What is Indirect L&D?

How is L&D’s role changing in a world that is moving faster than ever?
Organization Development pioneer Carol Sanford offers many valuable insights that we can apply as L&D leaders in her latest book Indirect Work: A Regenerative Change Theory for Businesses, Communities, Institutions and Humans. Based on over 40 years of experience working as a consultant with leading companies such as Proctor & Gamble, DuPont and Google, she advocates an indirect  approach to development.
Sanford illustrates this approach by contrasting it with a “billiard ball” theory of change, where we see people like billiard balls to be guided with precision to clearly defined outcomes. From this paradigm, it is our job to skillfully nudge them toward the predefined target. It’s clear how this way of thinking is still very prevalent in L&D and management as a whole.
The indirect approach that Sanford advocates is fundamentally different. Instead of focusing on nudging people toward clear outcomes defined by leaders at the top, the focus becomes on developing what she calls the 3 Cs: capability, culture, and consciousness. It is “indirect” as it centers on developing people to self-manage and make their own decisions – an increasingly critical strategy as the working environment becomes more complex and performance objectives become fast-moving targets.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how this indirect approach can be applied to Learning & Development strategy to avoid common sources of waste and to create more value for our stakeholders in a world of rapid change.
Developing Capability
L&D is still largely focused on developing knowledge and skills. However, as needs change faster and faster, this focus leads to greater and greater degrees of waste. We get stuck in a cycle of waste trying to keep up with shifting demands.
Capability refers to something more fundamental than knowledge and skills. As Sanford describes it, “capability has much more to do with managing oneself and one’s environment in order to apply knowledge and skills toward the creation of a desired effect.”
As capability grows, individuals and teams are more able to identify and develop the knowledge and skills they need on a continuous basis. The challenge is that most people have habituated ways of depending on direction from above. They are accustomed to being the billiard ball, waiting to be pushed toward the pocket. Our capability-building strategy must contend with this fact, helping to shine a light on deep-seated beliefs and ingrained tendencies which present barriers to capability and performance in a fast-paced environment that requires more autonomy.
At the same time, we can begin creating experiences for our stakeholders that support them to develop key capabilities such as self-reflection, equanimity (the ability to stay centered and think clearly in changing or challenging situations), and strategic systems thinking, or exploring patterns of cause-and-effect relationships across complex-adaptive stakeholder systems.
Arguably, formal training alone will be an ineffective strategy for developing such capabilities which are highly nuanced and tacit. As learning leaders we can provide guiding principles and frameworks which are applied in real-world work settings with support for ongoing reflective practice.
Developing Culture
According to a 2022 report from Gallup, only 32% of US employees are considered “engaged” in their current roles – a number that has consistently declined over the past few years. This has produced significant costs for organizations both in terms of low productivity as well as high turnover in a competitive labor market. The same report identifies company culture as a primary driver of employee engagement and retention.
Culture is something that is often addressed explicitly at the top of the organization through defining values, mission, purpose and vision, as well as policies, practices and procedures. These elements are then communicated and reinforced through top-down messaging and individuals are expected to get “on board” with “the program.”
Arguably, the problem is that no matter how good these messages are, this culture-building strategy is coming from the billiard-ball paradigm that inherently limits engagement. Research has shown that high-quality engagement, performance and motivation come from a strong sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness, which are all undermined by top-down, “command and control” practices.
When it comes to building culture, an alternative that better aligns with the research is one that includes and engages individuals in the process of creating culture on a continuous basis. Sanford writes, “Working from this paradigm, one doesn’t attempt to push the world and its inhabitants to an ideal state–that would be coercive and life-denying. Rather, one encourages and enables living beings to discover and express their innate potential as contributors to living communities.”
How can we support our stakeholders as learning leaders to create culture from this new paradigm? Regardless of the messaging coming from senior leadership, which may represent a more direct approach, we can begin working more indirectly through our L&D interventions by engaging learners in this process of encouraging and enabling them to “discover and express their innate potential as contributors.” We can help them to reflect on how their work connects to the big picture and how they can help to develop the system as a whole toward its potential, contributing their own unique gifts and talents in a way that aligns with their personal values.
Culture emerges indirectly from this work. Rather than pushing messages of a “customer-centric” or “purpose-driven” organization, such values are grounded in a developmental process that engages everyone from top to bottom. 
Developing Consciousness
Sanford describes consciousness as “the necessary antidote to our overwhelming tendency to engage in automatic habits of thought and behavior.” Collectively, we come from long-standing traditions of seeing learning as a process approximating the programming of a machine. We download the program and we are evaluated based on how well we follow it.
This experience has produced many unconscious beliefs, attitudes, mindsets, and habits that no longer serve us well in today’s changing world which demands self-management capability. Changing these elements in the way we need, however, will require not just replacing them but evolving how we relate to them and developing the process by which they can be updated on a continuous basis. This correlates to what many will be familiar with as double loop learning.
Developing L&D
Critically, we can only truly serve as developmental resources to our stakeholders if we have done the work ourselves as learning leaders and L&D teams. By developing capability, culture, and consciousness within L&D, evolving the function to serve as such a resource, we put ourselves in a position to add more strategic value for our stakeholders while reducing the waste produced by serving from an outdated paradigm.
How are you thinking about creating more strategic value for your stakeholders? Book a time now for a no-cost, no-pressure chat to help you clarify your thinking.

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Tom Palmer