10 Reasons Pilot Programs Fail And What To Do About It

“Ready, Aim, Fire” is so old-fashioned. Careful, thorough, risk averse planners simply need not apply. This fast paced, action oriented world demands a lot less “readying” and “aiming.” Pilot programs are a great response. Until they succumb to these common ailments:


1. Collaboration killers

If your goal is results, you need everyone driving toward those results and partnering for success. When you set up a pilot program, you shift the focus from achieving results to judging the program. People who need to be steadfast collaborators become observers and critics instead. An “us vs. them” mentality ensues and you won’t get the partnership you desperately need to succeed.

2. Discouraging persistence

Dogged determination drives more projects across the finish line than any other force. Pilots rarely generate that level of determination. Instead, a noble champion and a fan or two are often seen slaving away while others dismiss the work as ”just a pilot” – a short term, temporary, half-hearted inconvenience.

3. Too narrow to succeed

In an effort to create a well defined pilot, boundaries are drawn around people and systems. Unfortunately, these often exclude factors critical to success. Like the boss who needs to set a good example, hold people accountable, and reward desired behaviors.

4. The low hanging fruit

Too often pilots focus on the easy stuff. They fix the low hanging fruit and declare success. The tough issues remain. Year after year after year.

5. “This too shall pass.”

Employees who have witnessed failed pilots and abandoned initiatives have learned that business-as-usual is often the easiest path. If they drag their feet and keep their heads down, management will give up and move on. As usual. Life will return to normal.

6. Undermine the goal

When the going gets tough, it is natural to regroup. Unfortunately, an improvement effort can undermine the goal when it is the method that needs to be changed. Take meetings, for example. Books, articles, and the Internet are loaded with techniques, mostly misguided, for improving meetings. Most companies have tried multiple times to improve results. Nothing seems to make much difference, but instead of recognizing the fundamental fallacy in those methods, they give up on the goal itself. Thus, incredibly wasteful meetings continue and people convince themselves that they aren’t as bad as they are.

7. Too trivial to be convincing

My favorite is the pilot that succeeds gloriously but achieves nothing because it was shunted off to an “unimportant” group where everything is seen as simple. It’s like proving that a drug works on cockroaches and then expecting people to give it to their children.

8. Omits the hardest part

A quick pilot that opens eyes, teaches a few new skills, and develops a new process is great for generating energy and enthusiasm. At least temporarily. If a pilot concludes before new behaviors become habits, old habits will reign, especially once the first kink is encountered.

9. Only works when things are slow

If you wait until a slow period to try something new, All you’ll learn is that it can work in a slow period. You won’t learn much and you won’t create believers.

10. Abdication of responsibility

There is something about calling something a pilot that diminishes its importance. “Oh, it’s just a pilot” may help you gain approval to get started, but it can also let senior management off the hook for doing their part to provide vital support. Leadership must voice confidence in the purpose, process, and roles if they expect others to give their best.

These ten pitfalls do not mean you shouldn’t pilot anything. I am a big fan of piloting ideas and techniques as a means of learning what you don’t know. That is the purpose of a pilot. “Ready, aim, fire” does not work if you are trying something new and you don’t know how to get completely ready or exactly where to aim. This, by the way, may be more often than not!

Thus, to learn, but also avoid the pitfalls identified above:

  • Figure out what it is you need to learn. Ask yourself why you think you need a pilot. Get specific and then take actions that help you learn the right things.
  • Don’t risk diminishing the importance of the project by calling it a pilot or a test. The goal is to get results. Period.
  • Remain steadfast in your objective, even as you shift and tweak your path to that destination.
  • Target a real priority in a real environment so that what you learn is important and respected.
  • Enlist all the resources you need to find a path to your goal.

Pilots make all the sense in the world if your focus is to learn how to succeed, not whether to proceed.


This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on December 20th, 2015.

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