Rapid Cycle Leadership Development

Rapid Cycle Leadership Development
30/09/2016 Brian Petersen

Rapid Cycle Leadership Development – You Need it!

Rapid Cycle Innovation is all the rage at the moment.  It refers to a process of generating an idea, prototying it quickly,  often using modern 3D printing tools, and immediately getting feedback from users.  It has been shown in many situations to be superior to a more traditional approach  starting with a long phase of analysis, theoretical reviews of pros and cons of several options, team input and approval to proceed from a long list of managers.

The approach will yield the same impressive results when applied to leadership development.  Whether it is your own development or the development of your team and organisation.  And yet it is rarely used.

I recently interviewed HR managers in 35 large companies.  They had all implemented the standard programs that are considered a must for organisational health: evaluations, development plans, succession plans, talent pipeline, training programs tailored to the various specific needs of the organisation, HR business partners, and so on.  Compliance was good, and there were noticable improvements in the quality of leadership across the organisation.

But when I asked if there were still areas with significant shortcomings compared to best-in-class leadership, I got a long list of examples.  And the examples were usually relatively basic: silos between departments, unclear priorities, misalignment which was not dealt with, unproductive meetings, behaviour which did not live up to the company’s values, managers with areas of limited self-awareness, and so on.  Issues which I have described in blogs such as “Intolerance: The Ultimate Leadership Value“, “Turning Disagreements into Competitive Advantage” and “Want Results: Fix Accountability“.

These otherwise proven HR processes were not able to eliminate anywhere near the majority of dysfunctional leadership behaviours.  This is particularly concerning since these are behaviours which directly affect the top and bottom lines negatively.

There is a solution, though.  It is not to be found in more theory, documents, analyses or discussions.  The solution is experiential, not theoretical.  The solution is Rapid Cycle Leadership Development.

If we use the Rapid Cycle principles in leadership, we would then generate an idea for improvement, design it, execute it and try it out on users.

Here is an example.  Let’s take a look at a team where there is a history of results not living up to expectations.  After a quick review of the team and how it functions, we generate an idea as to why it is under-performing.  let’s say the idea is misalignment.  Team members never really commit to decisions and action steps because they have not fully bought in to the plan.  There is always one or 2 people who have not delivered their part of the team work on time and of the right quality.  It is often unclear why that is and there is even disagreement about what was decided.  The team members have all been on seminars learning about productive meetings and collaboration, but the problem persists.

Next step is to design a solution for alignment, execute it and try it out on the users.  The team would use an outside designer, specialised in Rapid Cycle Leadership Development.  He or she would ask the team to try a new way of behaving during the next meeting when a failing project is to be reviewed.  The outside designer will ask the team leader to draw disagreements out into the open.  He will ask team members to volunteer their input.  When it comes to making the final decisions and allocating responsibilities and timings, he will remind each member that by accepting responsibility, they become accountable towards their colleagues.  And that they are expected to point it out if one of their colleagues is not doing his part.  If they are not comfortable with this, they need to get back to the discussion and bring out their real issues. Once the plan is finalised the outside designer would ask each team member to immediately communicate to his department what was decided in the meeting.  This way, the whole organisation hears the same story from everybody.

The team has now experienced a new way of managing misalignment.  Some things will have worked well. Maybe some managers became more engaged because they could voice their frustrations.  Maybe some of the plans became better, because new input was included.  Maybe important road blocks were removed.  This feedback will be stored in the minds and bodies of the team members even if it is never written down.  Like finding your balance on a bike, it has become a successful experience.  We usually want to repeat successful experiences.  The theory has become an experience and the team members have cracked the code.

Some things will not have worked well.  New issues may have emerged because of this design experiment.  Or some issues were simply not solved.  Maybe the team had difficulty discussing disagreement.  Maybe some members turned out to be defensive.  Or had other interests, such as protecting their own department.  These become  ideas for the next Rapid Cycle Leadership Development.  The outsider designer will design a new prototype based on the most important improvement area that emerged from the exercise.  This will be tested at the next meeting.  And the process continues in this way.

In a way, this is similar to on-the-job training.  But it has some key advantages.  On-the-job training depends on situations coming up randomly, that the manager can  learn from.  The Rapid Cycle approach designs the situation here and now.  On-the-job training depends on someone showing a new way of doing things, in order to generate new learnings.  There is often no such person in the team.  And even if someone had the capability to do it, he or she is usually too busy as a team member to also be the designer.

It is hard to calculate an ROI in any area related to leadership development.  But it would be fair to assume that the ROI would be high in this case.  When sending managers on seminars, or spending time doing their development plans, it is well documented that only a small fraction of what is taught is used in practice when the manager is back in the office.  In this case, everything is used in practice, at least during the exercise.  But more importantly, experiential learning has been shown to lead to a fair higher repeat usage than any theoretical approch.

Would you like to try it? It is easy to do a small pilot test.  Once you see the result, I am sure you will be hooked!


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