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May 20, 2016

One of the lessons I learned early in my career was the value of piloting ideas and new processes. Just saying the words “Let’s try a pilot” seemed to open minds to new ideas and provide reassurance that complex plans could be executed more effectively.

Following a Christmas trip to Ecuador, my son asked his father and me to host an Ecuadorian-style pig roast in late May to celebrate his upcoming completion of middle school. I have attended a few pig roasts, but never imagined hosting 20+ kids and their families for a meal which I have zero experience preparing. I reconsidered, however, when I realized a pilot would help us all figure out how to roast a pig and feed 70 people.

The Pig Party Pilot was hatched, executed and delivered some important lessons.

Lesson #1: P is for PRACTICE

The old adage is right – practice makes perfect. A pilot is the perfect way to practice a new process to identify gaps in understanding or alignment before the real deal when decisions have bigger consequences or impacts. A client of mine is rolling out a new approach to calibration sessions; to ensure all executives understand the format and are aligned on what is expected of them, they ran a mock calibration meeting pilot. The investment they made in the pilot is expected to benefit them in the final process when the official meeting runs more smoothly and with fewer process questions or delays.

For the Nelson family, piloting a pig roast meant cooking only two legs rather than a whole pig. The pilot provided just the right experience to confirm that the masonry-brick oven constructed in the backyard would actually work, and that we had correctly determined how long to cook pork legs so to avoid poisoning our friends.


Piloting is a chance to gather ideas for improvement. This benefits teams and organizations by relieving some of the stress of needing every detail of a new process — or how to bring an idea to reality — figured out ahead of time.

For the pig roast celebration I planned a menu that met my criteria of easy to prepare or purchase. And then, during the pilot, my sister-in-law showed up with habas and queso fresco (young, fresh cheese), which is a delicious Ecuadorian combination. On top of that, our friend Philip, who owns a catering company, brought along a pot of borracho beans and a large dish of bread pudding. All of a sudden, my carefully-thought-out menu had morphed into something different — and better.

Lesson #3: L is for LOGISTICS

A pilot provides opportunities to identify and work through kinks or hiccups in logistics. When developing a new approach or launching a new process, determining how the process will work is critical to its success. Which step comes first, next, last? What happens if the order of steps is rearranged, or if a key component is left out? Is there a more efficient or cost-effective way to execute the process or accomplish the objective? What roles are needed, and who are the best people to serve in those roles? These are great questions to  answer in a pilot.

For us, we learned a critical communication factor from the Pig Party Pilot: When you ask a teenager to buy ice for drinks, be sure also to communicate the time by which she should be home with the ice. That way, everyone has cold beer with lunch!

Lesson #4: O is for OPPORTUNITY

A pilot presents many important opportunities, if you are looking for them. For example, a pilot can answer the questions, “What is possible?” and “What will it take?” A well-orchestrated pilot can also determine WHY something won’t work just as well as WHY it could. For organizations that want to broaden an impact or ensure an efficient allocation of resources, a pilot is a wise investment.

Our key learning from the Pig Party Pilot was “roasting a pig, and hosting a large party, are not as hard as they sound.” That, and we have cool, trusting friends who will eat anything.

Lesson #5: T is for TEAM

This is where it pays to know who your cool friends are, for the team you engage in any pilot is critical to its success and to learning from it. For best results, include people who are eager to invest in bringing a new idea to fruition. Look for people and departments who demonstrate the ability to adapt and learn as they go, and who will share their insights and learnings with you. Resist the urge to always pilot new ideas with the most complex and challenging constituents. While it is important to ensure an idea works (in the long run) for the largest majority of the organization, running a pilot around a complex set of problems can often result in over-orchestrated solutions.

For our Pig Party Pilot, we invited an outgoing group of people who would be comfortable introducing themselves to others, in case we were busy figuring out pig logistics. We sought out friends with high empathy skills, in case the food turned into a total bust. And we invited trusted friends who would give us honest feedback on what worked and what to do differently next time.

The Pig Party Pilot was a success, and we are progressing toward the actual May celebration in a few weeks. I am reassured that we have identified and worked through enough party details to be able to relax and enjoy ourselves at the real thing. Bring on the party!