– 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?

traditional-role-based-developmentI 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.

Same ends, different means

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.

Why do we persist in developing leaders in isolation?

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:

  • Myth 1 – Leaders are essential – self organising and self regulating groups and communities of people do not need one leader. Different individuals rise to the challenge supported by colleagues in a common bond or cause. There are many examples of this from the native tribes of Africa through to self organising teams in some of the world’s leading organisations such as WL Gore.
  • Myth 2 – We are able to control performance through strong leadership – there are so many variables impacting the creative and dynamic process of running a business. The context we operate in, the principles, processes and practices we work by have been seen to have a significantly greater impact on human performance than “strong leadership”. The work of Professor W.E. Deming on total quality and Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Economics at the LSE suggests context is over 80% responsible for performance particularly when undertaking complex interdependent tasks.
  • Myth 3 – People like being managed and leaders motivate people – recent research suggests most senior people and leaders have an over inflated view of their importance, impact and influence on others in getting work done. It is also well documented that a significant proportion of people who leave organisations do so because of a poor relationship with their boss not because of the organisation. For many leaders doing nothing is not a natural option; bosses find it difficult to just get out of the way.managers-and-employees-rating-their-organisation
  • Myth 4 – Leadership is all about the individual – organisations are communities of people not collections of human resources. What Professor Mintzberg suggests is required is greater “communityship”. It cannot just be about the individual and their unique talents; it is about the release of potential from the entire group and their collective “leadership” contribution to a cause worth serving.

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.

The benefits of cross functional team/community based 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:

  • Breaks silos immediately and stimulates collaboration – one of the most common issues in all large organisations is the “silo mentality” stifling many desired behaviours including collaboration and creativity. Bringing cross functional teams together defuses and reframes this mentality.
  • Builds mutual respect, trust and understanding – a shared intellectual and emotional experience, if executed well, builds close bonds and ties. Effective learning requires personal disclosure and taking risks which cannot normally be achieved in the working environment.
  • Replicates the real world – It becomes much easier and quicker to translate from the intervention to the workplace. The learning that takes place in the majority of development programmes has a very short half-life beyond the programme. People get sucked back into the day to day detail of work and find it very difficult to put new insights into practice. Having all the key players together establishing new norms greatly increases the chances of transformation success.
  • Diversity and perspective – One of the keys to improving creativity and innovation is diversity of thought, values and experience. The resolution of complex adaptive challenges will not emanate from a group of like minded individuals. Constructing a learning experience with people from a variety of backgrounds within the business adds to the richness of the debate and hence options available.
  • Opportunity to work on genuine shared challenges – I mentioned earlier this is the glue that unites teams and communities. Having a common focus is one of the most powerful ways of translating new insights into positive change and reduces the rhetoric/reality gap often found in many development programmes i.e. the gap between what is said and what is done. There is no gap if the team collectively learn by doing.
  • Reframes the nature of and responsibility for leadership – Bringing together cross functional, interdependent teams allows the opportunity for leadership to be understood and practiced by everyone not just the most senior people. Opening up to new ways of thinking requires leadership, the courage to speak up requires leadership, the organisation of activity requires leadership and the creation of new solutions requires leadership. This has a chance to come from the many not the few.
In conclusion

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?

Find out more about our Masterclass on “The power of Learning – How organisations use learning to increase their potential to succeed” (3rd November 2016, Singapore)