Stairways to heaven?

May 17, 2022

Armand khoury Ba6IlmAzl k unsplashIn tackling the shibboleths of mindset and mental models in my last post as I was at pains to make it clear that I understand and appreciated why the words and associated concepts had come into common use; but it was time to move on given greater understanding and knowledge.  I was also concerned with the nature of the language making it easier to blame individuals for the failure of change initiatives, when it is more likely to be the case that the initiative was too idealistic, too far away from the realities of there here and now and, all too often, seen by staff members as hypocritical.  In fact, this has been a theme of many a blog post over the years where I have challenged the assumption that systems change by first changing individuals.  To return to another theme of previous posts, there has been a strong tendency to shift techniques originally evolved in therapy into organisational change. That too easily assumes that the individuals who are failing to engage and enact the latest initiative are in some ways mentally ill, and need therapy.  Further, it ends up privileging the therapist who gains the wrong sort of power.

So to repeat, I am not saying that statements like ‘Agile is a mindset” are wrong a priori; and in that case, when originally put together it was progressive in nature.  But the phrase (and others like it) is now a platitude and has spawned a plethora of snake oil manifesting itself in simplistic questionaries designed to create a need for consultancy and industrial level coaching.  I picked Agile there, but I could have done the same for a host of Organisational Development/Change initiatives and other disciplines as well.

As an alternative I suggested that we should look, pragmatically and realistically, at (i) what levels of agency should be given (ideally distributed not delegated); (ii) what changes were needed to the affordances provided by the system and (iii) when, if at all, we can change the assemblages (by which I mean the patterns of narrative and experience which determine how people see the world including path and context dependencies).  Asking what sort of mindset we want is the type of question which leads to platitudes and culturally specific value statements based on one perspective on how things should be.  Asking the three questions I’ve outlined here focuses on what we can change in the here and now, and also focuses the initiative into understanding the system as much as individual responses.  It’s a question that most can answer and you can change the words if you find my 3As too academic. Interactions matter more in a complex system than individual pre-dispositions.

In today’s linked post I want to do something similar with the whole adult development movement, now being rebadged by some actors as vertical development.   Again I am going to argue that there is much value here, but we now know more so we can move on based on that new understanding.  So to give one example upfront. I am working with some Cynefin associates into recognising the value of Kegan’s development stages, not as a linear progression but as a highly contextual set of modulators, the resultant map of which allows us to take the 3As perspective in determining the nature of change at an organisational level as well as changes in individual coaching.  I thought I would start with that to illustrate the both/and approach as well as an appropriate degree of respect for the past.

The both/and approach doesn’t mean that I am not going to raise some difficult questions.  There is a lot of evidence of the Woozle Effect in adult development theory which in the main when you trace it back, rests on Piaget’s reflections on his own children and a series of highly culturally restricted studies which no one has managed to replicate.  At the respectable end, we can see Kegan’s work, which I first encountered (and respected) in the field of gestalt psychology but its use elsewhere gets more problematic.  The whole of spiral dynamics stems from Grave’s highly limited and poorly controlled experiments with his own students.  Add the Wilber cult (which has damaged what could have been interesting Integral work) and you have something pretty poisonous.  Nora Bateson, rightly, has pointed out similarities to aspects of eugenics; privileging a cultural elite – I once called it faux Buddhism as it appropriates a profound set of ‘religious’ practices into a neo-Libertarian North American culture.

It is clearly true is that we cannot program a human being to understand or act without some basis in experience over time, and linked to that and to various contextual issues, gaining the ability to see things from different perspectives and act differently as a result.  As I said earlier my issue with maturity models is not necessarily the description of their stages, but the idea that progress through them is linear.  Hence my earlier suggestion of treating the stages in a non-linear way by describing them as modulators that can vary in strength etc. in different contexts.  That switch allows us to move forwards, respecting the old without being bound by it and we are working with partners on a coaching offer based on that change.

I will make this point strongly as well – I am not against individual change and coaching, in fact, I think it is really important, especially for those in a leadership position.  But what really matters is your relationship with the coach rather than the specific theory they are using.   Yes, avoid the obvious pseudoscience such as Neurolinguistic Programming and Spiral Dynamics, but otherwise, most theoretical constructs will enable a productive conversation.  I’ve never been comfortable with the ethics or aesthetics or underlying philosophy of the Tavistock approach but I accept it has worked for some. So we are interested in extending that type of work through SenseMaker® to facilitate the coach and the coachee to gain multiple micro feedback on how they are perceived and if they are going in the right direction, different theories can be incorporated into the signifier sets.  While all of that will help in the process of organisational development, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to enable change.  I might be prepared to compromise on that a bit and say that in some contexts it may be necessary but in general no.  We need to do far more, but progressively and working from where things are, rather than where we would like them to be.

But when we move to Vertical Development (VD) I am less sure about both the term and practice.  I took this definition from the Vertical Development Academy, but I could have taken similar material from over a dozen sites with similar names and purposes.  All of which seem to offer explicit, highly gamble surveys or culturally specific techniques such as sentence completion, to give you MBTI type output.  Worse,  several are moving down the certification route and shifting to a form of industrial commodity.

What is Vertical Development?

Horizontal development is defined as acquiring experience and knowledge, as well as new skills and competencies. While important, horizontal development does not lead to shifts in how one sees the world and engages with its challenges. Vertical development does just that – it fosters the growth of new perspectives and a greater ability to handle difficult problems.

In today’s increasingly complex work and life contexts, vertical development becomes essential. Research over the last four decades has shown that vertical development can be traced as a logical sequence of stages through which leaders can interpret and gain insights about themselves, others and the world around them. And today, fortunately, we can measure how an individual grows through these stages of maturity. There are a few worrying statements in that definition, in particular, the measurement assertion at the end and that terrible phrase “Research has shown”.  I’ve done my best here but most of the research seems to be based on retrospective coherence and/or a limited sample set pre-determined by the questionnaire or construct. Nearly all psychometrics and other instruments peddled by academics and consultants alike have used this type of correlation approach to validate their particular method and they can’t all be right. We need to think differently (more in a future post on this).

But if push came to shove I can live with a lot of the material and ideas and can work with it.  For example, we run pod type structures such as Entangled Trios which have people working together from diverse backgrounds to bring different perspectives to bear on real-world problems.  Part of the objective here is to develop an implicit understanding of perspectives through direct interactions.  But the VD movement seems to insist that is made explicit and moreover linked to an explicit assessment process and structured coaching.  Multiple teams working in parallel then coming to gather in a learning event is fine, but you can increase the disruptive element using methods such as the Triopticon.  Both Entangled Trios and Tripoticons scale over the organisation without assessment and coaching, although the latter is an option.  Both of those are open source methods, by the way, they can be picked up and used at scale.  All of those methods focus on managing interactions and allow the personal side to emerge naturally rather than be forced.  They are also designed to be context-specific, working at people’s level of ability to make a change, in their own right at an appropriate time and with more efficient use of resources.

The VD sites in the main talk about horizontal development n as skills knowledge and competencies while vertical development creates “mindset capabilities”  Well for mindset issues see my last post and the summary above.  Otherwise, I dispute the contrast: the development and use of skills are one of the ways by which we gain perspectives and the ability to see things differently; apprentice models of learning have long done this, our trans-generational pairs (a subset of the entangled trios’ method) creates an implicit understanding of perspectives over the generations.  One of the worst of the sites I looked at sees Horizontal Development as “Doing” while vertical development is “Being”.  A false dichotomy which is pretty pernicious, Being is becoming and achieved through doing.

Then we need to ask:  What about cognitive and epistemic diversity?  The problem with all of the implicit must be explicit in our framework approaches is that it ends up with stereotypes.  It doesn’t allow values and beliefs to emerge, it tries to articulate them in an explicit format which encourages gaming of results.  Above all,  it is again focused on individual change, not group change.  We evolved to make decisions not as individuals but within the constraints of families, clans and tribes.  Much of such learning is implicit in understanding and critically enables diversity in process and action.  It is also pragmatic and avoids a lot of the new age language associated with the whole transformation agenda.

While most of the adult maturity work is based on small groups of trained coaches working within some professional structure, VD seems to be designed as an industrial level consultancy which means standard tests, language that can be parroted back and a level of dependency on the frameworks and coaches which ironically is likely to produce the opposite of intended, infantilisation not maturity.  It is also highly evaluative in nature which increases stress.  Most of our work focuses on multiple micro descriptions which allow context-specific micro-nudging to take place.  That includes a micro-narrative approach to 360º feedback in which people describe their interactions with the leader and signify meaning using only positive terms – but then the leader can see the misbalancing of positives and take small actions to correct them.

Learning and maturity are emergent, contextual and complex processes.  The industrialisation of that at an organisational level is the antithesis of sensemaking and complexity.  And wait a year or so and it will have a brand new spanky name and you’ll have to start all over again …

Ladder is by Armand Khoury, Imperial Troopers is cropped from an original by Daniel K Cheung both on Unsplash

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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