Many workplaces feel challenged at the moment for several reasons. The speed of business is making traditional programs less effective; by the time a major program is designed, approved and in place, the needs of the business have changed. Another is that many business leaders have a greater understanding of – and active interest in – the leadership development agenda.
In my role as a consultant, I’m seeing ‘innovation labs’ and ‘agile operating models’ popping up everywhere. As a result, businesses are making changes to be more responsive to the market and enable innovation at a fast and furious pace.
Why is this happening? One reason is HR often promote best practice as advocated by big consulting firms and international publications. Applying best practice helps build confidence and secure the budget needed to run the program. But business leaders are increasingly questioning this and asking, “Can a one-size-fits-all or ‘best’ solution work consistently well across the globe?”. Is this current trend in leadership development really right for our business at this point in time?
Business leaders are looking for less best practice and more fit-for-purpose solutions developed and implemented quickly to meet emerging needs. So how does HR achieve this while maintaining professional rigour? Here are two ways to rise to this challenge:
1. Rapid prototyping
Inspired by the lean start-up method, we are applying experimental product development techniques to leadership development design. Rapid prototyping involves mocking-up and testing more than one design option to quickly see what works best in practice. We are doing this early in the design process before investing too much time and energy into a single idea.
For example, we’ve run prototypes of session designs with participants to gauge their reactions, test impact, refine and then re-test. This approach allowed our client to make bolder, more interesting design decisions because they can demonstrate to themselves and the business that something new and different will work.
2. Exploratory evaluation
Evaluating the impact of leadership development is a persistent challenge for a couple reasons:
- Businesses are complex systems with many overlapping changes going on at once. How do you isolate the benefit of a leadership program in that mix?
- The business impact of leadership development is notoriously hard to measure. Detecting real behavioural shifts is challenging enough, but linking those shifts to changes against core KPIs is near impossible without a team of PhDs on the case.
What I’ve found through my work is that stakeholders are really seeking quality insights that tell them how to improve their business to achieve results. They want this more than data on how to tweak a specific leadership program or intervention.
We are applying new evaluation techniques that blend exploration with pragmatic data analysis. Exploratory methods include direct observation of leaders in the workplace, in-depth interviews and contextual immersion. We use these to craft illuminative case studies and stories that bring to life the experience of participants. When compared to the more basic data gathering approaches, such as feedback forms and 360 assessments, we find this technique delivers much sharper insights – even if it seems incidental to the outside observer.
For example, we teamed focus group insights with business data and culture survey results to understand the culture of a major bank. For a major institutional investor, we are using exploratory interviews to understand the impact of a leadership development investment. When considered alongside assessment and business data we are uncovering a compelling story of real business benefits.
In combination these two techniques are allowing our clients to develop bolder, ‘fit for purpose’ designs, with demonstrated impact, and at a speed that matches the new pace of business.