Written by Alan Matcham
– it’s time to rethink how we structure organisational learning
This paper sets out to shine a light on a paradox that has gone largely unnoticed in the leadership and executive development world – we work in multi layered, cross functional teams and communities yet we learn in hierarchies and role based silos. Organisations consistently struggle to overcome challenges such as; silo mentalities, trust, collaboration, diversity of thought, innovation and agility so why not have them as part of the construct of the learning experience?
We identify high potentials, senior managers and executives from the business and put them into discrete cohorts. We develop individuals on the basis of their seniority or perceived potential yet the reality back at work is that people spend much of their working lives immersed in and engaged with teams and communities across the business working on a variety of challenges.
This is not to say individual hierarchically-oriented leadership development is not important. It is. But isn’t it time development effort was rebalanced – from individuals to teams and communities; from elite hierarchies to all those who do the work; from considering often abstract concepts to collectively wrestling with real and shared business challenges?
I regard a community or a team as a collection of people who share a common aim and are interdependent in the achievement of that aim. They are not to be confused with intact teams of functional specialists’ such as; Executive teams, IT, Accounts, Operations, Marketing, Sales or Finance, but people from across the business encompassing all functions. The glue that holds them together is a shared business wide challenge (or opportunity), the type of challenge with no obvious solution, requiring cross silo collaboration, diverse skills and perspectives. The type of challenges thrown up by a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.
Following Brexit politicians and business commentators across Europe proclaim regularly and vociferously that “markets don’t like uncertainly!” That may well be true but whether they like it or not we all live in an increasingly VUCA world. Uncertainty is becoming the norm and both governments as well and business leaders would perhaps be better served to think more about how best they can work with and through the complexity rather than trying to think they can make it go away. I have worked with and listened to observers like Professor Nick Barker at Tomorrowtoday, Professor Ian Goldin at Oxford and Anton Musgrave at FutureWorld. They spend their lives analysing major global trends and conclude that VUCA conditions will become more common not less, they will occur faster not slower.
In my discussions it is reassuring to hear many Heads of Talent Development express their views on the business challenges their talent strategies need to address and how similar they are. Allowing for a little artistic licence the conversations I have had tend to go something like: “We need to transform the culture of our business and design interventions that enable our leaders to break down silos, collaborate more, improve agility, creativity, engagement, innovation, responsiveness and ultimately productive.” This is of course absolutely wonderful and in a VUCA world nobody in their right mind would disagree with the ends that are espoused. These ends appear to be consistent yet the means in terms of talent development strategies remain stubbornly focused on the development of individual leaders.
In today’s talent world a growing body of evidence is indicating that people and their work needs are changing and changing fast. Trends tell us people are better connected, they collaborate and network easier, are generally better educated, are technically literate, more informed and have access to unprecedented amounts of information. More and more of the workforce are “born digital“ and brought up valuing freedom and autonomy over being managed and led, discussion is preferred over prescriptive direction, creativity over process, volunteerism over conscription, meritocracy over length of service. Finally they are extremely comfortable working in multiple teams, virtual or otherwise, a VUCA world sits more easily with them.
These broad observations hold a central truth about a changing and more complex world. A changing labour force that has less need to be managed and led by a hierarchical elite whose development occurs independently of the broader team or community working relationship.
It is right to support all individuals develop their leadership capability. I have invested many years of my life to designing and delivering leadership programmes for companies around the world. It is a fine and noble thing to do BUT I believe it’s simply not enough.
Organising interventions in such a way unintentionally creates a disconnect between what is learnt by an elite cohort and what actually changes back in the workplace. It accidentally reinforces the difference between leaders and the led and subconsciously can build further barriers between those “that know” and those that “don’t know”.
The work of Henry Mintzberg., Professor of Management at McGill University and my former colleague Nigel Nicholson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School highlight some of the deeply held myths and half truths that sustain this hierarchically oriented model of development. They emanate, in part, from military history to be reinforced in the psyche of management thinking through the industrial revolution, a completely different time and space. They are now starting to be seen as increasingly toxic in the information age, a time of different employee expectations and capabilities, a time of more complex challenges, a time of less dependence and deference towards seniors and authority.
Four of the most commonly held myths include:
As long as these myths or half-truths persist leadership development will continue to be structured along traditional lines and hierarchical structures. My contention is that these myths are just that, not absolute facts of life that are 100% true all the time under all conditions. They might hold some truth some of the time but increasingly less so in a VUCA world. The evidence suggests the time has come to replace or at least supplement these myths with those that support a more team and community based approach to development.
By taking a cross organisational/cross functional slice of people and developing them as a cohesive community or interdependent team there are many significant benefits that can accrue. Some of the more obvious ones include:
Experience teaches us there is never one right way or one silver bullet to solve anything and I do not present these ideas in that context. I feel however it is important to continually challenge prevailing wisdom around “Executive Development” and to understand not only the benefits but the shortcomings.
Given the way the world is evolving and the workforce is changing the evidence is beginning to suggest a rethink is necessary in the way organisations develop not only their senior people but also the whole organisation. I am suggesting that keeping them separate based on myths and half truths from a different age is an approach which increasingly provides diminishing returns. Bringing interdependent teams and communities together in a learning/developmental context is perhaps a more productive and rewarding approach in a VUCA world.
Finally, ask yourself if the benefits I have described are those you seek from your own talent development strategy and if so what is preventing your organisation developing talent in cross functional teams and communities?
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