8.1 The “Drivers and Blockers Exploration Tool”

As a contribution to leadership development practice, we created the “Drivers and Blockers Exploration Tool” (2018 Version), with four detailed examples as mini case studies from our field research (see Sects. 10.7 and 10.8), to uncover an individual’s drivers and blockers—connected to a defined leadership aspiration, specific development objective(s) and context. Using the tool within our programs and coaching work has provided a robust platform to observe and test potential benefits of exploring both drivers and blockers, especially where these are set against specific personal leadership development objectives, and within an integrated and complementary set of other development activities and interventions.

Similar research in a global executive program, where deeper exploration of hidden assumptions was conducted, found that participants were generally able to identify some kind of change blockers (Dominé, 2012). About two-thirds of the development objectives were so-called relational-based objectives, which “target an improvement in how the participants interact with others in the most general sense, whether this involves getting along better with co-workers, being more forceful with them or understanding them better” (Dominé, 2012, p. 47).

Although exploring drivers and blockers is primarily an individual exercise, we note that it can also be carried out in group situations that provide a psychologically safe environment for the kind of intensive awareness exploration in which executives can engage in courageous conversations with each other; and help each other challenge some of their assumptions. In addition, there is the potential for groups or teams to collectively explore their drivers and blockers. Future research might report on such explorations and the adaptations required to our methodology to effectively undertake such an exploration across a group or team level.

In our earlier leadership development workshops with senior executives, we had used adapted versions of Kegan & Lahey’s (2009) “four-column exercise”. In these, leaders and executives examined their “competing commitments” and “immunity to change”, allowing blockers to emerge as they examined the big assumptions underlying why they were not accomplishing their change objectives. This approach focused on aiding participants to become much more aware of the negative emotional influences (which are really “change blockers”), such as fears, that stop them from achieving their leadership development objectives. Surfacing these is very important, because it opens up the possibility for participants to develop ways of overcoming them. Our experience with the four-column exercise created a fundamental and foundational basis for the tool we developed for exploring both drivers and blockers, and we acknowledge that our work acts as an extension of Kegan and Lahey’s groundbreaking processes and research.

The tool, now trialed with more than 2000 executive participants, explores change drivers that might motivate them, in addition to exploring blockers, through 4 progressive phases and 14 progressive steps (see Fig. 8.1 below). The psychodynamic reflection and surfacing methods in the tool and method also allow for integration with other leadership development work, such as coaching, feedback and sustaining a personal development agenda.

Fig. 8.1
A chart titled Drivers and blockers exploration tool. It contains 4 phases, they are as follows, leadership aspiration and specific development objective, exploring your blocker, exploring your drivers, and insights, commitments and actions.

Drivers and blockers exploration tool overview (2018). (Published with kind permission of the authors © I.C. Woodward, S. Shaffakat and V.H. Dominé (2018). All Rights Reserved. Section 10.7 provides the full tool, its steps and its questions)

So, at a deeply personal level, using an integrated exploration, the tool helps surface profound insights—that connect both drivers and blockers. After identifying blockers in relation to their specific leadership development objective(s), the tool can then help leaders uncover and surface different perspectives (positive projections for the future as well as underlying negative assumptions), spinning their perception of their situation in a positive light (i.e. what could happen if they overcome the blockers). From this, they recognize the drivers that can motivate them to overcome their blockers. In other words, it helps individuals uncover their biggest drivers while confronting their blockers—and imagining how these might become drivers.

Importantly, the fourth phase of the exploration process restates the person’s leadership aspiration and development objective, together with their commitments and actions, based on the insights generated relating to both drivers and blockers. Leaders can also consider how to leverage the drivers to their advantage, and turn blockers into potential strengths across other leadership situations and contexts.

During the exploration exercise, people converse with themselves, documenting and articulating the issues faced in achieving their developmental objectives. This personal reflection is a tangible reality, helping the individual pinpoint the role of drivers and blockers in different aspects of their life, work, leadership/management approach, relationships, as well as the interplay between them. We see broader personalization benefits arising for executives articulating their drivers and blockers, and then seeing the implications for other aspects of their leadership beyond the specific development objective. The writing down of answers also concretely helps bring unconscious matters to light.

Exploring “drivers and blockers” is ideally done with the assistance of development professionals or as part of a well-designed development program, course or coaching process. Our tool helps undertake this process, but it can also be modified or adapted as needed by leadership development professionals. The profound insights generated in this surfacing process should significantly influence the personal leadership agenda action plan and commitments made. By systematically exploring drivers and blockers, a leader can unleash the power, force and impetus of drivers to support and propel their desired change; and to overcome the blockers that screen out, obstruct or stand in the way of their desired change. Generating the profound insights from this reflection and articulation gives an extraordinarily deep understanding for working on the very personal aspects of an individual’s leadership—as can be seen in the four mini cases of Sect. 10.8).

We do not use the phrase “competing commitments” in our tool because we found that many executives in cross-cultural settings strongly resisted using the term, as they regarded the notion of “commitment” as an integral part of their leadership development agenda—a positive affirmation. However, we acutely know the value of the term as it applies to the work of Keegan and Lahey and the “competing” elements they highlight. We are certain that their groundbreaking work will continue to be used extensively in coaching and leadership development work into the future.

Nevertheless, the words drivers and blockers resonated extremely easily with contemporary global business executives in our fieldwork—and were relatively straightforward to comprehend and use—especially as we are combining both concepts in the tool.

Consistent with our literature review, we argue that exploring drivers and blockers can help people progressively move to higher “orders of mind”, and growth. We acknowledge the vast array of effective leadership development approaches available today. We suggest that the explicit incorporation of exploring drivers and blockers (and the potential use of the tool and surfacing method) should be highly complementary to a wide range of important leadership development methods in current usage in executive development. Indeed, this exploration is inherent or implicit in many cases (such as immersive self-awareness with coaching and feedback).

To demonstrate how widely the concept we advocate might be applied, we include Sect. 10.9, which connects exploring drivers and blockers with a selection of major leadership and development theories and approaches, including adaptive leadership (Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow, 2009), authenticleadership (Avolio, Luthans, & Walumba, 2004), emotionalintelligence (Goleman, 1996), charismaticleadership (Gardner & Avolio, 1998), immunity to change (Kegan & Lahey, 2001a), personalization (Petriglieri et al., 2011) and positiveleadership (Diener, 2000; Peterson, 2000; Seligman, 1998a, 1998b; Snyder, 2000). Our purpose is not to advocate a particular approach, but show the potential importance, relevance and broad usability of exploring drivers and blockers in a wide range of future leadership development activities.

After exploring “drivers and blockers”, coaching, feedback and support from others are extremely valuable. In other words, creating a support system that includes people who provide an individual with an active encouragement and advice, together with managing the “triggers” to desired or “non-desired” behaviors is indispensable.

In our field research, using the tool over time, a number of important insights emerged, that may assist leadership development practitioners with its use:

  • Sufficient “time” space, with appropriate “head” and “physical” space, is highly desirable to maximize the reflection and insight generation benefits from undertaking the exploration of the drivers and blockers activity itself. (In our experience, it takes a number of hours to work through the explanations, questions and documentation of answers in each Phase in the exploration—with deliberate breaks after Phases 2 and 3. Phase 1 is sometimes done as pre-work).

  • Creating an environment of psychological safety is absolutely essential to promote deep introspection, and because the exploration process can surface difficult and sometimes repressed memories.

  • Being clear, precise and specific on the development objective to pursue is essential to garner maximum insights on the relevant drivers and blockers (e.g. increased active listening in employee discussions rather than a generic improvement in emotional intelligence).

  • Answering the various stage questions with complete phrases, statements or sentences (rather than one-word answers) tends to enrich the understanding, clarity and nuances of the issues as these emerge.

  • Participants should be discouraged from racing ahead to answer all the questions and should be given adequate reflection and documentation time step by step.

  • The order and flow of the question stages has been trialed in multiple permutations, and the current version appears to uncover the most profound levels of insights based on our research to date.

  • There is considerable value in undertaking the exploration exercise for the first time, after some degree of intensive reflection and feedback has occurred, and the leader or executive has been thinking about possible change seriously—and within a well-designed and integrated leadership development process.

  • Many participants re-ran their exploration questions some days or some weeks later, gaining additional insights.

  • Documenting the answers in a meaningful and thorough way substantially assisted the ability to update, amend and commit to leadership action plans.

  • In answering the specific questions for each phase, there is sometimes overlap or duplication in some of the answers (especially between Steps 5 and 6, and Steps 9 and 10). This overlap becomes an important source of critical insights for the leader; and participants should not be concerned about having duplication.

  • Undertaking Phases 1–3, where the main driver and blocker exploration work can be done, is generally well accomplished in one intensive session. However, we have seen that Phase 4 on “Insights, Commitments and Actions” likely needs much more time. We have seen great value in having the leader or executive take some time to think about this, and set another defined writing reflection and discussion period later on. This is very often successful after sharing initial observations and insights with others and getting some preliminary feedback before documenting their answers in Phase 4.

  • Sharing driver and blocker insights with trusted members of the leader’s support system (mentors, coaches and the like) is invaluable—and the resultant conversations usually give rise to additional insights and feelings of support in making the desired changes. Seeking explicit feedback on progress and setting up practice experiments to try new behaviors are equally crucial.

8.2 Drivers and Blockers Exploration in Action: The Case of Jennifer

Jennifer is the Chief Financial Officer of a specialist financial services firm. The thematic issue explored using the drivers and blockers tool and process in a major leadership development program was a lack of active listening combined with impatience in her interactions with others. Below in Table 8.1 is a mini case study which replicates her exploration, answers and insights working through all 14 questions and 4 phases of using the “Drivers and Blockers Exploration Tool” and its process. We present this as illustrative to readers of the kinds of insights and contribution to leadership development that we see emerging in these kinds of exercises. In Sect. 10.8, three more mini case studies are presented for reference and information.

Table 8.1 Leadership development application example of the drivers and blockers exploration process

8.3 Integrating Drivers and Blockers Exploration with Leadership Development

As we noted in the opening Chap. 1, exploring drivers and blockers in and of itself does not constitute integrated leadership development—it is aimed at increasing profound self-awareness. To be meaningful, and actionable, such exploration should be part of a well-designed leadership development approach that includes feedback, reflection, practice and a support system—all assisting to help an individual progressively develop themselves and achieve transformational change.

By way of giving an example of this, we take one of the many integrated and holistic leadership development approaches, to see the way exploring drivers and blockers can enrich self-awareness and enliven, as well as enlighten, the development journey for an executive. This is the “Insightfully Aware Leadership Development Framework (IALD)”.Footnote 1 Field research using the “Drivers and Blockers Exploration Tool” presented in this book also contributed to enhancements and continuing development of that framework itself.

In the IALD framework, leadership development is grounded on generating insights by examining self, in relation to others and context—with an intensive focus on understanding hidden “assumptions and influences, drivers and blockers”. In this development journey, leaders will progressively gather and use profound insights about themselves, others and context to help guide and support leadership decisions, behaviors and development (Woodward & Shaffakat, 2016). The IALD incorporates persistent and dynamic insight generation, feedback, reflection, practice and action underpinning support throughout the different building blocks. The visual below (see Fig. 8.2) draws this together. Although the building blocks appear in sequence, the reality is that the steps and activities are interactive and interweaving—with a leader working simultaneously on their development in more than one block at any point in time and working to create their ecosystem of support.

Fig. 8.2
A chart titled insightfully aware leadership development has the following subheadings, initial development agenda, integrated development, intensive awareness, and continuous leadership growth.

Insightfully aware leadership development framework (2017). (Published with kind permission of the author © I.C. Woodward (2017). All Rights Reserved)

The “Intensive Awareness: Exploring Drivers and Blockers” building block is a crucial and interlinked feature of this framework. The underlying rationale for the exercise that explores drivers and blockers as a discrete, yet intertwined, component is deepening continuous self-awareness as a dynamic part of integrated leadership development. An individual explores these directly related to his or her specific development objectives and context, to see what drivers he or she can use to support change; and what blockers might be standing in the way.

As we have argued throughout this book, we believe that insights from using an exploration process for uncovering drivers and blockers can act as an invaluable lens in increasing the depth of self-awareness. As such, it is a construct that should have wide applicability in leadership development programs, interventions and coaching.