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Change Leadership: Unconscious Bias Training has failed, now what?

Updated: May 29, 2021

"Blind ignorance misleads us thus and delights with the results of lascivious joys. Because it does not know the true light. Because it does not know what is the true light. Vain splendour takes from us the power of being …. behold! for its vain splendour we go into the fire, thus blind ignorance does mislead us. That is, blind ignorance so misleads us that… O! wretched mortals, open your eyes." (Da Vinci, XIX Philosophical Maxims. Morals. Polemics and Speculations).

Change Leadership: Unconscious Bias Training has failed, now what?

Every organisation is looking for change leaders to contribute to enterprise agility and resilience - the creation of meaningful value over time.

Unconscious Bias (UB) was supposed to bring awareness to how an individual can constrain wider community agility and resilience (organisational or societal) through their automatic responses to environmental stimuli through links to cultural intelligence.

"Teams can learn and adapt faster than individual workers alone....The next frontier in teaming is superteams: combinations of people and technology leveraging their complementary capabilities to pursue outcomes at. speed and scale not otherwise possible" (2021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends).

The problem is that UB in itself, detached from the context of organisational or societal Cultural Intelligence, agility and resilience, and associated support tools, is useless.

"Unconscious bias training is an attempt to challenge prejudiced ways of thinking that could unfairly influence decisions....But the government says there is no proof that such training changes behaviour - and that it can "backfire" and create a negative response....Psychologist Patrick Forscher, who examined more than 400 studies on unconscious bias training and concluded there was little evidence of a positive impact, even 24 hours after someone had taken such a course" (BBC News, Unconscious Bias Training to be Scrapped)

Where isolated UB training has failed, sport science can help.

Sport & Change Leadership

In my early career, I qualified as an A license football (soccer) coach. My approach was to develop elite players to do the uncoachable – to have the physical, emotional and mental fitness to adapt; to quickly anticipate and respond to challenges emerging around them - things they hadn't seen on the training pitch - and execute uncoached solutions. Learning focused on a given player's environmental awareness and associated decision-making process:

  • what was their level of environmental awareness - what did they 'see' and what signals did they miss?

  • what was the dominant signal that struck' them, driving their subsequent actions

  • in not getting the intended outcome, what was it about the decision that unsettled them or their teammates?

The SAID Principle & enterprise agility

My approach to the uncoachable came from an unusual source, the SAID Principle; a critical consideration for sports scientists that I still use today as a trigger for optimising the performance of complex change initiatives.

"The SAID Principle is one of the most important basic concepts in sport science. It is an acronym which stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. It means that when the body is placed under some form of stress, it starts to make adaptations that will allow the body to get better at withstanding that specific form of stress in the future. "

Consider SAID in the context of change leadership, where influence and impact are contingent on the ability to respond to changing environmental demands; the blend of competence, competency and capability to sense and adapt to the emergent imposed demands of the environment.

SAID & Business: training for success

Applying the SAID Principle brings you to consider whether the group, team, division or organisation is fit enough to be 'struck' by changes in their environment - the competence, competency and capability to anticipate and respond to emergent demands.

Change leaders experience varying demands, according to the signal load of the overall initiative as well as its emergent challenges and opportunities.

All change initiatives have to sense and provide specific adaptations to the imposed demands of the change signal load. This change signal load comprises three entangled strands, where UB emerges in the External Load:

  1. Natural Load - the characteristics associated with simple, complicated or complex change domains (watch the video for a brief explanation of these three domains).

  2. Resource Load - the effort required to turn the natural load into a project plan (i.e. the number of known and unknown variables, their connections and connectivity).

  3. External Load - external starting conditions that act to accelerate or decelerate change (e.g. the inherent bias of a change team, brought about by their automatic responses to environmental stimuli and informed by their beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience and talent).

Change Management Project Load

Sensing External Load means the individual or team are aware of an unsettling created by their actions or the actions of others. If you have an awareness of that unsettling, then you have been 'struck'. The question is, now what? Not being able to respond to that question is why the UK Government is reporting Unconscious Bias training to be a failure.


Back to where I started this article, Unconscious Bias was supposed to bring awareness to how our automatic responses to environmental stimuli create an unsettling in ourselves and others. The problem is that trainers approached UB in isolation - failing to link it to change, agility and resilience - in doing so, they were unable to deliver meaningful value.

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As in sport, change leaders and managers need to train physically, emotionally and mentally to anticipate and respond to project demands. They need to develop skills (e.g. sensemaking skills), which involves applying techniques, theories, frameworks, models, etc. under pressure (stress). If you fail to train, how can you be fit enough to lead?

"[HR needs to] shift away from their traditional role of standardising and enforcing workforce policies [such as stand-alone UB training] to a new responsibility of orchestrating work in an agile fashion across the enterprise" (2021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends)

If you were going to put together a training programme for your group, team, division or organisation, where would you focus your effort? As a start, think about what might limit your ability to adapt to imposed demand at a given moment in time. To help, you need to consider a concept we call the Agile Proposition of the Minimum (adapted from Liebig's Law of the Minimum and Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety) - see the video below for more detailed information.

Questions to consider

What are the scarce skills that limit your ability to lead and manage a meaningful and valuable change initiative?

Once you have identified scarce and limiting skills, you have identified a known-unknown that will constrain your ability to deliver meaningful value quickly; what development programme will you put into place to improve your performance and that of your team?

Finally, what are you doing to test and advance those skills to develop the fitness required to produce uncoachable moments - think micro-experiments that enable your team to scale or fail rapidly?


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