Photo courtesy of Illinois Tech M. A. and Lila Self Leadership Academy
On Saturday, February 2, after a week of extreme cold, Illinois Tech’s M.A. and Lila Self Leadership Academy hosted the third seminar of the year, "Strategic Thinking and Leading Change," presented by facilitator Megan Wheeler, M.S. While Wheeler now works at LifeLabs Learning, she was also the former program manager of the Illinois Tech Leadership Academy. A practical seminar, there were 108 students in attendance, the highest number of any Leadership Academy seminar so far, filling the cozy Pritzker Club.
For the first half of the seminar, Wheeler introduced and discussed five fundamental habits of strategic thinking: "link up," "gap analysis," "three lenses model," "consequences check," and "inclusive planning." First, to visualize general strategic thinking, students played a game of tic-tac-toe, filling in squares instinctively, and then again but applying strategy or forethought. When thinking strategically, the end goal should be the first thing considered. Formalized strategic thinking is vital to any organization’s ability to identify and achieve a desired end state and it ultimately fosters a greater impact of the organization.
The first habit, linking up is visualized with ladders of inference to practice linking outcomes or reasons for a personal task. For a company, a task of revising email templates may be inferred or linked up to improve customer communication and satisfaction, leading to improved performance of the company. After each attendee completed a four step ladder of inference, Wheeler discussed gap analysis, where the gap between the current and ideal states is investigated, the validity of inferences are checked, and statistics and supporting facts are added to bolster and verify the inferences from the previous habit. The third habit, the three lenses model, serves as a safeguard against the fundamental attribution error, where individuals tend to incorrectly attribute the cause of behavior solely to personality or character, such as deeming someone to be clumsy after seeing them trip. The three lenses perspective asks us to consider possible causes for someone’s behavior as a function of their personality, our biases, and cultural and societal norms, constraints, and values. As strategies are laid out, an important habit is the consequence check, to ensure that unintended consequences and risks are fully considered. Additionally, a pre-mortem assessment may be performed, where possible causes of project failure are analyzed and addressed such that the project may be tweaked and improved. Without checking all possible outcomes, confirmation bias can derail a project; it is always crucial to be aware of when we are thinking strategically or not. Finally, as a project begins to be organized, inclusive planning ensures that the appropriate parties are involved at the correct stages of the project from defining the problem to final execution. The involved parties and project stages are graphed to help determine how the parties’ involvements will occur.
Throughout this first segment of the seminar, all students applied each of these habits to personal tasks and situations, helping to solidify understanding and prepare them to think strategically in future academic or professional situations.
After the traditional seminar pizza lunch, Wheeler transitioned to discussing organizational change and how to be an effective leader of change. Change, especially organizational change, is represented by renowned psychologist Kurt Lewin’s change process model. Change occurs over three phases: unfreeze, transition, and refreeze, as with ice melting and solidifying in another form. For change to occur, a party must first move away from the preexisting mindset and norms before the transition happens and is fully accepted and integrated as a new normal. A leader’s role is to understand change, help others change, and assess the change itself. Because of the close ties of strategic thinking, change, and organizational leadership, one of the foremost factors in leading change is the stakeholder in this transition. To properly lead and implement change, any leader must consider who the change will affect, and listen to stakeholders’ feedback and opinions while being open and transparent about said changes. While changes could theoretically be forced through without consent of stakeholders, this is almost always a shortsighted path that leads to broken trust and discord. It is vital that a leader understands the costs and benefits of a change with respect to both implementers and stakeholders; through these conversations, a leader will gain the proper perspective to craft a guiding vision statement that captures the stakeholders’ concerns alongside the framework of change.
In leading change, a leader must understand how the organization will react to the FACE brain states: Fairness, Autonomy, Cognitive Load, and Ego. For example, a team whose roster and workload is changed dramatically without notice or explanation would feel unfairness, a loss of autonomy, increased cognitive load over changing tasks, and lowered ego. By considering this impact, a leader may lead a team through the change more smoothly and efficiently. As described by physician and researcher Dean Ornish, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed,” where agency and input are greatly desired by any and all stakeholders. Additional steps to facilitate change include keeping changes cognitively light to smooth the transition, and design for an early, visible, positive result and small wins. Additionally, any change plans should be “over–communicated” to keep people onboard and informed. Studies show that people usually need six to 20 varied instances of information before they become familiar with a plan. Finally, cues can be created to help remind people and refresh the message, such as placing stickers about office hygiene, hanging information posters, or creating slogans.
Lastly, Wheeler emphasized the importance of staying "slushy" and not refreezing overly rigidly after change, as change is ever–present and organizations must be ready to adapt and welcome change despite the possibility of resistance. The seminar ended with high praise from the students with many discussing quotes they learned, how they could apply this to current events and teams they are in, and enjoying how practical and activity-oriented the seminar was. In the words of George M. Langlois, executive director of the Center for Leadership Studies, Wheeler’s presentation was “a successful seminar, with practical, useful information to think strategically and lead through change.”