The Surf and Dive Learning Domains
My opening statement won’t surprise anyone: the unpredictable nature of the environment in which managers currently find themselves demands more agile thinking. A while back, a client of mine provided an apt metaphor to differentiate traditional, linear thinking from the agile approach that today’s environment demands: surfing vs. diving.
The surf domain is a metaphor for surfing — the kind of thinking and learning that happens on the surface. ‘Surf learning’ is easy to understand, includes answers, is instrumental, transactional, and relatively safe. It enables us to make sense of things by transacting with information and events, creating a series of clear responses and actions. On the other hand, the deeper and more complex level of thinking and learning requires us to dive beneath the surface in order to make meaning of data and gain insights from information, experiences and situations. This domain is about exploring the unknown and the unfamiliar; answers are lacking, boundaries are unclear, and the endeavour feels risky and ambiguous.
The idea of surf-and-dive learning domains call to mind sociologist and adult learning expert Jack Mezirow’s concept of ‘transformative learning’. While most learning focuses primarily on the mastery of basic skills, transformative learning enables us to recognize and reassess the structure of the assumptions and expectations that frame our thinking, our feelings and our actions. Mezirow refers to the acquisition of skills and knowledge, mastering tasks and manipulating the environment as ‘instrumental learning’. In contrast, transformative learning entails a perspective transformation or paradigm shift, whereby we critically examine our prior interpretations and assumptions to form new meaning.
In the organizational realm, strategic-thinkers can actively choose which domain to employ at any given point. What you call the learning domains is not important: what is important is developing the cognitive skills necessary for each domain, in order to support the requirements of your strategic situation. Let’s take a closer look at what occurs in our minds within the surf and dive domains.
The surf domain is premised on the noTHE SURF DOMAIN. tion that learning ‘what’ and ‘how’ will enable us to solve problems because we control our environment by acting upon it. Surf learning is essentially an instrumental, mechanical, response-seeking kind of learning. In the organizational realm, this domain is attached to day-to-day, transactional activities. While operating in this domain, we make predictions about observable events that can be proven to be correct or incorrect, determine cause-and-effect relationships and perform task-oriented problem solving. The problem is, in an uncertain environment, many senior executives try to simplify and reduce strategic thinking to a ‘how-to’ model, and as a result, many programs directed at creating value get stuck in the surf domain.
Leaders of strategic discussions frequently THE DIVE DOMAIN. announce that they are seeking diverse opinions—only to see those opinions shot down prematurely because someone declares, “That won’t work here, because...” The dive learning domain serves as a counter to such reductionist discussions in that it invites us to identify, test, challenge, refine and possibly alter our frames of reference.
Too often, we jump to solutions without critically examining, stretching or challenging the parameters of the problem. Grasping at premature solutions tends to reinforce same-frame thinking and disregards creative or divergent
thought. Dive learning requires that we expand or change our frame of reference. Dissention and opposition can be particularly useful triggers for this type of learning because they invite critical reflection, inquiry and dialogue. The result is a frame change of varying degree: minimally, we may change the way we see patterns and specific situations; maximally, we may experience a total transformation — a truly life- or business-altering experience.
The Role of Frames in Strategic Thinking
Simply put, the way we ‘frame’ a particular topic or event defines what we pay attention to in that realm. Everywhere we go in life, we bring with us a stack of mental frames. Likewise, organizations have frames that are taught, reinforced, rewarded, and applied in strategy meetings, both formally and informally. Frames are passed on through protocol, policy and conversation channels, and they contribute to the subjective interpretation of events.
For example, putting a functional frame on an activity would lead you to judge it according to your definition of functionality within that context; but someone else might view the same problem through an economic frame, whereby all decisions are evaluated according to their cost and financial value to the business. Other frames that often drive strategic decisions include a profit frame, an innovation frame, and a seniority frame. Most of the time, our frames operate outside of our awareness, but it is important to understand that every aspect of our thinking is influenced by them. Indeed, robust dive thinking and learning thrives on an ability to change our frames.
Consider for a moment the problem of obesity among children in economically-developed countries, which can be framed in a variety of ways: • An executive may frame the issue as one of ‘market po
tential for new product lines of food and clothing’; • an educator may frame it as ‘a problem of learning deficits, behavioural disorders, and long-term development issues’; •a scientist may frame the obesity problem as ‘a population-growth rate that has outstripped agricultural activity’; •a sociologist might frame the problem as ‘inadequate
family and social structures’; and • an economist may frame the problem in terms of ‘insufficient purchasing power’ or ‘the inequitable distribution of agricultural commodities.’
Repeated rounds of asking key questions about data, positions, and recommendations regarding the strategy problem and attentive listening, followed by further inquiry, can be useful to identify and make explicit hidden frames and underlying assumptions. The problem is, our tendency is to gather data that fits neatly into our existing or habitual frames — which only perpetuates same-frame thinking.
Following are three avoidable framing mistakes that I have noticed countless executives make.
1. RESTRICTING THE TIP OF THE TRIANGLE TO A SMALL STRATEGY
Restricting strategy to a small, select group flirts with GROUP. the temptation of creating same-frame thinkers and excluding those whose frames may be dramatically different and desperately needed for diverging thought, testing and challenging. As a leader you should ask, Whose frames are habitually included in our meetings? What other frames might be valuable, but have been excluded? 2. SURROUNDING YOURSELF WITH LOYALISTS AND LIKE-MINDED
Loyalty should, of course, be rewarded. But loyalty THINKERS.
itself needs to be challenged as a criterion that supports quality strategic thinking. If loyalty to a person, product, brand or organization leads to or reinforces same-frame thinking, it can negatively impact strategic thinking by reinforcing habits of thought. I have observed this narrowing of perspective countless times — particularly in times of urgency and desperation, when executives are frantically seeking a new strategy. Well-intentioned but blind loyalty can quickly undermine strategic thinking.
This occurs when we believe that a 3. FALSE FRAME CHANGE. frame change has occurred, but in fact, it is only an illusion of change. Sometimes we become so enthralled with ‘active participation’ in strategy meetings that we don’t pay attention to the range of frames at the table or to the level of genuine engagement. For example, in a meeting in Dubai, one executive proudly stated that his team was using dive learning and that it had shattered most of its frames. Upon closer inspection, I found that they were actually still in surfing mode, continuing to perpetuate sameframe thinking.
Following are some suggestions for fostering frame change and its end result, dive learning, in your organization.
• Vary the usual composition of strategy groups to in
crease exposure to new frames. • Change the location of your meetings, to create an ele
ment of surprise. • Invite provocative conversations and presentations with ‘outsiders’, including those outside of a functional group, a product group, an industry sector, or a particular level of management. • Establish interactions with non-experts, academics, politicians, consultants, professionals from various fields, teenagers, young adults, middle-age and mature adults, people from an extreme range of economic backgrounds, and those of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. • When participating in strategy-making meetings, code
the frames represented as points of view are expressed. • Note any frame omissions that could bring value.
In my consulting work, I am astounded by the number of global executives who have developed or are developing business in emerging markets and lack even a rudimentary knowledge of, or interest in, frames that are historical, cultural, humanitarian, social, military, and political in nature. Not only do these leaders not seek out these frames, they often dismiss them as being irrelevant, superfluous and time consuming. The fact is, including diverse data, points of view and perspectives in a strategic dialogue is essential to maintaining a competitive strategic edge. The end result of missing frames is the emergence of blind spots, and their impact on long-term business strategy can be the writing on the wall.
Transformational learning induces more far-reaching change than other kinds of learning. It can be so powerful that Mezirow described it as “emancipation from linguistic, epistemic, institutional, or environmental forces that limit our options and our rational control over our lives, but have been taken for granted or seen as beyond human control.”
Clients with whom I have worked have occasionally experienced this kind of intense, life-redefining frame change as a result of major loss — both expected or unexpected — such as a corporate takeover, the death of a spouse, or the diagnosis of a critical disease, to name just a few. On the upside, an intense transformational learning experience can also result from a gain, such as a successful corporate takeover, the birth of a child, recovery from a critical illness, or adjusting to living in a different country.
An ability to pursue both the surf and dive learning domains differentiates the most powerful strategic thinkers from the rest, and in my mind, should be a perpetual goal for every strategic leader. As indicated herein, taking a ‘deep dive’ entails critical reflection, asking and responding to tough questions, and shifting (or shattering) your long-treasured frames of reference. And in today’s environment, it is increasingly necessary.
Dissention and opposition can be particularly useful triggers for dive learning.
A problem like ‘childhood obesity’ will likely be framed differently by a business executive, a sociologist and an economist.