Book extract: Strategic Doing – Ten Skills for Agile Leadership

In an extract from a new book, the authors set up the modern paradigm of L&D by looking all the way back to the industrial revolution.

Reading time: 5 minutes.

Fads come and go, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the training and development field. Whether it is the latest management model or the newest leadership book, we have all seen new ideas that end up being nothing more than a flash in the pan.

Why is this, and more practically, what should we be doing instead? We’ve spent the past two decades working with companies and organisations, big and small, and out of that work, some key beliefs and practices have emerged.

But first, if we don’t understand the fundamental shifting dynamic in our world, we will miss the key to addressing our biggest challenges. There is a change underway that is easily overlooked, or at least it is so much a part of our current reality that we have ceased to notice it.

It wasn’t that long ago that nearly everyone in the world lived their lives in small groups of extended families – many on farms, others in what today we would call ‘small businesses’. 

The ‘org chart’ is the key artifact from this hierarchical way of looking at our economic structures, and we still behave as if the org chart is the Rosetta Stone to leadership.

There was a predictable rhythm to life, often structured around the seasons, and each family would – for the most part – make their own decisions about which activities needed to be done and when, to ensure the wellbeing of the whole.

Then, in the middle of the 1800s, that began to change, particularly in the West. New machines made it possible to produce things people needed or wanted – cloth, farm equipment, processed food – much faster than had ever been done before.

Companies formed around these new technologies and began to draw people into cities for work to create these new goods. This ‘industrial revolution’ opened new possibilities – young people could learn a set of skills, work their way up, and live a life very different from what would have been possible on the farm.

But as with most big transitions, there was a trade-off. These new jobs didn’t come with the same freedom to organise one’s own days, weeks, and months.

There was a supervisor to answer to. And soon, those supervisors were listening to a new kind of expert, a ‘management consultant’ who talked about ‘efficiencies’ and timed each part of a job, finding ways to shave off even hundredths of a second from each component of a task, in order to maximise profits. It was in many ways the beginning of the ‘training and development’ profession itself.

The ‘org chart’ is the key artifact from this hierarchical way of looking at our economic structures, and we still behave as if the org chart is the Rosetta Stone to leadership. If we can just figure out who on the top to talk to, to get the buy-in to communicate what needs to happen, so we can train those on the bottom, all will be well.

Unfortunately, the org chart no longer explains our economy. Instead, the network has become the primary organising structure behind most of the goods we buy, the services we use, and the places we work, live, and play.

Very few things in our complex world can be accomplished by a single individual or company working in isolation. Think of the last movie you watched, with ten different companies collaborating to produce it. Or the new car you have your eye on, as much a product of Silicon Valley as Detroit or Japan.


We need a new discipline of strategy specifically designed for open, loosely connected networks – for collaborative networks. For most people, ‘collaborate’ is just a word used to dress up the usual series of endless and ineffective meetings, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Collaboration — and the human potential it unleashes — emerges from a portfolio of skills that can be widely distributed within a team of individuals. Each person committed to a collaboration can understand and practise these skills.

At the same time, we can also recognise that none of us will be equally good at all the skills. As a collaboration moves through a predictable cycle from idea generation to implementation and evaluation, members of the team bring different skills to bear.

The virtues of a team emerge as leadership is passed around based on each individual’s strengths. As professionals helping others acquire leadership competencies, we need to help people recognise these skills and where their own strengths lie (as well as their limitations). We need to help people become both more effective leaders and team participants.

There is underlying research supporting our work, although it emerged from fieldwork conducted with hundreds of groups and thousands of participants over 25 years. As we distilled the discipline around ten core skills of complex collaboration, the academics among us began searching the literature to understand why these skills are so effective.

We learned that existing academic research supports the development of each of these ten skills, but also that, until now, no one had put all the puzzle pieces together. It’s not surprising, because the academic research is not centralised in any one discipline but instead spans a number of fields, including cognitive psychology, strategic management, and behavioural economics.

We are well past the time to begin this change. The economic, social, and political institutions at the core of our developed economies desperately need an overhaul, and it’s been clear for a long time that designing these transformations would require us to collaborate.

As part of our work, we drafted a credo (which means ‘I believe’ in Latin) as a simple statement of what motivates us to do this work. We believe that the obligations expressed in this credo can extend to all individuals in our society and to government, business, and non-profit organisations:

  • We believe we have a responsibility to build a prosperous, sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.
  • No individual, organisation, or place can build that future alone.
  • Open, honest, focused, and caring collaboration among diverse participants is the path to accomplish clear, valuable, shared outcomes.
  • We believe in doing, not just talking – and in behaviour in alignment with our beliefs.

For us the credo is a statement of shared values that can help us overcome the silos that weaken our creativity. It is a statement of our inescapable interdependence.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Strategic Doing: Ten Skills for Agile Leadership by Edward Morrison, Scott Hutcheson, Elizabeth Nilsen, Janyce Fadden, and Nancy Franklin. Copyright (c) 2019 by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold. Information at


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