Marion Burchell: Providing Practical and Pragmatic Solutions for Individual and Organizational Success

Managing Director Azolla Holdings Pty Ltd | Board Member | Innovator | Speaker | Writer

Traditional consulting companies build their model around a cookie-cutter approach. They develop a framework or methodology and then sell it to customers in a replicated way at the same price of development. The over-reliance on the framework and methodology (trust the process) results in client outputs, such as a report. It is a very siloed approach allowing consultants to on-sell into another team and extending their revenue tail. For instance, you might have contracted for a strategy, and then be on-sold change management to help implement it. Then a digital platform to provide an efficient reporting system, and so on.

Azolla, however, is different. The company is focused on delivering outcomes by providing bespoke services to its clients through deep design. This means they provide a multi-layered and multi-disciplinary design methodology that combines everything their clients need to be successful. And they know it works based on the measured metrics, customer feedback, and documented qualitative evidence.

The Inspiration

The company takes its name from Azolla, an unassuming aquatic plant that changed the history of our world. Many millennia ago, the earth’s environment was different. This small aquatic plant, uninhibited by a lack of oxygen, water, and nitrogen, was able to grow and create the atmosphere we have today. This allowed for other organisms to reach their potential. The impact was so powerful that scientists call it The Azolla Effect. It is an analogy for what the company does with its clients.

Led by a scientist and sociologist by trade, Marion Burchell who chose a management and leadership stream, Azolla helps people, teams, and organizations by providing bespoke, deep design and multi-disciplinary layered ways to solve their pain points and challenges to have a bigger impact.

“The world we live in is changing. Our operating environment was stable, and what was required to solve a challenge was relatively known. The traditional way was created at a time when factories were not automated and relied on human power. The organizational structures, processes, and procedures implemented reinforced these ways of working. These, while relevant at the time, no longer serve us. New contemporary approaches to thinking, ways of working, and doing things are required to successfully navigate the complex and ambiguous operating environment in which we find ourselves,” reasons Marion.

Organizations are an extension of ourselves and our own experiences, knowledge, and capabilities. Therefore, for an organization to be successful it requires its people to grow and contribute in different ways. Azolla helps the client achieve this by leveraging its own diverse experiences, insights, and practices that they know work, mixed with best practices, methodologies, and academic frameworks. It’s a yin and yang approach – analytical with creative, practical with academic, strategic with implementation.

A Journey Made of Experience and Perspective

Where we are in our life journey is a culmination of our choices and experiences. It is for this reason Marion is an experience collector, as it helps develop a broader perspective and provides a deeper life practice.

Given this, it comes as no surprise that her professional journey is littered with a variety of different jobs from strategy, policy, planning, intergovernmental relations, innovation, digital and data reform, to different industries such as water, agriculture and food, cyber security, social and community safety, and different sectors such a government, resources, consulting, academia and not for profit. To the uninitiated, this may appear disparate however they are bound by commonality in curiosity, challenging oneself, and continuous learning.

Marion served as the first female Government Chief Information Officer for Western Australia, driving social inclusion, cyber security, and inter-jurisdictional data sharing. She led the design and implementation of the State’s first innovation strategy, the open data policy, and digital reform. Marion was instrumental in the development of the Office of the GCIO indicative of the priority and importance of technology to delivering better services to people. Her work was key to securing a $25m innovation fund and ensured focus on regular delivery of key initiatives to build momentum in the ecosystem and showcase the value of developing and supporting startups to the economy. She also negotiated a cyber security agreement which secured significant investment in local startups with scalable solutions to business challenges.

Marion provides advice to executives as well as being a non-executive Board member. She has trained with international experts in their fields, as well as delivered sessions of her own including to CEOs and entrepreneurs on Sir Richard Branson’s private island, Necker. She has over 20 publications (policies, guidelines, protection plans), several conference papers, and peer-reviewed journal articles. Her work has been cited as best practice internationally.

“These experiences enable me to help teams and organizations to re-imagine what is possible so they can create value and have a positive impact in the lives of their customers, their team, as well as their own. As a result, I created the company to have a bigger impact and a global influence,” she says.

A Balanced Working Style

As a leader, Marion’s job is to enable people to bring their best selves to the table and create an environment where they feel safe to share, participate, and empowered to deliver. She is very clear about direction, outcomes that need to be delivered, and who needs to be involved based on the capabilities required, and will remove any barriers or challenges to getting there. She is open about team members flagging early any issues so

that they can be managed or mitigated quickly and always gives credit when due. Innovation, evidence-based logic, co-design, and a good narrative are at the core – that is, a balanced blend of science and creativity.

Overcoming Challenges

Firstly, Marion doesn’t see things as challenges, she views them as opportunities to grow and demonstrate abilities to others, and yourself, that you didn’t know you had until that moment. These opportunities provide a testament to one’s spirit, true leadership qualities, and emotional intelligence.

“I have found that at each point of my career where there has been growth, this growth has occurred due to being challenged, and overcoming it. Those challenges were appropriate to moving to the next part of my evolution,” she says.

Marion says it is easy to get caught up in focusing on how one is different.

“I have been everything. The only female. The youngest person. The racially different. The newest person. The diverse thinker. These things can be the most challenging experience – if you let it. For me, I have always focused on:

– What’s the actual problem we are trying to solve?

– What’s the outcome we are looking to achieve?

– How can we have the best impact by creating a winning situation for everyone?

– What and who is required to achieve it?

By focusing everyone on commonalities and unifying people to a common cause, many of the potential obstacles I could have faced disappeared,” she explains.

The Right Use of Technology

Technology, feels Marion, is a tool that enables you to deliver an outcome. It is only part of the delivery solution. There is a myth that:

– Technology is the silver bullet that will solve the pain points and problems

– That being a contemporary or high-performing organization means having the latest technologies

– That having the latest technologies will result in greater market share or better outcomes

– That the solution is more technology

Instead, what we see is organizations end up investing lots of time and money in technologies that do not resolve the issue and make it worse as it results in multiple processes and systems.

Success comes from planning and doing the work upfront, usually driven by the business, to determine:

– What is actually needed (might not be technology)

– Redesign processes and ways of working

– Identify the actual key problem or pain point (it might not be the obvious)

– Consideration of practical implementation

This work is generally done with a keen focus on the technology or process, with little regard for the human aspect. “It is little wonder technology transformations fail or do not result in full benefit realization. We place the human back into the process – it goes beyond human-centered design,” she says.

Current Challenges in the Industry

Status quo thinking combined with the accelerated pace of delivery means people are not getting the required time and space to do good design. This is leading to poor outcomes such as:

– There is a focus on delivering against time (quality compromised)

– Potential consequences are not considered or designed for

– Assumptions are not tested due to hubris, living in a bubble of conformity,

– Ego-driven decision-making based on bias or thinking we are the experts

– Lack of accountability or curiosity

Yes, technology has changed our world, but much of our world remains the same, as at the core are humans. We think technology is the solution. Technology is only an enabler. This is why Azolla focuses on putting the human back into the center of the modern age.

Meeting Bigger Goals in the Coming Years

Marion wants her team to make a bigger impact in the coming years. Part of the reason for becoming an entrepreneur, for her, was to have a larger reach and be limitless. Marion and her team have not built their model using traditional MBA logic. They are not bound by geography and can deliver their services either face-to-face or digitally.

Their focus has always been on where they can have a positive impact, working with clients who are serious about high performance, delivering better outcomes, and continuously improving. This is evident in Azolla’s track record and client testimonials. Their clients are even award nominees based on the work they have delivered together.

Drawing Inspiration

Dead Poets Society is a film that profoundly influenced Marion and is deeply part of who she is today. Carpe Diem – or seize the day – is therefore the quote she lives by and finds helpful.

“It helps to remind us that opportunity is fleeting, as is life, so make the most of it. It aligns nicely with my upbringing and the parental mantras that were used like “If you don’t ask you don’t get”, “What’s the worst they can say? No?”, and “You never know if you don’t try”,” shares Marion.

“Recently I was watching “The Politician” on Netflix and there was a brilliant piece of writing, “There is more honor in defeat than unused potential.” Sometimes we need a reminder to keep us on track, inspiration to show us what is possible, or a circuit breaker to overcome inertia (comfortableness) and place us in motion away from mediocrity. That is what Carpe Diem is for me. A reminder to be authentic and true to self as that is how we can contribute our gifts to the world, live a full life, and challenge ourselves to reach our potential,” she concludes.

To be Designed:

Message for the Entrepreneurs:

Don’t get caught up in the good opinion of other people (GOOP). They are not you. They do not have your dreams, knowledge, experience, or skills. Some people will be genuine about their advice, placing your interests first. They will only be a handful. Know who they are. Many others, whether consciously or not, will have an opinion that is ill-informed, reflective of jealousy, will bring you back into the fold of the status quo, or manipulate you for their own benefit. You cannot change this, and in fact, doing so is only a waste of your energy which can be used more impactfully productive by focusing on what you want to achieve.

There is no time like now to be an entrepreneur. The traditional structures, systems, and ways of working no longer serve us. They were born during a period of industrialization and factory processes. We are seeing the start of a shift in the evolution of work which will result in a re-design. Much more than this, power is shifting. Trust has eroded in traditional sectors such as government (the lowest trust ratings), large corporates that have taken customers for granted and extorted them (e.g. Qantas, Facebook), and religious institutions (sexual abuse scandals). This has created a void that is currently being filled by entrepreneurs who are developing businesses that not only inspire us, and evolve us, but are far more layered in their design by focusing on multiple outcome benefits by being profitable, environmental, and delivering social impact.

Quote: “Our clients drive our market competitiveness as they apply for awards, and provide on-going testimonials and referrals.”

Quote: “Our clients proudly share the impact internally and externally of the programs we have delivered in partnership with them.”