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Discovery - a courageous learning journey

Learning methods without clearly identifiable outcomes can be challenging to sell to internal stakeholders

By Linda Irwin 10 December 2013

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The paradox is that sometimes, in order to achieve the desired shifts in either perspective or behaviour, a bold and somewhat unpredictable approach to learning may be exactly what is needed.


Discovery methodology is one such approach.  This can be a very powerful, disruptive learning method, helping participants to gain breakthrough insights and leading to deep individual and business impact.  


What is discovery learning?


The concept of ‘discovery learning’ is founded on the notion that adults learn most when their expectations are confounded, when their assumptions are challenged, or when they feel compelled to interrogate their own belief system.  It employs a catalytic element of surprise or disorientation.


The method involves the crossing of various kinds of boundaries: geographical, cultural, organisational, functional, conceptual, disciplinary and methodological, all of which generate curiosity and fresh insights.

By its very nature, discovery learning is often unpredictable. As such, it can pose a challenge even to courageous Learning and Development professionals from a stakeholder management perspective.


Discovery learning at London Business School


An early proponent of discovery learning, we have used the concept as the basis of our highly successful partnership with Danone on the Leading Edge Programme since 2003.


This EFMD award-winning programme, which has delivered deep and sustainable impact for Danone at an individual, organisational and societal level, is an excellent illustration of how having the bravery to embrace an element of the unknown can deliver significant return in both intended and unanticipated ways.


The Programme arose from Danone’s courage to take a very different approach to the development of its senior leadership.


What did Danone want to achieve?


Danone’s CEO, Franck Riboud, wanted to run a leadership development for his top executives that did not in any way represent, ‘business as usual’. 


He was confident that if his senior people were placed in a situation that inspired them to think more openly, more imaginatively, and more bravely, the outcome would be beneficial. 


For Riboud, ‘playing it safe’ was a recipe for disaster.  He wanted a ground-breaking initiative that would challenge Danone’s assumptions.


In 2003 we embarked on a partnership with Danone to do just that, marking the start of a relationship characterised by a pioneering approach, a strong cultural fit and a deep understanding of the organisation’s strategic intent. This led to high levels of trust and a collective desire to explore new territory.


An innovative and courageous approach to programme design


Working with the Danone team, Academic Director, Jules Goddard and Programme Director, Julie Brennan, developed a highly experiential and edgy two-module programme, based on the concept of discovery learning.


The programme was designed to help participants look at business in a new way, to discover and experiment with new levers for growth and to build and reinforce their personal leadership capabilities.


The first module of the programme involves disruptive experiential learning in unfamiliar environments through a series of ‘creative encounters’ at a range of social and commercial enterprises across the globe, to engage participants at both a cognitive and an emotional level.  The latter is essential for behavioural change.


Over the course of nine programmes so far, some of the most memorable and evocative encounters to date have taken place at:


  • A high security prison outside Boston
  • A school for autistic children in London
  • A political think-tank in Istanbul
  • An experimental school in a favela in Rio de Janeiro

A facilitative debriefing and reflection process helps participants make sense of these encounters. The new perspectives gained from such experiences enable participants to start bringing new ideas into Danone by discussing and debating new approaches to business challenges. The senior executives then take ownership of these ideas and insights and work collaboratively between the two modules to further refine their ideas.


The second module focuses on developing participants’ own authentic leadership DNA with the support of group coaching. During this module the executives have the opportunity to benefit from an immersive dialogue with the CEO, to share the results of their strategic business experiments and to engage in dialogue on challenges and newly-gained insights.


Here, Jean-Philippe Paré, Executive Vice President, Research & Development, Danone and participant in the 2005 Mumbai Leading Edge Programme, explains the value of the overall approach:


‘Leading Edge’s philosophy is not to teach people, but to provide them with inspiration from both their colleagues and the world around them, in order for them to challenge assumptions and make new choices on what should be done.  It’s a more powerful and sustainable way of enhancing learning and growth.’


Through a process of extensive stakeholder engagement and on-going design refinement, the Programme Team ensures that the Programme remains relevant to Danone’s evolving strategic and organisational objectives and challenges.


Design summary


  • Disruptive experiential learning and ‘creative encounters’
  • Guided debriefing and reflection processes
  • Role-play and storytelling to share the meaning of experiences
  • Thought leadership faculty inputs and social and business guest speakers, including senior Danone executives
  • Group coaching sessions and 1:1s
  • Participant-owned, inter-modular group experiments

A continuing commitment from Danone’s CEO


Franck Riboud’s continuing commitment to the Programme and his trust in the discovery method, which allows ideas, collaboration and impact to emerge, is key to its success.


Here he explains why he feels the Programme is important:


‘Leading Edge is not a top-down training, aimed at sharing direction from the top, but a ‘place for expression and vivid debates’, including the way the Danone Group is working.  The Programme is a tool to ‘shape the Group, to help steer the boat.  Their questions, ideas, help me make decisions, reflect on managerial options…it’s a guide for action.’


Delivery of deep business impact


The result for Danone has been deep and sustainable business impact at multiple levels; individual, organisational and societal.  This is demonstrated by:


  • The impact the programme has had personally on Franck Riboud, who attended in 2005.  This contributed to a change of strategic direction towards health and nutrition
  • Danone’s increased societal impact worldwide, based on its deep belief of business as a force for good
  • The creation of a top cadre of leaders within Danone with a common language and enhanced leadership capabilities
  • Increased talent retention and building of leadership bench strength for the executive team and the Board – 64 of 174 participating executives have been promoted since their participation, four of whom have been appointed to the Danone Board
  • The programme assisted in cultural integration and talent retention following a major acquisition
  • The sustainability and cascading of the discovery process throughout the organisation and its integration into learning and development processes
  • Enhanced business performance and growth

Key success factors for the Programme:


  • High degree of trust and collaboration between Danone and London Business School
  • Senior-management commitment to and involvement in the Programme, especially from Franck Riboud
  • Strong  fit with the Programme ethos and Danone’s culture
  • Constant design innovation to ensure programme alignment with Danone’s strategic ambitions and goals
  • Founded on the principle of enabling learning rather than teaching and lecturing

Learn more


Learn more by reading our full Leading Edge case study document below or watching a short film on the programme.

For further information about discovery learning, please contact Linda Irwin, Client Director for Danone at lirwin@london.edu

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