Let's say you've got a great idea that will solve a big problem your organization faces or will create a bold new opportunity to help your company succeed.

You could jump right in to preparing a persuasive PowerPoint pitch that you present to senior leaders to get permission to proceed.

But there's a better way to not only sell your concept, but make sure it's ready for prime time. That approach? Run a pilot test (which, despite the photo, does not have to relate to flying a plane.)

I was reminded of the power of pilot testing when I recently re-read Jane Shannon's book, 73 Ways to Improve Your Employee Communication Program. Along with all the other great advice Shannon provides, there's this:

"When management won't let you fly into action, jump into a pilot test. There's something temporary and loose and experimental and wonderful about a pilot test. 'Let's pilot-test a new orientation program and see what kinds of results we get,' has a very different feeling to it than 'I believe our task force has developed the perfect orientation program and we will now unveil it to overwhelming applause.'"

Why is a pilot test so valuable? Writes Shannon: "It always provides a much higher rate of success because you've identified that what you've done is a work in progress, and it's always improving. For example, if you're pilot-testing an orientation program, you'll get feedback after each session and then use the feedback to improve the program. It's the way work should work. Pilot-test everything."

Shannon's advice also reminded me of a successful experience I had with a client (whom I'll call Tim) a number of years ago. Tim worked for a big global organization run by engineers, who were skeptical of any concept that a) was invented elsewhere ("That can't possibly work in ourorganization.") or b) that didn't have data to prove the idea was effective.

Tim was working with my firm on a program to improve leader communication. But he knew it would be difficult to convince senior management that the program should be launched throughout the entire organization.

So Tim and I developed a three-month pilot test. At three manufacturing plants, we worked closely with the plant manager and other leaders to help them communicate more effectively. At three other plants, we did nothing. When the pilot was over, we measured employee knowledge and engagement--and analyzed each plant's productivity numbers. 

The result was impressive: All the scores were significantly higher at the three plants where leaders were supported. And because Tim proved that the leader program worked within the organization, getting approval to expand it was easy.

Convinced that a pilot test could work for you? Here are 5 key steps:

1. Carefully choose your pilot area. In Tim's case, it was important to select a mix of facilities that were representative of the types found throughout the organization. So in both the control group (where we did nothing) and the pilot group, Tim selected high-performing plants and low-performing plants. That way, he could prove the program worked in any facility.

2. Create a pilot plan. As Denise O'Barry writes in her blog, "Having a road map is vital to conducting your pilot." Your plan should include:

  • Objectives (of course) that state what you're trying to accomplish.
  • Resources.
  • Change management required to get participants on board and prepare them for what they need to do. This may include communication and training.
  • A timeline and project plan.
  • Feedback. Constant feedback "is critical when conducting a pilot," writes O'Barry. "Plan for at least a 15-minute session with the pilot team every single day. Discuss what's working, what's not and adjust as needed."

3. Conduct the pilot, following your plan.

4. Assess results. Writes O'Barry: "Once the pilot has run its course, compile the data gathered. What worked? What didn't? What had to be changed on the fly? It's a good idea to get the pilot team(s) together to talk through this information and add additional insights they discovered along the way." 

5. Sell your idea. Now you've got the information you need to confidently and persuasively pitch your program. Good luck!