Developing Cognitive Flexibility and ability to Drive Change

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This is the sixth in the series of blogs that I have written on the effects of the fourth industrial revolution. In my last blog I had talked about how to develop the behavioral competencies of “Innovation”, “People” and “Business processes”.
In one of my earlier blogs I have argued that Cognitive flexibility is likely to be a critical competency for succeeding in the workplace of the future. This and the ability to Drive Change will together differentiate the merely “Good” from the “Great”.
Let us take a moment to recapitulate what Cognitive flexibility means and what are its three main facets.

Some of the commonly accepted definitions of “Cognitive flexibility” is the ability to mentally switch between two different concepts, to be able to think about multiple concepts simultaneously, and the ability to shift thoughts and adapt his or her behavior to an ever-changing environment. Levels of cognitive flexibility are reflected by your ability to disengage from a previous task and respond effectively to another task—or to multitask.

From the above definitions we had concluded that the three main facets of this competency are:
a. The ability to concentrate totally on one idea while having a number of other concepts/issues/problems at the fringe of consciousness.
b. Disengaging completely from a task and then focusing on the other task/tasks to handle it in an effective manner.
c. Ability to adapt your behavior to an ever changing environment.

Let us at this moment of time also take time to define “Change management” which is again a critical competency which will differentiate leaders at every levels. Most definitions of change management agree on it being a systematic process of dealing with change at organizational and personal level. The three aspects of change management are adapting to change, controlling change, and effecting change.
If I compare Change Management to Cognitive Flexibility, I feel that the ability to adapt to change and controlling change have a lot of overlap with Cognitive Flexibility. The aspect of Effecting Change or Driving Change is something which is an additional part of change management. So, to develop the competencies of Cognitive Flexibility and Change Management, the behaviors/skills which we have to develop would be:
a. The ability to concentrate totally on one idea while having a number of other concepts/issues/problems at the fringe of consciousness.
b. Disengaging completely from a task and then focusing on the other task/tasks to handle it in an effective manner.
c. Ability to adapt your behavior to an ever changing environment.
d. Drive change through encouraging new ideas and handling resistance to them.
e. Ability to communicate through all levels to build consensus to change.

A lot of work to do !

The way I see it, developing these skills and behaviors will to a large extent depend on Self, with the organization in a supportive role in terms of providing supporting structures and creating possible situations where such behavior could be practiced. From a purely personal experience, I have found that that my biggest challenge comes in the first two behaviors enumerated above. I would like to suggest a process to develop these two behaviors. Start with small goals, with a commitment to work without any distraction on a subject for 30 minutes. Keep a note of the number of distractions which caught your attention. Once the 30 minutes are up, Reflect if these distractions could be dealt with at the end of 30 minutes. My experience has been that none of the things you would have attended to were urgent. Slowly move the commitment of working on one task to 60 minutes which in my case seems optimum, all the while ensuring that you spend adequate time on the reflection phase.

The third, fourth and the fifth behaviors can to a large extent be developed through exploring the concepts of change management through reading or online courses. One book which I would recommend is “Leading Change” by Professor John P Kotter, which gives out in detail, the various actions which need to be taken by leaders at all levels during a change process. I am a big believer of the action learning cycle, and even in a self driven learning process, I would incorporate the act and reflect part on the action learning cycle. Once the concepts and the various constraints of the change management process are understood and internalized, these need to be practiced in personal life and at work. It makes sense if these new behaviors are practiced at home in a low risk environment, to get comfortable with these behaviors before trying them out in a work environment. It is important to keep a record of what happened, reflect on what went well and what did not, and then use this learning to try the same behavior again.

I would like to share an example of one of my clients for Executive Coaching who was at a very senior level role, who found it tough to even consider a new idea or thought. He would be comfortable with the way things had been done earlier. This was becoming a limiting factor in his growth in the organization. During a conversation, he shared that whenever he sat down for a meal at home, he would sit in a particular chair. I suggested to him that he may want to try sitting on a different chair and be aware of the emotions and feelings of discomfort which he went through at that time and how he coped with them. Once he had done this for a few times and found that he could manage the feeling of discomfort, he tried the same thing at work where he agreed to a colleague’s idea of doing a process in a different way. He shared that the emotions which he experienced were similar to what he experienced when sitting on a different chair, and that he used the same process to accept and adapt to the new suggestion/new situation as he did at home in the case of the chair.

Do let me know what you think about this blog.Would love to hear your thoughts, views and critique.
In the next blog I will talk about how to assess the impact of any competency/leadership development intervention.
Rajiv is the principal consultant at R Square Consulting. This is sixth in a series of blogs, which will discuss the effect of the fourth industrial revolution and the competencies required to be successful in the workplace of 2020. Rajiv can be reached at rajiv@rquareconsult.in for any query, discussion or any professional requirements.
About R Square consulting : R Square consulting provides end to end services in the field of building leadership and managerial capability to include leadership development interventions based on a holistic blend of exploration, reflection, action learning and coaching, assessment centers and various Organizational development interventions.
We are a HR consulting firm providing customised and holistic HR interventions for developing the human capital of an organization through:
Executive Coaching
Assessment and Development Centers
Organizational Development Interventions
Leadership and managerial development
Flexi HR support for SME

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