Feature Article: Developing Leaders: Scenarios and Holonics

Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann

Think about the methods we have for developing leaders: education, training, OJT, mentoring, coaching, assessment centers, focus on leader competencies, developing a leadership pipeline, etc. One that hasn’t received much attention is the use of scenarios. Training programs use simulations and experiential learning activities, usually focused on an organizational or behavioral issue of some sort: communicating across organizational boundaries, listening skills, meeting management, etc. But scenarios?

At Shell Oil in the ‘70s Peter Schwartz asked what would happen if oil prices dropped? Using this premise, scenarios were developed and executives analyzed the responses that were feasible and consequences that might ensue. When oil prices dropped, Shell was prepared to respond constructively and they did far better than their competitors. In fact, they did so well that they undertook to use scenarios as predictive tools for their company.

Twice more they explored scenarios to predict what might happen. Twice they failed to achieve the results that had been so useful the first time around. Keith Bellamy, former futurist of Barclay’s Bank in England, thinks that the first time around, the use of scenarios prepared company leaders to respond effectively to the events that unfolded. However, using scenarios to predict events was a failure.

The field of Future Studies uses scenarios, too. And they use them for predictive purposes. Perhaps someday, with computer support, this approach will grow in effectiveness. And since the late ‘90s the use of scenarios may be even more effective because people like Richard A. Slaughter, Chris Stewart and others have introduced the idea of building scenarios around an integral model.

I believe the use of scenarios for leader development has great potential. Using the holonics approach of Mark Edwards brings high potential for these scenarios and the developmental work with them to be highly dynamic. Edwards argues that we can create holons (and holarchies) for anything. He also argues that it is important to keep individual and collective holons separate. This, in addition to his work on cycle of knowledge creation using holonics, provides us with a method for framing and analyzing scenarios so that they can be effective tools for leader development.

Individual Holon. Collective Holon

Figure 1: Individual and Collective holons

The approach to developing scenarios that I am suggesting would begin by specifying in as much detail as appropriate the starting level of the collective time at T(time) 1. This would include descriptions of internal activity and culture, as well as interactions with the context and the culture of that context. Spiral Dynamics could be used as a framework for these descriptions. Stages of development could be described, as well as shifts and changes in variables over time.

From a process point of view the influences of the quadrants in the collective holon on each other over time could be projected and presented for the leader in development. This would include dynamics of differentiation and integration, subjectivity and objectivity in the culture and development (up and down).

The responses of the leader to the events and relationships in the scenario could be recorded and subsequently analyzed by the leader (with coaching or other guidelines) to help him/her to see what possible responses there might have been, what levels of development they might represent and what implications might ensue from different responses.

This approach is not intended to “develop” the leader across stages, per se. However, the approach may compete with meditation, assessments and feedback or other methods in supporting such development. This is possible due to a phenomenon known as scaffolding.

A technique often used for learner-centered education is scaffolding: support for learners that enables them to engage in activities that are normally out of their reach. Scaffolding often involves modeling a process for the learner, coaching the learner through that activity, and then providing opportunities for the student to articulate what has been learned. Rosson and Carroll provide scaffolding in their OOD learning exercises. They begin their examples with user interaction scenarios. Each scenario presents a piece of an application design problem (a description of a user pursuing a goal within the system). They claim that scenarios provide scaffolding by breaking a large abstract problem into small concrete subproblems. Furthermore, the scenarios help learners identify candidate objects: they can simply begin with the problem entities mentioned in the narrative.

Hope D. Harley, Cheryl D. Seals, Mary Beth Rosson, “A Formative Evaluation of Scenario-Based Tools for Learning Object-Oriented Design,”

Breaking a problem into sub-problems allows us to include elements related to different stages of development. A situation might be constructed in which key stakeholders in the organization or the larger context are operating from a “blue” center with demands or expectations that are ideologically based. The leader would have the example to explore alternative responses to those expectations and the implications of those alternatives. In turn, the leader’s responses can be reviewed to identify level of development and to examine alternative responses related to other levels of development or to developmental perspectives like subject-object issues, style and preference factors, types of leader behaviors, etc.

Scaffolding offers us the opportunity to have experiences in levels or stages of development that may not readily be accessible to us. It might enable the leader to develop empathy as a capacity for seeing situations and process through the lens of other levels than ones that have been fully developed and integrated in his/her own development.

An example might be a promising executive centered in orange who has difficulty with elements of blue or green. By using elements of the scenario from these perspectives or levels of development, the executive would have an opportunity to view events through those lenses. Furthermore, the executive might be subject to behavioral patterns of others. Not being included in a discussion may result in his or her feeling resentment or distrust and responding to that in a way that causes further deterioration in relationships. The possibilities are almost endless.

So, here is an idea: developing scenarios that are based on holonics and that can be used economically for leader development. Anyone up for the challenge?

> Russ Volckmann