Archive | February, 2014

The End of Leadership Development?

28 Feb

I have a radical hypothesis. I think it’s possible that the real reason leadership development (LD) programs fail is because we don’t actually need them. Now, experts would have us believe that there are tactical reasons why our LD efforts fail (see here), but I suspect that a small problem got worse when we created an industry around it. For someone like me, who makes a living on being a LD expert, this isn’t easy to admit. But, like any addiction, the first step to recovery is accepting that we have a problem. Let me explain.

Leadership development is a $170 billion dollar industry with organizations spending about $14 billion annually (see here and here). This investment isn’t surprising given our need for new forms of leadership to cope with the increasing globalization and technological change (here). In fact, going back to the 1940’s, LD has always been about teaching individuals how to adapt to their environment (here). Fast forward to today, 70 years later, and we are starting to realize that our billions might not be buying us very much.

Recent studies found that only about 25% of organizations think their leadership development programs are effective (here). Additionally, leadership quality ratings, which have never been very high, have not improved since 2006. In fact, only 18% of HR professionals feel their companies have the quality of leaders needed to run their companies three years out (here). It gets worse because organizations with the worst LD programs spent 60% more money on them (here). Even if you are highly skeptical of these statistics and you exclude any single report, the collective data tells a compelling story: the quality of leaders isn’t great and leadership development isn’t helping.

What is happening? Well, I think the problem starts with our assumptions about leadership. Our management model comes directly from the industrial revolution. Despite all of the technological innovations that have occurred in the last 100 years, management technology, if we can think of it as a technology, is out of date. Like the combustion engine, it’s a technology that has largely stopped evolving. Our command-and-control management is being radically challenged by decentralization, free agency, and mobile technologies (read this, this, this, this, and maybe this too). These changes require us to radically rethink LD itself. In short, I think we should do four things:

  • Focus on performance support. Performance support tools that give access to internal databases and reports might not be as sexy as a three-day retreat, but putting the most relevant information in employee’s hands at the right time will do a lot for leadership performance…even if it means we are less involved. In fact, my research on mobile leadership development (see here) shows that performance support currently makes up about 96% of all mobile leadership apps. I would expect that trend to extend beyond mobile applications.
  • Maximize traditional approaches. Despite the hype about e-learning and mobile learning, traditional face-to-face programs won’t go away (see here). Programs are more than just gaining information. They provide access to new networks, structured learning environments, and career-advancing credentials. All of which are inherent advantages over e-learning platforms. And if performance support tools replace some skill-based training, in-person programs can leverage their natural advantages.
  • Teach new leadership models. The nature of leadership is changing and we to tell people. The rise of the “network leader” shifts power to the person who is most relevant not the person with the most formal authority (see here). Everyone will need personal branding, knowledge management, and iterative project management skills. These new competencies can support the development of others. Just like an evolutionary algorithm, they are self-perpetuating practices that get us out of trying to predict what employees need to know.
  • Embed developmental processes. Take a play from the iterative approaches like Design Thinking, Agile development, and Lean Start-up and focus on adaptation. This shift from programs to processes means less reliance on LD programs, because individuals and teams have embedded learning processes. Examples of these include GE’s Workout process, the Army’s After Action Reviews, and Integrative Decision Making. By embedding learning processes into the DNA of the organization or team, leadership development becomes an implicit part of the work itself.

Globalization and technology are radically changing the nature of leadership and learning. We need to make some big adjustments and I think it’s possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is not just to create new programs, but to change our assumptions about LD itself.

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Four Problems with Action Learning (and lots of other methodologies)

19 Feb

There are a lot of group-process methods out there, but I’ve always had a soft spot for something called “action learning.” If you don’t know anything about it, I don’t blame you. In fact, not knowing isn’t the problem…the problem is people assuming they know, but they actually have no idea what you’re talking about. Having been involved in action learning for many years (and becoming a certified coach, and writing my dissertation on it), I can say, with some authority, that there are some problems.

The problems though are not with the method. I love the method. I think it’s great. (learn more here). The problems are with how we talk about action learning. In fact, I think there are four overlapping issues with action learning that I want to share. I think many of these issues are shared with other methodologies as well.

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The first problem is the roller coaster problem. I call it the roller coaster problem because no matter how many words I put to describing what riding a roller coaster feels like, you still won’t really know what it is like until you experience it. The solution to this problem is almost always to have people participate in a program themselves. Obviously, this makes it hard to spread the word about action learning. All we can do is spread the experience. In fact, usually we’d always provide a demonstration whenever we are introducing an audience to the concept. Obviously, this doesn’t make it easier to share the power of action learning outside of word-of-mouth, which so far has worked pretty well (….so far….).

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The second problem is what I call the “Michael Jordan” problem. The image above has two absolutely true statements. Michael Jordan loves basketball AND Michael Jordan never played a single day in the NBA. How is that possible? Well, that’s because…

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Yes, in fact, the Michael Jordan I was referring to was Michael Hakim Jordan. Michael-Hakim Jordan was unfortunate in that his name is shared by the greatest basketball player of all time. No doubt this has caused a lot of confusion and teasing for him, in fact in 2010 he officially changed his name. Well, unfortunately “action learning” cannot change its name so easily. But like Michael-Hakim Jordan, action learning was born with a name that has caused a lot of confusion. Reg Revans coined the phrase “action learning” in the 1940s to describe the process he was using, but since then the words “action” and “learning” are used so much that they’ve lost their resonance. Personally, I don’t think that the Michael Jordan problem is not going away. “Action learning” simply doesn’t catch your ear. So there is a branding issue that I think the World Institute of Action Learning helps resolve, but the issue remains. From previous experience, people often think of “Active learning” or “project learning” when they hear “Action learning,” which just causes all sorts of confusion.

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The third problem is what I call, “the two rabbits problem.” This applies to action learning because the methodology does two things simultaneously….it improves learning AND it improves performance. This is a good thing, but clients aren’t usually accustomed to that type of methodology. They tend to think that an intervention is EITHER a problem solving tool for business results and innovation OR it is a learning and development tool. It can be difficult to convince them that the real value in action learning is not just that it does BOTH of these things….but that it does both of these things simultaneously. On a more practical level, decisions about purchasing innovation interventions versus leadership development interventions are often made by two different people.

My solution to this problem is based on observation….and it’s the same advice I would give the hunter in the situation….he needs to pick one of the rabbits. In this case, I suggest that you should start with learning and development. This may be because learning and development is more of my area than say “business process improvement,” or “design thinking,” but from what I’ve seen you can position action learning as a comparable learning intervention to instructor-led training courses, case-studies, coaching, and other leadership development interventions.

Now, there are plenty of examples of “business action learning” or problem-focused action learning in which the purpose is solely to create new ideas and solutions. In this approach learning is often considered a secondary outcomes or not considered at all. That is fine too. It just depends on who is using it and what they are trying to achieve. I would argue that the true value proposition of action learning, as compared to other problem-based or project-based learning approaches, is much easier to describe when you are talking about organizational development or leadership development interventions. Although I should note that, historically, research bears out that balancing learning and problem-solving tends to yield better results for BOTH rather than focusing on just one.

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Finally, we have the “Frosted Flakes” problem. In the early 20th Century, ready-to-eat cereals were developed as a health food to replace heavy breakfast foods like sausage, eggs, coffee, and biscuits. They were to help patients recover in hospitals, but over time they developed into sugar-coated treats for kids. The Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek Michigan, who helped developed the ready-to-eat cereal wrestled with this issue from the very beginning. People want to be healthy but they also want something that tastes good. John Harvey decided to develop the medicinal cereals, while his brother, William decided to purpose the commercial market by adding sugar and flavor.

This same dynamic shows up in action learning. Action learning can be a transformative practice, but not everyone or every organization is ready for transformation. Change…especially significant change doesn’t necessarily taste very good. It requires vulnerability and discomfort. It may require you to challenge some deeply held assumptions. So, we try to sweeten it up. So, we take the real, unique, and powerful value of action learning and we “sugar it down”…by reducing it to nothing more than project-based learning. We talk about project work and the real solutions that will be generated and we shy away from being honest up front….this might not be the best intervention for you.

And I want to be clear here…I am not saying that it’s bad to use frosted flake approaches to solving problems. If they work well and give people what they need, then that’s fantastic. The problem I’m talking about it…is when tell people they are buying something that is good for them, when in fact they just bought some candy. The problem I’m talking about it when we conflate action learning with project-based learning, because we think it will be easier for people to understand. When ironically, the actual impact of that sales strategy is that it often makes action learning HARDER to understand.

So, a lot comes down to how much critical reflection the action learning program demands. I would argue that if you completely take out the critical reflection piece, then that is fine, just don’t call it action learning, please just call it “project-based learning” instead.

So, that’s my rant for now. Four problems and four ways that they impact our ability to talk about these really interesting transformational methodologies. I don’t have a lot of wisdom about how to offset them, but the first step is just acknowledging them. Or as an old professor of mine used to say “problematize” them.

*special thanks to myself for recycling slides from a presentation I gave last year.

 

 

 

In Defense of Ego

18 Feb
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A modern mystic, Thomas Hubl, seems like a good dude, but his message just didn’t really resonate with me

Last night I went to a talk by Thomas Hubl in downtown Washington DC. He is an interesting guy and as a modern mystic, I certainly value his perspective on his experience of consciousness. I like attending events like this because they tend to open me up. Expose me to new ideas and new people. However, while I value that exposure, it isn’t always pleasant. And last night I was reminded why I had avoided the “integral community” for so many years.

Although we may share the same interests in learning and exploring spiritual, mystical, or consciousness-based experiences and ideas, we approach that interest in very different ways. I ended up feeling like what I was seeing was spiritual materialism at its finest. Now, I did like Thomas’s talk and I thought he had a lot of good ideas to share, but the most value I got out of the experience was in a flood of ideas of my own. When ideas come this fast and easily, I am prone to think that they are coming from deep inside me rather than my overly-analytical mind (of which I am skeptical). Even though I have several other draft blog posts in the cooker, I feel compelled to share this one immediately. I decided that the easiest way to share this would be to just quote what I wrote in my journal during Thomas’s talk and go from there. I am calling it, “In Defense of Ego.”

— Feb. 17, 2014—

I don’t understand this! He is talking as if the mind/ego was something bad. “We need to bring this consciousness to light in the modern world,” he says. We “need to!?” Huh? I mean, of course we “need” to, but that is just a function of our own drive to create and there is no way for me to tell if YOUR drive to create is coming from ego or from spirit. How or why would I even try to judge it? Of course, I am doing the exact same thing to Thomas right now, judging his words, so I’ll let them be. Clearly people are getting something out of them. For me though this isn’t about the exteriors being “bad” and the interiors being “good.” In fact, language itself is just an exterior. It is an exterior, mind-created, ego-driven tool that we use to communicate and self-reflect. We needed to create language as a scaffold to develop the interior, so how can we make a value judgement on it? We need the exterior to build the interior…but where did language come from? The interior!!! So, they are co-emergent. They are interdependent. It is much like the particle/wave theory of electrons. They are BOTH at the same time, it is only our perspective that seems to have the conflict with reconciling these two things. This is why having a non-dual awareness is so important. That is why we NEED the ego. The ego isn’t bad. The ego is just an exterior. Haha! Badness is using the qualities of a wave to judge what is acting like, in that moment, as a particle. OR using the values of the interior to judge the exterior (or using the exterior to judge the interior). Of course it causes a contraction/tension!

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Wilber’s AQAL model for anyone not immediately familiar with how I am using the words, “interior” and “exterior”

Ego/mind/etc., or whatever word one wants to use to describe something “bad” or “negative,” when it is used in that way…doesn’t actually point to anything. That is, the word exists as a signifier…a sign post….but there is no signified. The sign points in a direction, but if you were to go there, you would find that nothing exists. In this way, ego has no content. It does not exist! It is so simple. We have a word for it, like we have the word “unicorn,” but that doesn’t mean that they signify something that exists in the real world. “Ego,” then doesn’t really exist in the way people use it to mean something negative or bad. In fact, what they are experiencing is the misattunement of TWO things that DO exist. How then do we bring those different rhythms into alignment? Well, I think through radical acceptance. Awareness is great. Awareness. Awareness. Awareness. Now try to accept. See if you can accept it as well. Create a new exterior. Create a new object. That that which was subject to you and make it object. Make it an exterior (that is, make it part of “mind/ego”). As an exterior, it may help you OR….maybe it is already an object…and you’ve divorced yourself from that object. These are the things that you need to bring into radical acceptance.

So, more simply…the “pain” or “resistance” or “contraction” or “tension” that we feel is NOT a result of a single entity (like the “ego”), but of a dynamic PROCESS between two entities (more akin to “friction”). Those two entities are exteriors and interiors. Existences and essences. Gross forms and subtle forms. The cure for these frictions depend on which way the energy is trying to flow. If energy is trying to create an exterior from an interior, then you need radical awareness, because you are trying to create something in the gross realm that previously existed in the subtle realm. However, it is equally likely that you are experiencing friction because something from the Gross realm is trying to enter the subtle realm (the equally important, but less acknowledged move from mind-body to spirit). In this case, as was my experience, the cure seems to be radical acceptance. That is, accepting everything even the things that you don’t accept. Or for radical awareness….radical awareness is being aware of what you are not aware of. This is why religions often talk about the masculine and feminine…big mind and big heart. Not just because these two THINGS exist, but because they represent two MOVEMENTS. Movement in one direction or another between exteriors and interiors! Masculine and feminine are horizontal types that describe movement between horizontal dimensions (exteriors and interiors). It is actually quite simple when looked at this way. So, to say that “ego” or “mind” is bad….as it feels like most people in this room are doing…just doesn’t make sense to me.

So, again, the one thing that we don;t really think about is that it is not the exteriors or the interiors themselves, but the MOVEMENT from one to the other. If there is friction in this movement then we experience suffering. This suffering can be cured with either radical acceptance or radical awareness depending on which direction the energy is trying to flow. Ok, so now we are cooking baby! 🙂 What is this movement? HOW the hell can you move from one to another? Well, we do that in the ground of being. That is…the movement can take place because we can stand outside of either two positions and “outside” those two positions is simply the background of all reality (both subtle and gross). Now, this ground of being is actually very boring, so I won’t talk about it because talking about it is a bit silly, but it is important to mention it because it is the third element….the causal realm. So, mystics claim that individual consciousness can directly experience this casual realm and I think that is fantastic. Good for them. Good for you if you can. Nothing wrong with it at all. Sounds like a magical place to live. But, for me, by definition, this causal experience doesn’t really mean much. That is because any experience is still just that….experience (even if that experience is non-experience…if that makes sense). So, then it is not something to strive for…it is something that people get access to or they do not. There is nothing great or grand about it. It is. Just like form and ego. They are. All of this stuff….is just hanging out. Now, don’t get me wrong the creation of something out of nothing is extraordinary….what could be more amazing!? But from my perspective, there is also nothing more mundane (again….it’s like a particle and a wave….causal is BOTH majestic AND mundane).

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A particle AND a wave

So, when we talk about the gross (exterior), subtle (interior), and causal (ground that allows us to move from one to the other), we are just talking about the interplay between these two crazy characters. It is like some sort of stage play. Two characters battling it out. The two actors and the stage on which they stand…those three things make up what we call reality. This is why horizontal development is, in many ways, much more important than vertical development. Because the movement from left (interior) to right (exterior) is the ENGINE of development. These frictions, moving and moving and moving, can spark movements upward as appropriate to the challenges that you face. In fact, it is actually more like overcompensation. As that friction creates sparks, your subtle and gross mental fabric evolves. Just like how the fibers of your muscles strengthen through exercise. After lifting 100 pounds your muscles get bigger so that next time you can lift 115 pounds (since you clearly could ALREADY lift 100). So, the engine of vertical development is in fact horizontal movement.

Growth is about awareness and acceptance because “the bad” parts are simply friction that restrict movement. Resistance is only ever about the friction of movement which does NOT get better if we continue to value “spirit” over “ego.” In fact, it makes the problem worse. It creates a spiritual materialism in which a large portion of reality is denied and judged. Of course, this friction is exactly what we need. How else could it exist? Is = ought. So, from a non-dual perspective, there is nothing wrong. There is no point to changing anything. “So you’re miserable. Great! That is what you should be. You will be miserable until you are not.” I’m writing. You’re reading. So what? We are fine. Given that we are….and everything we do is okay, then let us continue talking and reading. If everything is OK, then it is also OK that we think things need to change.

So, there you go. That was the out-pouring of thought that I had. It was helpful for me in thinking it, I can only hope that it is helpful for you in reading it.