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“I will go anywhere, provided it be forward”*
Print – Issue 164 | Article of the Week

Chris Nichols and Philippa Hardman


Each month we will be sharing four, carefully-chosen articles from the Latest Issue of our flagship publication ‘theHRDIRECTOR’ which exemplify the high standards we strive to archive. We hope you find this in-depth article of interest and decide to become one of our valued Subscribers.

While the business may be perfect for today, it could be utterly unprepared for the future. Not surprising as most investment into organisational development focuses on protecting and growing today’s value creation priorities. If organisations continue with this strategy, their plans have tomorrow’s failure written in. Any business living solely on existing expertise is about to hit a wall. There’s no future in being unchanged in a shifting world.

Article by Chris Nichols and Philippa Hardman Founders – GameShift

The difficulty is that no one has a map of the future, so this means that businesses need to build their own. To do this, those responsible for organisational development must help leadership teams build the capacity and flexibility amongst employees to explore, right across an organisation. In other words, continual learning and unlearning needs to become the daily way of working. Organisations should put at least 50 percent of their OD effort into creating “dynamic capacities”. These are the leadership skills and capabilities that need to be created and nurtured so that the organisation has the wherewithal to build tomorrow’s value. Described here are five areas of dynamic capacity that can be used to develop this wider organisational exploration capability. They show how to spark new ways of seeing, imagining, and developing actions to transform the way that organisations work. They are based on successful real-life examples in a variety of sectors – from fast-moving branded goods, financial services, healthcare, through to engineering and higher education.

“The explorers’ story of purpose doesn’t have a knight on a white charger heroically revealing a glorious plan. Today’s stories evoke passion and possibility. They galvanise excitement for learning and show the boundaries of how the future builds on the successes of today”

Alert awareness – the capacity to turn up with your eyes open: So much of organisational life runs to a pattern. Organisations become so “expert” that they lose their ability to see and hear anything except what they are expecting. They are rarely genuinely present and really experiencing what is actually going on. In the financial services sector, working over several months, with peer-scrutiny of live working issues, leaders and directors were able to see their world from different perspectives. Using many fresh ways of looking at an issue, including reflection, artful knowing and awareness of cognitive filters, the leaders became more aware of the limits of their accepted ways of seeing. “I didn’t realise how small my way of seeing the world had become,” said one director. “I now turn up with more openness and awareness about how things can be different.”

The same “frame-shifting” approach helped new directors in the grocery sector hit the ground running and add value to their Boards, for example through having the ability to think wider than their function and ask strategic questions of their business division (and having the confidence to do that too). “We face constant movement in our market, from commodity market effects and tougher customer demands to shifting consumer sentiment,” said one newly-appointed sales leader. “It’s easy to miss the small signals of something vital. Developing the ability to test and re-test my view of the world is essential to helping face an unknown future.”

Inviting inquiry – the capacity to invite others to be awake and interested: Top managers can’t see it all. With customers and competitors moving at the speed of social media they certainly can’t know everything that matters. Yet there’s a myth that those in the boardroom know best. This myth is dangerous. Leaders need to develop the capacity of invitation, the awareness of when and how to involve others in exploring the future and sharing intelligence from the shifting world. A global materials science company recently used Skype links to bring worldwide customers and suppliers into the room with 200 of the firm’s leaders. The objective was to understand their views on the relationship with the company: what they really appreciated about working with them, and what could be improved. With these new perspectives the leaders could rapidly identify ways of building loyalty and growth across the group. And it’s not only about inviting in external stakeholders. The MD of an engineering company believed that the Executive Team could make better strategic decisions if a wide range of internal stakeholders were invited to join workstreams to explore different aspects of the future, including people resources, commercial considerations, and future customers. This involved inviting some unexpected colleagues, particularly those who known to ask difficult questions. The MD wanted new perspectives and wasn’t afraid for the company’s thinking to be challenged. Knowing when and how to involve others – and being able to offer a powerful invitation into a process that people trust will be of value – is a critical leadership capacity for a globally inter-connected age.

Disciplined curiosity – the capacity to keep your eye on the real work that makes a difference: It’s easy to get swamped with possibility. There’s endless data and opinion out there. This is where developing disciplined curiosity matters. The more organisations need to explore deep and wide, the more being rigorous becomes vital. This was demonstrated at an award-winning UK university which involved staff, students and wider stakeholders in searching for insight into what would make the university of tomorrow. Here, two practices made all the difference. First, developing a rigorous process for corralling the exploration and the learning, and second, having clarity about what would add value to their inquiry. The university created several specific inquiry themes – and set boundaries for each. In this sort of project, it’s important that people know what they’re being asked to explore, as well as being clear about what is not up for discussion.  In this instance, the university was careful to ensure that the teams didn’t become siloed, by building in ways for them to learn through cross fertilisation and peer scrutiny. Throughout the process, everyone was encouraged to ask constantly: how do we know this line of inquiry is useful? How do we get data we trust? How can we make sure we are not being blind-sided by our own expectations? Building a disciplined and high-quality practice of exploring together supports robust and creative work and provides the bedrock of a vibrant culture and practice for strategic conversations.

Developing a hunger for experiments – the capacity to invent tomorrow by trying things today: Organisations shouldn’t try to be perfect or expect to find out what they need first time. In a fast-shifting environment, the ability to have an experimental approach is a core capacity. The health sector in the UK is a case in point. It faces numerous challenges – – an ageing population, increasing medical capability to prolong life and tough budgets. Leaders have to be able to shift the system – meddling at the margins won’t deliver. But grand gestures aren’t the way to move a whole system. Instead leaders need to develop a practice of constant experimentation. Noticing how their actions impact the systems they lead, then amplifying what works. It’s the same in the FMCG sector. The frontiers of change come so fast that there is no long-term competitive advantage. So, developing the capacity to craft constant new frontiers is a real differentiator. There is a skill in learning to frame, carry-out and evaluate quick experiments and learn from them. This hunger for experimentation is vital at the exploratory edge.

Purposeful story – the capacity to motivate by showing the horizon: In all these examples, there is a common thread – the place of purpose. Exploring without a purpose is just being lost. In all the organisations described above there has been a clear and compelling story at the heart of the work about purpose and potential. It’s what makes the invitation inviting, it brings coherence to inquiry and the experimentation and helps organisations know what their alertness is serving. But it’s no longer a story of certainty. The explorers’ story of purpose doesn’t have a knight on a white charger heroically revealing a glorious plan. Today’s stories evoke passion and possibility. They galvanise excitement for learning and show the boundaries of how the future builds on the successes of today. Crafting and telling a story that opens up and brings people along is possibly the most vital of the dynamic capacities described here. False certainties are tempting, but they close down learning and exploration. Much of organisations’ existing investment can support the development of their dynamic capacities. This is certainly the case if they have invested in people skills, communication and asking good questions and working well with difference and conflict. All of these are vital elements in the mix of exploring well. Organisations want to pay attention to the balance in their effort and investment, between the protection of known value and the creation of the new. This is the knife-edge, where organisational development has an important role to play. Almost all established strategy processes tend towards the former and learning gets limited to the classroom. This is always too small a view and it is part of strategic risk management to assess whether the balance is right. If the boardroom doesn’t have an eye on this, it’s time to shift the agenda. By building these five dynamic capacities, organisations have the power to add something important to their value creation.

*David Livingstone

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