More than fifty years ago, author Kurt Vonnegut published a short story called “Harrison Bergeron,” which was set in a future world that mandated all people be equal in talent, intelligence, and appearance. Those who were considered average remained as they were, but those who had any exceptional abilities were forced to wear handicaps to ensure they did not surpass the average.
Beautiful people wore masks, and the strong carried heavy weights. The most intriguing handicap, however, was for those who were deemed intelligent. Those individuals wore radio earpieces that blasted a tremendous noise every few minutes. The noise was intended to distract them so they would not be able to maintain exceptional thought processes or develop ideas. This would ensure that they remained average.
Sound like a familiar problem? Vonnegut’s fiction seems eerily relevant today.
A team at the University of California at Irvine tracked, minute by minute, how individuals spend their time during a workday. They found that the average employee could spend only 11 minutes on a project before she encountered an interruption such as an e-mail, phone call, or knock on the door. Rebounding from the interruption took an average of twenty-five minutes, if the employee returned to the original task at all.
With numbers like these, the odds of quality thinking and decision making occurring—or even any work happening at all, it would seem— are stacked against us. Like Vonnegut’s characters, we are all subjected to a steady stream of thought-stopping distractions. And in the same way, the result is often subpar output and average work, even from the most exceptional individuals and prestigious organizations.
One notable difference between Vonnegut’s fictional world and the world in which we live is that organizations do not want employees to remain average. Yet, most corporate leadership training plays within a set of traditional rules. Businesses are dynamic, complex systems, and to understand them requires a new way of thinking. Employees at all levels must think differently about their jobs, the organization, and the markets they serve, and the best leadership development programs will evolve to develop this thinking.
This type of thinking does not come from slogans or from internal communications or from traditional leadership and management training practices. This new type of thinking develops through a virtuous cycle of learning, trying, reflecting, and trying again. It is the type of thinking that helps individuals to understand cause and effect, short- and long-term delay results, unintended consequences, and interdependencies of the system within which they work.
This form of thinking has become essential to an organization’s—and an individual’s—enduring value. Most employees, no matter how smart and capable, do not grasp the complex interdependencies at work in their organization. This is not due to the lack of communication, process flows, or learning and development training. This lack of understanding happens because we all live and work in a world that is changing quickly and is often difficult for us to get our heads around.
This complexity has been the impetus of my research with colleagues at The Regis Company. Our team has journeyed from understanding what it takes to be valuable in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous business world to developing new technologies and methodologies that create enduring value for clients. Whether you are a manager, leader, learning and development consultant, or simply a thinking person within an organization—you benefit by moving from the linear approach of telling employees what to think to systemic learning, in which employees learn how to think.
The medium for creating leaders and organizations that embrace a new way of thinking is the business simulation. Unlike traditional corporate leadership training, which focuses on the transmission of knowledge and information, this technology incorporates the tools necessary for teams to collaborate in solving complex problems and generating monumental insights.
Simulation training enables participants to engage in (and with) action, feedback, and reflection in a variety of contextually relevant scenarios. Business simulations also enable managers, leaders, and learning and development consultants to help employees develop the patterns of thought that differentiate top performers from those who merely do their jobs.
At The Regis Company we also use simulation training to help people identify new techniques for refining mental models and to help them embrace the practices for improving decision making and collaboration—all of which affect an individual’s and an organization’s ability to solve problems and generate enduring value.
Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.