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Zach the Cat as an Example of Why Businesses Should Experiment More

We found our cat Zach at the beach as a tiny kitten, hungry and flea-ridden. We brought him, four kids in tow, to the anti-cruelty society (which we now refer to simply as the “cruelty society”), but they told us that he would almost certainly be put to death if we left him.
Not quite ready to give that life lesson to the kids, we let him join our family, and he has been a model citizen ever since.
Until recently. After a year, he suddenly stopped using the litter box, preferring instead rugs and piles of our clothes.
So Jeannette took him to the local vet, who advised the following plan of action:
1) Add an extra litter box.
2) Make sure all three litter boxes are scooped at least twice a day.
3) Never leave piles of clothes on the floor.
4) Pet him a lot.
5) Get rid of the rugs he has been using as a litter box.
6) Switch the type of litter in the box.
7) Give him one dose of Prozac per day.
I’m happy to say that Zach is now using the litter box again.
But here’s the problem: we have no idea why. Was it the petting? Or was it the constant scooping of the litter box? Maybe it’s the new type of litter. Or possibly it was just the trauma of going to the vet that snapped him out of it?
Does it really matter? The problem is solved, why worry about exactly what worked?
It matters for two reasons. First, some of the solutions above impose ongoing costs. We’d rather not scoop the litter box seven times a day if we don’t have to. His Prozac prescription was $29.95. Do we need to renew that until the end of time? Second, if we knew what worked this time, it might help us know what could work in the future when other similar problems arise.
Both of these reasons point to the value of controlled experimentation. If we had only changed one thing at a time, systematically observing the outcomes, perhaps starting with the simplest fixes, we would have learned a lot more and possibly saved ourselves ongoing time and effort. The downside, of course, is that it might have taken longer to solve the problem.
While this is a story about a cat, the parallels to the work I am doing with businesses are extremely strong. Businesses large and small are constantly being faced with problems and decisions, and the standard response is like that of my vet: make a half-dozen changes at once and hope one of them works.
In the end, though, it is really hard to learn from this approach, and learning on the part of businesses is perhaps the single most important element to future success. It is my strong belief that businesses that adopt a more scientific approach to decision making will benefit, and we have a growing collection of real-life examples to back that up.
It is just as true that experimentation can be valuable in your personal life.
Although we didn’t do a clean experiment in changing Zach’s behavior, that doesn’t mean we can’t make up for it now by undoing the changes one by one.
I think I’ll start today by taking Zach off Prozac. I’ve always wanted to try Prozac myself, and I really have had a strong urge to pee on rugs lately.