, which is why the CEO needs to go around them and build the expectation at the front-line level. That’s right, tell the front-line personnel that you expect experimentation in their roles, and tell them that if they aren’t supported by their managers, you will support them personally. And at your next town hall meeting, make sure you are the one giving shout-outs to specific people who took the risks and found the small, medium and big successes.

That is the kind of leadership starts to change culture. And that kind of leadership is needed in organizations right across our country.

Think about how inspiring that kind of leadership is for a young millennial. Think about the creative energy your people start to show your customers and suppliers. Think about how outside talent wants to join that kind of culture.

It starts with a culture of experimentation.

We did it at EEDC – a city-owned, multi-location, partially-unionized conglomerate – and you can too. Our culture of experimentation brought forward crazy ideas from starting an airline to building a hotel, but they also drove down food costs at the Shaw Conference Centre, created massive savings in personnel scheduling, reduced duplication in production costs for photos and video for our business community, produced financial statements within 4 days of month end for our Board, and played a big role in having us ranked as one of Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Culture by Waterstone Human Capital.

Over time, you can formalize investments in disruptive technologies as an annual budget line item. But to start, focus on building a culture of experimentation and you’ll have no problems finding the money.

Brad Ferguson is the former CEO of Edmonton Economic Development Corp. and is now the CEO of SummitHawk Capital, a corporate development advisory firm with offices in Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa.

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