We invite you to explore this question with us over a series of blog articles. We want to hear your perspective as well as share early findings from our research.

In the 30 years we’ve spent designing and delivering leadership programs, we have focused on accelerating learning by including project application work. As you can imagine, we have had some success while other projects have fallen short of the mark. Here, we will share with you what we think makes a successful project that accelerates learning, and what doesn’t.

The 3 basics that make project work a successful vehicle for learning

Based on our experience and research, there are basic standards for projects that successfully encourage and accelerate learning.

It’s these standards that we took as our starting assumptions for our research, and they are what we recommend you apply as the minimum if you want your projects to be worthwhile:

  1. Projects should be “real” and have the potential to impact the business.
    Although this sounds obvious, we have seen occasions where participants felt like it was a “made up” project, just to give them an assignment.
  2. Projects must matter to someone in the organization, and that someone should be the sponsor of the project.
    Even if it is a real business issue or opportunity, unless the sponsor is the owner of that topic, the information and resources given to the “doing” of the project—and the impact of the project—will be limited.
  3. Projects should be a vehicle for participants to experiment and learn, and everyone should understand this.
    The primary aim of the project work is to provide a learning environment through which participants can directly experiment with their leadership skills. To produce a successful outcome relating to the project itself is an important but secondary aim. This point is less obvious, potentially controversial, but extremely important if we want transfer of learning.

Experimenting implies risk, particularly when working with successful executives. Aligning on this order of objectives contributes to providing the required level of psychological safety.

Taking learning from classroom to office: Rapid prototyping

Our objective in all the programs we run at Ashridge is for learners to be able to apply what they learn directly to their jobs.

So, in this research, we focus on how to maximize the transfer of learning from the classroom to the office. In particular, we look at the technique of “rapid prototyping,” which involves creating mockups of innovations under strict time pressure¹ and already forms an essential part of most Design Thinking processes.

Our exact research question is:

How can rapid prototyping experiments support learners in leadership development programs to transform their intentions and insights into things they actually do in the workplace?

Calling the projects “experiments” sets up a number of expectations for us as facilitators and everyone else involved, including the participants:

  • This is not just an intellectual exercise, but an opportunity for participants to roll up their sleeves and try out new things.
  • The emphasis is on trying out different leadership behaviors, observing with curiosity how they could amplify, dampen, or disrupt personal and organizational patterns.
  • We need to grant each other permission to be bold, take risks, and learn from failures.


In the next blog in this series, we’ll share some of our findings from these business experiments and what they tell us about the effectiveness of rapid prototyping in leadership programs.

¹ Note: We align with Bernsten (2014) when defining rapid prototyping as the “ability to create quick early versions of innovations, with the expectation that later success will require early failures and learning.” We find the perspectives of Tom Wujek and Tom Chi helpful. They highlight that rapid prototyping aims to maximize the rate of learning by minimizing the time to try ideas and therefore that “the best thinking is doing.”

Share your experience

In the meantime, we want to hear from you. Have you used or taken part in rapid prototyping as part of a leadership program? What was your experience and how did it contribute to the transfer of learning from classroom to workplace?



About the authors

Alexandra Tobin
Alex is an experienced organization development consultant and coach, health service leader and clinician with a unique background in supporting leaders and managers working in complex environments. As Business Director and faculty member at Ashridge, she also works as an Executive Coach and Action Learning Facilitator.


Angelita Orbea
Angelita is a faculty member at Ashridge, an organization development consultant, and accredited executive coach. She works in the areas of leadership development and culture change with a diverse range of international clients across sectors. Responding to clients’ needs, an increasingly significant part of Angelita’s work takes place in the “virtual space.”


Grace Brown
Grace is a Qualitative Research Specialist at Hult and works on several applied research projects on topics of generational demographics, diversity and inclusion, and workplace engagement. Her research interests are in the areas of psychology, sustainability, and religious and secular belief systems from both an individual and social perspective.


Curious to learn about executive leadership development and other research projects at Hult? Find out more here.

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