Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Musings on Client Panelists in Problem-Based Learning

For over 12 years, I’ve been involved with problem-based learning processes in which mid-career professionals present their ideas to executive panels. The settings and my roles have varied, but there are common threads: intense learning environments; current, complex or wicked challenges (problems); and client panel members who drop into the situation without the lived experience of the days or weeks leading up to the team presentations.

As part of the learning process, I expose participants to a range of leadership constructs and models. In this post, I will use the term “complex” leadership as an umbrella term for a range of theories and models associated with complex, knowledge-intensive, unpredictable environments. And I will generalize the term “complicated” leadership as an umbrella for more familiar theories and models associated with more linear cause-and-effect relationships.

There is anecdotal evidence that participants know they are working with complexity, yet struggle with how to distil their work into “presentations” coherent with complexity thinking. Some present linear, sequential, recommendations in traditional formats. Others present in ways rarely if ever seen in boardrooms, with or without conscious thought about complexity.

Almost since my first engagement with this approach, I’ve felt that work with the panel may be the weak link. In this post, I muse about one layer of these concerns. This may be a very early pre-publication draft about this sort of learning design.

When participants use non-traditional media such as storytelling or theatre depicting a different future, panel members often speak to the emotional impact such “presentations” have had. They rarely offer critique on presentation methods; their comments are about impact and content.

When participants use more traditional media, panel members often critique style, usually with comments about being more specific, detailed, emphatic, structured, and so on. As one example, when a team presented rationale and ideas for an unusual, multi-sector research and education centre (which would require considerable dialogue with potential partners and publics), a panellist asked about construction costs and phasing. As another example, a resource person (who worked with a panel member) stated there hadn’t been anything concrete in the presentations (whereas presenters believed they had included many concrete details).

So, what is at play here? Let me preface this hypothesis by saying that many executives with whom I have worked are skilled complexity thinkers. The nature of their positions requires them to work across boundaries with incomplete data. Yet many work in rigid structures with tools and measures rooted in the Industrial Era.

When panel members come into a seemingly familiar situation (which they might frame as being briefed) perhaps some default to a set of expectations not well suited to a complex problem. They may not have examined their biases. They may not have thought about how leadership and management differ, or how leadership can take dramatically different forms in different domains (as articulated by Snowden and Boone). They may come in thinking as supervisors more than clients or as mentors more than as peers-for-the-moment struggling with an intractable challenge. They may not have time to reflect beyond the emotional impact of non-traditional, and use media such as storytelling as springboards for new ideas.

In a very practical sense, what does this mean for use of a problem-based learning process for actual, current challenges? In some settings, its use has been pulled back (perhaps because questions of panel readiness weren’t studied and addressed). In others, panel members are now better briefed than they once were about the participant experience and what to expect. But I do not know of examples of client panellists being briefed on content from the learning experience (such as complexity theory or complex leadership or different forms of knowledge and limitations of scientific knowledge). Would such advance briefing be helpful? If so, how might it best be presented in ways that ease executives into seeing non-traditional work in enriched ways? What if some panellists are locked into industrial model thinking and tools? Could such preparation be counter-productive?

In “The Death of the Expert,” Richardson and Tait describe the role of the neo-expert in a way that rings true for me in this form of problem-based learning. “Modernist experts do our thinking for us, whereas neo-experts help us think for ourselves… Whereas modernist experts attempt to replicate successful patterns, neo-experts attempt to create new successful patterns (or behaviors) for each intervention” (2010 p.36)

I welcome insights with others who ponder similar challenges or can share related learning experiences.

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1 Comment»

  Michel Legault wrote @

Hi Alice,

You raise some very interesting points that got me thinking – about your take on leaders and complexity, and making presentations where complexity is at play.

First, I agree that leaders are skilled complexity thinkers that deal with uncertainty on daily basis. However, I do not think their work structures are rooted in those of the Industrial Era. Two of the five qualities of leaders, for Kouzes and Posner, are inspiring a shared vision/dream and enabling others to act. Having a dream means at least describing something that can take concrete form. Enabling others to act requires fostering collaboration and building trust, which also requires people to work in the concrete, or at least strive to distill ambiguity into more concrete terms. Leaders need to reduce ambiguity not to be latter-day robber barons but to be good leaders.

Second, I would like to relate one example from a few years ago (with a former employer) where our team needed to present a solution that would introduce complexity. We were working with a group within the organization that needed to improve their knowledge sharing capabilities. They were very big on leveraging a Wiki. We performed an analysis and determined this could work. I would say we played the role of neo-experts, helping this group validate their needs.

We made a conventional presentation before this group’s executive council, which had the CEO and CFO in attendance. When we arrived at the Wiki recommendation, the CFO flatly stated “I don’t want a Wiki”. His concern? Wikipedia contained dubious information that could not be cited in academic papers. Unfortunately, due to the flow of the meeting and other issues that needed to be discussed, we could not adequately respond to this comment.

I believe this resistance was allowed, in part, by the more structured approach we took in presenting information – in bullet form, across several slides with time for commentary in between. At our next meeting, I was able to address this concern in a more thoughtful way (unfortunately the CFO was not in attendance, but his anti-Wiki supporters were). I countered the charge of dubious information by stating we need a governance model in place to ensure integrity of information. From there, I described a future process where company-related topics can be introduced into the Wiki by authors but properly reviewed and approved by editors. This seemed to assuage the doubters. Unfortunately, the wiki was never developed before I moved on, mainly due to higher priorities competing for tight money and resources.

I took away a couple of things from this experience:

– Narratives or storytelling can provide better context, especially when dealing with actors who initially resist the introduction of more complexity.

– At the same time, I do not think briefings on complexity theory per se would have been particularly helpful in this context. Leaders (especially CFOs) are trying to simplify complexity – as part of being good leaders. Positioning complexity as something that can be harnessed within a larger narrative of concrete knowledge sharing, opportunity development and innovation, however, I believe can work.


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