Gray Thinking: A business-critical metric for succession planning

The career ladder has become a relic of the past in many global organizations. Leadership roles are being filled by candidates with increasingly diverse backgrounds. C-suite positions were once primarily targeted through upward growth from within an organization. Now, nearly 40% of C-suite positions are filled by external hires. In fact, most leaders have more in common with those in leadership positions from other companies than they do with the employees reporting to them from within the department they manage. Today’s leaders can no longer rely on narrow areas of expertise, but rather require broad perspectives and new skills to be successful. 

As we see a shift to a skill-based economy, succession planning must focus on measurable qualifications and competencies, which invites a big question: are we measuring the right future-oriented skill sets? 

We’re proposing a new metric for assessing a high performer’s readiness to lead: gray-area thinking. While it may sound counterintuitive, an individual’s ability to navigate ambiguity, or play in the gray, can be assessed, developed, and measured. That metric, in turn, becomes a powerful analytic tool to drive succession planning.

Gray thinking is a powerful formula for career success

Every organization encounters gray-thinking challenges. In his New York Times bestseller, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek encourages leaders to recognize that they don’t have all the answers and that there will always be unknowns. By acknowledging the existence of ‘unknown unknowns’, leaders can create a culture of continuous learning, adaptability, and innovation within their organizations. Effective leaders must grapple with this complexity to lead their teams and organizations to more positive outcomes. As you spend time observing successful, high-potential individuals in your organization, you’ll notice a common theme: they’re able to play in the gray.

Leaders who can adeptly navigate ambiguity:

  • Demonstrate adaptability, a crucial skill in dynamic and evolving business environments
  • Can make informed decisions by evaluating multiple perspectives, weighing risks, and identifying potential opportunities
  • Identify novel solutions and think outside the box
  • Demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence and empathy
  • Possess a growth mindset and are open to new experiences and perspectives
  • Embrace challenges, fail forward, and seek feedback to improve

How to assess an individual’s gray thinking abilities

While gray thinking sounds like the antithesis of a quantifiable skill, our work shows that it can be measured. Using scenario simulations to assess (and develop) an individual’s gray thinking and leadership potential provides valuable data for development and succession planning efforts. To enable organizations to analyze an individual’s gray-area thinking effectively, scenario simulations should be designed to: 

  • Contextualize the experience using real-life challenges and dilemmas that leaders may encounter
  • Present learners with ambiguous situations where there is no obviously correct answer
  • Challenge individuals to think critically, consider various perspectives, explore best practices, and refine their decision-making skills
  • Create a safe and controlled environment for learners to fail forward, consider alternative paths, and learn from mistakes
  • Engage learners to make the training enjoyable, memorable, and maximally effective
  • Combine art and technology to enhance immersion 

Incorporating these key features can provide your organization with valuable insights into your leader’s ability to navigate ambiguity and make sound decisions.

Quantitative and qualitative assessment metrics

A holistic evaluation framework that considers both quantitative and qualitative metrics provides a comprehensive assessment of an individual’s gray area thinking abilities.

Quantitative metrics can include factors such as:

  • The time taken to make decisions
  • The number of considerations made
  • The complexity of the chosen path
  • Prioritization of short vs long-term losses and gains

Qualitative metrics involve evaluating the thought process, strategic thinking, adaptability, and reflection demonstrated by individuals throughout simulations, such as: 

  • Decision-making process: how does an individual approach and evaluate the available options, consider the reasoning behind their choices, and understand the trade-offs? 
  • Adaptability and flexibility: how does a leader respond to changing circumstances and adjust decisions accordingly? 
  • Failing forward: how willing is a learner to reflect on choices, identify failure points, and consider alternative paths?
  • Collaboration and conflict resolution: how does the leader interact with team members, navigate interpersonal dynamics, negotiate, build consensus, and resolve conflicts?

Good learning design = actionable data and leader development

Well-designed scenario simulations provide a contextualized, collaborative, and thought-provoking learning experience; one that offers opportunities for learners to explore best practices and uncover failure points to enhance critical thinking, decision-making skills, and engagement. The data captured from carefully crafted scenarios can be used to help your organization identify and develop individuals who possess these critical gray-area thinking skills. Reach out to our team to learn more about how we create tailored or fully custom immersive learning experiences to help our clients identify and develop their leaders’ ability to play in the gray

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