INSIGHT | 24/06

Successful business transformations require more meaningful experiences, and less meaningless words

What if, rather than telling our people what to do, or what to change, we gave them an environment where they could figure out the answers for themselves?

We have more books on change management, more theories on leadership, more Agile best practice frameworks than we ever did…They come in the form of books, methodologies, PowerPoint slides, e-learning, people saying quick words or phrases that sound like the right thing to say.

More phrases than ever get bandied around as if they are well understood, when in fact they are not. Here’s a few examples:







Most managers, in most organisations, have some concept of what all these mean. Many of them have been trained more than five times, in more or less the same basic material.


Many of these concepts are not new at all. In fact they are decades, if not millennia old. They've just been re-packaged.


Not a lot of change occurs, despite the levels of knowledge we have about what we 'should' do.


So, our problem is probably not information, the problem is much more to do with adoption and execution.

The Agile transformation is a problem of practical implementation

Let’s take Agile as an example. According to McKinsey only 4% of top companies have achieved “organisational agility” (where all parts of the business are aligned), yet the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was published in 2001.


The problem with Agile is not just that we are asking people to change, it’s that we are asking people to care about the things they were previously asked not to care about. In fact we’re really asking people to change their behaviours and attitudes. The problem also occurs when you ask someone to become a leader. You can’t really use theory or models to do this. The words alone bear almost no relevance at all to the real thing.


The only really effective way you can enable people to make these kind of changes successfully, is to allow them to experience the reality for themselves, to find their own path. To try and potentially and safely fail multiple times. To see for themselves how the life of the business depends on them making a very different set of decisions. To be able to observe the consequences of how they and others are working, and to have a safe environment to make corrections, that they themselves take.


Our experience is that you need to create a live-like Agile environment to support the adoption of Agile behaviours and ways of working.

People don’t argue with their own experience

We need to create more opportunities for people to experience for themselves how their actions impact outcomes. How, for example, by adopting collaborative team behaviours leads to dramatically better customer outcomes.


No one would argue that more collaboration = better outcomes, but most organisations are struggling to get their people to collaborate, not because they don’t believe in the concept, or that they don’t want to, but because the team has not practised precisely how they are going to collaborate.


There is an approach called experiential learning.


The idea is to re-create the situations, challenges and pressures that teams or individuals will come up against in the future, so that they can experience the reality of the changes you are asking them to make. They can try and fail with different strategies. They receive immediate feedback. They can see how their actions impact the results. The learning environment simulates the reality as closely as possible.


When your people come up against these challenges back on the job they know what to do, not because you told them, but because they experienced it for themselves.


People don’t argue with their own experience. 


Experiential learning, or learning by doing, is something we like to call an ‘obvious

secret’. Everyone would agree that learning by doing is the most effective way to learn (the obvious).


Aristotle knew this over two millennia ago. Airline pilots know this. Academics know this. Professional sports teams know this. You know this. However, hardly anyone in either a change or HR or business leadership role puts this into practice when it comes to making critical organisational changes (the secret).


When you look at where your organisations spend money when it comes to people and change, where does it all go? Are the investments you are making giving you the best returns? Are the solutions resolving the problems?


Adopting an Agile drug filing process in a global pharmaceutical business

Getting new drugs to market is a highly complex, specialised and potentially error-prone process. Worth billions to economies and to pharmaceutical companies, and worth lives to patients, any improvement in speed and effectiveness of drug filing can have enormous consequences.


The problem for the pharmaceutical company was to enable technical experts in their field, who are distributed across the globe, who may never before have worked together or met each other, to become a high performing team, delivering a drug that patients desperately need, to market in as fast a time as possible.


A simulation was built to take new drug filing teams through the end-to-end process of drug filing and allows the team to experience all the challenges along the way. The simulation condenses what is typically a 12-18 month process into a matter of days.


In addition to the technical fundamentals, the key to the simulation is its focus on getting the team to build trust, understanding and connection. Using the drug filing process as the backdrop, the team must quickly establish how to work with each other from remote locations (which is the reality), to communicate effectively, and to maintain a positive group mindset. At critical stages, teams and individuals were given feedback on how their actual behaviour was aligning to the core Agile principles required to succeed.


The programme has become one of their flagship training programmes and is still being used on drug filings to ensure teams know how to operate as a connected, high performance unit in advance of beginning the drug filing process.

The 2D Solution vs the 3D Solution

When we talk about 2D and 3D solutions, we don't mean in the gaming or virtual reality sense. We mean our own experiences.

One way of thinking about how people experience change is to think about the depth of the actual experience people get in a typical transformation programme.

The job, surely, is to prepare people for the challenges that they need to overcome in making changes . But in reality, whilst people get the basic concept, or know some of the models, they have no idea what it really means to be under those new pressures, to respond in different ways, to observe how their own psychology and behaviour interacts with the new.

There is brilliant a phrase in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) which is borrowed from the philosopher Alfred Korzybski:


That’s to say, the picture that you’re looking at, or that you have in your mind, will be nothing like the experience of actually being there, in 3D.

This theory is used in coaching to explain the idea that someone's description of an event, or a feeling, might give you broadly the same picture. But this high-level image is not at all how that person experiences that event or feeling. So, the map is not the territory.

Another superb explanation of this is given by Steve Jobs, as he explains why he doesn't like consultants:

“It’s because consultants have a top-line image of many different types of businesses, they have a broad picture, they have a 'map'. And that map is usually a perfectly formed, ideal world map. But many consultants have never stuck around to experience the reality and the struggle of making the recommendations happen.” For Jobs, this is where all the value, and all the learning is. Most do not have a real appreciation for the 'territory'.

If we think about where most of the money goes, when it comes to giving people the critical learning, knowledge, or experiences they need to make change happen, this is pretty much all in 2D.

Here's an image of a normal transformation schedule. It typically goes:

  1. Announce a new initiative, or strategy

  2. Train people with models, slogans, competence frameworks, assessments, theory

  3. Hope that people can translate theory into practice

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We give them the map...

They have no understanding of the territory, until they are actually faced with it. If the change is substantial, most will probably fail to make the transition effectively.

This is where most organisations find themselves in their change initiatives.


Creating $58m in value by accelerating adoption of a new data-driven sales process

In 2016 we met a client who had recently implemented an AI (Artificial Intelligence) based CRM system.  Having invested millions in the customisation and implementation, and after months and months of internal comms, drilling home the reasons for the investment and a mandate from the CEO for all users to take a new approach to managing customers, there  was still no sign of change. 


We spent time with the steering group and the users to understand their opinions and objectives and it soon became clear that the major barriers to success were “motivation” and “trust”. The failure of the CRM was not to do with the system itself, it was to do with team dynamics and a perception that the system was making the wrong recommendations.  

We designed a simulation to take the teams through a series of exercises that precisely replicated the business functions, financial levers and market dynamics. The experience demonstrated how each individual could influence the customer outcome for the better and how trust in the system would improve their results. Knowing how and why they could contribute to the success of the programme motivated the team to approach things differently and within a few months the results started to show.  Each team completing the experiential simulation achieved an average revenue increase of $100,000 per year.  By the 3rd year the company had rolled out systems in 580 operating teams and through pre-emptive experiential engagement, had achieved a $58M increase in revenue as a result. 

The problem for the pharmaceutical company was to enable technical experts in their field, who are distributed across the globe, who may never before have worked together or met each other, to become a high performing team, delivering a drug that patients desperately need, to market in as fast a time as possible.

For ‘make or break’ business transformations, you need a 3D, experiential solution

I’m pretty sure no one has a sure-fire answer to organisational change. But there are better approaches than others.

What we observe is that most organisations spend money on solutions that they know get mixed or even poor results. Experiential learning isn't even really in the lexicon of most HR, change, or business leadership practitioners.

We still talk about training courses, workshops, e-learning (which gets way too much press from the likes of Deloitte etc) and coaching. There is 'On the job' training in more technical roles, such as learning to use machinery. But what we don't do, is help people to prepare for 'transitions' that are going to test their attitudes, behaviours and beliefs, by enabling them to experience and overcome the challenges they are going to face.

This is a LinkedIN report on where the money goes, when it comes to training spend:


The current lack of experiential learning in the market is a massive opportunity to do things differently. Think, for a second, about how long certain types of problems have been around for. Think about getting the right leaders in place. Think about your onboarding process. Think about convincing people to move from one way of working, or culture, to a totally different one.

Most companies fall well short of where they would like to be.

Our question is, when it comes to solving these problems, why would we not spend more time and money on principles that we all agree to be true? Rather than looking for the latest fads in neuroscience, or psychology, or the latest coaching model. We don't need more content, we need a different mechanism to ensure we solve these problems more effectively.

Learning by doing is an infinitely more effective approach than regular training. However, it’s also more expensive, it takes longer to build, it’s more complex. So we can’t put it everywhere.

There are certain kinds of problems your business is facing, where you would absolutely want to build a solution that works, and lasts. You wouldn’t want to leave it to chance.

These are the kinds of problems that, if unresolved, will make or break your business. They are also the kinds of problems that are likely to represent big behavioural or mindset transitions. The strategically urgent, behaviourally unfamiliar issues. This is where all the potential value is…These are the things that you need to happen fast, that are a long way from happening.

Here are some examples where a 2D solution is vastly inadequate:

  • Transitioning to new, unfamiliar ways of working (eg. Agile transformation)

  • Transitioning people in your business into unfamiliar leadership positions

  • Integrating new hires into new, unfamiliar roles

  • Mergers and acquisitions, where two or more organisations need to adapt to accommodate the new 'one' business

Why would we be happy with solutions that give us mixed results for these kinds of problems? What do most companies think of their change efforts? Their leadership development? Their onboarding?


Unlike the 2D solution, the 3D, experiential solution looks like this:

  1. Announce a new initiative, or strategy

  2. People experience the challenges they are going to face in the future, in an environment that mimics the reality as closely as possible, enabling them to see how their actions impact the results

  3. Your people are ready for the change, not because you told them what to do, but because they know what to do from their own experience

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For our critical business transitions, we need more than just maps, we need our people to experience the territory, so that when it comes to putting your strategy into practice, they know what to do.


By re-thinking these problems from the ground up, and by applying experiential learning techniques to your change efforts, your people will make the change their own.

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