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Learn, Engage and Adapt: A New Way of Leading in the NDIS

Regardless of how successful you have been in the past, the ambiguous and uncertain NDIS environment is likely to require a vastly different leadership approach. Vanessa outlines the best available models for assessing your business environment and responding appropriately.

By Vanessa Toy

Updated 15 Apr 20241 Mar 2016

The NDIS is bringing many unpredictable forces to play – new players, disruptive models, uncertain and rapidly changing regulatory requirements, new technologies and a fledgling market place. All this combines with consumers beginning to take the reins of decision making about their choice of goods and services. The NDIS environment is thus an extremely complex context in which to do business.

Regardless of how successful you have been in the past, this new terrain is likely to require a vastly different leadership approach. To quote the famous leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith, what got you here won’t get you there.

There are a number of models available for assessing your business environment and responding appropriately. One of my favourites is Cynefin (‘pronounced ‘ku-nevin’) designed by scholars David Snowden and Mary Boone.

The Cynefin model describes a complex context as one of emergence and flux, with many unknown unknowns. Actions lead to unexpected results, and it is only possible to understand why something happened in retrospect. The complex context calls for a “Probe – Sense – Respond” technique: trying things, being patient, looking for patterns and allowing solutions to emerge. The appropriate leadership approach is to open up multi-directional discussions, encourage dissent and diversity, implement experimental work models with simple and minimal rules to guide staff, and focus on learning. Some failures will be inevitable, and will provide important learning and better understanding of the new landscape. Thus, ventures need to allow for failure without sinking the whole boat.

This is a very different way of managing than the traditional long-range detailed strategic planning, high investment, hierarchical control model. The central challenges in this approach are managing the urge to impose familiarity by recreating what you’ve done before, or attempting to eliminate risk with overly-detailed plans and pre-defined expected outcomes.

At DSC we’ve been recommending for a long time that leaders drop old fashioned strategic planning, which is unhelpful in the NDIS. Instead, we urge leaders to focus on building the core organisational capabilities required to succeed in complex, changing environments.

Another model of contextual leadership that is getting a lot of airtime at the moment is “VUCA” – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. VUCA is often used as a singular acronym as if these four contexts were all the same. But the intent of the model is to delineate them and identify which you are in, as the leadership response required is vastly different.

In the VUCA model, the NDIS environment could arguably be described as ‘ambiguous’: characterised by a lack of precedents and unclear causal relationships. Although the label attached to the context is different to Cynefin’s, the recommended approach is strikingly similar: learn and discover through experimentation.

We think there are also some really helpful lessons in the Lean Startup methodology. By definition, start ups operate in considerable ambiguity, so they share many characteristics with the NDIS environment.

The Lean Startup method has been used successfully for many new business ventures. It utilises a product-development loop of build – measure – learn, with the aim being to move through the loop as quickly as possible. First build the smallest viable product/service, next measure how customers respond. Learn from the data and start a new loop by adjusting your offering accordingly, with the aim of improving your metrics this time around. If your experiments yield ever-improving results, great! Persevere. Otherwise, you need to pivot – take on board the learnings and change direction. Central to Lean Startup success is establishing the right metrics – what you measure needs to directly and inarguably provide insight into consumer behaviour and whether your approach is working.

These three models share some key characteristics. All of them advise a leadership approach focused on learning through collaboration, engagement and experimentation, striving to better understand your customers, and continuously adapting to the changing environment.

We incorporate these characteristics into our own model for NDIS readiness. We call it Learn Engage Adapt, the three core capabilities most needed by leaders and organisations in the NDIS:

Learn all you can about the market environment – study the market, know your competitors, stay informed about NDIS business drivers and new developments, attempt to predict what might emerge next.

Engage with staff, decision makers, customers, and internal and external stakeholders. Build a culture of engagement and collaboration, and work together to get clear on your organisation’s identity, strengths and competitive points of difference.

Adapt (the big one!) your service models and organisational systems. Work as a team, and focus on developing and reshaping services and systems that are flexible and can be readily adapted to individual client needs. Don’t overinvest in infrastructure or other fixed costs. Start with something very small – pilot a new program with just one staff member, run a one-off event, trial a new system with just one team. Starting this small makes it far easier to make subsequent adjustments. Watch closely and gather data by observing what happens as well as seeking feedback.

We’ve devised this model based on contemporary best practice models of leadership, along with our own observations of what works in the emerging NDIS environment. It is the over-arching framework for our 8 Steps to NDIS Success and we know it works.


Vanessa Toy

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