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Some thoughts on Peter Bregman's HBR post "Live Life as an Experiment"

In his HBR post Live Life as an Experiment, Peter Bregman describes a fascinating mini-experiment where he tries to get out of paying a 20% restocking fee simply by asking. He doesn't push (well, other than to keep asking :-) and he treats the store's employees with respect. It's a fun read, it brings up excellent points about life-as-experiment - 100% Think, Try, Learn. You'll find the comments stimulating as well. Following are my two replies.

I'm curious: Have you tried anything like this yourself? How did it go? How did they react? Did you get the discount? Did you learn something?

(P.S. If you'd like to try it out yourself (or maybe something related like bartering on a price), head over to Edison.)

On the benefits of experimenting in life

Peter, I love your attitude about experimentation, and I think we can all benefit from adding more of it to our lives. You capture the spirit beautifully in your passage about how framing life this way has big benefits. I'm writing a book on this very topic, and I'd like to share a few additional benefits I've thought of:

  • Experimenting is fun because trying something new is exhilarating, and discovery feels good.
  • Acknowledging you're new and don't know what you're doing is a relief!
  • You are guaranteed to succeed because you *will* come out knowing more than you went in.
  • You become more playful because your observation skills tune you into the amusing possibilities of life, and open you to delightful surprises.
  • You feel more creative because you see things differently and more objectively, which pulls you outside of your normal models, biases, and patterns.
  • You deepen self-understanding because you study yourself in action and learn what makes you tick. This leads to working in harmony with yourself.
  • You become more courageous, because thinking of something scary as an experiment feels lighter than "all or nothing" models.
  • And finally, and maybe most importantly, you are more mindful because observation puts you into the joy of the moment, rather than worrying about the past or future.

On ethics, business, and black boxes

@Mark, et al: re: ethics: Experimentation almost always involves (that's one of the indicators that you're doing one), but in this case the risk was simply discomfort. Peter wasn't responsible for how the employees reacted, and it sounds like he behaved very respectfully. He was simply asking for something, then asking again. I did something similar when Comcast upped our internet rate. I wanted to know whether I would get a discount if I kept asking. It worked! I have a saying, "You never know until you try," (shortened to YNK) or the variation, "If you don't ask, the answer's no."

What Peter did was play with the system. I think of the world (in this case, the store and its employees) it as a kind of black box. Ultimately any complex system is opaque, which means all you can do is observe inputs and outputs. In this case, he poked the box, got responses, and repeated. Crucially, he got data he (and we!) can use in the future. Calling it manipulative in this sense is accurate. What if you called it "play?" Importantly, I hope he had fun with it. Learning to enjoy the process of experimentation (rather than focusing solely on the outcome) is a key to living happily, I'm finding.

@Hiral: The worker was following the script, which is fine. His choice. You could also ask him if you could use the bathroom. He could decline and say it's against store policy, but how would that look from a service perspective. Regarding running a business, getting people who try this experiment is itself data - the best way to look at a business is as *itself* an experiment, especially in these hard economic times. Paying attention to the data, learning from it, and changing is the essence of evolution. It's smart!

@Geri: "Few of us get things right the first time" - exactly. In fact, feeling like you have to get it right ("one chance thinking" I call it) is a major barrier to experimentation. It should also be a warning flag. Well put. Experimentation's redefinition of failure and mistakes is an extremely important shift in thinking. For failure, we should always ask by what metric are you judging it? Often we have a binary, e.g., "Made $1M or didn't." But we can always look at it differently. The ultimate measure guarantees success: "What did you learn?"

@Eric: Your insight about learning by watching others' experiments is spot-on. It's not only a way to get wise safely, but it's also inspiring. Also, it's a way for us to help others by sharing our wisdom and helping them when *they're* experimenting. These are exactly the ideas behind our Edison tool that I mentioned above (http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/). I invite you to check out the experiments we're doing there, such as the person who's implanting a magnet in his finger (http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/experiments/show/147).

Reader Comments (2)

I've been watching a reality TV show on Hulu called Bad Girls Club. Each episode is a series of behavior experiments that are essentially of the same kind as Bregman's. These women are constantly practicing theories about and techniques of manipulating people to get what they want: yelling, throwing things, crying, forming alliances, speaking softly, reductive reasoning, using a shared vocabulary that is steeped in cultural meaning, and so forth. It's endlessly fascinating to watch them cage drinks off strangers, talk boys into and out of bed, claim space, and brand themselves. They all come at this with a basic experimenter's premise, which they repeat over and over to each other and to the camera: "I don't care what you think of me." Of course, they're aided in this by real, clinical narcissism, and their arena is small and chaotic, but they're implacable in pursuing these ideas and they are patient and resilient in their dedicated practice.

Bregman's experiment seems to be, "Is asking more effective than not asking?" but I think it's more rightly described as, "Is it worth to me to behave in a way that makes me uncomfortable?" I think he should perform a different experiment though: "Is asking nicely more or less effective than yelling and making a scene?" I think he was taking a chance by not getting upset, because the mechanism at work in customer service is that it's more expensive to let a customer leave unhappy than to buy their satisfaction cheaply. An unhappy customer will broadcast his displeasure to many potential customers: the cost to businesses grows geometrically. But the same mechanism works for making an unhappy customer happy, and the benefit to businesses far outweighs the cost. This is why the manager gave in. By saying that the restock fee was reasonable, Bregman was saying, "I'm not upset about this." There's no cost to saying no to someone who's not angry. He should be upset about the restock fee, which is really only a tax used to discourage a certain kind of behavior and as such is simply a ruse. Stores take back defective items all the time: not only is the restock fee $0, but they lose the entire increment of revenue: they have effectively sold two pieces at half price, doubling their costs. The ledger book doesn't distinguish between a piece that's taken back because it's defective or not; either way the item isn't available to generate revenue for the store. It's a bad situation for the store, but it's no worse than if they had taken back a defective piece and given the customer a replacement. The store manager wasn't doing the customer a favor from the point of view of how the store fare's financially.

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

Amazing insights, Dan - thanks very much. I put a copy over on Peter's blog so they could appreciate your thinking. I'm not sure I'm ready to join the Bad Girls Club... :-)

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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