Transformative Learning and Leadership

Aug 30, 2018

Transformative Learning and Leadership

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” This quote sums up many volumes of research and understanding on the subject of creating successful transformations. It recognizes the primary force that is present against all change – the status quo. Change management expert Kurt Lewin has created a Force Field Analysis Change Model, which has become a staple for change agents, managers and leaders attempting to create new paradigms. His model was “designed to weigh the driving and restraining forces that affect change in organizations. The ‘force field’ can be described as two opposite forces working for and against change.” He calls them Driving Forces (seeking the change) and Resisting Forces (maintaining what is). And somewhere in between these two forces lies the problem that Einstein identifies: How can we learn and change our level of thinking to solve problems we created in the past? What form of learning can we use to achieve the next level?

Transformative Learning

Lewin states that the forces in his model are created with some mix of the following: People, habits, customs and attitudes. These sync up nicely with the definition for transformative learning. Transformative learning theory says that the process of “perspective transformation” has three dimensions:

  1. Psychological (changes in understanding of the self) – This includes all the people impacted by the transformation.
  2. Convictional (revision of belief systems) – This includes inherent customs and current attitudes.
  3. Behavioral (changes in lifestyle) – The observed and unobserved habits that impact transition.

Leaders trying to move their organizations to higher performance and greater profits are often faced with a moving target when it comes to transformation. Inevitably, whatever the leadership team thought would happen in a certain time frame becomes undone because of one of these dimensions. This forces leaders to change and adapt first and often to stay ahead of obstacles, often some that were not previously identified.

Learning on the Fly

In an article published this month in Strategy & Business on How Transformation-Ready Leaders Learn, author Jesse Sostrin, director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence, starts with describing a paradox:

“The pace and magnitude of disruption creates a readiness paradox for today’s leaders. Deep expertise is required to navigate uncertainty and solve difficult problems, yet the range of challenges and complexities leaders face often draws them outside of that knowledge and their comfort zone. This can render core expertise less relevant at the very moment it’s needed most. The way through this paradox? Leaders must increase their capacity to learn alongside the changing conditions they confront.”

This is where Sostrin introduces the concept of Learning Agility. It is the ability to learn on the fly throughout your day-to-day experience. “Without learning agility, leaders are more likely to repeat past mistakes and will be less prepared for an uncertain future.”

The Do’s and Don’t Do’s

In this same article the idea is posed: “Considered your perspective on opportunities to learn and grow with these six questions:” (See chart below)

The Do’s

These are the behaviors that can help a leader accelerate their readiness and capacity to learn. Here is a summary of the productive behaviors:

  • Looking back. “It helps you understand what you’d do differently next time and what you’ll repeat for continued success.”
  • Looking around. “The ability to leverage your everyday interactions with people allows you to explore better ways of working by borrowing the best of what others have to offer.”
  • Looking ahead. The ability to anticipate the need to adapt to future change “helps you stay ahead of the curve and be able to capitalize on opportunities for innovation and continuous improvement — before others even have them on their radar.”

The Don’t Do’s

In the same way there are specific behaviors that can accelerate your learning agility, there are three counterproductive behaviors that block it, here in summary form:

  • Looking for the status quo. “By focusing too much on past ways of thinking and acting, you unconsciously block your ability to innovate.”
  • Looking for the easy way. “By sticking to the path of least resistance, you may avoid the short-term costs of learning (i.e., making mistakes) but you pay the long-term price of failing to adapt.”
  • Looking for the excuse. “When you try to protect yourself from the challenge of change by sidestepping difficult but potentially fruitful situations, you eliminate the growth experiences that could follow.”

What Would Einstein Say?

Author Jesse Sostrin ends with this: “These opposite forces are useful in achieving systemic change as well as personal development. There is no faster way to make progress on a goal than to advance from two directions. By doing the things that accelerate your learning agility, while simultaneously discontinuing the things that slow it down, you create the potential for a surge that can lead to exponential growth.” So it’s true that forces can be overcome and change can help organizations realign and become more competitive. In today’s networked economy transformation is critical, but’s not always obvious on the best way to get there. As Einstein observes: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

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