By Randy Sabourin
“A lot of thought and consultant dollars were spent to create a new set of seventeen leadership competencies. Those seventeen competencies should be manifested through our four core values. This strategy will drive a culture change throughout our organization starting with our Leadership team. The competencies and values should be evident in the behavior of our people throughout the organization. Due to the lack of integration over the last two years, we have simplified the number of competencies to nine. The CEO believes that if our Leadership adapts and displays these values and competencies, it will effect the change in our organization we require to be successful.”
This opening statement led to a robust discussion that explored the common challenges of bringing a strategy to fruition.
Organizational change, Leadership Development, or any learning initiative, requires three very fundamental components in order to be successful. The first is strategy which has spawned a multi-billion dollar consultancy industry. There is no end to resources to help any organization figure out where they are, what they are doing wrong, and what they should be doing to get where they want to be. An overwhelming amount of complexity gets built into the process disguised as value, due mostly to the amount of budget being allocated. It gives us a clue to why the above statement of a leadership-driven culture change failed and will continue to fail. It’s far too complex. Years of research shows that changing one or two behaviors is very difficult. The complexity of remembering thirty-six behaviors let alone applying them to real situations is doomed to failure. Complexity is not the only reason this initiative will continue to flounder.
The second component of the initiative is knowledge transfer, which is often handed off to the HR or L&D organization as a training project. This step focuses on organizing the strategy into a format that can be communicated and taught. It manifests itself as awareness videos, speeches at conferences and town halls, workshops, and eLearning modules. This step is designed to let everyone know what the new vision is and what part each individual is expected to play in its realization. Most organizations invest heavily in this knowledge transfer step in the process. All the effort and investment of the first two stages are usually and unfortunately wasted because more often than not, the process ends here and does not include the final step.
The third component in change is skill development. Knowing and understanding is not skill. Why would learning new leadership behaviors be any different than learning to play golf, or write code, or draw? There are years of research that prove that knowing something does not mean being able to do it. The transition between knowing and doing is practice. Ask any professional artist, musician, or athlete how much they needed to practice, and likely how much they still practice, to master any of the skills they possess. For research and reference look to the work of Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated, 2008), and Andres Ericsson (Peak, Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, 2016) to see how deliberate practice is the key to new skill development.
Applying deliberate practice as the skill development component in support of the change process is critical to the success of the initiative. At the moment, there is next to no investment made by organizations to develop deliberate practice solutions although the payoff seems self-evident. Applying deliberate practice to change initiatives comes with a simple truth. The most important things that happen in business are conversations. Conversations are hard to control and can be messy and unpredictable, which is why important business conversations should be practiced. The use of deliberate practice in this context would mean practicing four of five scenario-based conversations that are designed to incorporate the skills that reflect the targeted behavioral changes. Furthermore, having these practice conversations with a professional allows you to measure specific skills and receive feedback and coaching to enhance your abilities further; the design and feedback elements are what make the practice “deliberate” instead of aimless repetition. The objective is to be challenged, make mistakes, and fail without consequences in order to start to show true improvement.
Adding deliberate practice as the third component can save the investment made in the first two steps of the process, but more importantly, you will see the change in your Leadership team that is critical to your success. Most of the professionals in the initial conversation were aware of deliberate practice, but none of them had developed or deployed a solution yet. All agreed that having the ability to practice critical change conversations would increase the likelihood of success.