New Product Development

Pilots vs. Proposals

Pilots vs. Proposals
by Tom Peters

I’ve always found the running style of Chicago Bear Walter Payton more appealing than that of Washington Redskin John Riggins. Payton, the leading rusher in the history of the National Football League, dances around ends, snaking through imperceptible holes. His game is a ballet. The appropriate image for Riggins, on the other hand, is a bulldozer. He charges head on at the biggest guys on the field, and consequently spent much of his time between games last year in traction.

I have studied organizational efforts at change for years. Most writing on this subject deals with how to overcome resistance to change, how to manage one’s boss, how to build effective coalitions and so on. Essentially, it’s literature that touts the Riggins style — running directly at your adversary, trying to convince skeptics to accept your proposals and lobbying for support from committees vital to your program’s success.

In my view, the Payton “ballet” route is far more effective — dancing around ends and through wee holes, and avoiding 265-pound linebackers at all costs. I call this route “pilots instead of proposals.” Instead of spending endless time “selling” your untried proposal to top management, you should find one lonely supporter, preferably as far away from headquarters as possible. Work with him on a rapid pilot test of part or all of your idea. Then let him and his success serve as your chief selling tool– first to a few other volunteers, also far away from the home office. Later, as momentum builds, the selling job becomes much easier, or perhaps even unnecessary. As the saying goes, “It’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission.”

Essential, then, to the process of change is the rapid, inexpensive pilot, supported by a pragmatic champion in the field who conducts a test and collects data. The extensive use of pilots is anything but profound, but I see them used too infrequently. Spinning wheels and creating and massaging ten- pound proposals are the norm instead.

A market analyst, say, gets a hot idea. His first instinct is to sell it, rather than test it. He spends months researching and anticipating all the pitfalls of introducing the idea to a multi- unit, multi-location system. Meetings are held. Committees of “users” are formed to masticate the proposal. Presentations are made. The idea is examined by a cast of thousands; it is homogenized beyond recognition and drained of vitality. Arcane criteria are used to pick a first site, and a massive system-wide roll-out schedule is published for all to see.

The chosen “host” for the trial is usually near home base, is seldom a volunteer and has little energy or enthusiasm for the project. Then, as is the case with any first road test, a score of unexpected problems arise. The test is derailed. The countless sideline skeptics cluck, and a year’s work goes down the drain.

The out-of-sight, on-the-cheap pilot avoids all this. Its distance from home base and its low profile provide protection from unwanted eyes when the inevitable early foul-ups occur. Because of the “quick-and-dirty” (albeit well-conceived) nature of this brand of pilot, the organization need not put big bucks on the line. The lack of committee homogenization leaves pizazz in the idea. And the volunteer champion wants to help build a success, rather than engage in an effort to torpedo the imposed program.

Implementation of ideas by means of such pilots may, at first blush, seem too slow, particularly if an organization perceives an urgent threat from competitors. I believe the opposite is true. Pilots involve testing, collecting hard data and gathering champions — quickly. At best, the organization becomes a hotbed of pilots, a climate in which “do it, try it, fix it” is the norm, rather than “imagine it, analyze it, reject it. ”

Published by permission of Tom Peters. Originally published on”
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