Published On: July 1st, 2021Categories: case study

Senior leadership programs were delivered almost entirely on a face-to-face basis prior to COVID.  The learning challenges facing senior leaders were to shift behaviors and we didn’t believe that could happen on a virtual basis. Then COVID arrived and these assumptions went out the window.

As learning designers, the choice we faced over the last year was no program at all or a 100% virtual program.  Third Thought had the good fortune of being invited by a Fortune 500 organization to partner in redesigning their flagship senior executive program.  Design began over the winter, and we launched in mid-March.  We’ve learned a great deal and here are five key insights:

‘Lift and shift’ vs clean sheet of paper

A colleague of ours was engaged by another organization very early into Covid and we benefited from their learning.  To expedite their work, the client organization asked them to take the same content, flow and timing for the face-to-face version and repackage it to deliver through zoom.  They put their backs into it and turned around a zoom version in a week.  They organized 8 hour zoom meetings, used breakouts in place of team meetings and built-in lots of stretch breaks.  Not surprisingly however, the level of engagement and energy of participants was low.  Our client, having heard similar stories set a different goal for us; 100% virtual, maximized energy, minimized interruption of work.  We started with a clean sheet of paper and designed a program that unbundled three weeks of face-to-face sessions into 38 separate learning modules over 7 months.  None was longer than 2 hours.  Some were full cohort sessions, some teams, some individual sessions.  We use video, Zoom and Miro-boards.  To ensure that participants understood how all the pieces fit together the four Coach’s also serve as Program Hosts.

Expert vs. Learner

Having designed action learning programs for over 20 years, the value I added was to be an expert.  In the past, at the end of a design meeting a client team member would often ask me how many times I had delivered this type of design and “Was I sure it would work?”  These were legitimate questions.  Covid changed the game.  When we initiated design last winter everything was new and untested.  There were no experts.  My role as a designer was to invent and test alongside my client.

Participants vs. Partners

Prior to Covid we had a very high bar for face-to-face delivery.  We often called it ‘high-wire work’. Participants had the expectation that everything would go to plan and, barring a power failure, we would deliver engaging and relevant sessions.  Post-Covid, despite our diligence, there are still elements of the program that cannot be fully tested prior to delivery.  We were worried about the participants’ reactions but were pleasantly surprised to find that their expectations were generous.  They, too, were trying to master virtual and recognized that it was less controllable.  They are relaxed and understanding when things don’t work as planned.  It feels like they have our backs and we’re all partners in making the experience a success.

Virtual deficit vs. Virtual Advantage

Going into our design work we assumed that a shift to virtual would always come with a disadvantage when compared to face-to-face.  As we dug in, we discovered that there were several situations where the virtual option provided capabilities above and beyond face-to-face.  For example:

  • We could record action learning team sessions and play them back for the team – like a sports coach does.  This would be tougher to do face-to-face.
  • In sessions with External Expert participants can ask questions in the Chat Box and our Experts can seamlessly incorporate answers as they continue to present. In a face-to-face situation, questions often disrupted the flow of the presentation.
  • It is easier to include senior leaders in the program for small sessions. When programs were face-to-face, they often needed to fly to our distant location.  This made it harder to get executives to come and, if they did, the sessions needed to be long to justify their attendance.

Expert session vs Expert Sequence

As we began our design work, we asked ourselves how participants would best engage in a specific Expert’s content. We found that these 4 steps work better than the classic 4-hour slide show:

  • Deliver the goods – Experts share their key messages in 20 minutes or less.
  • Engage to explore – In a 1-2 hour Zoom call Experts engage in a discussion with participants to explore nuances and implications.
  • Use the tools – Teams use the tools in their Action Learning Projects (critical opportunity projects from the CEO).
  • Office hours – Teams meet with Experts to get help in using new tools and frameworks.

We have delivered half of the program.  With Covid options lifting, a hybrid option is emerging.  Participants have said that virtual provided a better learning experience than they expected, and that any face-to-face learning session would need to be justified considering two values:

  • The value of being home: Participants have had a taste of uninterrupted time at home and have emerged from Covid more protective of that time.
  • The value of sustainable practices: Covid brought an increased urgency and sensitivity around climate crisis. The environmental cost of travel is high, so participants and the organization have a harder time justifying air travel.


Expert as Learner

Our design team created some rich new learning modules.  The participant experience, while constrained, has been deeper because the learning is being absorbed in more digestible chunks that allow for reflection. The feedback is positive, and we are discussing repeating the program.  As I look back, I wonder if our work before Covid would have been better had we toggled between Expert and Learner a little more often.