Exploring The Ecology of Leadership: the Power of Analogical Thinking

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“Lots of measurements but little that’s useful” – comment in response to an image

I spent the past week in California working with a senior management team from a large global corporation as part of their extensive executive development program. This was my third time with the same organization and I had worked hard to improve and upgrade the program to focus more closely on their issues. The conceptual underpinning of the one-and-a-half day sessions has always been the ecocycle, but the challenge has been to find ways to engage the participants so that the framework speaks directly to their concerns and their leadership culture. The standard approach is to use case studies, but I had been unable to find ones that addressed their issues without taking an inordinate amount of reading and preparation time on the part of the participants. And what they learn from the case may not be easily applied to their own situation

As I described in my blog a few weeks ago, in my previous session I had used the Visual Explorer and Leadership Metaphor Explorer instruments from the Center for Creative Leadership as catalysts for discussion. The results were excellent and this time I decided to weave these instruments into the program even more tightly. During the first half-day session I asked the participants to think about the major challenges that their organization faced and then asked them each to find a Visual Explorer image that spoke in some way to that challenge. They each selected their own image and then went through a debrief, first in teams of five and then with each team giving a plenary presentation to the larger group. The result was a multi-faceted picture of how their images related to the corporate challenge.

Visual Explorer and Ecocycle

The next half-day session began with a presentation of the ecocycle framework and one of the first exercises was for the participants to decide where their corporation was on the cycle. Of course this is a scale-dependent question, with the answers depending on how fine-grained one’s description of the corporation is. As an aid to doing it I asked each of them to tape their chosen images to a big diagram of the ecocycle. Here is a representative sample of some of the responses:

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Visual Explorer images overlaid on the ecocycle

As you can see, the effect of the Visual Explorer (VE) images is to make the abstractions of the ecological mental model much more concrete and tangible. Each picture acts as a go-between; on the one hand there are the participants’ hard-to-express experiences, while on the other hand there is the stylized ecological framework to which they have only just been introduced. Collectively the VE images offered a range of analogies from which each participant could select their preferred level of abstraction to express their perception of the corporate challenge. Some of their issues were concrete and visceral and could be expressed by images like the dead seal with the block of wood in its mouth (directly above the word ‘crisis’ on the right hand side). Others were more abstract (like the maze of unconnected highways in the image above the word ‘choice’ on the left hand side). This is the creative, connective role of metaphors in action, carrying the thinking of participants beyond their immediate experiences to make analogical connections with the dynamics of complex systems in many other contexts.

The result of using Visual Explorer in this way, together with the excellent dialog it promoted, was that the participants got both a better understanding of the ecological framework as well as a deeper appreciation of their own experiences. They also come away with an understanding that they are dealing with ‘wicked’ systemic problems, where there are no ‘solutions’, only counter-measures; for one can never do one thing in a complex system. The system always reacts and responds to one’s attempts to change it. In addition, when one attempts to define a wicked problem, the range of solutions is defined by the definition. For example, if one defines the drug problem as a ‘war on drugs’, then warlike solutions are sanctioned by the choice of the military metaphor. So one must be very careful of such definitions and always stay open to alternative frameworks: the Visual Explorer helps one do just that. Also, when the participants get back to their own organizations, they should find that their ability to tell a compelling narrative is much improved. This will help them not only generate commitment from their people but get the support of those who control financial and other resources.

The overall result for the participants was a much more integrated development program, where the all the elements and exercises fitted seamlessly into the whole. I am looking forward to reading their comments and seeing whether their perceptions tallied with mine…

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