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Is Your Leadership Development Strategy Ready for Transformation?
Dianne Miller | June 2, 2020
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Change is inevitable, as evidenced by the proliferation of advice and frameworks put forth by leaders in the change management practice. But many of these frameworks, no matter how well-researched or time-tested, are insufficient to deal with the accelerating change prevalent in today’s business, political, and global ecosystems. Navigating the demands of today’s business transformation requires an enhanced approach to a leadership development program.

The demands of today’s business transformation require an enhanced approach to a leadership development program.

What’s Driving the Need for Enhanced Leadership Development Plan?

Enhancing your strategy for developing leadership skills to enable your organization to thrive in what is sure to be an uncertain and ambiguous future is critical. There are three primary reasons:

  • Speed of change
  • “One-size fits all” approach to change
  • Traditional models of leadership development

Speed of Change

Well-established frameworks for managing change are based on the premise that change is episodic and intermittent. It presumes an even distribution among innovators/early adopters and laggards. These frameworks also assume the time for late adopters to catch up. However, with change accelerating, this “make up” time is dwindling—and without different approaches to development, stragglers will be left even further behind.

Speed of Change

“One-size fits all” Approach to Change

cynefin framework

Responding to change with a deliberate, best practice approach is useful when the change is simple, orderly, and predictable. However, the approach begets confusion, frustration, and failure for changes that are unordered, difficult to predict or idiosyncratic in nature.

Building a skillset—agility, flexibility, and innovation--that enables leaders to respond effectively to wildly different scenarios and unexpected events creates a competitive advantage. Frameworks like Dave Snowden’s “Cynefin” provide guidance for responding to changes that range from simple to complex, and disorderly to orderly.

We can see a real-life example of this with the unprecedented change Covid-19 has created for organizations. Those that acted quickly, gathered data, and responded as new information came to light were better positioned to minimize disruption and maximize productivity because they were able to leverage novel practices.

Traditional Models of Leadership Development

Many leadership development programs rely on case learning or best practice that presume predictable cause-and-effect relationships. This results in leaders being ill-prepared to deal with unpredictable and pervasive change.

There is no guarantee that early adopters for one change will serve that function on a universal basis. In other words, we can’t rely on a core group of change-ready vanguards to pave the way for others in our organizations. Instead, we need to focus on upskilling all leaders to better recognize, acclimate, adapt to, and lead through change.

Skillsets for Effective Change

The adage, “what got you here won’t get you there” is especially pertinent in today’s rapidly changing world. For leaders to effectively steer their organizations through change they need to develop skills in three primary areas.

Planning and Continuous Improvement

Senior leaders are often experts in strategic planning, but rapid change and a demand for accelerating innovation mean that “set it and forget it” plans with 3- to 5-year implementation cycles are insufficient. New types of planning—including scenario-based thinking and war-gaming—better enable responses to rapid change.

Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills differentiate leaders who are managing increasingly diverse global workforces through times of ambiguity and uncertainty. The ability to demonstrate resiliency--grit, perseverance and emotional intelligence--sets the bar for employees to “roll with” the on-going change. Additionally, the criticality of collaboration and integration means the ability to effectively listen, persuade, and influence others is non-negotiable.

Meta-Cognitive Skills

Even though the need for domain expertise is not likely to diminish, higher-order— “meta-cognitive” thinking can be highly effective to enable rapid adaptation, thoughtful risk taking and evaluation, and increased confidence to navigate ambiguous or complex circumstances.

These skills include systemic thinking and pattern recognition—the ability to recognize distant inputs and delayed outcomes within complex systems, and the ability to relate immediate information to long-term memory. Complementing this is the ability to recognize and overcome cognitive bias—assumptions about the world that lead us into typical patterns of action rather than situationally appropriate responses.

Changing Learning for Changing Leadership

Traditionally, developing leadership skills focuses on best practice and skills acquisition. While a baseline skillset is necessary for effective leadership, enhanced leadership development plan needs to focus on helping leaders to rapidly diagnose the business landscape, recognize their own habits and comfort zones in responding to challenges, and selectively and effectively apply tried and true approaches to problem solving. There are several learning approaches that can support leaders to gain skills in these areas.

Case-based Learning

Case-based learning can be implemented in multiple ways. Like peer reviews in health care settings, a case can be based on actual events, where learners evaluate actions and outcomes, complete a root-cause analysis, and identify systemic factors contributing to the success or failure of organizational decisions.

Conversely, learners can engage in hypothetical cases and propose potential approaches. Using order-effects frameworks and other predictive activities can further improve the effectiveness of case-based learning.

Both models require skilled facilitation to draw out assumptions and cognitive biases and stimulate creative and predictive thinking. However, rich case studies require relatively little development time and case-based learning has significant flexibility for deployment; thus, it is suitable for individuals or teams in virtual or co-located settings.

Action-oriented Learning

Action-oriented learning allows leaders to investigate and address organizational problems. Depending on the program set-up, the scope can be limited to exploring a problem and proposing a solution, or expanded to include prototyping, delivery, and lessons learned. Cohorts can complete this learning over a period of months, individually with coaching assistance, or in intensive work tank settings.

While the most effective action-based learning requires learning and business integration and a business commitment to sponsorship and coaching, it has the advantage of being highly relevant (and therefore engaging) to learners, while applying learning to the business.

Simulation

Like case-based learning, simulation relies on an immersive story to set the scene for decision-making. Simulation, however, is different in that it evolves the story based on the learners’ decisions. Two approaches can drive this evolution: branching or systems dynamics. Branching is most useful for skills where there is a “right” decision, as it provides a limited number of decisions and outcomes. System dynamic simulations, while more complex to develop and deliver, allow learners to factor in multiple data points and fine-tune their decisions, and see immediate outcomes. (This is especially useful for situations in which there is often a real-world delay effect).

Like case-based learning, simulations require a solid understanding of the business or organization and strong facilitation skills to highlight the dynamics at play, but they are highly effective in building systems thinking skills that can be adapted to other complex situations.

Conclusion

Market and world events have shown us that we cannot control the pace of change, nor can we prepare leaders for every potential event. What we can control, however, is how we develop leaders who can quickly develop effective responses, monitor the context, and either turn situations to their advantage, or quickly pivot to a better approach.

Is your leadership development strategy ready?