Studies have shown that successful organizations have leaders and teams that trust each other, communicate well and engage in healthy conflict — and demonstrate collaborative high performance as a result.

The question is, how do they get there?

What is the secret sauce to enabling these key traits and what role does a learning leader play in them?

It has been observed that under these key traits there are subtle micro-behaviors that contribute to their success. These micro-behaviors include contextual awareness, critical thinking, adaptability, constraints management and vertical development.

Throughout this article, we will explore these micro-behaviors and how to work them into your training programs.

Contextual Awareness

To be contextually aware, a leader, team and each of their individual members must be able to determine what is happening and how prepared they are for it.

The Cynefin Framework provides an exceptional academic framework for this, giving us five core domains through which to assess the current state of problems and decisions. These domains include confused, clear, complicated, complex and chaotic.

Take for example the subject of trust. We might find that the meaning of trust falls under the complicated to complex domains when trust is being built; chaotic when it is broken and distributed across all domains when trying to be repaired.

Using an adaptive learning approach to a subject matter like trust enables content to be personalized based on the knowledge and experience of the learner. For example, you might ask “how do you build trust with a new team?” or “what happens at the team level if trust is repeatedly broken by underperforming team members?” “If this, then that” type questions can trigger richer conversations or retrospection among learners during training.

Critical Thinking

If one does not stop to think critically about the context they are in, or the present impact it is having, they may only be able to draw from the past and not grow toward a better future.

One exceptional way to help build on this micro-behavior of critical thinking is to incorporate the art of inquiry into your adaptive learning.

This includes prompts for the learner to identify what has already been done, what has worked well, what could be even better, what else should be considered, what other questions they might need to ask and answer, etc.

Take for example the subject of communication. When you design a standard course on the subject, you might include theories on communication styles, communication techniques, communication practices, etc. An adaptive course on the subject, however, might incorporate branching activities where the learner is forced to deviate from the standard path and think their way into a new action or response.

You can try this now, by asking yourself:

    • What deviations have you experienced in the workplace when it comes to communication?
    • What about co-workers? What deviations have they experienced?
    • What worked well in these situations? What did not work well?
    • How might you build those examples into your course on communication?
    • What expected or unexpected outcomes might come of this addition?
    • What else could you consider?

From this exercise alone you might be able to imagine how adaptive a course can become by way of incorporating critical thought. It takes great adaptability to think about adaptable scenarios that will help your learners develop these micro-behaviors.


Most of what you have read thus far and will continue to read is a scaffold for adaptability. From this reading, we already know that having contextual awareness enables us to be more adaptive and critical thinking can deepen this adaptability. In the rest of the article, we will explore varying constraints and how these can add incredible depth to one’s growth and establish a brief understanding of vertical development.

Why does all this matter to us as learning designers? How does it increase or optimize high performance in our organizations, leaders and their teams? How does it provoke our desired changes?

The theory is that the more adaptive one is, the more prepared one will be in the workplace to pivot. Nothing has proven the importance of this more than the previous three years. Organizations all over the world have had to pivot more in these past three years than some have in decades.

So, what does it mean to be more adaptive?

If we think about a specific personal or professional conflict, it might be easy for us to wrap our heads around the difference between rigidity (standing one’s ground) and adaptability (being open to the perspectives of others).

In conflict, we may see both parties stand their ground and get nowhere. We may alternatively see one person become more adaptable while the other remains rigid. Or we can see both parties become more adaptable, thereby demonstrating what healthy conflict might look like.

Of course, this is one example. However, adaptability looks similar in areas of trust, communication and collaboration as well. Very rarely will high performance stick if only one person is adaptable. All parties involved need to be adaptable.

How then would you build adaptability into your courses?

You may wish to incorporate action logic, sense-making or “if this, then that” questions into your initial learner self-assessments. You can follow-up by offering learners customized training recommendations based on the top three assessment outcomes.

You may also consider experimenting with various branching scenarios throughout your training, deepening the internal critical thought process, slowing down the learner, encouraging more time to think through all the possibilities and not just game their responses.

Alternatively, you may encourage users to build their own “elective” learning pathways based on their uniquely assessed needs; recommending also that they step out of their comfort zones with their choices.

As you can see, this opens the floor extremely wide for instructional design. So, how then would you define the constraints needed for each of these concepts? Where do you draw the lines?

Constraints Management

Constraints should be contextually bound. For example, for something that is contextually clear (in other words, known, repeatable and effectively operationalized processes) in an organization, you might have tight to rigid constraints imposed on operations. You might see this in sales scripts or transaction processes, accounting/finance, data inputs or reports. There is a strict process to follow for each of these in most organizations and deviations could have extremely adverse effects on the business.

In a more complicated context, such as building marketing campaigns, advertising online, website design or sales discounting, you would want to introduce your team to governing constraints where there is some flexibility.

In contrast, with a complex context, such as digital transformations, new product development or technological innovations, you absolutely need to leverage enabling constraints. This would allow your working teams to get creative, think outside the box, define what works best situationally and iterate along the way.

With chaotic contexts, you are likely to lack restraints or need to de-couple from existing constraints (such as your strict work-from-home policy when your government mandates total lockdown in your region). You must simply act first, sense next and then respond.

So, how do you build this into your learning?

Start with the context first. Then match the context to each constraint type, testing for common errors and building your course accordingly. Also consider how context can change along the way and that it may not ever be linear. Whatever emerges will need a contextually relevant response, which you should prepare your leaders and their teams for.

Lastly, let’s examine vertical development.

Vertical Development

This concept, originating out of the Global Leadership Association (GLA), suggests that learners will be in a different state of transformation in relation to what experiences they have. This includes the courses you teach.

The transformations GLA refers to are opportunist, diplomat, expert, achiever, individualist, strategist and alchemist.

For example, an opportunist might look at trust, communication, conflict and collaboration to serve themselves, whereas an alchemist has an extraordinary capacity to simultaneously deal with many situations at multiple levels (of self, other, organization and more).

As a learner in a program comprising these subjects, the alchemist might think critically about the multiple levels of subject areas they are learning before deciding how best to apply their new knowledge.

In application, they might also think both short- and long-term and establish a means to prioritize both at any given moment — making them as adaptable as possible.

This is not to suggest that getting all learners to the level of alchemist is the ideal target. In fact, it might be detrimental to think this way, especially for sales leaders and their teams. They are most likely more advantageous as an opportunist or achiever in sales than they would be a diplomat, strategist or alchemist, for example.

How then would you design your adaptive learning with these varied outcomes in mind?

For starters, offering some form of action logic, sense-making or polarity perspectives into your self-assessments or courses are just a few ideas.

It mostly comes down to helping the learner live out an experience that then triggers situational responses for them to work through. Case studies, scenario-based learning and branching scenarios can all help.

In Conclusion

It might be best to start with a “context-based” problem to solve, as well as the applicable constraints required in that subject area. From there, you can decide which transformation stage of vertical development these outcomes are most aligned with, as well as the critical thinking elements that can encourage your learners to get there.

This may flip traditional learning on its head. However, it has been observed in organizations with successfully distributed leadership, multi-team structures and self-organizing groups that these adaptive behaviors unleash the potential within.

If learning leaders can find a way to build those elements into their training, they too can contribute to unleashing learner potential.