Discover more from Admired Leadership Field Notes
Don’t Call It a Pilot Program
How we describe activities matters.
People create expectations about what will occur based on the labels, descriptions, and titles we give any undertaking. Choosing the right descriptors can have a marked influence on how people orient themselves and engage.
For instance, there is a real difference between asking people to complete a survey versus requesting them to take part in a study. The former is commonplace and considered relatively unimportant. The latter is seen as selective and viewed as a potentially important contribution. By labeling the activity a study and not a survey, response rates climb.
When applied to introductory sessions or programs, the title Pilot is particularly worthy of scrutiny.
Leaders who want people to fully engage and take an activity seriously should consider avoiding the pilot label. Because of past experiences and associations with pilot programs and pilot workshops, many people treat any activity with pilot attached to it with mild contempt. They conclude that since this is a pilot, their role is to evaluate, criticize, and poke holes. Participants in a pilot program often bring unhealthy doses of skepticism and cynicism to the experience.
Introductory programs and initiatives are by definition new and untested. They give designers the opportunity to start small and get the bugs out before rolling the activity out to more people. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of any introductory or test program is an essential step to ensuring value. Unfortunately, calling the program a pilot changes how the participants expect to engage the new material.
Once they know the initiative is a so-called pilot, the red pens come out and people are primed to edit and critique. They don’t participate in the way the designers hope future participants will experience the program. Instead, they see themselves as critics who are asked to tear the initiative apart. This unhealthy view often sinks the prospects of a potentially valuable program.
Call any initiative, introduction, or untested program anything but a pilot. Descriptors like introductory, exploratory, and preliminary don’t carry the same expectations for how participants should orient to the activity. Some descriptors and labels seem socially charged.
Pilot is one of them.