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The power of experiential learning to lead with ‘both hands’

Orion St. Gallen experimental learning
Partnered with the  University of St. Gallen, Orion developed the Horizon programme with the aim of building ambidextrous leadership capabilities to ensure continued profitable growth balancing exploration and exploitation. Achieving deep learning and a shift in mindsets were key design parameters: challenging existing orthodoxies to develop new mental models to lead Orion’s business into the future.

Initial context

In 2017, Orion faced growing ‘VUCA’ challenges in the industry and ‘big ticket’ strategic questions needed to be addressed: How can the pipeline of producing innovative digital products and services, both traditional and ‘beyond the pill’, be improved? How can the organisation attract external motivation to develop new ways of thinking and acting to be future-ready for continued growth? How can the organisation and its processes be further streamlined to remain cost-efficient going forward? These were some of the key questions around Orion’s business challenges that needed to be addressed.

The Horizon programme was developed with the aim of building ambidextrous leadership capabilities to ensure continued profitable growth balancing exploration and exploitation. Achieving deep learning and a shift in mindsets were key design parameters: challenging existing orthodoxies to develop new mental models to lead Orion’s business into the future.

Leaders in Orion needed to reinforce their capability to maximise current business potential to deliver results for today AND to explore innovation above and beyond the core capabilities of the organisation for the future – leaders who will be equipped to ‘lead with both hands’.

The journey was drafted, presented and shaped in a number of discussion rounds with the executive board, facilitated by the project team of St. Gallen University and HR’s Learning & Development department. From the start, trust between the two partners was essential for running such a complex and ambitious project with a partly open and flexible agenda spreading across four modules in different international locations. This was particularly important as the objective was to build an innovative, intelligently designed programme with limited traditional business school teaching that would stretch participants out of their comfort zone using real-life situations and simulations.

To ensure the right topics were integrated into the programme, the participants and additional (expert) stakeholders undertook a Delphi-based study. This entailed being presented with a number of controversial statements, which participants were invited to answer quantitatively (to what extent they agreed with the statement) as well as qualitatively (their reflections on the statement in order to generate additional insights). The study was more than just a survey, as it provided a multi-perspective view of some of the most strategic and vital challenges for Orion.

Experiential learning to develop ambidextrous leaders

The entire journey and its didactical design were built around the conviction that participants should learn via direct (including emotional) experience, keeping conceptual-academic input to a bare minimum.

We had a clear goal, but set 48 hours free! It was a real mind-blowing experience to see what results this type of leadership of autonomy and genuine trust can achieve

Real-world VUCA experience in rural India

To live up to the promise to ‘stretch’ participants and deliberately lead them out of their comfort zone, a true VUCA location was chosen for Module 1: Udaipur in rural India, where three undergraduate students founded a ‘Water Shop’, with the mission of providing purified water to local rural communities. Two water shops already existed, and a growth and leadership plan was needed to develop the scaling up of this number to over 25 water shops in the coming years. The executives had 48 hours to come up with a workable business case detailing how they would develop and grow the business. This was deliberately chosen as a high-pressure environment to work in, combined with being in a completely unfamiliar cultural context. During the five days in India, project work, with dedicated specific input by faculty and case coaching, were alternated. What were the takeaways?

  1. ‘Teaming’ – a true eye-opener for many participants was how much can be achieved in just 48 hours, the team collaboration process was a vital ingredient, and agile teamwork was key
  2. Data – knowing what to know and what to search for – information is more complex in the VUCA world. How to gather relevant information, and how to analyse it?
  3. Exploration processes for growth and innovation need a different performance management approach, an agile mindset and quicker decision-making.
  4. Human intelligence and connection: Participants needed to connect quickly, not only with each other but also with other people (e.g. the Water Shop employees) within an unknown cultural context


The key challenge to address was how the organisation can deliver on today’s strategic agenda, translating the company’s strategy into key operational processes. As in India, teaching input was limited and at the heart was a process gamification/simulation where participants would experience process optimisation. Following the learnings from the simulation, they worked on a number of real Orion functional processes and defined measures, KPIs and actions to improve these processes to make the organisation more efficient and scalable without losing the bottom line out of sight: ‘Exploitation at Work’!

Orion, gamification/simulation of functional processes

Prototype garage

This milestone leveraged Design Thinking and customer-centric methodologies to develop innovative, human-centred solutions to specific customer challenges. Participants were taken through a step-by-step process and cycle of Design Thinking or customer journey mapping, applying it immediately to their business projects, which were presented to the board at the end of the journey:

  • Developing an APP for pet owners
  • Developing a blueprint for Orion future DTx business models
  • Developing a data dashboard to ensure targeted provision of relevant data in the organisation

I applied so many new tools for doing business like Design Thinking, upgrading ways of preparing my strategies (from Module 1 – strategy in uncertainty), operations in VUCA (the Watershop Indian case), digital therapy knowledge and utilisation of orthodoxies to challenge my thinking from Module 4, Participant feedback after the Horizon journey.

Exploration journey to explore innovation ‘beyond the pill’

The key didactic of the design was to expose the participants to bio-pharma start-ups in Berlin. Three start-ups were invited, these related to some of Orion’s therapeutic areas and activities. Sub-groups of participants ran sessions with the start-up representatives to learn from them in areas of critical leadership, business and R&D, covering topics such as decision-making, open innovation and collaboration, ways of working and dealing with uncertainty with the aim of applying this to Orion growth and innovation agenda.

The Impact

Why has the journey delivered impact, and what business impact was generated?

There was a radical focus on experiential and experimental learning methods, which were consistently implemented to facilitate sustainable learning stretching participants out of their personal comfort zones. Daring to rely on very little content input or traditional teaching methods, there was a focus on partly open learning processes, which fully paid off. The hearts and minds of participants were reached, and trust and skilful facilitation of the learning processes were key to producing success and impact.

To track the impact, an integrated framework was used.

Orion business impact


To sum up, what were the key lessons learned from this journey?

  • ‘Doing trumps teaching’. To achieve true lasting, and sustainable learning with executives; experiencing and experimenting in a safe environment, yet stretching participants out of their comfort zone and subsequently having them reflect and transfer their insights was key to success.
  • The less you rely on (pre-defined) input material (e.g. classical lectures), the more mutual trust between all stakeholders is needed the company representatives, the provider project team, as well as other stakeholders, and daring to go along with unconventional (didactical) routes will then pay off.
  • Aligning a journey closely with the strategic business agenda and full backing of the board was key for impact.

However, all stakeholders needed to accept the uncertainty of open learning processes, given that there was little in the way of fixed content and agendas to rely on. This, at times, was challenging and a great deal of flexibility was needed, particularly in a culture where the tolerance for uncertainty was rather low.

See other articles from Excellence in Practice 2023.

The Power of Experiential Learning to Lead with ‘Both Hands'
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