About five years ago I was invited to a learning event with 30 other leadership professionals to hear two of the world’s greatest organizational researchers speak. One speaker, a guru from Harvard, had dedicated his life to understanding strategy (I’ve changed the topic to protect the innocent) and the other was a brainiac from M.I.T. who was studying the changing nature of the workplace.

The Harvard guru went first. He laid out his research showing why strategy was important, what great strategy looks like and why many of the beliefs people have about strategy are wrong. It was clear he knew his stuff. Any challenge we put up was succinctly answered and he had no lack of certainty in the correctness of his research findings. It was a very informative presentation of his work, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was less an exploration of the topic and more like a performance of it (Admittedly, I had history. I had also taken his class on campus. One time half way through a lecture he stopped teaching and announced that he wanted to cancel the rest of the class because he was not happy with his ‘performance’. He informed us that he would start the lecture again tomorrow at the same time. The next day we all turned up and without mentioning a word of the previous day he proceeded to repeat the lecture. He evidently was happier with his performance on day two because we got all the way through to the bell. For the life of me I could not detect any difference – it was identical both days.)

Anyway…………

The MIT professor went second. His session felt different from the start. It was clear that he didn’t have all the answers and the reason soon became clear. He wasn’t talking about research results from the past, but what he was discovering in his work right now. What he was sharing was the frontiers of his thinking. For him, he explained, his research was like a giant jig-saw puzzle. He had maybe 70% of the pieces, but didn’t yet know what picture they made up or what shapes he was missing. Rather than tell us what the answer was he asked us to join in and help. The energy in the room lifted immediately and people began to stand up and share trends they were noticing in their own organizations as well as experiments they were running to change their own work. At the end of the session people felt exhilarated. Not only were we learning new approaches from each other’s organizations, but we felt like we were starting to uncover the future of the workplace.

We finished by giving him (or ourselves?) a round of applause. He thanked us and said he was grateful, not for the applause, but for allowing him to share his current, half-formed thinking and for the input we gave him which added more jig saw pieces to the picture.

This story came back to me recently when I read a book by Austin Kleon called ‘Show Your Work!’. Kleon suggests that we all hold back our work for too long, waiting until it is polished and perfect and presentable to the world. But the truth is, people learn just as much from the process you use to do your work and the lessons you learn along on the way. Over the last 6 months I’ve been working on three major leadership topics that I think will be central to the future of leadership development.

1. Leading Change: new research on why change fails so often and how you can dramatically increase your success rate
2. Vertical Development: how to design vertical leadership development programs that you can use in your organization
3. Building the Resilient Organization: how to scale resilience so that it is not just individuals but the culture of the organization that becomes resilient

Rather than hold back what I am learning until it is polished and complete I’d like to take a little of the MIT approach. In the next 10 blogs I am going to share with you how I am approaching each topic, what I’ve learned so far and what I am still trying to work out. I’d love to hear your ideas, connections and stories.

It could be a bit messy but if you are interested you’ll find out the frontiers of my thinking and what I think is the future of leadership development. With the caveat that should any of my blog posts turn out to be ‘low performers’ I don’t think I’ll go to the effort to repeat them the next day. Let them all be part of our collective, messy process of learning………more soon.

This blog is a part of the series: Future Trends in Leadership Development    

Follow Nick Petrie as he shares the latest approaches he and other practitioners are experimenting with as they try to discover the future of leadership development.

More about Nick – www.nicholaspetrie.com

10 thoughts on “Lessons from Harvard vs M.I.T.

  1. Elaine says:

    Look forward to participating in the discussions Nick. Thank you for sharing your experience with both approaches, I am working to shift to the MIT mindset — it is a journey.

  2. Elaine says:

    Look forward to participating in the discussions Nick. Thank you for sharing your experience with both approaches, I am working to shift to the MIT mindset — it is a journey.

  3. Larry Gray says:

    I have always been comfortable with the theoretical concepts of ambiguity and “journey” as contexts for learning. But becoming personally comfortable with ambiguity and the messiness of process has been a lifelong journey. In times of stress or perceived risks, especially the risk of losing face or the risk of losing credibility (whatever that might mean), I am hesitant to offer anything but a finished, polished product. I have discovered over time that I value a well crafted thought and a polished presentation, but I learn best in conversation, dialogue, when I take the risk of thinking out loud, in struggling with the lack of certitude, in not seeing the next step, in allowing for creativity, curiosity and imagination. I regret not being able to manage my anxiety in the “not knowing” earlier in life, but I celebrate the journey I am on. Then again, it may be that I am simply getting too old to depend on other people’s assessment of my credibility.

    I look forward to your future blogs.

  4. Larry Gray says:

    I have always been comfortable with the theoretical concepts of ambiguity and “journey” as contexts for learning. But becoming personally comfortable with ambiguity and the messiness of process has been a lifelong journey. In times of stress or perceived risks, especially the risk of losing face or the risk of losing credibility (whatever that might mean), I am hesitant to offer anything but a finished, polished product. I have discovered over time that I value a well crafted thought and a polished presentation, but I learn best in conversation, dialogue, when I take the risk of thinking out loud, in struggling with the lack of certitude, in not seeing the next step, in allowing for creativity, curiosity and imagination. I regret not being able to manage my anxiety in the “not knowing” earlier in life, but I celebrate the journey I am on. Then again, it may be that I am simply getting too old to depend on other people’s assessment of my credibility.

    I look forward to your future blogs.

  5. mike mitchell says:

    Two known concepts stand out to me about the MIT professor’s approach: Senge’s “shared vision” and the adult learning theory of andragogy. He invited the adult learners around him to learn along with him (via being lectured) and viola a shared vision was created.

    I have found in my own research that the hurdle to achieving a positive result utilizing known theory is something that is often a killer of positive efforts: ego. By simply stating that he did not have all the answers, the MIT professor admitted that he wasn’t the all-knowing seer and drew on the knowledge in the room. The result was a much more positive result. Smart guy!

  6. mike mitchell says:

    Two known concepts stand out to me about the MIT professor’s approach: Senge’s “shared vision” and the adult learning theory of andragogy. He invited the adult learners around him to learn along with him (via being lectured) and viola a shared vision was created.

    I have found in my own research that the hurdle to achieving a positive result utilizing known theory is something that is often a killer of positive efforts: ego. By simply stating that he did not have all the answers, the MIT professor admitted that he wasn’t the all-knowing seer and drew on the knowledge in the room. The result was a much more positive result. Smart guy!

  7. michelle holden says:

    I’m all in for the MIT approach …. the real world is not tied up in a neat package, it’s messy. Like an ice-cream cone on a summer day, it’s fun to sweep the edges, catch the drips and laugh out loud when it lands where it shouldn’t. I’m not making light of business practices and being results-oriented (their importance goes with out saying!) but, we need to lighten up and stop assuming we have all the answers. The collective genius is what will keep us all competitive. I’m currently working on something important regarding communication in the classroom and I was waiting to speak with the powers that be until it was “more perfect” …. thanks for reminding me to just jump in!

  8. michelle holden says:

    I’m all in for the MIT approach …. the real world is not tied up in a neat package, it’s messy. Like an ice-cream cone on a summer day, it’s fun to sweep the edges, catch the drips and laugh out loud when it lands where it shouldn’t. I’m not making light of business practices and being results-oriented (their importance goes with out saying!) but, we need to lighten up and stop assuming we have all the answers. The collective genius is what will keep us all competitive. I’m currently working on something important regarding communication in the classroom and I was waiting to speak with the powers that be until it was “more perfect” …. thanks for reminding me to just jump in!

  9. bjv says:

    I like this analogy. There has been a lot of “hippo” managers that only want to present once a solution is complete and final – not allowing diversity (in all of the forms it may take) input or any discussion. We have been actively practicing the “MIT-approach”. The process works especially well in Big Data science in discovery of data by joining different domain experts for significant valuable insights. It is only through a fact driven science discipline and thought sharing that progress can be made.

  10. bjv says:

    I like this analogy. There has been a lot of “hippo” managers that only want to present once a solution is complete and final – not allowing diversity (in all of the forms it may take) input or any discussion. We have been actively practicing the “MIT-approach”. The process works especially well in Big Data science in discovery of data by joining different domain experts for significant valuable insights. It is only through a fact driven science discipline and thought sharing that progress can be made.

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