The power of learning through discovery

Discovery learning – an active, hands-on mode of learning that emphasises learning by doing – is a widespread practice in education today, and few teachers and practitioners would dispute its great effectiveness as a pedagogic tool.

The antithesis of traditional, classroom-based, rote learning, the process consists of learners actively participating in discovering new ‘knowledge’ for themselves, rather than passively receiving information.

It is based on the premise that we learn best what we discover for ourselves. To facilitate this voyage of self-discovery, participants are put in surprising or challenging situations, working in groups to conduct experiments and share insights from their experiences. The aim is to encourage individuals to think for themselves, speculate, develop hypotheses and cooperate with others to develop solutions.

In the unique LBS model, each discovery activity or event – which may be as long as a week – is followed by a stage where participants conduct an experiment, trying out different models to see how that affects the outcome. It is a kind of trial-and-error-based learning where participants act on the world and examine the results, then present their findings to the board or other senior groups. The ‘creative encounters’ both shape the experiment participants want to conduct and catalyse them into putting energy into the process.

Dr Jules Goddard, Teaching Fellow at London Business School and one of the pioneers of discovery learning at LBS, says, “It’s in the creative encounters that participants start to invent different ways of either designing the organisational model – how they work together with each other ­– or the business model itself; how they serve their customers inside and outside, in some sense. The experimentation and the encounters work in parallel.”

Frequently, it’s through the experiments as much as the creative encounters that lasting corporate-level change materialises, because “new and exciting ideas are being tested for real”. And in a business context – where the ultimate aim is to generate creative business solutions – the results can be revolutionary.

Designing the intervention

Because companies vary in shape, size and stage of growth, it is not effective just to offer a standard, one-size-fits-all curriculum. Professor Nader Tavassoli, another member of faculty with long experience in this area, says: “LBS is extremely well known for offering a broader set of experiential learning and discovery programmes, which come in many different forms. We have discovery visits for MBA students as part of their course, open programmes where participants go on discovery experiences, and longer – and very successful – custom executive education programmes.”

The latter begin with often lengthy discussions with client organisations to understand the company’s culture and business philosophy, then an intensive design effort to develop a programme that translates the concept into something real. This typically revolves around ‘creative encounters’ in unusual settings, but also role-playing, storytelling, small-group sense-making, and guided debriefs with faculty and other experts.

The ‘live’ programme then typically begins with a pre-course reading and preparation period for participants, followed by a brief but intense discovery modules of four to five days’ duration, interspersed with a four-to-six-month period of self-directed group experimentation. This is followed by a longer, six-to-eight-month application period after the last taught module has been completed, culminating in a final presentation.

As Professor Tavassoli notes, “This invariably sparks great energy and excitement among executives as they know they will be presenting their ideas to the CEO and top management and getting either a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, but it’s all done in a very ‘safe’ space for the experiments.”

Danone dares

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the executive board of multinational food-products corporation Danone identified a lack of personal development as a major problem among its senior management, critically hampering the firm’s ability to compete with its major rivals.

To address the problem (but sceptical of the ability of traditional management programmes to bring about necessary and lasting change), then-CEO Franck Riboud sought a radical leadership development programme that would shake executives’ core beliefs and thereby facilitate “the development of altered personal constructs and more authentic relationships with other team members.” In other words, Riboud wanted nothing less than an “altered-consciousness experience” for his senior managers.

He found it in the shape of a programme which Danone co-developed with LBS in which his top executives – himself included – were sent not on the latest management training scheme, refresher course or company outing, but on surprising learning experiences designed to take them far out of their comfort zones. These included working with a neonatal unit in South Africa improving the health of vulnerable infants; studying the just-in-time supply chain of Amsterdam’s cannabis coffee houses; working with prisoners at a high-security prison in Boston; engaging with teachers and students at a school for autistic children in London; and exploring the way a traditional jeweller conducts trade in an Istanbul souk.

Rightly eschewing the temptation to evaluate the programme’s outcomes in terms of bottom lines, KPIs and so forth, Riboud instead sought change in terms of personal development and intellectual, emotional, psychological and relational insights.

Of the nearly 200 executives who have participated in the training since its inception, 100% report having made changes in their leadership style as a direct result, together with increased effectiveness at work; 93% say participation has inspired “significant self-reflection”; and 89% say it has enhanced their career prospects.

Danone itself reports deep and sustainable business impact at individual, organisational and societal levels, while a snapshot of qualitative individual feedback shows widespread increased bonding among participants, “feelings of being inspired and energised”, and a sense of improved collaboration between different company divisions. Thierry Bonetto, former Director of Learning and Development at Danone and co-designer of the programme, comments that “it created a unique opportunity to break executives’ loneliness, and a safe environment to share opinions.” All testament to the kind of wholesale cultural shift that might otherwise take many years and vast expense to bring about.

How it works

While many graduates of experiential learning programmes often speak of it as a kind of ‘magic’, the science behind it is now reasonably well understood.

As Dr Goddard points out, “In middle age – the age of most executives – we learn best from experience animated by action, rather than through our intellect. Simply feeding new ideas, new theories and new data to executives makes very little difference because of confirmation bias – they just interpret it in terms of their own model. But, when you throw them into the deep end, and they have encounters with people they would never normally meet, in the company of colleagues who they’ve never really spoken to as people in their own right, those experiences have the potential to change minds.”

Julie Brennan, a programme director at LBS and discovery learning pioneer, elaborates on this process: “Just going to a different place, a different culture, meeting different people who you would never usually have a conversation with, gets your brain working in a different way. You start to shift in some way and let go of your normal way of working, the business culture. It’s about crossing a boundary – whether it’s geographical, emotional, a completely different organisation or an experience – your brain is shifting into a different space, which requires you to use all your senses. Your senses are enhanced and you start to look at things very differently.”

It’s a process that catalyses profound change as individuals shed their managerial ‘masks’ and natural workplace defensiveness and become ‘human’ with each other. One outcome, as Brennan observes, is that, “people start to talk about things that usually don’t get talked about at work, but should be.”

Business benefit

If some of the theory behind experiential learning can sound slightly touchy-feely to the uninitiated, hardened practitioners are quick to point to the lasting benefits. Over many years, Dr Goddard has found that, “These conversations with people from different parts of the business light up different parts of the mind. You get a completely re-energised group of senior people who are better connected with each other.

“We know that loose networks are the basis of personal learning. In other words, we’re going to learn more from people at the edge of our network than those close to us, so we’re effectively building those loose networks in the organisation. And we have some fairly solid evidence that these new networks endure and have a lasting influence on behaviour.”

Why can’t companies don’t this for themselves? The answer is that it is impossible to replicate the situation in a meaningful way in a workplace context: “The spirit that needs to be engendered above all others is one of curiosity, combined with a willingness to challenge strongly defended positions and interrogate well-entrenched corporate assumptions. The ‘right’ environment is one that disarms the self-serving (and quite rational) defence mechanisms of the participating executives. Only when the conversation amongst participants is natural, candid, disinterested and exploratory is it likely to be productive, and only when individual executives freely and openly recognise the fallibility of their own beliefs can collaborative work get done.”

That means there are two prerequisites for experiential learning to be effective. The first, Dr Goddard says, is that, “It must feel unfamiliar and unpredictable and must arouse feelings of surprise, confusion, even discomfort … to an extent, executives should be thrown off-balance and immersed in a setting that arouses their interest, curiosity and need to make sense of what at first sight may seem puzzling.”

The second prerequisite is that, “It must touch their humanity – it must stimulate an emotional response, such as wonder, pity or affection. When executives find themselves sharing these emotional experiences far from the office, far from home, and far from equilibrium, they open up to each other. Things get said that need to be said, and things get shared that need to be applied. In other words, these creative encounters act as a catalyst for more effective behaviour. Perhaps for the first time, they truly attend to each other, and thereby discover the power of collective knowledge and a cooperative mindset.”

The outcome from discovery visits for individuals is often genuinely surprising. Prof Tavassoli recalls one to a township in Johannesburg, South Africa, where executives were connected with microentrepreneurs, including the owner of a barbershop and a car repair shop, and challenged to help them problem-solve to grow their businesses. Put in these alien scenarios, executives often plunge into ‘problem-solving’ by offering solutions such as, ‘Run a TikTok campaign!’. But as he points out, research shows many such quick fixes can’t simply be transferred from one context to another – and, if they’re not fit for purpose, they can actually lead to worse business outcomes: “So, executives learn two things. One, their regular solutions just don’t work. Two, they become very humble because they realise, ‘This person is not just running one business – they’re actually running three businesses and I’m not sure I would survive in this environment, with all my education’.”

Such a visit often triggers change at a personal emotional level. Professor Tavassoli says: “There’s tears, people come out – and the ones who are most frustrated in the process often learn the most. They’re the ones who are most directly confronted with their biases, their normal ways of behaving. When we talk about ‘agile management’ and other things they realise, ‘I’m always applying the same cookie-cutter solutions and they don’t work.’ It loosens up rigid behavioural patterns and ingrained ways of viewing the world – it makes them much more open to embracing change and doing it differently. It’s very powerful. For C-level execs, it can be transformative. It just gives them so much energy and they’re at that level where they can help shape the future of the company.”

The answer lies within

Discovery doesn’t just help executives to challenge their own personal assumptions – it also represents a challenge to the way most companies think about learning and development more generally.

Attempts to apply the techniques of management to ‘learning and development’ activities invariably backfire, as Dr Goddard explains: “Escape from the lore and language of management is crucial. Pretending that executive education is just another ‘project’ to be managed is unproductive. Fettered by the language of goals and targets, ROIs and KPIs, assessments and appraisals, even the most imaginative workshop design founders. A climate of judgmentalism is antithetical to learning. If the participants feel they are being assessed, the playfulness and ‘carelessness’ that lead to learning will be lost.”

“Companies tend to outsource this creative problem-solving work to consultants,” notes Brennan. “Frequently, it’s because senior execs are so close to the challenges that they don’t get a chance to really figure out the solutions. Consultants can be great, but in effect all they really do is tell companies what they already know, or highlight what is already there, and give them objectivity and perspective.

“Discovery learning is a way of coming up with bold ideas for solving challenges. Through the process of discovery and the encounters, people realise that they are in the best position to solve their challenges themselves. We all have it in us – we just don’t know how much we know!”

If companies are ill-advised to try to develop their own discovery learning programmes for their people, it begs another question: why is it not a standard offering among all business schools, globally?

According to Professor Tavassoli, it is because the skills and mindset required for effective classroom teaching are not the same as those needed to run experiential programmes: “It’s very hard to have the right sensitivity as a faculty member. You can’t be a specialist in accounting, finance or even marketing – you have to have that broad human understanding and the distance thinking necessary to guide this. You’re integrating lots of experiences so that the class as a whole shares ideas and learns from each other.

“And you can’t approach it by just asking, ‘how can I get my money’s worth?’ and cram all the content into 90-minute modules. It’s not about learning in that sense; it’s about having an impact on the world. It’s not the normal way of teaching – you need truly expert facilitators.”

An early proponent of discovery learning, LBS has been developing its MBA and executive education experiential courses for some 20 years and now has a diverse and comprehensive portfolio of programmes that are designed, run and administered by dedicated professionals, all with many years’ experience in the field.

While companies can initially be reluctant to completely ‘let go’ of their top executives and send them on the programmes, they tend to become converts quickly, and frequently establish long-term relationships with the School. Danone, for example, has worked in partnership with LBS to tailor, develop and evolve an experiential learning programme, the ‘Leading Edge’ curriculum, for 17 years and it continues to inform and guide the multinational’s evolving strategic and organisational objectives and challenges.

This article draws on ‘Design for Learning: Some Principles of Programme Design in Executive Education’ by Jules Goddard, a Fellow of London Business School. Julie Brennan is Managing Director of Quest Executive Development and Programme Director, London Business School. Nader Tavassoli is Professor of Marketing at London Business School.

Useful resources:
Leading business thinkers from around the world, both academic and managerial, come together in Think to debate current issues and present cutting-edge research and ideas.
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook
Share via Email

Follow Us
Follow us on Twitter
Follow us on LinkedIn
Follow us on Facebook
Get headlines via RSS

Receive the free Learning.africa newsletter for the latest news and trends:
©2023 SURREAL. All rights reserved.
Follow us on Twitter Follow us on LinkedIn Join us on Facebook