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Conduct a Strategic Leadership Experiment in 5 Steps


Ron Ivey

Date Published

May 16, 2016
7 minute read

“The biggest job we have is to teach a newly hired employee how to fail intelligently. We have to train him to experiment over and over and to keep on trying and failing until he learns what will work.” -Charles F. Kettering

In our last post, Developing leaders in your organization: Start with the end in mind, we discussed the new reality of leadership in an increasingly complex and volatile world and how to evaluate if leadership development programs are actually addressing these realities and driving performance for your organization. As we mentioned, today’s leaders must be comfortable with a certain level of experimentation, setting direction in the face of ambiguity and learning new insights as they take risks on the field.

To form leaders for the challenges of today and tomorrow, you must design programs that teach creative, adaptive approaches to leadership and imbed learning in the context of experience and action.  This approach is known as “Action Learning.” Action Learning was developed in the mid- 20th century in England by Professor Reg Revans, successfully implemented under CEO Jack Welch at General Electric, and is used by several prominent private and public organizations. We believe true leadership development requires taking action towards your vision, your “To-Be,” which is the foundation of our COURT-LOCKER ROOM PRIME. It’s not just getting into action that helps leaders develop – it’s a specific kind of action – strategic experimentation!

How will strategic experimentation produce results?
Experimentation takes some of the pressure off having to make it “perfect.” There will be some things that work, and some things that do not work. Experiencing and dealing with both the successes and the failures is necessary for a leader’s development. It’s an experiment, so there is an element of testing and trying new things to produce the desired outcome.

Most learning and development programs provide you with the opportunity to get away from your day-to-day role to learn new models, tools, and techniques. The challenge is that while you have experienced a change, your organization still operates in the same way. It is easy to slip back into the old habits and ways of doing things. Think of a rubber band that has been stretched then suddenly snaps back to its old shape. Even worse, when you don’t practice using those new tools and methods, they get rusty.

Instead, strategic experimentation allows your team to work (and learn) together on something real and tangible – versus theoretical. There is a real result! The system actually changes.

What are the principles of experiential learning used in leadership experiments?

The best leadership development experiments utilize four stages of experiential learning, outlined by adult learning expert David A. Kolb:

  1. Concrete experience – Provide the participant a challenge that tests and expands their capabilities.
  2. Observation and reflection – After their success or even failure completing the challenge, provide an opportunity for self-discovery and reflection.
  3. Forming abstract concepts – Based on their reflections, share frameworks and models developed by expert leaders that help the participant form a mental model of how to solve a similar challenge in the future.
  4. Testing in new situations – Immediately provide an opportunity to test these new insights in their work.

How do you set up strategic leadership development experiments to build both the capacity of the group and the individual?

Follow these 5 Steps:

  1. Identify your Team or Cohort – Determine first who needs to participate. A group of experienced leaders ready to take on the next level of leadership at your organization? Emerging leaders from across your organization needing to gain a broader understanding of the organization, develop new skills, and build their network? A team that is taking on a new challenge or looking to create peak performance?
  2. Define the Challenge – Identify a challenge that is important for both the organization and the individuals. Rapidly make a shared mental model of the challenge – What results do we need to achieve? Who are the stakeholders? What data can we collect? What has been done to date? Define the challenge in “bite size” problem sets that the teams can tackle in short experiments.
  3. Engage the Challenge – Work your challenge through continuous engagement on these “bite size” problem sets using obtainable goals with hard deadlines, which we refer to as DATE CERTAIN OUTCOMES. Move to action quickly – avoid the trap of “over planning.” For new managers and up-and coming-leaders, teach them how to pitch for resources and report out effectively to their leaders on risks and results.
  4. Assess Performance & Address Challenges – After engaging the challenge, take a quick step away from the problem to address any social complexities, competing priorities, and external demands. Get the team to help each other address unexpected surprises and challenges such as running out of time. This is where the real innovation and leadership characteristics show up. As the clock ticks toward the deadline, the team will not tolerate non-value added activity.
  5. Celebrate Success – Once the group has achieved the DATE CERTAIN OUTCOMES, recognize the team’s growth and development, acknowledge high performers, and celebrate the success of the group.

What do you get at the end?

You get results for your organization and confident leaders ready to take on challenges. At the end of the leadership experiment, you will achieve multiple layers of success:

  • Business/Organizational Results – By using an important challenge as the frame for leadership development, you actually achieve objective results that matter to the core business or mission of the organization. At the end of the day, this is what leadership is about and a leadership development program should provide an experience where participants see and experience what it means to be “on the hook” for outcomes.
  • Individual and Group Confidence – This type of leadership development will build confidence and what Albert Bandura, calls ‘self efficacy,’ a person’s belief about his capabilities to produce effects. This subjective element is critical for facing new and more complex challenges that will likely face the organization or group. As each individual grows in confidence, the group gains in confidence to take on new challenges together.

For further insight, here are some additional excellent resources on using action and experiments to develop leaders and achieve results:

How can The Clearing help you? 

If you are interested in improving your existing leadership development program or designing a leadership experiment to achieve results and build confidence, The Clearing has implemented the principles outlined above in our Leading with The PRIMES leadership development program.