Saturday, November 28th, 2020

Zoom In, Zoom Out

Rosabeth Kanter just published an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review called “Zoom in, Zoom Out:  The best leaders know when to focus in and when to pull back.”  Here is how the ideas in that article intersect with what we discovered in the research for the book, Leadership Agility

When working on the book, it came to me that a camera’s zoom lens is an apt metaphor for the reflective action process, which is so central to leadership agility.  Near the beginning of our Agile Change-Leader Lab, managers are led through an exercise where they get a visceral feeling for this process, and it becomes a metaphor they refer back to throughout the workshop and beyond.  Zooming out (or stepping back) corresponds to reflection, zooming in to action.

But there’s more to it than this.  When zooming out is understood as gaining both a broader and deeper perspective (where “deeper” seeing the human dimension of organizational life in greater depth), our capacity for zooming out can be mapped on a developmental spectrum.   In fact, each new stage of adult development is made possible by developing our capacity to step back into a broader and deeper awareness (and intentionality).

To be more specific, at the core of development from the Expert to the Achiever stage/level of agility is the development of a more robust reflective capacity.  At the core of the Achiever-Catalyst transition is a broader reflective capacity that includes the ability to “reflect in the moment.”

In Kanter’s article, her basic idea is that some leaders get stuck in “zoomed in” mode of operating and some get stuck in a “zoomed out” mode of operating, while others – the really effective leaders can move back and forth easily between the two.  For example, they develop a robust strategic perspective, but remain alert to smaller developments that might call for a change in strategy.

This insight is completely consistent with the Leadership Agility research, though I would frame it somewhat differently.  The “zoomed in” leaders she describes are managers who’ve gotten stuck at the Expert level of agility, where strategic thinking is very limited, as is openness to differing stakeholder views.  The “zoomed” out leaders she describes are operating at the Achiever level, where strategic thinking blossoms as well as a certain capacity to consider alternative views.

Achiever leaders operating at full capacity have the ability Kanter describes, to move back and forth between strategic and tactical perspectives, as needed.  This is something we stress in our workshops.  As Kanter notes, if you don’t do this, you can’t test your strategic assessments, and you can’t adequately think through the practicality of your strategy ideas.  Some Achievers do, though, get somewhat stuck in the strategic mode and need to better integrate their former (Expert) ability to think tactically with their more heady capacity for strategic thinking.

It’s worth noting that a key distinction made by Kanter in her classic 1980s book, The Change Masters, was one ingredient in the large stew of Leadership Agility research:  She noted that in leading internal organizational change, some managers focused on making changes within the boundaries of their own unit, while others also embraced cross-functional changes.  In the Leadership Agility framework, these approaches are features of leading change at the Expert and Achiever levels of agility, respectively.

The Leadership Agility perspective adds two key points to the ideas expressed in Kanter’s recent article.  One is that there are not just two perspectives (zoomed-in and zoomed out).  We mapped five points of depth and breadth that leaders can potentially shift into when they step back.  Three of these (Expert, Achiever, and Catalyst) are relevant to most managers, because – according to our latest research using the Leadership Agility 360 – only around 5% of today’s leaders have fully developed the ability to perceive and act from the Catalyst perspective (and even fewer beyond that).

The Catalyst capacity to zoom out (and zoom in) is an especially important one to add to the Expert-Achiever distinction implicit in Kanter’s latest article.  Why?  Because our research indicates that the most effective leaders in today’s very complex, rapidly changing environment are those who can step back to this level (and still zoom back into the strategic and tactical levels whenever needed).

Although it may not be obvious at first glance, the Catalyst capacity to zoom-out and zoom-in underlies the ability to inspire and lead transformative change, develop high participation teams, and collaborate with others to develop creative, high-leverage solutions to difficult business and organizational issues.  Applied as a quickened capacity to observe oneself in the midst of action, it also accelerates a leader’s personal and professional development.

One response to “Zoom In, Zoom Out”

  1. m grimes says:

    Well put, Bill
    In a conversation with Susan Taylor we declared that it would be a pleasure for you to join us when we met sometime this Spring. Hope this happens so will keep you posted.

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