Learn to Learn: A New Method for Problem Solving  

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This past year has brought an onslaught of articles indicating that organizations are feeling overwhelmed with the pace of change in increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions. It has become paramount to identify the critical leadership attributes to foster in leaders today, and to invest in the development of the leaders of tomorrow.

McLean & Company’s research into the attributes that prepare leaders for success in the VUCA environment has led to a framework we have identified as Integrated Leadership.

Traditional leadership development has not provided the return on investment organizations are hoping for, in part because they focused on what a leader should do. By contrast, Integrated Leadership identifies elements that focus on how the leader should think.

Today’s leader needs to:

• Prepare to lead through the development of self.

• Create space to lead through the development of others

In a previous spotlight, we focused on the element of Distributed Leadership. Today, we will examine the element of Learn to Learn, which requires a leader to unlearn and then learn new methods of problem solving.

Leaders have a bias to action. This has been developed through education and reinforced through experience in the workplace, where leaders who act quickly are believed to be the most effective. To reduce the risk associated with experiential and cognitive bias, leaders must be open to questioning the relevance of past experience, as well as pre-identifying assumptions and triggers.

For a long time it was believed that as a child and adolescent, the brain was continuously expanding and adapting to learn new tasks but that by adulthood cognitive capacity was realized, and the brain could longer change. However, recent research has proven that neuro-plasticity exists beyond adolescence and that cognitive capacity can expand regardless of age.

To do this, leaders must prepare to:

1. Be open to feedback.

2. Step out of their comfort zone to experience true growth.

3. Adapt by facing change with resilience.

4. Embrace failure as a learning opportunity and let go of control.

At the organizational level, here are a few tactics that support leaders in developing the element Learn to Learn:

• Reframe projects as experiments. The outcome becomes less important than the resulting learning, and failure becomes acceptable as simply the testing of a hypothesis.

• Reinforce a dynamic learning mindset. Communicate the reasons for making learning and unlearning a priority, and recognize effort in addition to outcomes.

• Balance action and reflection. Do post-mortems of both successes and failures, and share those lessons across silos.

• Focus on continuous learning. Invest in open-ended learning that doesn’t have to be related to work. Develop activities, events, and reminders that drive continuous learning.

• Model the behaviors. Have senior executives embody, vocally support, and share stories of learning and personal growth. Celebrate and share success stories illustrating the positive outcomes of learning.

With this new way of thinking, leaders can unlearn and then learn new methods of problem solving within the challenging VUCA world.


By Tamara Heimonen