The Surf and Dive Learn­ing Do­mains

Rotman Management Magazine - - POINT OF VIEW -

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.


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.

In clos­ing

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.

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