The word science conjures up images, not all of them positive, for people who don’t have much exposure to it.
Some may think of researchers in lab coats, mice running through mazes, or their most-hated class back in high school.
But what if I told you that all the associations you make are accessories to science, but have very little to do with the real thing?
Let’s go on a journey of what science is, using a leadership example.
What is Science?
At its core, science is a process: through that process, scientists create a body of knowledge we can draw from and apply to business. The scientific process follows these steps:
H: hypothesize (define the question you are asking)
O: operationalize (fancy word for turning your question into a metric you can collect data on)
M: measure (gather the metrics through surveys, observations, sophisticated technologies, etc)
E: evaluate (analyze the data and determine the impact)
R: replicate (extend or re-do the process by going back to the beginning – it’s an iterative process)
For a (rough) visual representation of the information above, head over here.
Yes, it spells Homer. Scientists find that mnemonics are helpful, so imagine either the Simpsons Homer or the Greek philosopher Homer to remember the scientific method more easily.
Let’s use a leadership example. You want to know if your company’s day-long leadership training works. Let’s use Homer’s (whichever Homer you prefer) scientific steps to find out if the leadership training is effective.
Hypothesize: What do we mean by leadership? What do we mean by ‘it works’, as in, it works compared to what?
Let’s say by leadership, we mean the leaders’ team improves. By it works, we mean compared to people who haven’t done the leadership training.
Operationalize: What metrics are we using for leadership (i.e., the leaders’ team improvement)?
This company has a team performance review, so we can use the data from the review.
Measure: How, when, and where are we measuring the impact of leadership training on leaders’ team performance?
Imagine we run a pilot experiment with 70 leaders randomly allocated to the leadership training group and 70 leaders randomly allocated to an “unrelated day-long exercise” group four months before the bi-yearly performance review. Then we measure the performance evaluations of their teams four months later, at the next performance review. We keep track of which leader was in which group, who were in the leaders’ teams through the four-month interim period, and the team performance scores during the review four months later.
Evaluate: Did it work? Specifically, did the leaders from the leadership training group have better-performing teams in their next performance review than the leaders from the unrelated day-long exercise group?
We gather the scores from the one group and we gather the scores from the other group, and we compare the scores. The leadership training group scored higher than our rigorous threshold, so we can conclude that yes, the training works!
Replicate: How should we revise/replicate/improve the test to learn more, if needed?
If we are confident in our results, we may want to move to a full-scale, company-wide test to make sure. We may want to measure leadership in another way, to check that this training doesn’t only improve the team’s performance. We may want to compare the champion this time with a training program we think will do even better.
Companies can use this scientific process in any business function or externally with customers and clients, if they follow legal, ethical, and moral guidelines. An ethics guide for behavioral science experiments outlines some of the key questions to ask when running experiments within companies. The same principles apply for experimenting on customers – if you want to see the backlash that running experiments on customers can have, you can explore the coverage of Facebook’s user experiments.
It may seem like a rigid process, but these steps have brought us technologies, designs, medical discoveries, and teaching innovations. This humble process has cured diseases, connected people, lengthened lifespans, educated students, and saved us so much time, we now spend it on the technology that the scientific process discovered! Even if you aren’t in the business of saving lives, education, or curing diseases, following the process of science can benefit you and your company.
How do you see science being applied in your company? Send me your thoughts through the Contact page, share your ideas with the world in the comments section, or read my next article (coming soon!) on why business leaders should care about and use science.
(Homer Simpson drawing and Alamy stock photo of the Greek philosopher Homer)