Bring Ambiguity into Your Corporate Leadership Development

Did the agenda for your last corporate training look more like the one on the left or the right?

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If you’re anything like we were a few years ago, then you might be pointing to the pretty, symmetrical schedule on the left. 

The learning is evenly dispersed with nice and neat time allotted to examine the content. It makes sense. 

It’s also predictable.

It may be time to try messing up your schedule a little bit.

Let me explain.

People (understandably) strive for symmetry in their work. We seek balance in our lives. Of course this idea carries over to how we plan our learning and development programs! 

While there is a time and place for evenly paced learning, there is good reason to push yourself into uncomfortable, new, asymmetrical spaces!

For an excellent discussion of this idea in the context of a traditional higher education setting, check out this post from Faculty Focus. 

Melissa Hudler was inspired to investigate the role of unpredictability in higher ed after she posed a question to the LinkedIn group, Teaching Professor.

She asked: “How do we make learning messy and unpredictable for our students—and why?”

The article is a trove of insightful comments from teachers from a variety of disciplines, but the key ideas can be summed up in a few sentences:

  1. The world is ambiguous, so training should be too.
  2. If we let our teaching get too predictable, why should students pay attention?
  3. The added challenges of ambiguity create greater mental space for learning.

The world is ambiguous, so training should be too.

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The modern workplace changes. That’s something that just about everyone understands to be true. (If you’re not convinced, you can start reading here.)

It is vital that you prepare your corporate learners for this ambiguous environment. In big and small ways, you must be sure not to set your learners up to expect consistency.

This report from Deloitte breaks down the need for adaptability and the ability to manage ambiguity as one of the most in-demand skills for high potential leaders. Their research suggests that dealing with ambiguity is one of the top three stressors for CFOs. This begs the question: how valuable is training that doesn’t push learners into uncomfortable spaces? 

Think about it this way: when was the last time your day at work progressed methodically along a predictable path? I’d venture to guess it hasn’t happened in a while. Unexpected divergences pop up and we have to adapt to be successful.

Incorporate ambiguity into your training from the ground up -- leverage an unpredictable training agenda.

If we let our teaching get too predictable, why should students pay attention?

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Have you heard of “Highway Hypnosis”? It’s what happens when you’re driving in a flat landscape, moving at a constant speed, possibly on cruise control, and you drive off the road.

Most of us have experienced this -- we pull into our driveway and don’t remember leaving work. We know our route so well or the drive has been so predictable that we essentially turn down our focus.

The same can happen at work! This is a big challenge. We’ve all been in meetings where we know (or think we know) what’s coming. We start to doodle. We start to drift and think about our weekends. It’s normal! But it doesn’t lead to learning.

There are a few ways you can work against this. One simple step is to not give out your agenda to your participants. Many people won’t like this, but it will go a long way to keeping their attention. They aren’t sure what to expect, so they stay on their toes.

Another option is to provide a vague timeline but not outline everything participants will experience in your training. This is one of our favorite tactics at Abilitie. 

During our Executive Challenge simulation, participants are never quite sure how many more rounds of simulation play they have left. This keeps them engaged and focused on what’s right in front of them, rather than the traffic they’ll have to deal with on their commute home.

The added challenges of ambiguity create greater mental space for learning.

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Another way to think about ambiguity in training is to think about physical exercise. When someone is training to run a four-minute mile, they aren’t going to run only mile-long runs.

An athlete developing her ability to speed through a four-minute mile is going to follow a varied training routine that includes longer runs to build her slow-twitch muscles and mental endurance as well as short sprints to develop her fast-twitch muscles.

When you’re developing a group of high-potential managers and hoping to acclimate them to the kinds of high-intensity decisions and strategic followthrough they’ll need at the executive level, you need the same kind of varied approach. 

Our VP of Operations, Megan Fanale, likes to use the metaphor of a rice cooker when she describes good experiential learning. If a training is done well, with the right amount of intensity, it will reveal quickly what a participant’s natural tendencies are in stressful situations. 

Will a high-potential manager often face three employee resignations, a new hire, and a strategic transition from higher-ups in a normal day of work? Probably not (we hope not!), but if this level of variety and intensity is brought to corporate training, then it will truly prepare the participant to deal with the much more manageable level of ambiguity in day-to-day life.


So, what do you think? Are you ready to incorporate more ambiguity in your training? 
 

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