Learning calls for a willingness to examine old habits, think in alternative ways and take on new challenges. In a team setting, the talents and abilities of each member require assessment in order to determine what new skills they might need.

In this age of disruption, we have to alter the way we view leadership, beginning with the assumption that the authority to solve problems and make decisions resides only at the upper levels. Consider, also, the belief that a leader must be positioned up front. Sometimes, it is better to lead from behind, to see who is aligned and who is heading in the wrong direction. Lastly, counteracting the negative impact of disruption calls for responsible team leaders who are empowered to take action in a timely manner.

Team leadership works best when it is informal and natural, and leaders can develop the requisite skills on the job with practice. Some people come by them naturally, so all they need is the opportunity to apply what they know — which is good, because during a period of disruption, there may not be enough time to formally train candidates before their action is required.

Solving Problems and Making Decisions

Problem-solving and decision-making can be challenging for teams, because each process requires an examination from differing points of view. For example, a problem exists when an undesirable deviation from a past expectation has occurred, while a decision is called for when a future expectation needs to be modified, changed or canceled. Often, the two functions are interconnected and, thus, need to be performed simultaneously. Understanding where to start this exploration of causality and rectification can be frustrating for a team, unless it first establishes a common purpose.

The history/future model shown below is a learning and development (L&D) tool designed for use on the job or in a formal training session to establish a common purpose, which then allows the team to focus on exploring options and discussing opportunities rather than on finding fault and assigning blame.

History Future Model

Looking Back: History

Start with a quick assessment of the situation. Ask participants to indicate whether they are looking back at what has happened or looking ahead at what needs to happen. Some may not know yet, so ask them to stay neutral for now. Then, ask participants looking ahead to “mute” themselves and listen while the ones looking back share their perspectives.

Using the key words shown in the “history” column, form a list of questions relevant to the situation. Keep the questions short and simple, like these questions for a customer satisfaction problem:

    • Who filed the complaint?
    • What do they want?
    • Why are they upset?
    • When do they expect a response?

Once the focus questions are compiled, the data collection and confirmation can begin. It will not take long before the team’s memory of the past is reinvented. At this point, armed with a pool of historical knowledge, it is time to shift focus to the future. It’s is a good time to break and let participants realign for the next round.

Looking Ahead: Future

Typically, there will be a lot more discussion on what went wrong than there will be about what needs to be done differently. The history of the situation is familiar and, therefore, easier to recount. The future is another story — one that has not yet happened and is, therefore, difficult to talk about in specific terms. For those reasons, a facilitator may need to take a more active role in this part of the process.

As a rule of thumb, a high-performance team should invest between 60% and 70% of its time looking ahead. Spending too much time rehashing issues from the past can be wasteful and unproductive.

Working the “future” side also starts with the formation of a set of questions, but this time, each question is prefaced by “Now,” followed by “how.” For example:

    • Now that we know who filed the complaint, how do we communicate with him?
    • Now that we know what he wants, how do we provide a replacement?
    • Now that we know why he is upset, how do we restore his trust?
    • Now that we know when he expects a response, how do we meet that timeline?

This two-pronged data-gathering process may take some time to get used to, especially the awkward use of the “now, how?” format. It works best if you let it unfold naturally. Before you begin, determine how much time you wand to spend on each side of the model. Remember to encourage team members to take a new position as their thinking shifts.

The objective in applying the history/future model is to help everyone involved gain a better understanding of the situation, an awareness of all aspects of its cause and a clearer perspective on how to resolve it. This process can happen quickly and remotely and is more practical than working your way through a lengthy agenda. Once you’ve successfully resolved the situation, everyone involved in the process will come away with a sense of satisfaction at having accomplished a challenging task. Confident in their newly acquired skills, they will look forward to working together again.

The vitality of any organization depends on its ability to respond quickly to unforeseen circumstances and to stay focused on what really matters. By adopting the history/future model as a training device, the training professionals responsible for leadership development can play a key role in helping their constituents learn by doing in an age of disruption.