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  • Lia DiBello & Geoffrey Wade

Accelerate organisational agility with Maxx

Updated: Mar 15

Change has a poor track record

In 1986, Alfred Spector, co-authored a paper comparing bridge building to software development. The premise: Bridges are normally built on-time, on-budget, and rarely fall down. On the other hand, software rarely comes in on-time or on-budget, and it always breaks down. One of the reasons bridges come in on-time, on-budget and do not fall down is because of the extreme detail of design. The design is frozen when construction starts. And when a bridge falls down, it is investigated, and a report is written on the cause of the failure.

These “bridge conditions” do not apply in the wider business world requirements, and designs are fluid and where failures are covered up, ignored, or rationalised. As a result, we make frequent mistakes and we keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

This evidence for this provocative statement lies in the stagnating success rate on change initiatives. In 1995 John Kotter published research showing only 30% of change programs are successful (i.e. were on time, on budget, and delivered the expected outcome). Ten years later a Prosci study reported that 29% were successful, 53% were challenged (i.e. were late, over budget and or delivered less than required) and 18% failed (i.e. were cancelled or delivered and never used). In 2011 things had improved a little concurrent with recording smaller and less complex projects. But in 2020, according to Standish Group and others, the success is still unacceptably low at 29% with 19% as utter failures. Some reports suggest 17% of change initiatives are implemented so badly that they threaten the survival of the company.

Even those who challenge the 30% success rate as “too low,” challenge on the basis of semantics around the interpretation by many that ‘fail’ means ‘outright failure’ rather than ‘fail to fully realise the benefits upon which the change project was originally justified, within target time frame and within the budget.' (Hughes, M, 2001)

While these success numbers seem dismal, they become truly disagreeable when you consider the cost measure in tens of billions each year. No wonder many decision makers are averse to change projects and contractors delivering them!

Change requires agility

Companies are spending a lot of money on improvement; yet the fields of leadership and conventional change management have done little, some may say nothing, to improve things in 25 years. This is all despite the fact that structured change management processes are widely deployed. It suggests there are more pieces to the puzzle and that some critical success factors have not been adequately identified nor addressed.

Dr Richard Claydon attributes this to the fact that the useful and critical research remains out-of-reach for business people so populist research and ideas dominate. This allows homey advice and theories to have power and influence, despite evidence they do not work. While a lot of work has gone into identifying the individual ingredients for success, Deloitte wrote in 2017, “90% of organisations admit they do not have a good understanding of the factors that drive performance.” Like anything else, it’s more than a list of discreet things that ensures good outcomes and there are other critical factors such as how the success characteristics are acquired.

Dr Lia DiBello says, based her decades of research in the field of accelerated learning, “Contrary to common beliefs, the traditional focus on performance 'traits' has little relation to success in real world practice. Also, skills are best assessed during performance of relevant tasks, like solving business problems. That means many self and peer assessment tools are measuring the wrong things and the wrong way. Also, most classroom or on-line based training is attempting to develop capability in the wrong way. It’s no surprise traditional approaches have not produced the improvement in #leadershipperformance, #agileculture, #employeeengagement or #businessresults that would justify the resources they consume.”

Some 2019 research from KPMG has even demonstrated the lack of correlation between certain professional certifications and change success. The development of successful business, public service, and military change leaders requires more than training and professional certifications in of various kinds. The skills most needed to be effective are clearly pointing to the need for the future leader to be more capable in managing complexity. Skills such as working more effectively with stakeholders, managing change and handling difficult conversations should arm managers with the skills necessary to have greater effectiveness in complex and volatile situations. Some would describe complex and volatile as business as usual. Others indicate the immense importance of situation assessment, being able to sort out what is going on and applying the appropriate approach to the solve the problems (G Klein, Sources of Power: How people make decision).

A new way to build leadership and enterprise agility

Lia ( ) is best known for two things:

  1. Assessing the thinking of experts of various kinds using powerful non-verbal performance-based methods

  2. Accelerating the development of expertise for business using – among other things – specially designed simulations contained in Virtual Worlds.

I’m ( ) also well known for:

  1. Codifying the thinking and behaviour patterns of experts using implicit modelling techniques.

  2. Transferring that expertise to others who want it and accelerating mastery through experience-based learning.

No doubt you can understand why we work together.

Lia’s simulations are “rehearsals.” So instead of looking at them as a structured “serious game,” it’s best to think of them as a “smart place” with unfolding events where you can experience possible futures. Not only do they include real world models but cognitive models too. In the world, teams from a company can actually rehearse a future strategy, market play or change project iteratively until they are successful with a specific non-negotiable goal. We found that this process aligns the teams and the thinking of the organization. And because they have “done it” and “got it to work,” the relevant capability that is developed along the way, and the new thinking, transfer instantly back to real work.

Up until now, these virtual worlds have been large, tailored to a company and problem, a significant investment and with application limited to high value change projects. Over recent years Lia and her team have been building micro-virtual worlds with generic companies and application to universal outcomes such as rehearsing acquisition and merger, innovation, new technology deployment, agile leadership ability and agile culture. They are affordable. And they’ve been widely tested and have produced peer reviewed papers describing extra-ordinary case study learning outcomes and commercial performance improvements.

Introducing Maxx

One such micro-world is named Maxx. It is intended to build organisational agility. Maxx is a virtual work environment that helps participants develop an understanding of business, markets, and the reasons for innovation and the reasons for doing it. Its power comes from not being “training” but rather a place and experience for developing expertise to add value to the organization with intelligent decisions, regardless of a manager’s role. This is done as participants live through the “story” of Maxx Systems, a company struggling to make higher returns in a competitive landscape of consumer products. Finding the way for Maxx Systems exposes the participant to a deeper understand of how a successful business adapts and thrives with agile leadership at the helm.

What is Maxx exactly? Maxx is a “serious game.” A serious game is a one designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment, for example rehearsal to promote learning and behaviour change. The "serious" adjective refers to virtual world video games used by industries like defence, education, scientific exploration, health care, and first response or emergency management.

Maxx develops expertise in agile decision making and leadership for business. It was developed by Lia’s team and some of the key thought leaders and researchers investigating the neuroscience of accelerated learning. Their work was funded by The National Science Foundation of the United States, NASA and the National Academies. Maxx has been tested on hundreds of people in several countries.

Learning is best done by doing. It is known that experiential learning taps into the adaptive unconscious. For example, Maxx has been shown to accelerate capability in agile decision making by years, after only a few hours in game in virtual world. Lia says, “If it seems like magic, or too good to be true, maybe it is. Just as much of modern life and our ability to adapt and thrive is equally so. We just don’t notice because we are doing it without thinking about it consciously.”

Maxx can be used alone and is better when used in conjunction with a facilitator, coaching, changing management efforts or other initiatives. Maxx can help boost the team’s development in important areas and build team bench strength.

Winning in Maxx is not finite. Maxx is also a fun mystery that can be solved a number of different ways. Players tend to play it over and over and see if they can come up with different ways to beat the market in ever more clever ways. Unlike other serious games, it is possible to “win” at Maxx, and then go back and do even better, reaching a new level.

The role of rehearsal

This section is not for the faint of heart. It’s the science behind the magic for neuroscience nerds only.

Rehearsal in learning refers to the cognitive process in which information and skill are repeated over and over as a possible way of learning, remembering and mastering. There are two types of rehearsal; maintenance rehearsal and elaborative rehearsal.

An example of maintenance rehearsal is rote learning; a common technique of memorisation by repetition, often without an understanding of the reasoning or relationships involved in the material that is learned. It takes hard work and time. Elaborative rehearsal entails connecting new material learned, with already existing long-term memories, through complex tasks. For example, engaging learners in a complex constructive activity roleplay or simulation of reality that will help the memories be more storable and retrievable at work in the future. The important difference is in the underlying mechanisms involved in each type of learning.

Constructive activities are those that have clearly defined goals and poorly defined means to achieve them. The participant in the rehearsal is thus compelled to develop a procedure, form, tool or artifact which accomplishes the goal in an iterative fashion (trial and error), obtaining feedback from more knowledgeable superiors only after attempting to develop a workable solution on her or his own.

Importantly, success at constructive activities is associated with an in-depth understanding of the system in which you are operating, and procedural activities are not. Research has shown when several variables such as job title, years of experience, level of formal education and number of opportunities (per week) for constructive activities were correlated with measures of in-depth grasp of systems, patterns and principles, only number of opportunities for constructive engagement was found to be significantly associated with mastery (r = 0.69 p =< 0.01; see Di Bello and Glick, 1993 for discussion). This research also showed that real world opportunities for constructive activities are usually fortuitous and ill structured, so mastery is acquired slowly, and not fast enough to address the pace of change in the 21st Century.

The adaptive unconscious is described as a set of mental processes that is able to affect judgement and decision-making but is out of reach of the conscious mind. This type of thinking can be described as a quick interpretation of information, sizing up of the world and decision making outside the conscious view. The adaptive unconscious is active in everyday activities such as learning new material, detecting patterns, and filtering information. The adaptive unconscious learns 200,000 faster than conscious learning processes, so it is at the core of accelerated learning, and it is difficult to manage this type of learning in the real world.

The research revealed that adaptation to complexity that normally takes several years can be accomplished in weeks using a specially designed “rehearsal method” that levers virtual worlds, constructive tasks and taps into the adaptive unconscious processes. Lia has decoded the critical elements and tested this model extensively for world-wide for 20 years with more than 7,000 people. This has resulted the Maxx system that we have been applying to increasing numbers of high risk, high value use cases.

Here’s the “So what?”

Companies, for the most part, don’t manage change as effectively as they could. They often lack the critical knowledge and skills to undertake change, lack the leadership systems and procedures that advance and reward change in the workplace, and lack the methods to generate a compelling ‘intrinsic impetus’ for change within the workforce.

However, despite this, the field of neuroscience is delivering effective change management models that genuinely anticipate and address the commercial, technical, process and human issues associated with large-scale change.

Organisations and managers who develop agility and employ the latest change management approaches can and do succeed. They enjoy higher success rates on their projects, earn higher return on investment for change projects and earn a sustainable competitive advantage for their organisation.

This has significant implications for development, learning, intuition, memory, and adaption to change. The human brain, and thus an “organisational brain” of people, can accelerate learning of agility and adoption of change.

If COVID has taught us nothing else, it is that business needs a game changing solution to adapt to a world that is surprising us with welcome and unwelcome events.

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