Pilots vs Experiments

by | Nov 26, 2020 | Change, ICT4D |

pilots and experiments

We call them pilots, not experiments. Not sure why. Perhaps pilots sounds more sophisticated, more palatable. More professional. Or perhaps experiment conjures up images of science experiments in labs. Test tubes. White coats. And explosions. Does calling them pilot project communicate they are more thought through?

When I read many different definitions of the words, I see a pattern emerge. Pilots tend to be associated with testing the real world application of an idea, particularly if it will scale. While experiments are more often viewed as an earlier step in the process when an idea is tested to see if it works at all.

In the humanitarian sector we call everything pilots. We love pilot projects. There is something about them that seems to make us feel innovative. However, we have a severe case of ‘pilotitis’. It’s extremely rare that our pilot projects scale. But it’s also rare that our pilot projects are actually testing if the idea will scale. Most of our projects are testing if an idea could work.

So maybe we should call them ‘experiments’.

And maybe that would make us uncomfortable. And perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe it would mean we have less of these projects and more true pilots trying to scale an already tested idea.

Does changing what we call something change how think about it? How we feel about it?


Change makers know this and pay attention to the words we use. They are signals. Important ones. Signals encourage behaviour. But also discourage behaviour.

What is the change you seek and how can the language you use help?

Photo by Bill Oxford


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