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Addressing the Complexity Gap: Developing Integrated Thinking Skills at Board Level

By Matthew Rich-Tolsma and John Oliver January/February 2016 | Print

Drawing on insights from adult developmental psychology, Matthew Rich-Tolsma and John Oliver, certified consultants with Lectica, Inc., highlight the explicit thinking skills that are unique to the challenges at the board level, in the context of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) in the world. The invitation is for boards to think about their thinking skills, with the help of the latest research in frameworks of integrated thinking skills.

What is it exactly that boards do? As Peter Drucker and others have pointed out,1 many boards seem to perform an essentially ornamental function in the face of the increasingly complex and competitive landscapes in which they find themselves. In the midst of this, however, John and Miriam Carver have been notable in consistently reminding us that boards have an essential role to play in looking out for the interests of the owners of businesses and serving to provide essential ethical oversight to organizations.2 In particular, in setting out the Policy Governance® framework, they have provided a system of principles and processes to guide board functioning, but what exactly do these kinds of processes require of board members in terms of capabilities? In other words, what distinguishes governing from other work in and on the business, and what unique thinking skills does it require of board members?

One way that we can appreciate the unique nature of the task placed before board members is to view it in a developmental context. Elliott Jaques’s3 theory of requisite organization provides us with one framework for doing this, building upon seven stratified levels of work, each with their own hierarchically distinct capability as identified by Gillian Stamp.4 Whereas the earlier levels of work are concerned with an organization’s operations and generating value for the organization in the present, the later levels are orientated toward generating value for the future of the organization. These later levels of work complexity involve engaging time scales extending several years into the future and require an increasing capacity to oversee entire organizational systems and bring them into relationship with the ever-shifting complex global milieu in which organizations must learn to function. In this brief article, we outline some of the core developmental skills that support more complex ways of working, by bringing these into relationship with some of the most recent discoveries in developmental psychology and adult learning theory.

The Complexity Gap

The profoundly challenging demands placed on boards in a rapidly changing global world lead to four distinctly perplexing conditions: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.5 Together, these conditions are often referred to as the VUCA world (VUCA being a term that was originally initiated by the US military).6

These demands seem to be increasing at a rate that significantly outstrips the rate at which the individual capability of leaders is growing (which is in no small part due to the fact that our educational systems have failed to adapt sufficiently). As a result, the state of modern leadership seems to be that, in the words of Robert Kegan, leaders are perpetually “in over their heads.”7 This gap between the challenge of a task and the capability of the individuals charged to perform it is what we might refer to as a complexity gap. This is a concept that has been exposed by a number of theorists8 and presents boards with a dual dilemma. First, selecting board members is very challenging when statistically only a very small portion of the population has the potential to perform at the most advanced levels of complexity of thought (this is further exacerbated by the lack of rigorous approaches and tools for assessing the developmental capacity of candidates). Second, the continued support and development of board members presents a challenge given the limited understanding available concerning development in most organizations.

Constructive Development: Examining the Unique Capacities Required by Board Members

During the twentieth century an empirical psychological science of constructive development emerged as a significant trend in contemporary understandings of learning and human performance. The history of this field can be tracked from the so-called genetic epistemology of James Baldwin,9 through the hierarchical integration of Jean Piaget’s10 understanding, to the work of significant neo-Piagetian theorists such as William Perry, Lawrence Kohlberg, Michael Commons, Kurt Fischer, and Theo Dawson. Each of these theorists represents an applied approach to development consisting of “hard stages” of development that each individual progresses through hierarchically at variable rates11 through an iterative process of cycles of learning.12 This entails engaging development as a complex system and understanding the variable roles that emotion can play in shaping development. In essence, this means that there is a wide range of variability within individual performances and that people may perform very differently under a range of different conditions. It also means that people may perform differently across a range of different skill domains.

We offer a general summary of the two most common broad development levels that are likely to show up at board level. We then go on to explore how these two development levels are likely to relate to a number of specific skill domains that we consider as particularly relevant to the task of board service. Thanks to the latest research in adult developmental psychology, we now have robust data on the distribution of these developmental levels across the adult population.13

The first of these levels is what Stamp4 refers to as a modeling capacity; this is a sort of complex systemic thinking capacity that occurs in around less than 6 percent of the adult population13 and is generally found in senior levels of organizations (or at the top level of smaller organizations). People operating at this level of complexity can describe multiple complex systems and identify many of the common elements that serve to connect them. This is sufficient to maintain a strategic overview of a small organization and coordinate its multiple parts; they are likely to have a time horizon of about five years on their work. The second of these levels is what Stamp4 refers to as a weaving capacity; this sort of integrative or principled thinking is generally found at the senior levels of large global organization and tends to occur in less than 3 percent of the adult population.13 People operating at this level of complexity can describe a range of abstract principles and relate to them in terms of the overarching principles that govern their interaction; they are likely to work with time spans ranging as far as twenty years into the future. This is generally the type of oversight that is required at board level, especially in larger organizations.

  • Decision making. The first group—those who have “modeling capacity”—tends to adopt a decision-making process that is focused on identifying points of commonality that can be used to build a bridge between different options. The second group—those who have “weaving capacity”—tends to focus on identifying the unspoken principles that can be used to more meaningfully synthesize and transform a range of options.
  • Working with tensions and polarities. Those with modeling capacity are able to identify tensions within and between layers of the organizational hierarchy; they focus on attempting to hold these in dynamic tension in an attempt to keep them in balance. Those with weaving capacity strive instead to resolve tensions, seeking to dissolve tensions by focusing on unifying principles and create new approaches, policies, or tools to maximize the satisfactions of as many stakeholders as possible.
  • Contextual thinking. Those with modeling capacity consider the broader context in which events occur as possibly contributing to the cause of the events; this means that they actively consider the impact of abstract things like culture, values, and the system. Those with weaving capacity seek the root causes that underpin the systemic contexts that enable events to emerge.
  • Humility. Those with modeling capacity are aware of the fallibility and relativity of human perspectives (including their own); as a result, they are likely to include others in their decision-making process. Those with weaving capacity have the capacity to leverage perspectives to build novel systems that can compensate for the limitation of our perspectives.

Supporting Optimal Development

We hope that the preceding exploration has illustrated the complex and dynamic nature of skill development. While it is easy to become seduced by the notion of everyone moving to a higher capacity level, this may not necessarily serve optimal human performance. There are a number of reasons for this. First, it is important to realize that different tasks (each of which generate different types of value) in the organization all require different types of developmental capability—this is precisely why some people are well suited to serve on a board while others are better suited to practical hands-on involvement in the operations of the organization. It is generally unproductive to mix up the two. Second, the robustness and stability of learning depends on the robustness and integration of the neural network—in other words, on the breadth of our learning, not just on its depth. Learning is like building a skyscraper; the number of stories we can build is dependent on the solidity of the foundation we have built.

Optimal development requires that we focus on being curious, developing a reflective disposition, and cultivating a capacity for mindful self-awareness. We should constantly seek opportunities to apply our learning in real-world contexts and seek feedback from those around us, in the context that even as adults we are continually developing. Effective learning means effective goal setting, which requires effective measurement. This is why it is useful for board members to identify the optimum leverage points on their learning edges, on which to focus their own continuous development. The future of measurement tools in this space is particularly exciting, with new levels of objectivity now available that support adults in identifying and leveraging their own unique development and learning.

Matthew Rich-Tolsma and John Oliver are, respectively, Master and Associate Lectica Consultants (www.lectica.org), and cofounders of Purple.Plus+, a recruitment interview platform that leverages Lectica’s artificial intelligence engine applied to natural language. Matthew has consulting practices in transformative learning and organizational development (www.rich-tolsma.com). They can be reached at john@purple-plus.com.

Notes

1. See, for example: Drucker, P. F. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (New York: HarperCollins, 1974); and Mace, M. Directors: Myth and Reality (Boston: Division of Research, Harvard Business School, 1971).

2. See, for example: Carver, J., and M. Carver. A New Vision for Board Leadership: Governing the Community College (Washington, DC: Association of Community College Trustees,1994); and Carver, J., and M. Carver. Corporate Boards That Create Value: Governing Company Performance from the Boardroom (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002).

3. Jaques, E. Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century (Arlington, VA: Cason Hall, 1996).

4. Stamp, G. The Essence of Levels of Work (Johannesburg: Bioss Southern Africa, 1993).

5. These distinctions are clearly explained in Bennet, N., and G. J. Lemoine. “What VUCA Really Means for You,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/01/what-vuca-really-means-for-you

6. Stiehm, J. H., and N. W. Townsend. The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2002).

7. Kegan, R. In Over Our heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

8. See, for instance: Jaques, E. A. General Theory of Bureaucracy (London: Heinemann Educational, 1976); Habermas, J. Legitimation Crisis (T. McCarthy, Trans.). (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1975); Kegan, R. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); and Bell, D. The Coming of Post-industrial Society (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

9. Baldwin, J. M. “The Genetic Progression of Psychic Objects,” Psychological Review 11 (1904): 216–221.

10. Piaget, J. Moral Judgment of the Child (New York, NY: Free Press, 1932).

11. Fischer, K. W., and T. R. Bidell. “Dynamic Development of Action, Thought, and Emotion,” in Handbook of Child Psychology: Theoretical Models of Human Development, W. Damon and R. M. Lerner (eds.) (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006), 313–399.

12. Dawson, T. L., and Z. Stein. “Virtuous Cycles of Learning: Redesigning Testing During the Digital Revolution” (Presented to the International School on Mind, Brain, and Education, Ettore Majorana Center for Scientific Culture, Erice, Italy, 2011).

13. The latest estimations around the distribution of developmental levels in adulthood can be seen in Dawson, T. L. “Lectical levels in adulthood,” November 17, 2015, http://theodawson.net/?p=447.

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