Updated: Jul 10
During my 38 year career as a consultant to organizations I have had the privilege of working with a few extraordinary leaders. The question that invariably comes to mind is “What presence, of consequence, can I bring to this party?” The world, the times, demand a new level of thinking and leading. The bright lights in organizations around the world will step up to this call. The question is whether or not we as practitioners are positioned to partner, significantly, in this next game.
The Next Game, in the world of business, seems to be more of the same but at an accelerated pace of uncertainty: global interdependence; complex economies, organizational forms and collaborative models that transcend traditional boundaries; and the dynamic interplay between business, culture, politics, governance and the concerns for a sustainable environment. The challenges are great and the natural leaders will seek out reliable ways of thinking; anticipating the future; optimizing the capacity to connect people, resources, technology and systems, around clearer purpose and intent.
In a 2001 issue of The Journal of Knowledge Management Otto Scharmer writes:
“Leaders need a new type of knowledge that allows them to sense, tune into and actualize emerging business opportunities - that is, to tap into the sources of not-yet embodied knowledge. Bill Gates is not so much a wizard of technology”, says Brian Arthur, “but a wizard of precognition, of discerning the shape of the next game.”
A February 2010 entry on the Oxford Leadership Academy Face Book Blog reads:
“In today's fast speed environment, motion makes observation difficult. Leaders must get above the dance floor and get on the balcony. Great leaders never react. They observe, consider the options and then act decisively with full determination.”
Chris Matthews the television news journalist has a byline that says: “Tell me something that I don’t already know.” That just about sums up the challenge that I feel as a consultant in today’s environment. But fortunately I have learned that my job is not to tell them. Neither my clients, nor I, am content to problem-solve complex issues based in past experience; rather we must learn generative ways of addressing issues. Maybe up on the balcony we discover and engage the organization’s most important questions and opportunities in ways that lead to fresh ideas and lasting intelligence. My job is to help them to build the capacity to craft their own inquiry within their teams and employee populations.
My views on leadership and management are influenced by specific clients who made lasting impressions on me over my 38 years in this field. I refer to them as the “bright lights.” They are a very diverse group in a range of roles and titles such as Chief of Naval Operations of the U.S. Navy, superintendent of schools in a large district, vice president for refining in a major oil company, internationally renowned pastor and religious teacher, regional vice president in a chemical company, a research scientist, and a middle manager who didn’t want to grow up to be president. I met the first member of this pool in 1973 and the most recent in 2009; some during periods of significant social change or prolonged down cycles in institutions with strong and historically stable cultures. There have also been pivotal situations that were great lessons, in retrospect, like rich and complex case studies that just keep on giving.
The meaning that I make from these situations gets reenacted over and over again by new people and situations. I believe that this is the “stuff” of wisdom, as defined by Russell Ackoff (systems theorist and professor of organizational change, quoted by Bellinger, Castro and Mills, The Way of Systems, 2004) as evaluated understanding. He identified five categories of the mind: data, information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom.
“Ackoff indicates that the first four categories relate to the past; they deal with what has been or what is known. Only the fifth category, wisdom, deals with the future because it incorporates vision and design. Wisdom, he states is an extrapolative process. It beckons to give us understanding about which there has previously been no understanding, and in doing so, goes far beyond under- standing itself. It is the essence of philosophical probing.”
My experience over the past 10 years has provided comprehension and language for phenomena that I previously only intuited.
In our numerous professional communities we could learn from the business world the wisdom of consortia and mergers. For instance, there are scholars who research and create management and behavioral science theory and models; there are business schools that prepare scholars and consultants, and then there are practitioner schools such as NTL and Gestalt OSD that integrate knowledge and theory into distinct competencies and models of consulting and coaching. The overlap is tremendous: many of the theorists and scholars are field workers; consultants are also theorists and model builders, etc., and none of us belongs to any one group exclusively. The opportunity for complementary cross learning however goes unnoticed. When I watch some of our thought leaders host a conversation or facilitate a learning event my facilitator hat goes on. Facilitating and hosting are like teaching in a purely adult model. Some thought leaders are naturals or trained facilitators, and others miss the potential for more effect by sharing the essentials of their concepts, because they don’t incorporate well the logic and value that process design and facilitation contributes to learning and change. And many practitioners are too content to stick to what we know, when the world around us is changing at lightning speed.
Those of us who have aligned ourselves with Organization Development for many years value what we know and do so well. We have grown in our field and now it is time to ask what organization development might also become? My story is not unique; we need to grow together through our stories if we are to be players in the next game.