Putting MBA candidates to the test: complex adaptive leadership


By AGSM Jul 26, 2018 

When AGSM Executive-in-Residence Ben Pronk was completing his MBA in 2017, he spotted a gap in the curriculum.

“A lot of the leadership information was good, but it was heavy on the theory and light on the applied experience,” says Pronk. And for someone who has spent over 20 years serving in the military, most recently as Commanding Officer of the Special Air Service Regiment, he has a breadth of experience in applied leadership.

“Theoretical frameworks can guide someone to a point, but it doesn’t always play out as expected in the real world,” says Pronk.

So, this year, he has piloted the Complex Adaptive Leadership course for the full-time AGSM MBA cohort and developed it into an elective course for part-time and MBAX candidates.

The course puts candidates through a three-day immersive experience in the Australian bush, learning how to apply their theoretical baseline in real-life scenarios. At AGSM @ UNSW Business School, our education is fit-for-purpose, teaching modern leaders to be as agile as the fast-changing business landscape. And using this stress testing simulation technique, candidates are given the chance to gauge and respond to how particular stressors will impact a certain environment or situation – and how to react.

“The course takes the view that the theory is necessary, but not sufficient,” says Pronk. “We’re giving them the opportunity to experience what works and what doesn’t.”

Putting decision making to the test

And how does this play out?

“There is a collection of small group activities,” explains Pronk. Each activity has definite goals and allocated leaders, and is designed to simulate a wide variety of situations using the Cynefin framework.

The Cynefin framework is a conceptual framework created by management consultant Dave Snowden, formerly of IBM, and is used to aid decision-making. Within it, there are four key decision-making ‘domains’ to help leaders identify how they perceive situations – simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. “It’s a really powerful way of looking at the world and understanding the non-linearity of human interaction,” says Pronk.

Each candidate gets the opportunity to lead, and also to follow. “Looking at the social psychology aspect of groups and followers is really important,” says Pronk. “So we assess how people form groups, what motivates them and also what binds them together.”

Navigating the brave new digital world

Participants at the recent AGSM Digital Leadership in an Accelerated World Alumni Refresher got to experience a taste of the course in the Complex Adaptive Leadership Masterclass run by Pronk and AGSM Fellow Patrick Sharry.

Pronk says delving into complex adaptive systems theory is crucial for leaders to effectively deal with the rapid pace of technology today. “We’re entering a brave new world where the old manufacturing or management theory playbooks simply don’t apply any more.”

He compares this unknown to his experience in the SAS preparing for missions without precedent. “We’d have to come up with solutions for problems that hadn’t happened before. In many ways it’s the same theme in digital spaces,” says Pronk.

For this reason, he says the course has good applicability across a whole range of industries. “It’s about being open to feedback from unique environments,” explains Pronk. And the spirit of feedback is also applied in the debriefs held after each micro-challenge.

“In high pressure environments, if you’re rattling through the exposures without the time to sit and digest on what’s happened then there’s no crucial learning,” says Pronk.

This also ensures candidates have the opportunity to share their reflections, discussing what worked well and what didn’t and hopefully come away with invaluable learnings.

“The course is designed to be challenging. We want it to be a crucible moment for the candidates,” says Pronk. “It’s not designed to be a physical test or a massively stressful situation. It is designed to simulate the kind of challenges or pressures you would experience in real life leadership environments.”

Positive reflections from the pilot course

Pronk says there has been universally positive feedback from the pilot course. “It’s encouraging from our perspective – what we’d designed to occur played out,” says Pronk. “People came back with reflections saying that they’re able to see exactly what we’re teaching.”

That is, that the theory is a great starting point but the application can be messy. “It’s not perfect, or linear. It gives candidates the ability and requirement to adapt and modify the plan based on how the environment plays out,” says Pronk.

Candidates from the pilot course reported they’d felt daunted before attending the course. There’d been a lot of ambiguity as to what it would involve. “So, the fact they could apply themselves, get through it and succeed gave them the confidence they needed to go out and lead,” says Pronk.

Naturally, challenging experiences like this are also designed to form human connection, and create bonds. “It’s great for the full-time cohort to have that experience,” says Pronk. “Having shared hardship, a shared experience and shared victory is extremely powerful for group formation.”

“But once you’ve done it and benchmarked yourself in a situation that’s potentially unknown or ambiguous or daunting… it really prepares you for the next big challenge,” says Pronk.

Complex Adaptive Leadership is one of the courses run in the AGSM MBA (Executive) suite of courses. For CAL enquiries please contact studentexperience@agsm.edu.au and find out more about our MBA programs here www.agsm.edu.au.

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