Championing Network Collaboration through Leadership Sprints

Embracing a new paradigm for Leadership Development within Organizations 

The current model of formal leadership development generally takes place almost exclusively in a workshop setting away from an organization's offices. What is commonly the focus of these meetings?  A reflection on and optimization of the individual competencies of the pre-selected leaders who are attending the leadership workshop. Input for these reflections is often furnished by direct reports who provide feedback which informs an individual leader's development plans. This conventional approach has been the modus operandi for the leadership development initiatives for most organizations for decades.

The impact of the Information Age and and the corresponding digital transformation organizations are experiencing, compels businesses to rethink the current role of leadership and leadership development. Individual skill development is no longer sufficient to deal with the turbulence of this VUCA world. The growing need for agility has led to the realization that leadership is a team sport which requires the co-ordination and collaboration of many leaders.

Moreover, the importance of leadership lies not only at the level of a team, but increasingly at the level of the network. With information flowing at unprecedented speed, no single person can possess a complete overview of the current state of affairs in a business. Due to an environment characterized by complexity and rapidity, it is crucial for leaders to make sense of the situation by reaching out and engaging diverse perspectives. Where will these myriad of perspectives come from? Not only from within their organization but beyond its business boundaries with outside collaborators as well.

As individuals we tend to be "boundedly rational". What does this mean? We base our decisions on our own personal definition of the problem. This definition of a problem is constrained by the perspectives to which we have access. By approaching a problem from multiple perspectives instead, a problem's definition becomes more diverse in nature. As a result, such a multiple perspective approach is more likely to pinpoint the core of the problem or issue. Networks are required to access such multiple perspectives successfully.

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The example of the camera development project launched in 2009 for Apple's iPhone7 Plus provides an excellent example of the power of multiple perspectives. The goal was to build a camera into the phone which could provide a "bokeh" feature - an aspect of photography which is acknowledged by professionals to be a level of the highest quality. "Bokeh" is a Japanese term referring to the pleasant blurring of a photograph's background.

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In most cases. the camera team was able to technically realize this effect. However a few unique technical exceptions prevented the release of the "bokeh" photographic feature. In order to resolve these persistent issues, other team members from sensor software, UX prototyping, algorithm teams, and - perhaps most important - senior design leaders came together. With the help of the senior design leaders the team was able to define the question "What makes a beautiful picture?" . This definition helped to advise the algorithm team to pursue these guidelines. The result? An acceptable standard was achieved despite some technical exceptions and the new "bokeh" feature was included in the next iPhone release. This breakthrough would not have materialized without the inclusion of other teams and individuals from various other departments.

From "Bokeh" Photography to Dragonfly Thinking 

Apple's iPhone 7 Plus innovation story illustrates the increasing need to embrace new leadership skills and sensibilities suitable for a rapidly complex and changing business environment. New leadership capacities need to be championed to collaborate successfully at the network level.

Like a dragonfly, leaders need to foster their ability to gain multiple perspectives. Dragonflies have two large compound eyes, each with thousands of lenses, and three eyes with simple lenses! They are powerful and agile fliers, capable of moving in any direction, and changing direction suddenly. While in flight a dragonfly can propel itself in six directions: upward, downward, forward, backward, to the left and to the right. These are great capabilities to view the environment while at the same time being able to swoop down to see the individual components as well.

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Dr. Bruce Oberhardt, a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur, has developed a unique approach to problem solving which was inspired by his encounters with dragonflies. His Dragonfly Thinking approach enables leaders to identify and solve important problems in a creative and highly effective way.

Ideas are the fuel that make the impossible possible.
Bruce Oberhardt

What skills does a leader need to become a "Dragonfly Thinker"?

REPRESENTATION CAPABILITY: To be able to capture the multi-faceted nature of an issue.

RELATIONAL CAPABILITY: To provide a safe zone for everyone involved to say what one thinks.

REFLECTION CAPABILITY: To have the ability to iterate between different ways of looking at a problem.

INTEGRATION CAPABILITY: To provide clarity around the purpose of the problem-solving activity.

Safe zones allow the dragonfly larva to metamorphosize and fulfill its purpose. The mature dragonfly with its multiple eyes ensures that it can continue to "see" the multi-faceted nature of the issues which it encounters. Lastly, its flying agility enables it to map the environment and the interconnectedness of its parts. These are the key leadership skills which are needed to work through an increasingly rapid-changing business environment.

The new leadership paradigm focuses on the level of the network

The design of traditional leadership development programs has been to provide a space and opportunity for individuals to reflect upon their leadership strengths and weaknesses away from the day-to-day business pressures. Typically the individuals who attend such leadership development sessions are pre-selected based upon their previous performance and perceived future promise to the organization.

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Fostering a novel approach to leadership from the network perspective requires fundamental shifts from the long-established and classical leadership development practice.

How can this kind of Network Leadership be promoted?

1. A selection process for emergent leaders based on the network dynamics in an organization is fundamental

2. Leadership development practices which are based not only on skill development but also network awareness

What does selection process based on Network Leadership look like?

From a network perspective, leadership development needs to take place in the critical zones of a network, i.e. where the important interconnections of the network exist. This is where the greatest potential value to the organization is located. In the example of Apple described above, this critical zone would include the camera team as well as the senior design leaders, sensor software and UX-Design groups. New leadership capabilities are required to nurture effective interaction between diverse groups.

The science of Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) reveals where these zones could be located within an organization. These maps help to identify the flow of information and energy within the networks.

The following example of a network map highlights a type of network which is often found within organizations. The diagram outlines how information flows among a set of interconnected people. This type of network is known as the hub-and-spoke network.


In this type of network, information flows through a central leader, expert or team who are located in the diagram as the hub. The spokes which emerge from the hub, all act as silos which are independent of one another. Any necessary co-ordination is directed from the hub.

When does this type of network manifest itself? One example is the formation of new groups after the completion of an acquisition of a business. This type of network may also originate from certain habits and behaviors, such as a strict command-and-control mindset or an individual's excessive ego.

These kinds of networks generally have various negative effects on collaboration. Hub and spoke networks often prevent innovation by constraining the flow of information. As a result, unhealthy feedback patterns tend to emerge; only those ideas which reach the central hub are considered. The central hub also functions as a noticeable bottleneck. Timely decision making is impaired due to the overwhelming co-ordination work which is required of the central hub.

A hub and spoke network in an organization provides an ideal focus for leadership development. Leaders who are located both in the central hub and the spokes are ideal candidates for a leadership development initiative. 

Network Leadership Development

Once the critical network zone is identified, a leadership development process can be incorporated into the workplace.  

Network Leadership Development is grounded on the principle that "awareness is the greatest agent for change" . When the system is able to see itself, shifts happen.
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How to bring leadership development back into the workplace 

Ensemble Enabler has developed a hybrid approach to Network Leadership Development in order to grapple with the challenges of our VUCA World: Leadership Sprints. The focus of these Network Leadership initiatives are the critical zones of an organization's network where the maximum positive influence can be achieved within an organization.

Leadership Sprints compel us to re-think how and where leadership development should take place. Leadership Sprints bring leadership development back into the day-to-day workplace while concurrently enabling a team of leaders to collectively address and resolve key business challenges. During the process of discovering viable solutions to a specific business issue, these leaders cultivate their personal leadership capacity in real time and develop skills in their own work environment.

Leadership Sprints are by their very nature hybrid in design. They are characterized by a periodic switch between face-to-face and virtual work sessions. The business issue and/or challenge to be concentrated upon determines the pace and length of a Leadership Sprint. Moreover, each Leadership Sprint is tailored to meet both the development needs of the team members as well as the business challenge to be mastered.

To support Leadership Sprint and collaboration in organizations, Ensemble Enabler has developed the practice of Visual Enabling which relies on the disciplines of Organizational Network Analysis, simultaneous graphic recording, group video compilations and participatory dialogue to "visualize" what is happening (or not happening) in a network zone.

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Why do we call this Network Leadership Development process a "Leadership Sprint"?

Leadership Sprints are momentary pictures of the current state of a critical network zone. These work sessions are not day long workshops, but a form of information gathering which is collected in the moment. This is followed by reflection on the meaning of the current picture of both personal leadership development as well as the project's status. Like software development sprints, the team members collectively develop the next steps in order to address the opportunities which have been made visible through the continuous feedback.

Leadership Sprints are not necessarily limited to a one-time experience. A leadership group can convene at a later date to address a new business challenge as well as build upon their acquired leadership skills to reach yet another level of competency. This kind of initiative can be repeated several times throughout a year to inspire and document progress.

What does a Leadership Sprint look like in practice?

• The starting point for the Network Leadership Development begins with each member of the Leadership Sprint team. The first step consists of a combination of a personal interviews with Ensemble Enabler combined an appraisal of his/her strengths. This serves to identify who each leader is when they are at their best.

• The kickoff face-to-face work session explores the fundamentals of network leadership as well as the attributes of leading a healthy organization. During this session the business issue at the core of the network’s efforts is clarified and the goals for the next steps to be undertaken in the workplace by the leadership team are defined (or if previously defined, revisited and confirmed)

• The members of the leadership team collaborate on the business issue together - either virtually or on-site - until the next work session with Ensemble Enabler.

• In preparation for the next session, Ensemble Enabler, provides the members of the Leadership Sprint with a series of questions for group discussion and reflection. The results of this reflection are visually captured by a Visual Enabler. This visualization of how things stand serves as a check-in for the next work session with Ensemble Enabler. This subsequent work session with Ensemble Enabler can take place either virtually or face-to-face depending on the needs of the team members as well as the status of the developments of the team's business challenge.

• This cycle of work sessions are repeated as the project progresses and complexity require. Each of the sessions (as described above) addresses different aspects of network leadership depending upon the current needs of the group.

• The end point of the Network Leadership Development is a collective reflection of the leadership team members together with Ensemble Enabler to explore the learnings of the Leadership Sprint from both a personal, team and business perspective. 

Ultimately the true shift in leadership capacity occurs when leaders are able to "see" themselves and understand the consequences of their actions.  

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An example of how a Leadership Sprint can serve as a leadership development process can be illustrated from the viewpoint of an automobile part manufacturer which is in the process of shifting their manufacturing capability from components for fossil fuel vehicles to components for electric automobiles. The network relationships of an initial R&D team which is tackling the issue from an engineering point of view is insufficiently interconnected with component and raw material suppliers, production process experts and customers. This inadequate interconnectedness among colleagues throughout the system impedes the ability to foster the kind of vital organizational change which is essential. Leadership sprints support all network participants to collaborate with each other to enable this organizational transformation to occur effectively. 

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A Shifting Leadership Metaphor for our VUCA world

Today's business challenges require a new approach to leadership. With the arrival of the digital era, a fundamental shift in the world of business has occurred. The familiar and traditional metaphor of a successful business as a "well-oiled machine" is not able to effectively address the broad spectrum of challenges emerging from our current VUCA world.

Digital transformation has highlighted the significance and influence of networks. The new and emerging metaphor for an organization is a "living network". The implications of this metaphor are profound for the way organizations perceive themselves as well as their unique approach to business. This new metaphor requires a mindset change in all employees but especially a transformational shift in how that leadership potential is cultivated throughout organizations.

"Leadership Sprints" embody a new approach to enable businesses to champion these leaders within their organization and engage in an agile manner with evolving changes throughout the business environment. 

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Ensemble Enabler partners with organizations to transform their work environments.

Through the use of innovative practices in the context of our four thematic focal points - Organizational Learning, Network Leadership, Fluid Collaboration and Transparent Communication - new sources of energy are released throughout an organization and the internal information flows enhanced.  

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