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Apr 8, 2021

The new best-selling book Think Again, from organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant, calls on all of us to apply the scientific method when we take positions and make decisions. “Treat your emerging view as a hunch or a hypothesis and test it with data,” Grant instructs. 

But what does this mean for business? 

As Grant notes, entrepreneurs and leaders are typically celebrated “for being strong-minded and clear-sighted. They’re supposed to be paragons of conviction: decisive and certain.” But research shows that those who are willing to test out their assumptions, change their minds, and pivot from their original plans are far more successful. In one study, startups that engaged in scientific thinking pulled in more than 40 times as much revenue as their counterparts.

Still, in business, testing hypotheses is no simple proposition. As MIT Technology Review explains, “Unlike scientists, who have the luxury of withholding judgment until sufficient evidence has accumulated, policymakers or business leaders generally have to act in a state of partial ignorance… One cannot reorganize the company in several different ways and then choose the best.”

So how can businesses best introduce the scientific mindset into their cultures? By empowering employees to experiment in smaller ways all the time — that is, creating hypotheses, putting them to the test, assessing results, updating those hypotheses, and repeating the process. 

Through building peer coaching programs inside innovative organizations, from Boston Scientific to Hasbro, I’ve seen how the scientific method can become a standard part of workplace culture and lead to substantive changes that are proven to work.

Developing a Hypothesis

The scientific method begins with collecting information, making observations, and asking questions. To do this, employees need dedicated time to focus on a specific problem and a partner with whom to bounce ideas and questions. 

Peer coaching serves as a forum for this. It’s a system of guided one-on-one conversations, in which each participant brings up a specific challenge they want to tackle. The two get each other’s input, listen, offer feedback, and share stories and experiences. 

Through this process, they gain new perspectives that challenge their thinking. As Grant notes in his book, people can easily fall into a mentality in which they believe there is only one right way to do something. To develop a scientific mindset, we need to be pulled out of our own perspectives and shown entirely other ways of viewing a challenge.

Peers are also uniquely equipped to help each other in another crucial way: by providing each other with the psychological safety it takes to be willing to experiment. When interacting with someone higher up in the organizational hierarchy, people are often less comfortable taking risks because they’re focused on impressing. And when meeting with someone lower down, they’re often focused on establishing a sense of authority. But when people talk with someone at their same level in the organization, those concerns fade away 

Together, as part of each coaching session, the two discuss possible ways of solving the problem each is focusing on and what step to take next. In other words, they hypothesize what the results will be.

This step — their experiment — could be almost anything. Perhaps a manager wants to test out a new way for their team to organize data, to see whether it proves more efficient. Or perhaps an employee wants to approach a boss about a remark that bothered them, in hopes that it will help prevent the boss from repeating that behavior in the future.

Because the participants know that they’ll discuss the results in their next session (these can typically take place every two weeks), they generally follow through. Indeed, our survey data shows that more than 80% of the time, peer coaches carry out their planned actions.

Reflecting on Results

Once the action has taken place comes the next step: observing what the results were, and comparing them to what results they expected. In the next session, peer coaches go over this in detail. The coaches’ questions to each other prove crucial.

For example, say the data system did not go as well as the manager had hoped. The manager may assume the idea needs to be scrapped. But the peer might ask whether the system was merely not conducive to the specific type of data used in the experiment. 

Similarly, an employee’s difficult conversation with a manager may not go well. But rather than assuming the employee approached the manager in the wrong way, perhaps it was just a matter of timing. 

In business, people are often quick to assume why things happen — whereas in reality, “most of what we observe is correlation” rather than causation, MIT notes. Peers can challenge each other’s assumptions and help them design the next stage of their experiment.

This is something participants often highlight as a crucial part of peer coaching. Our internal research reveals comments like: “Speaking to my peer has been great as it always provides a fresh perspective on things and also gives me insights.” “Voicing ideas to someone with a different perspective can open your mind to new possibilities.” And, “Great to hear how someone completely different from me thinks and interacts with problems.”

Over time, peer coaches are able to keep experimenting and refining an idea until it works best, or they determine it’s not worth pursuing further. They also switch partners, getting different perspectives from people in other parts of the organization with different backgrounds and experiences. This helps expand their learning and inspire new kinds of experiments.

Successful Applications in the Workplace

By applying this method, we’ve seen organizations come up with ways to solve customer challenges, create safe spaces for DEI conversations, and uncover new opportunities to collaborate across business units.

I use this method myself inside our culture. For example, I’ve encouraged my teams to engage in peer coaching to discuss ways to improve their relationships with customers and prospects, growing the company. They followed the process, learned from each other, experimented, and over time found terrific new ways to optimize those relationships.

Of course, businesses also benefit from the work of scientists outside their companies who are constantly engaging in all sorts of experiments to test the efficacy of various ideas. Take, for example, a study on biophilic design by three university professors who implemented the scientific method to find “an improvement in well-being, performance, creativity, and health by introducing daylight and greenery” into workplaces.  

In short, the ripple effects of using the scientific method are widespread. Innovation flourishes throughout the organization. People get constant reminders that all kinds of things are possible that they hadn’t imagined. They get to know their colleagues in deeper ways, tapping into each other’s diverse backgrounds. They create a greater sense of inclusion, building relationships around a shared sense of purpose. They feel more engaged, advance their own careers, and develop a wide range of skills, from empathetic listening to creative problem-solving. 

Ultimately, your business becomes driven by more empirical proof — and taps into the great potential that arises when employees come together to build the business of the future.