The light-touch programme with a Masters-level impact

The Alchemist Process packs a Masters-level punch within a short-programme timescale.

This is a bold claim to make for an eight-day programme delivered over nine months, but one that anecdotal evidence from participants over the first five cycles of the programme suggested was not over-exaggerated.  We set out to do some independent research to get a rigorous picture of participant outcomes and assess the effectiveness of the specific interventions.

At the same time we have been delighted to be listed as a finalist in the Leadership Development category of the Training Journal awards 2019, which also suggests that this programme is something special.

So, for those of you who have asked for more information about the Alchemist programme and the outcomes of the independent research into its results, here is an overview of the programme, its context and what participants said.  If you’d like to see the full report please contact philippa@gameshift.co.uk.

Context

The Alchemist Process is a senior leader development process based on action inquiry principles, designed and run by GameShift and our Danish facilitation partners.  It is a rigorous and accelerated leadership development intervention to build capability in systems innovation and change across the Danish health and medical system.

The intent is to help individual leaders to develop themselves to work well collaboratively in a context where resources are under pressure and innovation is essential. These pressures continue even as the sixth cohort enters the process this autumn.

Results from the research to date are encouraging.  We now have sufficient evidence to make some robust observations about what it working and what factors drive these outcomes. We believe this research will benefit not only the Danish health sector, but will be of wider interest to people with an interest in the frontiers of leadership learning practice.

This report shares a summary of the research and the conclusions we draw from it.

Context and wider relevance

Leaders in the health and medical care sectors face tremendous pressures to deliver services to a growing, ageing population with complex needs.  Demands and costs grow without limit driven both by demographics and advances in medical and pharmaceutical sciences. At the same time pressure on public finances present a challenge where infinite demands meet tightening resources.

These characteristics of the challenges facing health care leaders in Denmark are well recognised in health systems internationally. Such challenges cannot be met by working the system harder or by implementing “best practice” from elsewhere. Adequate solutions are not to be found within the leadership “playbook” of existing answers.  New ways of seeing, new ways of intervening, are therefore absolutely essential.

The driving force is our intention to enable leaders in Denmark’s top health organisations to lead in ways that generate new insights and fresh solutions through exploration creativity and innovation – by thinking and acting beyond silos and across organisational boundaries and by challenging assumptions and practices that stand in the way of such shifts.

What the intervention looks like

The Alchemist Process is a cycle of four intensive two-day immersions, linked by facilitated
peer to peer inquiry groups. Throughout the process participants work using structured and
supported exposure to fast cycles of experimentation and reflective learning focused on
their own leadership practice.

This focus is supported through constant feedback in the peer inquiry teams known as PAGs (Practice Applications Groups). Underlying these cycles is exposure to the discipline and practice of action inquiry – a rigorous way of learning from your day to day experience. This practice builds reflective capability and supports the potential for exploration, collaboration and innovation.

Throughout the entire cycle of the Alchemist work, participants bring with them a
“Big Question”. These questions provide a living focus against which to test and sharpen the
understanding and practice of all the perspectives and models. There is no gap between “knowing” and “doing” or “being” – the Big Question provides a practical arena for learning from their own practice. The Big Questions are issues that are significant to the participant and material to their organisation.

Each Big Question is an issue where the participant has genuine skin in the game, where addressing the issue has the potential to bring real life benefits and where existing solutions don’t seem to be enough. The process creates a space where senior leaders can learn about their own leadership, in the systems they work in, within a co-created community.

At its core, the Alchemist process is a learning crucible. The learning crucible is a collaborative space in which new practices and new insights emerge, are shared. The crucible is defined by the qualities of inquiry, reflective practice, experimentation and collaborative learning. It’s ‘alive’. It moves with the ever-evolving needs, insights, questions and ideas that are catalysed and explored through the process.

Reported outcomes

Our research found that participants reported the process as a profound experience, different to anything that most had experienced before, which had a powerful effect on them, leading to a number personal and organisational transformations.

People talked of this as radical, highly personal work – at a level unusual in leadership development. Participants spoke of working at the level of sub-surface drivers and characteristics, touching aspects from purpose, identity, beliefs, values, capabilities, behaviour and deep-seated attitudes, encouraging people to explore these and move beyond their constraints and limitations.

Participants described a process that provokes and pushes people. It both demands, and creates space for, people to be honest even when this is exposing and difficult, to question their assumptions and reflect on the consequences of their actions, and to embrace the role of being in service to something bigger than their own self.

Specifically, 100% of participants interviewed reported:

  • The Alchemist Process as “exceptional / exceeding expectations / best lifetime learning experience.”
  • Using two or more of the tools, methods & perspectives learnt in practical application in their organisations.
  • Specific beneficial outcomes from learning experiments, with approximately 60% reporting organisational benefits as the primary outcome.

 

The main personal and organisational impact reported in the feedback was as follows:

Confidence stepping into the unknown and the difficult

Participants spoke of a growth in their confidence and self-belief as a result of the program and how this has been a major transformation for them. We heard how the programme triggered major changes for one participant’s “sense of trust in herself”, which she attributes to the way the program helped increase her self-confidence and strength.  She said, “The process showed me that I was standing up to my own values, which was good knowledge to take away.” Another participating leader said, “I’m confident now in most situations – even when don’t know the answers”.

Seeing leadership in a new way

Participants told us that they had been challenged by – and appreciated – the level of
existential questioning present on The Alchemist. This was experienced as highly stimulating line of thought contributed to the creative energy found in the program, unleashing new ideas and sparking trains of thought, even, as one leader put it: “changing fundamental beliefs around what leadership is.”

People became explorers, adventurers, questioning their previous ways of seeing and acting.  It was for many participants a truly visceral experiencing of re-imagining what is possible in leadership and emerging with “many more colours on my palette”. This was, for many, a liberating act. As an example, one participant said: “It challenged my experience of leadership and made me much more aware of what I was doing, when I was doing it.”

The legitimacy of exploration

Participants described a newfound ability to trust in the process of exploration. The “Navigate and Explore” model was referenced by everyone as a powerful way of seeing their leadership and organisational world.

All of the leaders interviewed also reflected on how The Alchemist changed the way they led within their organisation. Referencing the “Navigate and Explore” model directly, they spoke of “becoming a leader who navigates and explores” and stressed the un-locking ability of this new way of working to generate solutions which were of greater benefit to their organisation, which involved others in the process and which connected and served a wider purpose.

 

Seeing through new lenses

Participants told us that the process was one of “expansion” and “self-discovery”, where “newness occurs” and where there is “growth in understanding about situations and individual reactions”.  Participants became aware of the limitations of their commonplace assumptions and new ways of seeing, and gained confidence in seeking out new way so of examining and explaining actions and consequences.  Some of this was very practical – relating to the potential of specific work relationships and challenges. Some of this was bigger, about a more deeply personal shift in which new ways of acting and being became visible and became possible.

Tough decisions

Participants spoke of having to make very hard decisions within their organisation, particularly those involving colleagues or changes to team structures. The work done in respect of confidence and purpose, along with the support and energy of a network of peers, seems to have increased the ability of leaders to face their toughest decisions with more creativity and lower stress.

Participants reported that the process and questions they were asked during The Alchemist, often by their peers within their PAG community and by the facilitators, along with the connection they had re-established with purpose and centredness around what is the right way forward, made them better resourced to handle these situations.

Many participants told us that the “inner work” they did on the Alchemist journey enabled them to have more confidence in facing situations, and decisions, where their past patterns and “inner demons” would previously have impeded their ability to act well and wisely

Connecting differently

The emphasis in the Alchemist design on creating a community of exploration builds a new awareness of connection. Many of our participants spoke about the impact that this had in their leadership and organisational lives.

We heard about leaders “taking responsibility for changing how you connect in order to help others and make progress”.  Several leaders spoke ofconnecting to people in different ways now” and of prioritising this connection since the program: “I will often pay non-agenda visits now, just to fully understand people’s problems and context”. Several also applied this to the relationships with peers and bosses, and found themselves having a new understanding about the importance of managing upwards.

It may seem obvious, but in the endless cycle of deadlines and challenges, and the pressure to deliver instant answers based on expertise and silo responsibilities, sometimes this most human of issues can become forgotten. Remembering the power of connection, of turning up as a human working alongside other humans, is a radical act: “I had never thought of this before, about how I work together with my board”, one senior specialist reflected.

Purpose: finding the fierce green fire

Participants found themselves becoming clearer about the deeper purpose at the heart of their work, which they came to see as a source of their energy and the secure ground on which their efforts, their curiosity, exploration and experiments could stand.

Often, in this research, when the group spoke of their increased confidence in leading beyond certainty, one of the foundations on which their confidence stands is their rekindled sense of personal and organisational purpose.

One leader interviewed spoke about how this work “changed and expanded his focus and his big issue” and how this became about finding the purpose for our organisation.  He recalled: “If I could find the purpose it would be possible for me to find the direction we should develop and my role in this. That was transformational for me.”

Another participant used the process to deeply question what he and his organisation were here for. Exploration of purpose in a rigorous and creative way proved to be very powerful and effective in being a catalyst for personal and organisational change.

 

For further information, and a full copy of the research report, please contact philippa@gameshift.co.uk