Developing ourselves is not about filling in “gaps”. If we are systems thinkers, we don’t see gaps. A gap is an empty space; where nothing is. We are not empty vessels to be filled; we are whole beings, not “hole-y” beings. We do, however, have things about us that need strengthening and enhancing. We have got this far in our lives with the capabilities that we have had at our disposal through a life of learning, but this is not to say that there isn’t more to learn and develop.
Dr. Russell Ackoff said, “Optimising one part of a system always leads to sub-optimisation of the system as a whole.” This is important to remember, not only with reference to an organisation’s development, but also for an individual. Our workplaces are complex social systems, the many people being interconnected and interrelated. Each person has an impact on the wider system and the other people in the system impact on them. Out of the dynamics of these social systems emerges culture and organisational performance. To take Ackoff’s statement, if we take one person out of a system and, for example, provide some coaching without awareness of that person’s place in the system, impact on the system and impact of the system on them, the coaching will be less than effective. Optimising one person in isolation and without attending to the whole system will lead to a skew.
Similarly, when developing capability within individuals, we need to remember that we, too, are systems. We play a myriad of roles in our daily lives, whether you are a customer service representative, a CEO or a project manager. The whole of ourselves is truly greater than the sum of our knowledge, skills, experience and character traits. This matrix of roles that we play is complex and interrelated; each role we enact impacts on other roles we play. Our character and personality arises from the interconnectedness of all these roles and each time we add a new capability, it affects the whole of our being. Sometimes we can easily discern this, sometimes learning something new affects us in more subtle ways. For example, developing greater self-reflective skills will impact positively on our abilities to put ourselves in the shoes of others.
In the realm of leader (or rather, people) development, it sometimes seems that there is always the next big thing: The Key Skill Every Leader Should Grow. It can be a bit like plate spinning, though; that old trick where someone would rush around trying to keep plates spinning on long thin poles. One week you have to develop your ability to manage diversity, the next week it’s about learning how to deal with the unexpected, the next week you are learning how to listen to your inner voice telling you not to listen to what they tell you the week after that. Madly rushing about from one “part” to another “part” of ourselves is a misguided approach to people development. We need to see leader ability as a matrix of interactive roles; the question is then not “What capability do I need to develop?” but “What is the matrix of capabilities I need to develop, and what capabilities am I over-emphasising at the expense of others?” Leader development should be focussed on the behaviour of the inseparable whole and even if there are specific capabilities that a person needs to strengthen, this should be done with a view to optimising the whole person.
Developing ourselves in a piecemeal, mechanistic way can be as exhausting as plate spinning. Taking a reductionist perspective is also counter-productive; it’s utter nonsense to view ourselves as clocks, with bits that you can take out in isolation and fine tune or replace. We need to remain mindful that our abilities to do something may be linked to a collection of other related abilities. In the same vein, our ability to do something may be hampered by over-use of other abilities. Take the story of the recruitment consultant who struggled to achieve his list of daily tasks. It wasn’t related to poor time management skills, which he had said it was. It was a direct result of being so driven and single-minded about achieving his tasks such that his way of interacting with his colleagues rubbed them up the wrong way and caused them to avoid dealing with him. Because he required the collaboration of his co-workers, he was not able to get through his tasks effectively. When we did some work with this person some years ago, we witnessed his manner with others that betrayed some underdeveloped relationship skills. If we had taken him at his word and gone down the “time management skills” track without looking at his whole being, he wouldn’t have come through with the enhanced people skills he actually needed. His improved people skills ended up enhancing his ability to “manage” his time.
When Peter Senge says that real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human, I believe he is talking about whole person development, not simply “training” in isolated sets of skills that enable someone to do a job more efficiently. When I’m developing people capability, I apply a matrix that we at Quantum Shift developed some years ago. We use it as an illustrative reminder, not a definitive prescription. This image is limited, in that it cannot truly illustrate the deep and complex interconnectedness of all the roles and how they affect each other, however, it gives some indication. Anyone who is in the business of developing people needs to remain cognisant of the interactive nature of these roles and discover how they impact on each other, for each individual that they work with.
Each of these roles is comprised of a number of sub-roles or abilities. For example, the Decisive Achiever is the one that we enact when we want to get things gone. It is the one that manages time, makes decisions, is organised and is the one that is usually most recognised and rewarded in the workplace. This is the role that our recruitment consultant was over-utilising to his detriment, and at the expense of the other roles in his matrix. He operated out of a belief that if he just came into work and achieved, that would be best. He was blind to the fact that an optimal achiever is actually one that deploys the whole of his role matrix in appropriate measure and in response to the appropriate context. When he realised that his Relationship Manager role was the one that was needed in order to go further, and extended this and applied it in tandem with the Decisive Achiever, he actually got more done and with greater satisfaction for himself and his colleagues. In fact, we heard some months later that the atmosphere in the whole office had improved significantly as a result.
Below is a summary of the roles in this matrix and their traits. The list is by no means exhaustive, however it gives a flavour of the roles.
Because our personal role systems are organic and ever-emergent, developing them is not time-bound. There is no end point. We will develop one thing and this will shine a light on other areas to enhance and extend. To quote Senge, “Personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills…it means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to a reactive viewpoint.” This means we embark on a lifelong journey of learning and development, taking a continual interest in ourselves and holding a perpetual curiosity about the world. One might say that there is a reasonably finite amount one can learn about, say, time management, but if we engage ourselves in role development, we will keep refining our whole selves to applying our time management skills or our performance management skills or our listening skills well and in an integrated fashion. Doing this over our life times will be an adventure, it will be messy and divergent, it will not be without challenges.
Some key points to remember about working with people in a systemic way:
- Our roles are an interactive system, or matrix, of sub-roles. Developing one in isolation will come at the expense of another or others.
- Development is never-ending. You never “arrive”. There is no end point. As we learn one thing and it becomes part of us, we become aware of the next thing to be learnt. Because we are systems, developing one part of the system will impact on the rest of it and will give rise to the next thing to develop.
- Roles are learnt and enacted in response to real life, not hypotheticals. They are not in isolation, making workplace learning is more purposeful. It is ideal to learn in real time, in response to real needs.
- Developing leadership mastery is a messy business, just like life. It is not linear. It requires some experimentation, some reflection and meaning-making, some knowledge, some rehearsal and trial and error.