Scott Cook on Leadership in the Agile Age

Apr 12, 2011
6 Min Read

Intuit Founder Scott Cook recently visited the QuickBase offices in Waltham, MA [now located in Cambridge, MA] and spoke to the team about leadership and innovation. I have to admit that I was a little star struck. Scott is a brilliant entrepreneur and leader. I thought I’d share some of his thoughts on leadership with you, although I can’t promise as smooth of a delivery (Scott is well-known for his ability to captivate an audience with his calm, cool manner).

He began by talking about how his father, who just celebrated his 91st birthday, learned leadership in the U.S. military during World War II. That was an era when leaders maintained complete control; they framed the options, made the decisions and basically told people what to do. Clearly that worked well in planning military operations of the day but Scott believes that for our generation and future generations, leadership has a lot more to do with championing innovation at the ground level.

He calls this breed of leadership, “leadership by experiment.” It’s a management style in which leaders facilitate employee innovation by allowing them to prove their ideas through hypothesis testing. Leadership by experiment is practiced throughout Intuit, QuickBase’s parent company. It's about formulating hypotheses, quickly testing them in real world environments, and learning from the differences between the hypotheses and the actual results.

Scott discussed three main ways that leadership by experiment can help a team and organization win:

Build More Successful Products

Because leadership by experiment encourages real world hypothesis testing and rapid iteration, the customer can help refine a product. Since the design is advised by the end user, these products are more likely to be successful. For example, the team that created SnapTax, a mobile app that allows you to do your taxes with the snap of a photo, followed the hypothesis testing model and responded quickly to customer feedback. While testing their original hypothesis they uncovered an insight that completely surprised them and changed the direction of the product. Just months after its national launch, SnapTax has hundreds of thousands of customers and a five and a half star rating in the Apple App Store.

Change Role of Leadership

Leadership by experimentation also changes how decisions are made (for the better). When the boss is making the decision, everyone needs to try to influence him or her. “This is where politics and PowerPoint comes in,” said Scott. “But customers don’t buy Power Points!” They buy solutions to their problems. This changes the roles of leaders from people who make decisions on what lives and dies, to people who implement systems that make it easy for employees to experiment. Look around at your organization; does your manager make is easy for you to test your ideas? In many companies it’s not easy to run experiments cheaply and quickly and this can stifle innovation.

Attract and Grow Talent

Hypothesis testing also has a way of creating a desirable corporate culture that can be a competitive advantage. Scott gave an illustrative example of what a culture lead by experiment looks like:

Imagine you’re on a 30 person team at a software company and they do five hypothesis tests a year. If each person has five ideas then your ideas only have a .3% chance of being tested each year. That can be disenfranchising for an innovative mind. Now imagine if your company does 500 tests a year, 15 of your ideas get tested and three even make it into the product! You would feel a very different level of fulfillment and motivation in this scenario.

This kind of rapid experimentation culture is not only better for the business, it’s better for attracting, keeping and growing your stars.

I hope my interpretation of Scott’s talk is helpful to you and how you view leadership at your organization. Does anyone have stories where one of their team member’s tests surprised you and turned into a major opportunity for your company?

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