Learning to change

Vyla Rollins explains how bespoke business programmes are being used to kick-start organisational development and transformation


During the past four years a new type of organisational collaborator/client has begun to emerge within my portfolio of clients at the School. These are clients who have a desire to collaborate with LBS to develop interventions that are not only educational and developmental, but which clearly and explicitly are also used to: a) signal the start of a strategic organisational development and/or a process of transformational organisational change; and b) to help the board establish if they are on track with their change efforts -  in regard to both effective execution and capability development of leaders and their teams.

It’s also interesting to note it's not just the Learning and Develoment and Organisational Development functions looking for this; indeed it’s not uncommon for this aspiration to be directly articulated to us by CEO’s, CFO’s and other C-Suite members.

In “Becoming a Better Boss” my esteemed colleague and research collaborator Julian Birkinshaw  - Term Chaired Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship - suggests that change in modern organisations involves rethinking the “practice” of management, “to ensure that we are all acting in ways that support” broader organisational change. It’s this notion which can allow Executive Education interventions to be not only the driver, but part of the glue that helps keep organisational change on track, or to ensure that change efforts start on the right footing.

So how can a “simple” Executive Education intervention kick-start a change, or support an effort focused on wide-scale organisational transformation aspiration? At the most basic level, Executive Education interventions can support and drive change by:

  • Exposing participants and the C-Suite to what’s going on outside an organisation, as well as inside. This includes testing perceptions, creating a shared understanding of market dynamics, and aligning aspirations within the organisation;
  • Providing participants and the C-Suite opportunities to receive behaviourally-anchored coaching (both individually and in groups, informal and formal, in the moment and over a longer period) during and outside the formal classroom activities;
  • Allowing participants to apply their learning in the organisational environment “as it is” in reality, as opposed to how it is in theory. This involves using live business challenges as a vehicle - to build the capability, competency, and discipline to encourage, as well as reflect, review, reframe, and re-engage in the prototyping and testing efforts required to drive effective, sustainable change; and
  • Creating activities that touch, inform, educate, develop and engage those who are not directly involved in the Executive Education intervention just as strongly as those who are.

What needs to be in place for an Executive Education intervention to bolster a business transformation/change effort?

In my experience, which is informed by strategic organisational development and Executive Education best practice, there are four broad areas that can ensure the intervention is an effective kick-starter or driver for significant strategic change:

  • Strategic alignment;
  • Behavioural drivers and anchors;
  • Organisational and talent development; and
  • Executive and line manager engagement.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are the aspects we have experienced as providing a platform for us to create effective, dynamic and value added collaborations with organisations.

Strategic Alignment

At the most basic level this means that:

  • There is a shared and aligned sense of the organisation’s strategic aspirations at C-Suite level, which are understood across the organisation (at all levels, and in all functions and business units);
  • Strategy is approached as a dynamic process, which is mutually understood, proactively reviewed and actively refined, in consideration of market conditions and efforts in strategy execution. There is also an appreciation of the difference between strategy formulation, execution and change management;
  • There is a clear understanding of the difference between goals and outcomes, and these distinctions are used to create the construct of what “good” looks like in 3, 5, 7, or 10 years; and
  • There is a clear sense of what the organisation’s “strategic initiatives” are (or formal activities are taking place to facilitate the articulation of them). These initiatives are defined as broad descriptions of “areas of priority” for the business (that have to be done in order to accomplish the company’s mission).

Behavioural anchors and drivers

  • An understanding that building an organisation’s human capital cannot be achieved by traditional training alone;
  • A clear understanding of the difference between “training” (learning about things) and “development” (learning how to do things) and the outcomes and limitations of both;
  • The notion of “culture” is never spoken about in isolation. The conversation will start with an exploration of what the organisation is trying to achieve, and then progress on to how leaders, teams, and individuals need to “be” or “behave” to achieve the business aspirations/outcomes articulated. This is the progression of thought and activity that, from our experience, is the most powerful in creating sustainable “culture” change;
  • Proactive, rich and focused dialogue about the strategic organisational development agenda (including talent management); led, facilitated and driven from the C-Suite;
  • A clearly exhibited collective and visible commitment from the C-Suite and senior leadership team, that constructive behaviours and the well being of their people are of strategic importance to their business – and that self-defeating behaviour will start to be proactively addressed.  This includes a collective, visible commitment from the C-Suite and senior leadership team to deal with performance-diminishing behaviour; and
  • A collective, visible commitment by the C-Suite and senior leadership team to invest their time (and advocate the time of others) is spent  reflecting on efforts and lessons learnt; giving and receiving feedback; and understanding the link these “practices”  have  to accelerating individual/team/organisational performance.

Organisational and talent development – beliefs and actions

  • The understanding that, to achieve fundamental and sustainable change/organisational development, you need to create activities that engage organisation, key populations and individuals simultaneously;
  • The C-Suite being open to consider, discuss and act on systemic influences which effect organisational behaviour and performance, such as structure, remuneration, and performance management;
  • The acceptance that changes to behaviour and skills do not happen overnight. This means approaching this aspect of change it as a process not a one-off event;
  • Understanding that embracing uncertainty is an essential skill to be developed;
  • Accepting that breakthroughs in organisational performance rarely occur without setbacks;
  • Seeing the value in transferring knowledge and capability so that individuals/teams/ the organisation can operate independently and effectively without substantial  and drawn out assistance from external sources; and
  • Creating a shared understanding and agreement of a basic talent management strategy, which is underpinned by a core set of leadership attributes, behaviours and/or competencies.

Executive and line manager engagement

There exists, or efforts are emerging within the organisation whereby:

  • Senior leaders use a common language to describe key organisational development concepts (talent management, competencies, leadership attributes, succession planning, training, development, etc.);
  • Senior leaders commit to provide development opportunities for their direct reports, as part of their day-to-day  management responsibilities. This includes creating opportunities for applying the learning acquired from formal development programmes; and
  • The C-suite and senior leaders are committed to allowing experimentation time, and are open to new ideas emerging throughout the organisation as a result of the programme.

21st century organisational change and Executive Education interventions: The dynamic duo?

Last but by no means least, in my experience, effective use of Executive Education interventions to kick-start, bolster, and drive change efforts requires a clear appreciation of how organisations need to approach change in the 21st century.

Having supported organisations with change over 25 years, I have learned that it is fruitless to take a reactive, linear, or piecemeal approach to organisational change. Not only is this approach expensive, it doesn’t allow for a ‘whole organisation’ approach – key to ensuring survival in the current business environment. The notion of organisations as complex, adaptive systems is not going away. In fact it’s becoming an unavoidable reality, day by day and year by year. A wealth of research has been undertaken and, more importantly, synthesised into practical guidelines for approaching change in complex systems. The basic tenets of effectively addressing change in the 21st century are:

  • Systemic sensing of the business environment, both internally and externally;
  • Taking time (individually and in groups) to reflect on what is required, both intellectually and emotionally, to meet the organisational challenges ahead;  and
  • Prototyping or executing efforts on a small scale, to test their viability, robustness, and impact.

Have no doubt; experience shows when well positioned and designed, Executive Education interventions can provide a solid platform for these tenents to come alive in organisations in a focused, dynamic , business focused manner which generates undeniable business impact.

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