3 Initial Problems to Attack in Building a Developmental Culture

What does an organization that creates a collective responsibility for an adaptive learning environment look like?

This question has increased in importance as organizations struggle with rapidly changing environments in the modern workplace.  Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey of Harvard Graduate School of Education have spent years researching this topic finding common patterns with organizations that adapt quickly and thrive vs. organizations that struggle to change. As a way to describe organizations that have adapted, they created the term Deliberately Development Organizations (or DDOs). In April 2016, they summarized their learnings around what it means to be a DDO in their book called “An Everyone Culture”.

Their book featured Next Jump as one of the three companies that had created a deliberately development culture — going beyond cosigning “people development” to high-potential programs and instead developing employees at every level. Since then, as part of our mission in helping to improve workplace culture, we have opened our doors to interested individuals and groups in the form of Culture Tours and Leadership Academies, as well as started to share the technology that we use to run our own developmental culture. We have been fortunate to work with, learn from and teach top leaders from the likes of U.S. Navy and Air Force to education innovators to Fortune 1000 leaders (and, in doing so, have observed the pain and urgency with which organizations are grappling with this challenge of adapting to a volatile external environment).

The CIA’s Head of Strategy sums it up well:

“The greatest challenge we are facing as a business is that our business environment is changing much more rapidly than our ability to adapt. In nature, this sort of thing leads to extinction.”

Organizations understand the need for decentralized decision making, creating feedback loops, and flattening the organization to allow for more adaptive learning and flexibility. But the road to actually getting there is much more complex. How do you actually get started down this path? How do you train decentralized decision making at scale? Especially when most leadership development programs within organizations today are either classroom training programs or executive coaching programs reserved for senior leaders, the notion of developing all employees can oftentimes feel formidable.

We are commonly asked similar questions around how to get started in building a developmental culture and, in sum, we have found that creating consistent programs and rituals are necessary to create behavioral change. To get started in building a developmental culture, here are three problems to consider attacking, along with our approach (and learnings) for solving for them here at Next Jump.


Problem #1: No Practice Ground

We all need field experience to improve any skill. The challenge in improving decision making is that, as a young employee, you usually do not have any non-mission-critical areas in which you can make decisions, understand the consequences of those and learn from mistakes. This lack of decision making experience boils over when you are then promoted and thrust into a more complicated leadership position, where decision making is more impactful and the cost of a poor decision is much higher. At that point, fear of failure for both the organization and the employee is too high to “practice” anything.

At Next Jump, we use our culture as a practice ground. From organizing recruiting events to running social outings to leading recognition programs, Next Jumpers are given leadership positions very early on in their careers. This is done deliberately to give Next Jumpers a practice ground to make decisions that have consequences, but won’t hurt the business in ways that poor revenue-impacting decisions can.

One way of visualizing this concept is to think about the organization as a ship. There are some initiatives and projects that are “above the water-line” of the proverbial ship and others that are “below the water-line” (e.g., directly impact the bottom-line). Practice grounds should be projects or initiatives that are ABOVE the water-line, where a mistake is not damaging enough to sink the ship. They are still stressful practice grounds and require decision making, but the potential to hurt the business is minimal.

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Problem #2: Lying, Hiding, and Faking

In most organizations or teams, people spend a good amount of time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other peoples’ impressions, trying to look their best, and not sharing what they really think or feel. It can feel like everyone is walking on eggshells. On the flip-side, high performing teams share information transparently — whether it’s information about the work, what’s on their minds, or even feedback to each other. In most organizations, there is little “truth” and candidness in feedback loops. This is costly for both junior leaders (who won’t understand the consequences of their decisions if they are never given honest feedback) as well as for senior leaders (who often do not have the patience to give the space or ground for junior leaders to practice).

At Next Jump, we have created a culture of feedback that is structured around programs and technology to decrease the amount of lying, hiding and faking within the organization. One of these programs is what we call an “Owner’s Meeting,” which is a presentation where Next Jumpers share a reflection on the outcomes of their decisions in their work on a culture initiative. In real-time, their peers will give them feedback anonymously, which helps to increase the candidness of that feedback.

Problem #3: Reducing lying, hiding and faking can be painful.

Hearing the truth can be painful. I have looked back in my career with an appreciation for the mistakes and feedback that have helped to increase my own self-awareness around my “blind spots”. But in the moment, receiving the feedback definitely hurt.

Where many organizations struggle is that they do not create recovery programs to allow for the reflection, venting and exploration of how to receive that direct feedback and translate it into improved awareness and decision making.

At Next Jump, we have setup deliberate programs to enable this cycle of recovery. One such program is called Talking Partners, a co-mentoring program that is similar to the concept of “gym buddies” but for your own personal development. Talking Partners leverage each other to review feedback, vent out frustrations and then use the feedback to improve. Another recovery program is our Situational Workshops, which are essentially coaching workshops at scale (e.g., everyone in the company is in a workshop, and then leads a workshop) where you and your Talking Partners share a difficult situation (decision) and then receive feedback and get coaching on other approaches you could have tried in that situation. The emphasis is on improving self-awareness and situational-awareness — the two key ingredients for better decision making.

It is said that the difference between a great CEO and a fired CEO is that a great CEO makes the correct decisions 95% of the time, whereas a fired CEO makes correct decisions only 85% of the time. If fine-tuning decision making for a CEO is that vital, then it is absolutely crucial for organizations that are trying to move towards decentralized decision making and adaptive learning to find ways to scale training for all employees to help improve their decision-making ability.


We at Next Jump are continuing to iterate on (and learn from) our own approaches, and it is in our DNA to share our lessons. For those of you in the arena and that are getting started, we invite you to learn more as there are so many nuances to doing this even better.

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