• Leadership

Vertical Leadership

From the Balcony to the Dancefloor

Saturday 27 August 2016


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“All kinds of studies have told us that up to 70% of strategic change initiatives fail, not getting the synergies they are looking for; but short-term continuous change initiatives tend to be much more successful. Why is this?” asks David Dinwoodie, the Center for Creative Leadership’s Vice President of Leadership Solutions.

Research, David Dinwoodie and his colleagues have conducted, highlights that the failure of strategic change projects is rarely due to the actual structure of the plans they put into action, but is much more connected to the role of informal networks in the change organizations. This is not about the absence of hierarchical power, but rather “that connecting networks of people who ‘want’ to contribute is key to making transformational change happen, whether they have formal authority or not” says Dinwoodie.

Click Download this Resource to read the White Paper: The How-To of Vertical Leadership Development

It therefore becomes a critical ability for change leaders to ‘craft’ informal networks of change agents to oil the wheels to enable that change to emerge. David Dinwoodie’s search for where informal networks were clearly present led him to observing the change that occurs in nature, where all networks are essentially informal with no structured plans. As an example of this he highlights the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in 1995. The main driver behind doing this was to reduce the elk population and thus the damage elks were causing to the low-level vegetation of the park. While wolves clearly are well-up the hierarchy of the ecosystem, no-one expected the dramatic systemic changes that occurred over the following years, as the knock-on effects of the reintroduction cascaded through the system, with reforestation occurring, increases in small rodent populations, and critically beaver colonies – and thence the changing of river systems.  (See here for more detail – )

The powerful message that this gave CCL is that while the ‘change leaders’ understood the initial change they were trying to achieve – the strategic change of reintroducing wolves, they were quite unaware of the consequential changes that would occur through the interconnectedness of the ecosystem. And that those changes were, by definition, informal/unplanned ones. In the Yellowstone example the changes were all largely positive ones, rebalancing the ecosystem – but that is not always the case.

This leads to David Dinwoodie’s focus on another critical ability of change leaders – to have a mindset that can rise above the day-to-day interactions of driving change, and to take a look at what is happening across the organization as a result of the incremental changes occurring. Having a good helicopter perspective of the patterns and interactions of what is happening in the rest of the system. Dinwoodie references the metaphor the balcony and the dancefloor. The difference between what you notice and concentrate on when dancing with a partner, where your observational sphere is limited to what you, your partner and immediate neighbours are doing; and what you would see if you were to go to the balcony and look down on the dancefloor, where you would notice the patterns and flows of the dancing in a much more systemic way, observing perhaps how the change in music tempo alters the spacing of dancers or their ability to hold the moves correctly.

It is this leaders’ mindset that David Dinwoodie sees as being critical to achieve successful change initiatives. CCL is researching this ability, the ‘vertical development mindset’, so that leaders can operate at different levels with different perspectives. Vertical Development refers to advancing a person’s thinking capability. It is about the ability to think through more complex, systemic, strategic, and interdependent situations. More impactfully though, Dinwoodie sees that when crafting change initiatives, the really valuable role for a leader is to enable other members of their team to develop this vertical mindset, so the whole team – or at least significant members of it – understand how the organization is altering more widely as the specific change is being implemented. “It’s not easy to develop the balcony view” Dinwoodie stresses “most of us are successful executing well on what we already know how to do... but the more we do that using our technical knowledge the more difficult it becomes to develop different perspectives and reach a strategic thinking level.”

This is what David Dinwoodie describes as a ‘Heat Experience’, which is the first element of developing vertical leaders. Heat Experiences are defined as “when a leader faces a complex situation that disrupts and disorients his/her habitual way of thinking. They discover that their current way of making sense of the world is inadequate. Their mind starts to open and search for new and better ways to make sense of their challenges.”

And these are core to the CCL learning approach – experiences that take leaders out of their comfort zone, elevate their mindset and develop a broader perspective to addressing important leadership challenges.

Click Download this Resource to read the White Paper

Also see related program 'Navigating Change' below:

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