Opening Deep Thinking Capabilities

To Make A Real Difference In Strategy Design And Execution: A Perspective on Enabling Leadership Transitions

Since the days of Adam Smith, organizations have been breaking down processes and simplifying procedures into manageable units. The challenge of leadership has been disected into so many elements that depending on which recent publication you are reading, your immediate focus is volleyed between core competencies, lean management, stakeholder dialogues, systems thinking, rapid-cycle prototyping, … The list of lists is almost endless in itself.

The essence of leadership

The descontruction of the “what” and “how” of leadership has resulted in the mapping of process steps predominantly aimed at better understanding the essence of leadership. Admittedly, the disection is an attempt to simplify the overall leadership framework and process into measureable and repeatable units. As the old idiom states, we need to be wary that we can’t see the forest through the trees. In leadership terms, we need to be very careful that our focus does not shift from leadership practices that are mostly based on a dominant behavioral and cognitive paradigm to getting lost in the individual elements themselves.

Many organizations have lost direction by allowing the individual processes to dominate and cloud their leadership vision. In a seemingly stealth manner, these individual processes have become the accepted “habits”; and are so deeply embedded that these have become barriers to change. For example, in leadership development, so much time is spent on breaking down capability into competency levels, but little time and investment resources are allocated to the overall synergy of pulling it all back together again.

Today’s leaders require a significant ability to be insightful in order to successfully navigate a turbulent environment and to constantly adapt to change. Top tier leaders have acquired the ability to live with paradox, surprise, risk, and its associated ambiguities. They are able to pull together the broadest views, insights, and inputs and re-conceptualize situations in terms of their own peculiar challenges — perhaps the most important thinking skill to develop.

At the same time, leaders acknowledge that beyond their role, task or discipline as marketer or financial or operations manager, their professional added value is embedded in a rich set of “seated relationships” that form the multifaceted context of their work and lives. How this landscape of roles, rights, and responsibilities is designed throughout the firm has a direct impact on their performance. Yet, few leadership development programs devote focused attention to how this design is defined, chosen, implemented, and adjusted over time. This notion argues that by viewing design as a powerful and pro-active management lever–rather than an inevitable outcome of corporate evolution–leaders can maximize adding value across every level of the organization, and create more agile organizations.

Perhaps the two most central questions for a leader to ask would be: (1) “What is my emerging view of leadership in a world where everything connects, at high speed, to everything and everyone else?” and (2) “How broad and deep is my perspective on leadership, and what is it that I tend to leave out of consideration?”

In our experience, answering these key questions requires:
– recognizing in which leadership landscape one adds value as a manager,
– creating insight in the fluidity of thinking tools one uses as zooming lenses to shape the emerging future and as decision-making instruments; and
– building awareness of key developmental challenges.

Is there a mindset for true innovation and visionary leadership?

We do not believe there is such a thing as a single mindset required for true innovation and visionary leadership! We have all been blinded by efforts of consultancy houses to oversimplify and create uni-dimensionality.

By uni-dimensionality we mean that we all fall into the trap of the uniliniar aspects of behavioral (competency), trait (personality), or thinking (eg. hierarchical complexity or lexical) approaches.

By oversimplification we mean that there are as many mindsets for true innovation and visionary leadership as a firm has such leaders.

We think it is useful not to start looking at the content of their thinking/mindset, but rather focus on the structure of the way leaders construct the world. One of the things that fascinates us is their freedom of thinking. Becoming free as an individual is to acknowledge that the worst reality of our times lies precisely in the fact that we have over constructed our reality. Once we discover how to deconstruct the universe we created, we are free to start over to dream again, become creative, grow and become an inspirational leader.

The technology to deconstruct realities is created by Basseches and Laske and refined by many constructive developmental psychologists. We have taught this approach to a number of senior managers and executive leadership teams. Essentially, we help leaders to deconstruct how they see context, emerging change, common ground and transformation. In each of these thought form classes, one can distinguish seven different ways to (de)construct the world (twenty-eight in total). The variety and depth in use of these thinking structures by an individual forms the basis for true innovation and visionary leadership.

In our view, the basic issue for visionary leadership is:

  • Whether a leader can detach enough from their own thinking to “see” the limits of their knowledge (and consequently the uncertainty of truth)
  • Whether, if a leader does so, they fall into relativism, subjectivism, pluralism (where anything goes), spiritualism, etc.
  • OR, whether a leader uses their potential to explore the inner dynamic of their thinking, — which is best done in [inner or outer] Dialog, leading you to “dialectical thinking” (Socrates).

MOST people don’t take the last step.

So, how does a leader engage managers to broaden their thinking (and help them to come to more integrated solutions)?

One of our assumptions is that managers can come to more integrated solutions if we can invite them to constructively examine their own thinking. We have experienced that classical workshop concepts with a focus on facilitating a leader’s recognition of their own thinking structures and even inviting managers to deconstruct some of the key texts they have written are all interesting, but insufficient for the purpose.

Frustrated with unsuccessful approaches, some executives have rightfully pointed to the necessity to develop new teaching methods. For example, a popular method is organizing a Boot Camp. To amp up the outcomes of a Boot Camp, we have refined this approach in partnership with the Flanders Business School. The metaphorical idea is simple: ‘growing one’s decision-making capability requires a re-boot of the mind’. The basic challenge for the participants during this boot-camp is to re-think a business plan for their unit, division or company. Here are some ingredients:

  • As a key component of the preparatory phase for leadership and managerial roles, potential candidates are invited for an in-depth cognitive interview. For this purpose, we have integrated the insights from CDF into our proprietary D.E.S.T.I.N.Y.-method. Essentially it is a guided self-assessment method that aims at creating curiosity about the current limits of the candidate’s social-emotional maturity and the potential boundaries of their own thinking.
  • The opening of the participant’s minds is built on a combination of three essential strategies.
    • The first strategy is learning to appreciate diversity. It is about building an awareness that if you want to get something done, it will always depend on the extent and the nature of your own knowledge system, your self- definition, your own sense making and how this differs from the perspective taking of ‘the other’ (relevant stakeholders). Future leaders need to recognize the legitimacy of possible perspectives, to identify the risks of conformity and acknowledge that there is no reason to grant any one viewpoint special significance or value. The process by which this is done follows four phases: Re-Imagine, Re-Design, Re-Evaluate and Re-View. The content of a Re-Boot camp is a selection of frameworks close to, but not familiar to the participants’ areas of responsibility. It is important to choose frameworks which are developed on the next higher work level of complexity than the ones at which the participants are working. Everyone in the Re-Boot camp designs a new boot or footwear that correspondents with their growth and vision of leadership.
    • Increase collaborative inquiry is the second strategy. This is about building up sensitivity for the bigger picture, the forward looking and the nature of the reciprocity in the group’s mind. This is about building curiosity to search for interactions where different meaning creation and learning occur. The case studies selected for the re-boot camp invite participants to critically question where and why they went off initial chosen paths. We specifically select ‘governance’, ‘maturity’ and ‘value tree’ models; for example. the thought forms used in solving a ‘blue ocean strategy’ case study are made explicit and the facilitator demonstrates the different possible angles using the thought forms which were not used by the group.
  • Embracing complexity (3rd building block) while welcoming disruptive information is about building awareness that ignoring or oversimplifying challenges does not work. It is about deliberately seeking perspectives that challenge the established point of view, getting comfortable with the idea that there are no intrinsically dominant options. Increasing the choice between different pathways to execute on strategy and reviewing almost rationally and ahead of time the change is the basic mindset that we teach. Embracing complexity has to do with framing experiences in ways that are intriguing, with asking compelling questions that are ambitious and novel, and with shaping better questions that redefine issues and basic assumptions. This is done by inviting the participants’ managers-once-removed to critically comment on the ideas developed by the participants.

A successful re-Boot Camp both opens and broadens the participants’ minds and stretches them to imagine and experience what a higher level of integrated solutions truly means and looks like in a business plan. If the latter is absent, participants are only engaging in critical thinking. Critical thinking without more integrated solutions is like broadening your swimming capabilities without practicing them in water.

The Leadership Laboratories of Connect & Transform and Making Strategy Deliver are all based on the above described starting views.

A New Leadership Program by the The Interdevelopmental Institute

IDM created, based on the above principles, a new leadership program starting on June 4th. The title of the program is ‘Opening your deep thinking capabilities to make a real difference in strategy design and execution’. This leadership course, facilitated by Otto Laske and Jan De Visch, is designed to create a practical, inspiring self-reflection process for senior managers who are ready to abandon “business as usual” and embrace new ways of gaining access to their own thought process. We are addressing managers who are eager to shift and develop their thinking about transforming the competitive landscape. Group reflection on focal concepts in strategy design will be combined with modeling how to mine the gold of one’s own cognitive resources once they are freed from undetected presuppositions. We will observe the flow of thinking we are engaged in during strategy design.

Jan De Visch facilitates New Leadership Programs. For more information, please mail him on