Archive | January, 2014

The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse

22 Jan

I have a radical hypothesis. Is it possible that the real reason why leadership development programs fail is because we don’t actually need them? Is it possible that we’ve inserted ourselves into a process that we have no business in? Traditional experts would like you to believe that there are all sorts of tactical reasons why our efforts to create better leaders fails (see here), but I’m starting to suspect that was once a small problem got a lot worse when the leadership development industry got created. Let me explain.


Organizational boundaries are like glass. Employees can see right through them. They will stay only if its a good place to grow.

The best metaphor I can come up with for the future workplace is a greenhouse. Our current management model comes from the industrial revolution in which managers focused on improving the factory’s efficiency. Even today, many companies still focus on efficiency and logistics. They measure, measure, measure, and write reports and we analyze and predict. People are getting really excited about Big Data in HR and the truth is….it’s all bullshit (well it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient). OK, maybe it’s not ALL bullshit, but it’s mostly bullshit. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure that chair might be out of place and sure we might be about to measure the exact layout of the deck and the size of the chairs and come up with an optimum layout, but we would be missing the big problem…our ship is sinking.

The big problem for us is simply that human beings (and even more so social systems) are inherently chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, we simply cannot accurately predict or control how they will behave. No doubt you’ve heard, “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and there is a hurricane in Japan,” or some variation. The point is simply that we shouldn’t blame the butterfly for the hurricane. In fact, there would be absolutely no way of ever making that connection empirically (see Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, 2006). And yet, people seem to have a real problem with acknowledging this in our work (known in philosophy as the problem of induction). Now, on a psychological level, we are all prone to make these inductive errors in judgment, but for precisely this reason we should be very careful about assuming the precision of our models. What does all of this mean for our work? Well, a few things.

Evolution of a young plant

We can do lots of things, but we can’t make a plant grow. Only the right conditions and time can do that.

We don’t MAKE the plants grow. We simply set the conditions for them to grow and hopefully they grow. As Woody Allen said, “’Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.” People are organic. Social systems are chaotic. Why in the world would we perpetuate the myth that we have any control over the learning or leadership process? It happens or it doesn’t happen, but we don’t micromanage it. All we can do is set the conditions for it to happen. We already know that most learning is informal and yet we keep pretending as if it wasn’t. Or if our little bit of formal learning (maybe 10%?) is actually really, really, really important. Managers, HR professionals, and learning “experts,” have been trying to interject themselves into the organic process because they want to get credit. If more people thought about this, then we could tackle the whole notion of corporate training and development in a completely new and more effective (and empowering way).

Think in terms of effectiveness not efficiency. I have come to hate the word “efficiency.” I used to think that effectiveness came first (you got something done) and then you worked on being efficient (you got the same thing done with less resources). It seems that most people still think this way (or at least the good ones, the bad ones don’t even realize the difference or the necessary sequence). The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that. At least not outside of highly structured mechanical systems (efficiency is important when you are talking about engineering problems, but organic systems are so focused on survival that they don’t have much time left over for discussions about efficiency). So, given this, I’d like to ban the word from our vocabulary. Certainly there is a lot of talk from the innovation and start-up community about “lean” approaches. I actually love these approaches, but by how I define the terms, they are actually focused on effectiveness not efficiency. In the real world, if you are playing the game to win, you never actually get a chance to move past effectiveness; the rules and the structures of social systems are never static or consistent.


Individuals want exactly what they want. Can’t provide that kind of learning customization? We know. Instead focus on what you can provide.

There is a move towards extreme personalization. I’ve been noticing this trend for years, but this really jumped out at me when I was doing my mobile leadership development research. As organizations integrate more and more information and more and more users they risk becoming more and more depersonalized. If the employees are now in the driver seat, then it isn’t enough to say, “Hey 90% of employees liked this,” because the other 10% are going to feel left out. This means that we need to focus more on building conditions that allow a variety of different individuals to flourish. One of the biggest problems with competencies is that they aren’t personalized. We err on the side of the organization rather than the employee. We need to create learning platforms that allow for the greatest personalization not the greatest “efficiency” (which I shall henceforth call, “the E word”). The greenhouse will allow the greatest number of employee to flourish. They will still need pruning and some won’t make it, but that’s the whole point. We’ll have more energy to focus on the gardening and less on trying to make the plants grow (which only the Universe can do). This also has big implications for technology, but I won’t get into that here.

The problem of induction can be moderated by approaching learning and leadership from the greenhouse, not the factory. I’m seeing more and more talk about Big Data in HR and I think this is a good example of where I think we are going wrong. Fundamentally, we can’t predict or control people, but that doesn’t mean that we should double-down on the “mechanical, linear, conventional, positivist, quantification, measurement-obsessed” approach. I think we need to realize that the solution requires a new type of thinking (other than the one that got us into this mess). A type of thinking that not only recognizes that we don’t know, but that we CAN’T know.


Big data is fascinating, but Moneyball approaches don’t apply to non-game systems. Even if they did, it’s not like baseball got rid of all their scouts.

Our models are always going to be hilariously inaccurate and yet we keep making predictions about hiring and performance (and almost everything in politics, finance, etc.) and we keep being wrong. I don’t think the solution is to keep coming up with new ways of predicting, but to take a sober look at our deep (and faulty) epistemological assumptions and move forward from there. We can make the situation better, but not by furthering the illusion that we have control (we don’t want that kind of responsibility anyway). This belief in turn actually makes us and our clients more vulnerable. In our lust for efficiency we seek out and destroy the types of redundancy and chaos that all organic systems need to survive and grow. The “Moneyball” approach might help with some small issues, but baseball still finds itself in the same situation it did before (Sabermetrics introduced a new tool, but didn’t solve the real problem). So, we can look at Big Data in HR and I’m sure we will learn some things. Awesome. There is no doubt that these analytics will become new standards, but while they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Like the deckchairs, analytics isn’t going to solve the real problem. When we recognize that we can’t predict, we actually liberate ourselves. We have more energy and focus on the things that we can control.

We don’t make the plants grow and we don’t make someone a better leader. All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.


The world’s medical experts used to believe in bloodletting.

Did you know that the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, is iatrogenesis? What is this horrible word? It means the preventable harm caused by medical treatment. Think about that for a second. That means that we are killing roughly 220,000 people a year in our attempts to make them better. In fact, some medical historians have claimed that our medical treatments have only recently starting saving more people than they were killing. And it makes me wonder if this kind of arrogance comes from a discipline whose first principle is “do no harm,” then what kind of harm can we perpetuate in leadership development when we don’t even have that Hippocratic foundation? Is it possible that we are actually making leadership problems worse? Is it possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is actually to get rid of leadership development?

Consider the Spandrels

15 Jan

SpandrelFiguresLibrary of congress

People used to think that computers were going to make instructor-led training (ILT) obsolete, which of course they didn’t. People used to wear Bluetooth headsets, now they don’t. The problem is reductionism. We tend reduce the overall value of something by evaluating it according to a particular element. For example, just think of candles. Ask yourself, why do we still have candles? The light bulb has been around for a long time, so why do we still buy millions of candles each year? If we reduce the value of candles only to their “light-giving” properties, then we completely miss its other uses.

In evolutionary biology they call these unintended uses, “spandrels,” (a word they borrowed from architecture) which often evolve to become far more important than the original intended use. It’s the error that occurs when we make statements like, “Research shows that empathetic leaders generate up to 15% more revenue.” In essence, this reduces the value of empathy to a function of revenue. “You should be good because you’ll make more money.” Or, the example I gave the other day in our book club; imagine if a man said, “Women are valuable because they give birth to more men.” It’s absurd and yet I see it all the time in the learning context. Reductionism to learning, reductionism to measurement and data, reductionism to practical solutions, etc. However, if we simply stop and take a sober look around, we’ll realize that considering the spandrels actually makes us a lot more intelligent than almost everyone else out there. Training and development interventions are actually doing more than just improving learning. For example, we’ll know that….

  • ILTs aren’t going away because they serve MORE than just an individual learning function: 1) they provide an opportunity for people to get together and build trust and rapport, gain new information, and focus on the relationships so important to leadership; 2) it is easy for HR to demonstrate and measure that learning happened; 3) people are familiar with the modality from our schooling and therefore meta-learning is low (learning how to learn in this environment). Mobile learning (mlearning) isn’t going to replace desktop-based elearning because: 1) people actually have an increasing need for structure in our environment (self-discipline is weak); 2) form factors allow for more dynamic interactions on the desktop.
  • Beware gamification. “Just because something has a learning benefit doesn’t mean that people should do it to learn.” So, think about it this way…a Snickers bar has protein and vitamins. It has some nutritional value, but it would be a mistake to think that people eat Snickers bars, or should eat them, because they are nutritious. I think learning games face this same challenge. Just because people learn from playing games doesn’t mean that they play games to learn. We play games because they are intrinsically rewarding. We play games because play is fun. Play is an end to itself, but gamification is quick to reduce “play” to “performance” or “learning.” Now, you can start to engineer taste and nutrition and create some really good tasting protein bars, but again, you’ll need to balance the competing reasons why people eat protein bars versus why people eat a candy bar (they approach the purchase of these somewhat similar foods from completely different angles). Most of the conversations out there about learning games are doing this in the wrong way.
  • People stopped wearing Bluetooth headsets, not because they didn’t need a way to conduct hands-free phone calls, but because they make you look like a douche bag. This is the same reason why I didn’t by a Google Glass. In theory, they are really cool. In reality, you look like a dork…and therefore I would never actually wear it. If you judge a tool, a process, or a technology only upon its “logical usefulness” then you’ll have to explain why my mother buys scented candles. A “logical use” is often just a disguised reduction.


  • We can also find learning benefits where others haven’t. For example, most of the conversation about virtual leadership or virtual leadership development theory is largely about trying to maintain the learning while reducing costs (in the name of efficiency), without considering that virtual training and leading may actually have some ADVANTAGES over traditional approaches. Some non-learning things have learning benefits; some learning things have non-learning benefits. That means that we could offer a portfolio of services with some real knowledge of what each modality does well.

Without reducing one to the other, we can take a look at the learning benefits and the spandrels and ensure that we are addressing each in the most effective way possible. Without this understanding, we conflate things, reduce them, and often end up right back where we started. In the end, you can talk all day about the learning aspect of something, but in terms of the vibrant reality of an organizational social system, there are a lot of other important things going on in any given “training,”  “program,” or “intervention.”

If we consider those spandrels, then we can develop better products and services that leverage multiple values and multiple perspectives. E-Learning can do what e-learning does best (compliance, technical training, etc.). ILTs can be even more interactive and social among participants. Mobile can focus on access to secure databases rather than simply delivering elearning on a phone. Considering the spandrels ensures that we can help clients maximize their training. They can avoid pitfalls and maximize opportunities. Employees will be happy that we aren’t wasting their time. We don’t feel like we are doing the same old thing. Everyone wins.

The Rise of the Informational Democracy

11 Jan

image (3)

Knowledge is power.
Collectively, employees have more knowledge than leadership. 
Employees have the power.

Last year I wrote a blog post about 25 growing trends in learning technology and in that post I mentioned “democratization.” I’ve come to believe that the democratization of the workplace is the single most important trend to understand. I am calling this trend the rise of the “informational democracy” and it radically shifts the power away from traditional experts and traditional authority. The trend is building so much steam that you can’t throw a rock anywhere and not hit it, so I’ll just say a few things briefly.

First, employees no longer rely on experts and leaders for information. Employees will include them, but they don’t need them. “Information is power,” and employees’ access to information and communication means that they can organize and adapt outside of a traditional organizational structure. Moreover, modern history has shown us that information lends itself towards democratization (Kellerman, 2012), which is why rigid power structures always seek to control information above all else. I see this trend impacted our work in several immediate ways.

  • Management will become more like an administrative function. Today, we see managers as leaders and admin professionals as lowly support staff. In reality, managers have worked for their employees for a while now, they just didn’t realize it. The informational democracy will force their eyes open. Most of our leadership theory is based on history, but these need to make way for truly modern adaptations. As Gary Hamill (2007) says, despite how the world has changed in the last few decades, there haven’t been any “management innovations” to keep up. Barbara Kellerman (2012) calls this, “the end of leadership.” I agree and I think there are some things that we can do to get ahead of the curve.
  • Relevance will replace status. In a networked democracy, influence will be bestowed upon those with the most relevance. The free market of ideas and opinions means that managers no longer have a monopoly on information. In the free market, influence goes to the person with the most connections (ala Google’s Page Rank, social media analytics, etc.), not the person with the most “expertise” or “authority.” This means that the myth of the individual leader will likely start to break down as it makes way for systems approaches, which treat every individual as nodes in a large system of influence. Given this, we can start helping people “nodify” themselves.
  • The nature of corporate learning is changing. We need to start producing content that serves the employees rather than content that is just convenient to make. We keep making the same courses again and again, when we all know that most of these courses are cobbled together scraps of things some ISD grabbed from the internet. Using mobile technology as a metaphor, we need to think about the user’s consumption. Small. Bite-sized. Easy to access. There will still be a place for formal trainings (see “Consider the Spandrels” in my next post), but it’s not necessarily because of the learning benefits. If more people were to really understand what is going on with the informational democracy (and that it might be over-hyped in the short term….but it is definitely under-hyped in the long term…) we could get ahead of the biggest change in organizations we’ve ever seen.

To be clear, I am not rosy-eyed about distributed leadership as a way to avoid any sense of hierarchy. In fact, my opinion is that we likely need more unilateral decision making and far LESS consensus. But we can distribute that unilateral decision making in a much more appropriate and effective way. This is one of the reasons why I am pursing a certification in Holacracy, which is just a new type of “social technology,” which seems to be working well (it’s been getting more attention lately because Zappos just adopted it). I’m not saying that Holacracy is THE answer; I’m just saying that it represents one way of adapting leadership and learning to the informational democracy.

Hopefully, there will be many others. The informational democracy actually changes so many things about the way we do our work that I struggle to put everything into a linear story. The essence is that we should all be prepared to keep our bourgeois sensibilities in check. When everyone has our information, then it isn’t nearly as valuable. And we can fight the waves of change for only so long. Far better to prepare ourselves to ride the wave as it comes in.