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CASE-IN-POINT Case-in-Point is an immersive, reflective, and ideally a reflexive exercise facilitated by an instructor but in best practice, shaped by group/class participants. People in the room represent a microcosm of the larger society. The theory uses the elements present in the classroom to illustrate real world concepts that include: (positively) creativity, clarity of purpose, ability to work across factions, etc. and (negatively) distraction, fatigue, secondary agendas, or lack of commitment to the cause. The idea is that people create the resources that enable as well as the barriers that constrain making progress on an issue. People are the common thread between the classroom and the real world. Case-in-Point forces participants to study themselves in their classroom behavior as a way of strengthening their engagements in the real world. Studies on the best practices of leadership development agree that to be effective, leadership learning activities need to be grounded in the complex, difficult realities facing those who choose to exercise leadership and relevant to their developmental needs. It is also agreed that while leadership is difficult to teach, it can be learned. Leadership, in KLC terms, is more of an art than a science. As a result, learning methods that replicate and illustrate human and organizational dynamics of “real life” are more likely to assist practitioners in becoming more effective. We consider leadership the practice of “mobilizing people to tackle tough issues, adapt and thrive.” Change is difficult, takes time, involves loss and generates pushback and resistance. Leadership is specifically about change that builds people’s capacity to adapt and thrive within changing circumstances. Case-in-Point assists with two key components of leadership development:

It provides teaching method that more realistically prepares people to have stamina, resilience and a willingness to work with others in the heat of change in order to adapt, because “to lead is to live dangerously.”

It helps practitioners generate a heightened awareness of themselves, their impact and the systems they are a part of.

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Case-in-Point An experiential methodology for leadership education and practice

by Michael Johnstone and Maxime Fern of Vantage Point Consulting

replicate and illustrate the human and organisational dynamics of “real life” are more likely to assist practitioners learn to be more effective.


The need for effective leadership is increasing as our global community and organisational contexts get more complex, less certain and simply harder to manage. At the same time questions about how to train and develop people to effectively meet these demands need to be asked. Studies on best practice leadership development (e.g. Giber 1999, Parks 2005) agree that to be effective, leadership learning activities need to be grounded in the complex, difficult realities facing those who choose to exercise leadership and relevant to the development needs of these people. It is also agreed that while leadership is difficult to teach, it can be learned (e.g. Barnes 1989 Sinclair 1998 or Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky 2009).

Six assumptions (summarised in Sidebar 1) are proposed, premised on the idea that leadership is the practice “of mobilising people (in organisations and communities) to tackle tough issues, adapt and thrive “(Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky 2009:14). Leadership is specifically about change that builds people’s capacity to adapt and thrive in their changing circumstances, however change is difficult, takes time, involves loss and generates pushback and resistance. The adaptation that is needed requires the interaction of different groups with different needs and loyalties to define what thriving would mean and to realise it through joint work.

This paper outlines a learning methodology which attempts to bring some of the complexity and challenge of practicing leadership into the learning context. Case-in-point teaching (CIP) has been developed and refined by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and their colleagues at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, over the past fifteen years and is an integral part of the evolution of their theory of Adaptive Leadership.

This definition of leadership and the assumptions that underpin it have a set of implications for leadership development; what practitioners should learn and which capabilities matter. We suggest that leadership education needs to be based on three key principles: Firstly, leadership practitioners need to be able to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges and to better understand systems and the challenges of mobilising groups of people.

Before discussing this learning methodology and leadership tool it is important to outline several core assumptions we make about leadership and the implications for educating leaders because, we argue, the practice of leadership is more an art than a science and as a result, learning methods that

Secondly, we need a method of teaching that more realistically prepares people to have stamina, resilience and a willingness to work with others




in the heat of change in order to adapt, because “to lead is to live dangerously” (Heifetz and Linsky 2002), to be able to act in creative and productive ways in the middle of what are often demanding and unpredictable situations.

in the context of developing leadership capabilities, as well as showing how it can be used as part of a toolbox of leadership skills.


Thirdly, practitioners need a heightened awareness of themselves, their impact and the systems they are part of.

To teach leadership is to ask people not only to respond, adapt to and change their organisational circumstances, but also to change themselves. Leadership development, then, is an act of leadership since people are being invited to examine and overcome barriers to their own effectiveness; that is to adapt and thrive! Case in point is one method which encourages these elements to be fostered in a learning setting where participants are active in the learning process, help to establish the agenda and shape the learning to suit their own needs. It also is a tool for practitioners to use in the middle of the ‘action’ of daily working life, one that can allow greater awareness and clarity of what is occurring in the systems they are trying to influence and change. CIP becomes a form of reflective practice– “a means by which practitioners can develop and use a greater level of self awareness about the nature and impact of their performance, an awareness that creates opportunities for professional growth and development” (Osterman and Kottkamp, 1993: 19) and it becomes “a dialogue of thinking and doing through which [the participants and perhaps the facilitator] become more skilled” (Schon 1983: 31). In this way we create a laboratory where people can build the capacity to exercise leadership irrespective of their formal authority and role. This paper will describe “Case-in-point” teaching, outline why and how to use it, and provide a number of vignettes and case studies to illustrate its use

The enduring goal of Leadership Education is to enhance people’s capacity to exercise leadership, so this remains the purpose of Case-in-point, which is used to bring the dynamics of adaptive leadership into the learning room. For the leadership educator then, as for the practitioner, a guiding question must be “how do I prepare people to tolerate the pressures, heat, ambiguity, that will develop as I work toward resolving adaptive challenges and how do I help people to stay open and engaged while they do not know the answers and may not have the competencies required? How do I help people to genuinely learn? Case in point tries to build these critical leadership capacities by holding people to challenging work in the group room and in so doing, building new leadership “muscles”. The method involves using the actions and behaviours of individual participants as well as focusing on the group they are members of, as the case study, making it a “here and now” experience. The group serves as a case study for a set of concepts and issues relating to leadership, ranging from an individual’s use of power and relationship to authority, through to the systemic processes in groups that undermine effective adaptation and learning or, for an organisational work group, to observe its own functioning and any barriers to progress. The approach combines didactic (cognitive) and experiential (affective) learning (or as we like to say “above and below the neck”) placing emphasis on the interactions and dynamics that are generated in the learning (or work) setting and using these as a source of data for observation and reflection. It draws on the participants’ (and facilitators) immediate experience as it unfolds and allows anyone in the group to “push the pause button” and ask “what’s going on here?” and “how can we understand this?”




Assumptions About Leadership And Implications For Leadership Education




1. Leadership is more art than science and unlike many other disciplines can not be treated solely as a technical subject.

A means of learning by doing and experience, which engages people “above “and “below” the neck is required. More laboratory and studio than classroom.

Case in Point as an experiential learning method and leadership practice.

2. Leadership is about change that enables the capacity to adapt and thrive (change with a purpose).

Providing experiences to respond, thrive and act during change. Defining thriving and being more effective.

Thinking politically; systems diagnosis; and orchestrating conflict.

3. Adaptation requires experiments, improvisation and learning and is often difficult, painful and generates unevenly distributed loss.

How to experiment, practice and replicate the challenges of adaptation; diagnostic ability; to recognise defensive patterns; to interpret human systems; and have a experimental mind set.

Observation, interpretation and intervention; craft experiments; build an adaptive culture and the courage to make uncomfortable interpretations.

4. Adaptation and change takes time and provokes resistance and pushback.

Build stamina, resilience and persistence; hold a group through difficult work; tolerate conflict, ambiguity and heat.

Regulate the heat; think systemically; group facilitation; orchestrate work and separate self from role.

5. People are affected by the pressures of the system they are part of and those exercising leadership contribute to the problems they face.

Identify how those who offer leadership are part of the problem; understand one’s own defaults and triggers.

Self and systems awareness; a ‘balcony’perspective; challenging one’s own assumptions and those of others.

6. If people step out of the action to observe and understand the systems they are trying to change, it can increase the odds that they can make more effective choices.

Get on the balcony; observe, interpret and intervene from a systemic and adaptive perspective.

Diagnostic and intervention skills.




In this way, issues that develop and become alive in every group are illustrative of the issues experienced by those exercising leadership in organisational or community settings.

The group and each member’s changing place in it create rapidly developing relationships and so the group-room, like the workplace, may become charged or “hot” with reactions and emotions. The particular “heat” generated becomes a unique resource for each CIP analysis. In other words, we use the interactions and dynamics of the group working together to explore leadership and organisational systems, while simultaneously thinking about the forms or methods of action best suited to make progress given the purpose of the particular group.

Similarly, while it is relatively easy to describe the theoretical distinction between leadership and authority, drawing attention to the way participants defer to the facilitators as the designated authority when difficult questions arise is far more likely to bring this critical distinction alive. People can then be assisted to reflect on their relationship with authority because it engages them immediately and in both a analytic (cognitive) and emotional manner. Asking a question, such as, “how do you get a group to work on an issue without being caught in a dependence on authority?” is likely to create pressure in a group that will illustrate how they expect their authorities at work to adjudicate or “fix” things when there is disagreement, lack of clarity or heightened pressure and uncertainty. The immediacy created by using the group as the ‘here and now’ case study requires each person to offer something of themselves related to the issue or topic at hand and, in so doing, helps them see what more they need to learn, or through observation of others, how they could behave differently.

The use of the group as an experiential case permits relevant issues, assumptions, knowledge, analytical and intervention skills and influencing behaviours to surface, so they can be examined. Debriefing and discussion provides disciplined reflection and analysis on the patterns of thinking and behaviours that are exhibited and their implications for individual practice. Coaching, skills practice and small group discussion then allows incremental learning and application to take place and builds a foundation for transfer to the work place. Building on standard forms of pedagogy (e.g. lectures, sharing ideas, discussion, stories or case studies), CIP draws on present experience as it unfolds to give all participants, including facilitators, an immediately relevant experience or case study to learn from. So, for example, when giving a ten-minute lecture on how managers get and hold attention or develop and maintain credibility, the subject has intellectual interest, but if CIP is used it increases pressure on all parties to examine, in this working environment, how attention is being held, who receives more or less attention and how credibility is being developed or maintained and by whom. Further, the dynamics related to issues of visibility associated with race, gender or style of intervention may come into relief. In a work setting the use of CIP may allow colleagues to see, in the moment, the ways they defer to their manager when difficult problems have to be resolved.

CIP integrates a theory of leadership with a challenging learning context that mirrors participants larger field of action and shifts the locus of action from facilitators to the group, from individual to the system that is created and from issues of individual skill or power toward how to mobilise a group to make progress on issues that are relevant to it. As Parks (2005:232) concludes “the individual learner becomes more than a consumer of knowledge and technique and instead becomes an actor in a complex system and (critically) an active participant in his or her own learning”. The facilitator “is a co-learner and at the same times a model, practicing authority and leadership in public so that others may…learn”.




Adaptive leadership, by its nature, cannot be based only on the application of clear rules, developed in domains where technical solutions are the appropriate application. In the complex messy problems that resist technical analysis or the “swamp” there are few rules and no set techniques that can guarantee the right answer (Schall 1995: 203-204). A clear implication, therefore, is that we must prepare people to operate more effectively in the “swampy” ground of adaptive change by offering both frameworks and tools, together with meaningful experiences that ensure leaders as learners have the capacity to: I




Understand themselves as individuals, as socially embedded beings, and to see how they are a part of, and get “used” by, the systems that they are part of (to think systemically); Understand human systems as multi-party entities that interact in the service of solving problems, each with different needs, stakes and loyalties (to think politically); Engage in hard conversations to test assumptions (one’s own and those of others) and; Be able to tolerate conflict and heat and to hold a group through sustained difficult and often experimental work; and Be able to entertain divergent perspectives and interpretations and have empathy for these different views and loyalties.

To develop these leadership capabilities we need to provide a set of learning experiences that illustrate and are consistent with a coherent intellectual framework; one that offers learners a wide field of understanding and action. CIP can also be used to illustrate many of the more specific concepts and practices of adaptive leadership (see Side Bar 2 Teaching Purposes of Case-in-point for examples. The broad rationale, then, for using case in point is to replicate and illustrate the dynamics of adaptive leadership, a process of trying to move a group

from its current reality to a better future, where new attitudes and competencies are needed but where there is a default for people to rely on those in authority to provide the “answers”. It is important, therefore, to understand and demonstrate how the dynamics of trust and reliance on authority play out, using the learning environment as a proxy, as a laboratory of observation, experimentation and action. The interactions, discussions and disputes that emerge between people (the “Star Wars” of training programs) about the shared purpose, structure or means for making progress, provide a surrogate for the factional and social dynamics that are experienced in the wider world and allow participants to discover what is involved in intervening in a system trying to adapt and learn . Case in point learning creates opportunities to practice new and higher risk behaviours with a safety net, to experiment, observe oneself and others in action and learn from success and failures. Once learnt, CIP allows these practices to be used in the wider world. Another reason to use CIP lies in a often unmet demand on those in authority roles to respond to people whose anxieties are aroused because of the pressures and complexities of the changes they are required to endure. For example, the pressure to know what is required in a situation where existing approaches are not adequate and people’s sense of agency and competence are questioned, where new skills and understandings are needed and are being acquired. Higher anxiety, higher pressure usually means higher emotion and reactivity, which in turn requires those in authority roles to be seen to manage effectively and contain these emotions. Change in people’s lives, be it organisation, community or personal settings, can be messy, unpredictable and simply hard to face. If this proposition is accepted then we need approaches to developing leadership that foster the capacities of resilience and sensitivity in the face of the anxiety and emotion associated with change. A balanced and well differentiated presence, which does not fuse or become swamped by the emotions of others but at the same time isn’t so detached as to not be able to identify with the loss or confusion people are experiencing, is required (Evans 1998).




Participants are able to experience their own behaviours or observe the behaviours of others during group reflection and do so with a range of interpretations that can stretch their own understandings, values and practice. As they become more proficient at seeing, understanding, anticipating or intervening in what is unfolding in the session, they are able to practice safely in order to act more effectively in their chosen leadership domain. CIP brings a degree of reality and aliveness into the room so participants have material to work with. The curriculum is in fact what develops in the room through the interactions and exchange between participants and facilitators, but is grounded in the day to day experience that participants bring to the learning setting from their work and community challenges. As Kegan (2002) says “a curriculum is a set of good problems with which to develop a relationship.”

The capacity to differentiate, hold steady and “mix it up” in the fray of change can be developed, but not from reading books. Case-in-point helps participants develop a stomach for disequilibrium, for conflict, the expression of emotion and a context in which to experiment with tools and strategies to manage and harness such situations. The essence of CIP is providing opportunities for people to learn how to: I I I I

Identify systemic patterns; Get into “the fray” effectively but not be subsumed by it; To intervene and create momentum; and To stay steady even when pushed close to and beyond one’s limits.


Purposes of Case-in-Point


To explore and understand authority relationships including dependence


To transform rigidity of organisations and groups


To create a capacity for leadership without authority


To assist people see how they constrain or inhibit expressions of leadership in the group


To foster more shared leadership and to reduce dependency


To maintain a focus on purpose and understand the ways groups can become distracted


To identify and act on forms of work avoidance, e.g. marginalisation, scape-goating, undermining


To harness the capacities of all present, including silent participants


To develop the capacity to think politically and mobilise different factions


To develop systems insight and understand one’s own defaults and “chimes” to the pressures of the system


To increase resilience, robustness and flexibility of the group as a whole


To foster strategic (balcony) thinking and reflective practice



Finally, Case-in-point is designed to foster strategic thinking, self and systems awareness or what Heifetz and Linsky (2002) call “getting on the balcony” – the ability to get a perspective in the midst of the action. Typically, most people don’t see themselves, let alone the impact they have or the interactional roles they play, as they happen. As noted in sidebar 1 if people step out of the action to observe and understand the systems they are trying to change, it can increase the odds that they can make more effective choices. Moving from actor to observer and commentator is an important skill that can be learned, and Casein-point provides a setting within which to exercise this important leadership “muscle”.


With more traditional didactic forms of teaching, even active methods, such as Harvard’s case approach, the teacher acts as a guide and the facilitator of the case discussion. Key functions of the instructor are to frame the task, focus the enquiry, stimulate interaction, probe thinking, set direction, register progress and bring discussion to closure (Boehrer 1995: 9). While these functions provide a high level frame for the Case-in-point facilitator, in this modality the case study is the learning group itself, at a particular moment, chosen by the facilitator or by a participant, because of the opportunity that moment may provide for learning. While intellectual and procedural authority rests with the facilitator, he/she and participants are part of the case-in-point and both determine what is learned, raise questions and make observations. At its simplest, Case-in-point discussion might begin when someone pushes the “pause button” and asks “what is going on here?” or “in what ways does this interaction illustrate this concept?” In CIP participants co-create and deal with the material themselves more directly and interact with each other in reviewing their own dynamics, but with a particular question or line of enquiry, related to the session/topic in mind. CIP

consists of managing these encounters towards a purposeful end. The task of the facilitator then becomes one of holding participants through a process; structuring and guiding the experience so it is possible to learn from each other (regulate the distress and orchestrate the dialogue). In addition to ensuring participants discuss central issues relating to the adaptive leadership framework, it is the job of the facilitator to surface and expose thinking so that beliefs, values and assumptions can be scrutinised. In this way, participant’s views of themselves are revealed and examined in order to see their impact and determine which ones they want or need to hold on to. An effective facilitator can use CIP to help people ‘unbundle’ themselves including their effectiveness, to observe and intervene, to think about social systems in a more interactional and political fashion and prepare people to exercise their own leadership. The CIP facilitator does not teach people how to lead, but rather helps people to notice the effectiveness of their actions, test their judgements about themselves and to bring reality and aspiration a little closer together, thereby building their leadership capacity.


There are two broad categories of Case-in-point teaching. First, ‘on topic’ (current) where discussion relates directly to the topic of the session, to the agreed leadership “curriculum’, and second ‘, past or future topic, where an issue or question arises relating to something that occurred in an earlier session or something that is significant to an emerging issue, that may become relevant to learning at later stage. Either form can serve the learning, though the former is more likely to create “aliveness” in the group as the issue is current and is more easily responded to since the “actors” are more likely to still “be in role”. Either of these forms can be examined at one of four levels of attention.




1. Individual A comment on an individual participant’s contribution or action, e.g. “Tom, to what extent were you successful in holding people’s attention when you spoke?” Or “what predisposes you to take the actions you took?". This level of intervention invites an individual to reflect on his her behaviour, assumptions and beliefs and must be relevant to the topic at hand. 2. Relationship A response to an interactional pattern that develops between two or more participants, e.g. “I notice that when Mary speaks, Bill or Jill usually disagree; what does this pattern tell us about listening to different viewpoints and values?” Or “how do each of these players represent different values or loyalties present in the room or beyond?” Here, questions invite observation of patterns emerging in the group particularly between a limited number of participants. 3. Group and System Responding to issues or themes that impact on all participants, e.g. “How do you, as a group, exhibit your own purpose when I, as instructor, don’t direct the discussion?; Or “what social pressures exist here, that are impacting on you, that are shaping how you work together and make it difficult for you to adapt and learn?”. This level of intervention begins to identify systemic issues to be examined in light of the themes emerging for the group and/or factional dynamics present. 4. Context Comment on issues that reflect participant, organisation, community, nationality or ethnic contexts, e.g. “What might it mean in light of the large international contingent in the room, that the question of global leadership has only made reference to senior Western political figures?”

Each level of observation and intervention will bring some part of the group, its functioning and/or purpose more into focus and allow more detailed discussion. It is important, however, to resist turning the events or intervention identified into one with a personal focus because many issues that are discussed at an individual or relationship level are a reflection of more fundamental factional or systemic pressures. We assume, for example, when a group becomes engaged during adaptive work, and is distracted by work avoidance or there is increased heat or uncertainty, each person in the room conducts some of the “electricity”, some of the tension of the group. This heat manifests for each individual in a different way: or as we say it “rings a different chime for each person”. A consequence of this tension and confusion is that people lose context and the link to the issue on the table, to the purpose. In this setting we use case in point to help people see the relevance of their immediate actions and impulses by making reference to the learning framework, connect what is happening to the topic or work at hand and to assist people to see the otherwise hidden systemic pressures affecting them. The predictable patterns or groupings (factions) that emerge in most learning or working groups are a rich source of data and reflection and frequently directly relate to the adaptive issue at hand. CIP allows us use and connect our individual and collective responses, as sources of data, to the relevant adaptive challenge and clarify our relationship with our purpose. CIP therefore serves to connect reaction, relationship, the adaptive challenge and purpose through an adaptive leadership learning framework. To illustrate this point, imagine a person, let’s call him Robert, with a personal preference for working in a structured way who is seen to be increasingly frustrated and angry in his comments to the facilitator; comments which suggest he expects people in authority to work in a more ordered way and to give more information in a direct fashion. While it is true that Robert could learn to be more effective in how



he deploys himself and influences others, a personal CIP focus on Robert is less useful i.e. why he is angry or even his preference for structure or more formal lectures, but rather what Robert’s actions, his social role (the critic) or his interactions with the facilitator might help us understand about our collective relationships with authority; or how, when overlooked, differing needs, values and reactions in groups can form resistance; or how groups and those in authority roles can unintentionally create the very deviant voices they most want to avoid.

In other words, while case-in-point may arise from an individual’s actions, our purpose is to use this action to illustrate a more general or systemic issue or to raise questions about each of us as we get swept up in the action and can become responsive to pressures or dynamics in the group beyond our awareness. We assume that there is a relationship between how individuals are tuned and behave and the issues at hand and that individual actions are neither random nor simply individually generated. Indeed one of the most provocative ideas is the notion that none of us is a free agent and that all individual actions are a product of the systems we are part of. Keeping away from individual issues, however, is difficult, partly because they are so intriguing and familiar, known territory for many people who influence or manage others. An individual interpretation is a default behaviour that can occlude more relevant systemic patterns which hold a problem in place. It is, therefore, useful to consider that individual and interpersonal issues emerge in groups because

they represent something in the group related to one of five things: their common purpose (or lack thereof); the pace and focus of the work; the assumptions and values held individually and collectively; the needs and fears that people hold; and the factional interests and values that emerge when groups try to learn together in order to progress their work. These five areas become a set of guidelines for the practitioner to guide observation, interpretation and intervention. ELEMENTS IN A CASE IN POINT PROCESS

Helping leaders expand their behavioural repertoire (their “bandwidth”) is challenging work, partly because the facilitator is working with people at the edge of their experience and competence and partly because in any group it is safe to assume that different people will have a different readiness and capacity to learn. Responding to these divergent needs and levels of readiness mirrors the challenge faced by leaders. It is, therefore, important to have a set of concepts and principles to use to provide an interpretative framework through which participants can consider what they are experiencing and observing in the group. As previously outlined, the core purpose of CIP is to illustrate, through immediate experience, key concepts and practices of adaptive leadership and embed them into people’s attitudinal, behavioural and diagnostic repertoire. CIP helps translate experience into understanding and understanding into practice and assists practitioners to see more of what drives their own behaviour, as well as seeing how groups act as mutually interacting and reinforcing systems. Helping practitioners practice in a learning setting will strengthen their capacity and willingness to act more fully in the wider leadership domains they operate in daily.





Key Elements in Facilitating a Case-in-Point Session (Some How To’s) I





Begin class/session, for example, identify purpose or theme, provide conceptual input, offer examples, anecdotes, research evidence. Or start session with a provocative statement, e.g. “let’s talk about authority, power and dependency today”, and then sit down and wait to see how participants respond. Observe classroom interactions; listen to exchange including unstated sentiment. Notice pattern and flow of the conversation and interaction. Who speaks, when, bout what, to whom, how often and with what effect? (See Sidebar 4 Questions to guide Observation for other questions to consider) Pause the action in order to identify a relevant case-in-point – that is a behaviour, interaction or pattern that can usefully be used to illustrate (“here and now”) a key principle, question or challenge related to the topic and the work of the group in general. Facilitate and enrich the discussion, frame the issues, ask questions, test assumptions and add interpretations all in the service of using the case-in-point to reinforce, in an experiential manner, the theme or question at hand (See sidebar 5 Rules of Engagement for an example). Stop the case-in-point action and move into next (teaching) phases of the session.

The key elements of a typical CIP process assist participants to observe and interpret their own actions and those of others in the context of the group system being co-created and to begin to intervene based on some new understanding (See Sidebar 3 for an outline of the key elements). The process begins at any moment, by anyone in the group, not just the facilitator, stopping the action and inviting the group to reflect on what they observed (“to get on the balcony”). Initially, a group needs to be taught and given permission to use this kind of intervention. This intervention from facilitator or participant might be stated simply as “I want to push the pause button and ask that we reflect on what just happened now! What do people notice and how is this related to our stated goals?” Or it might be framed as a more specific interpretation about a dynamic emerging in the group, for example “I notice people are beginning to argue and label each other. What is the issue at hand that has generated this?”

Or “what factions do the main protagonists in this argument represent?” The goal is to enable practitioners to intervene with their people and constituencies in deeper and more impactful ways when there is an opportunity for them to make some progress. CIP becomes a leadership tool in those moments. While all group members are authorised to stop the action, to create a case in point moment, it is the facilitator’s role to focus and enrich the discussion, to frame the issues and link any conclusions to the purpose of the group. The core element of this CIP facilitation role is “what larger leadership principle does the action illustrate?” There must be a context for learning so that the experience felt and described in the moment can be used to illustrate an idea or concept. Without this learning context, without helping the group relate what is being described in the room to a key leadership idea, people’s experience, is just an experience which they are left to interpret themselves. This may lead to some insight but CIP is



intended to focus, generalise and make more explicit the learning. In this way the interaction and turbulence of the workshop space can begin to be broken down into clear elements or steps and participants can orient themselves to the observed patterns of behaviours, be they social or political dynamics, or they could reflect on the readiness of the group to consider a different perspective or the group’s tolerance for conflict and disturbance. All issues relevant to the exercise of leadership.

At its simplest then, CIP is used is help a group link what is happening in the room to what is being taught and/or worked on by the group (i.e. what adaptive and learning task they confront) and in so doing to ensure that both the cognitive (“above the neck”) learning and the affective (“below the neck”) learning are integrated, making it more likely that what Kegan and Lahey (2009) call “transformative” learning takes place and, as a result, participants can build the new capabilities required. As Side Bar 3 illustrates, the key elements of case in point are pausing the action (having observed something of interest), inviting reflection and providing an interpretation and finally, beginning to link the experience to an idea, principle or skill set. Once this has been done (this might take five or twenty five minutes) the pause button is deactivated and the session continues to its next phase. Although in a leadership education setting the goal is individual learning, while in a wider work setting the goal is to make progress on the adaptive issues being explored, in fact adaptive issues relevant to learning also arise in a leadership education setting. While it is difficult to describe a full case in point process in a short paper such as this an abbreviated example is provide below in Sidebar 4. In this example the facilitator finishes with a set of sharp, focussed comments and in so doing highlights the

larger leadership principles that the examined action illustrates and provides an orienting framework that keeps participants on the edge of their learning. While the key elements and structure of a case-inpoint session are easy to describe abstractly they are harder to activate. Their use requires modelling a set of several leadership skills and practices: namely those of observation, interpretation and intervention, which are discussed in more detail in the next section. There are several rules of engagement which assist both facilitators and groups prepare for the application of this learning methodology (See Sidebar 5). Each of these guidelines are important to consider and raise questions about the ability of the facilitator to successfully apply CIP as well as the readiness of a group to be part of such a process. Judicious use and discussion of these guidelines will help ensure best outcomes, particularly the idea of preparing participants to be part of a different learning modality, one where they become part of the subject matter and their behaviours are open to scrutiny and comment. CORE SKILLS FOR CASE IN POINT: OBSERVATION, INTERPRETATION ANDINTERVENTION

Exercising adaptive leadership is an iterative process involving three key skill sets: observing the actions and dynamics of groups; generating (multiple) interpretations; and based on these interpretations, intervening to help the group make progress on the challenges identified (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky 2009:134). These activities are a core part of the case in point method: both as tools used by the facilitators and as skills for leadership practitioners to learn and improve. Case-in-point provides one medium to help people learn these skills because the facilitator is building an environment in which participants can practice and observe others practicing, while becoming more aware of their timing and the impact of such action, as well as coming to terms with the personal capacities required to do adaptive work.)




Example of and Commentary on a Case in Point Process




A session on the “distinction between technical and adaptive challenges” Early in the session, during the teaching phase, the facilitator noticed low levels of contribution and participation (passivity) and a series of questions which “invited” the facilitator to be the expert and give answers.

Instead of continuing the mini-lecture and answering questions the facilitator asks the group to undertake a task and address a question: “What indicators would help us distinguish technical from adaptive issues?” How would you distinguish those parts of a problem which can be treated with authoritative expertise from those that require learning and adaptation?” The facilitator then sat down and left the group, without any more guidance, to have a conversation After a 20 minute discussion among the 50 participants which went in many different directions and began to get heated and somewhat chaotic, with many members showing signs of frustration and anxiety, the facilitator stood and asked the group: “ “How can we use ourselves as a case ?” (i.e. he pushed the pause button). There are many areas of possible focus for this CIP moment and it is, therefore, important to frame what has happened so it can become useful. The facilitator observed: “What actually was your work here?” On one level it was to distinguish between technical and adaptive issues: this was the technical task. But on another level the task was to mobilise and focus a group where different opinions and needs (factions) were emerging and to do so when there was no formal authority structure and when the tolerance for disequilibrium started to get too high, at least for one group!” The facilitator continues by noting “this is a rich field and we could use it to illustrate a number of ideas. What did you see happening here and what might it illustrate?”


The facilitator elicits responses from the group and notes “You have commented on different forms of intervention used, the personal style individuals used but it would be a mistake to see this in individual terms since each of you was caught up in the action and affected by the factional pressure emerging in the room; the impact the social system has on individuals and the way that factions emerge and operate” He continues to facilitate a discussion on the factions that emerged, inviting participants to describe themselves in terms of a social system with differing groups and the values, needs and loyalties held by these factions, leading them into a deep conversation about the politics of change and the skill set called “thinking politically”. Thinking politically is relevant to the topic of“the distinction between technical and adaptive work” because of the way in which emerging factions coalesce in the group around different interpretations of how to undertake the task


At several points in the preceding conversation participants comment that what they saw in the group illustrated a competition for power, how one or two individuals dominated the conversation (i.e. they continue to frame observations in individual rather than systemic terms). At this point the facilitator comments “A diagnosis around competition for power is misleading because power is a proxy for values, needs and loyalties, in other words for conflict between factions. We are encouraging you to begin to think politically and to think systemically instead of individually , so you can teach yourself to ask ”when my chimes are being rung what am I resonating with, what value or constituency am I representing that might lead me to behave like this? And how is this relevant to what we are working on?” In finishing this way the facilitator leaves the group with clear focus for consideration and reinforces key lessons, as well as showing what skills and ways of thinking might be required to act with more agency and to highlight the larger leadership principle that the prior interactions illustrate.




Rules of Engagement: Some principles to guide Case-in-Point


Prepare participants – give warning that learning will be experiential and may get heated. Recognise that they cannot not fully comprehend what is being described.


Encourage listening and respect (though not too much politeness).


Distinguish between events that become case-in-point and debriefing on the event.



As facilitator don’t take reactions towards you personally (separate self from role) and encourage the same in participants if they become the focus. Recognise it is difficult to move out of role and analyse an event if you are part of it. Recognise that no one, including facilitator, is flawless (acknowledge and use your own shortcomings).


Treat all interpretations as hypotheses.


Respect confidentiality.


Minimise post session triangulation.


Take responsibility for your own actions.

Source: Participant Discussion Art and Practice of Leadership Development May 2003


Questions are a key ingredient of observation and interpretation. They can be used to gather data, assist diagnosis, and/or as an intervention. Good questions stimulate the system under focus and impart information about individual’s part in it. Thoughtful questions help because they focus attention on an issue and because they are a means to nudge people toward a mind set where problems are defined as adaptive, conflictual or systemic and away from the more comfortable and familiar tendency to interpret from a technical, benign or individual perspective. When people are involved in CIP they will begin to look at moments in the action as targets for attention and intervention to effect change. By framing systemic questions, you can help people to understand social and factional dynamics, what is at risk for competing groups, barriers to progress or find opportunities to make progress. As Pallazzoli (1980: 3) notes, questions are also forms of interpretation since they are based on some values or way of knowing. Good questions can reveal alliances and splits in

group themes of involvement, skewed hierarchical relationships or escalating struggles. Questions and their responses may broaden otherwise limited or causal interpretations to reframe meaning. A form of questioning is used, which makes connections between events, people and themes, attempts to involve all those in the room in discussion and puts everyone on the same level in understanding the way systems (groups, organisations) operate when there is pressure, as well as the kinds of actions that individuals take that are more or less effective In this way participants gain a sense of their own impact on others in mutually influencing cycles of interaction. Issues previously cast in narrow and therefore limiting definitions expand in possible meanings, thereby giving participants a wider vocabulary of leadership action. Sidebar 6 outlines three conceptual categories that give rise to a range of possible interpretive and diagnostic questions to be used by the facilitator, or participants, thereby assisting in determining next steps. These categories are; first, questions relating




(to protect and create order)” and to ask “what is the responsibility of a group to assist, intervene, or reframe in order to make the exchange more productive”? Or, when people are arguing and insulting each other, to ask “what is the issue on the table that generated this argument and what factional values and interests does it highlight?” These questions can highlight some aspect of the social dynamics and the politics of change.

to the social dynamics of the group, for example or “who speaks, when and to whom?” or “what chimes are ringing for you now and in response to what pressures?” They provide a perspective from the individual out into the system (or ‘inside–out”). Second, questions about the political and factional dynamics, for example “Who is taking risks and in the service of what goals or values?”, and thirdly, those relating to the purpose or work of the group and how to help people be disciplined about it, for example People are beginning to argue, in what way is this serving our work here and to what extent is that helping us avoid an issue?”; or “How does the argument here illustrate something related to the issue the group is facing?”. The latter two sets of questions offer an “outside-in” perspective on how the system creates pressure for individuals and groups.

An argument in a group is a rich field for learning and rather than ignoring it, or glossing over it, CIP helps use the incident to develop insight and move the group to a new level of functioning. As Rioch (1990) points out, those most active in the group (“symptom bearers”) are most likely to over function (on behalf of the group) because they identify an unattended group need. Such a need will reflect, for example, a lack of inclusion (the degree of isolation between an individual or subgroup and the group as a whole) or a tension between participants and the “ruling body” (facilitator or chairperson), i.e. defiance or acceptance of the authority structure. All of these are expressions of factional differences and relevant to any change and learning process.

In the CIP method, as a form of experiential learning, asking questions becomes a critical tool for diagnosis: looking at the roles people and factions play, the way groups get distracted from their work and how individuals get caught up in the action, not seeing how their responses are an expression of systemic forces. So, for example, a common phenomenon in groups is the way people lose sight of their purpose because they are responding to the immediate interactions that are playing out. CIP questioning will help people see the dynamics more clearly, so that they can begin to think of themselves as a “canary in a mine”- as a “chime” expressing something in the group, and as a result begin to develop both stronger self and systems awareness.

The interactions that unfold in the learning group regularly follow patterns also seen in the world of work and, therefore, provide opportunity for observation, interpretation and intervention, the key elements for leadership. Unlike other forms of leadership education, in CIP the facilitator is not the only person providing interpretations or intervening. Indeed, a key feature of this approach is that while the facilitator has expertise, he or she is not the only expert in the room and successful CIP practice hands the work over to the participants, placing the learning and resolution between those whose job it is to learn and change, thereby modelling the idea that people who want to exercise leadership have to learn to “give the work back” to others. It also means that when the facilitator struggles in real time to make sense of what is happening, as occurs in the “real world”, he/she can demonstrate the “not knowingness” of leadership.

For example, in one group Betty got upset when George said she shouldn’t have intervened in the ,way she did. An argument developed and other students “took sides” in the argument with no apparent resolution. The issue was not about Betty’s or George’s skill, though of course they could use more effective means to contribute, but rather what point about leadership and change such an incident might reflect and how it could be used for productive learning. One possible intervention used to make this event a valuable case-in-point might be to observe that “this exchange illustrates the yearning we all have for those in authority roles to adjudicate




Guide to Observation, Interpretation and Questioning







Who speaks (and who doesn’t speak) when, about what, to whom, how often and with what effect? How well is the group as a social system functioning? To what extent are participants contributing to building and harnessing the whole group versus advocating independent positions. Does the group move toward integration, homogeneity or heterogeneity? What is the tendency in the group with regard to inclusion, control, acknowledgement or recognition of others and how robust and direct are interactions? How fully are primary social needs met? How do participants respond to tension, expression of feeling; to acts of leadership; to differing viewpoints? Do individuals/the group as a whole fight or flee? Do individuals coalesce, acquiesce, react, join? What type of mindset(s) are present and are any dominant? Reflective, collaborative, worldly, analytic, action-oriented or attentive?


How is authority and power used? What is the relationship between facilitator and participants? How dependent or reactive are participants toward the instructor?


What do you think is unstarted in the group? What are the untested assumptions?


Who is heated? Why? What pressures is the system exerting on them?


Who needs to talk about what to whom? What value will they be in conflict over?


Who is carrying the work of the group? Which individuals or factions are over-functioning or under-functioning? What’s at stake for them?



What is the focus of the work and what are people actually paying attention to? At what conceptual level do participants interpret and intervene? Technical or adaptive; benign or conflictual or individual or systemic? What indicators of functionality and/or work avoidance are present?





Case-in-point teaching is an “event-full” pedagogy and requires a certain level of group facilitation experience and personal resilience, as well as a willingness to surrender control, to be the subject of scrutiny and feedback and to recognise that the process requires a lot more from facilitator and participants than regular seminar discussion and interaction. Some people describe the mode of facilitation and learning as unstructured, even chaotic. This may be the case at times because significant emphasis is placed on self and group directed learning, engagement and on examining selected issues that arise in the group (including contributions of the facilitator). Dealing with the demands of this process requires risk taking, personal and system insight, trust in self and others and collaboration, in an effort to bring the range of talents, skills, experience and knowledge available in the group to bear on the issues at hand. Such processes involve what Chris Argyris (19820 called “double loop learning” – bringing one’s actions much closer to one’s intentions. Thus much of what occurs in the CIP process may be brought under review and examined in the service of learning – how to effectively influence others, to exercise leadership, to negotiate where there is difference, to manage others’ expectations with or without formal authority and to mobilise others to achieve agreed outcomes. Ultimately an opportunity is provided to experiment, stretch, confront oneself and others and learn new skills, ways of influencing and new mental models – all designed to strengthen practitioner leadership competence and confidence, and their capacity to design and facilitate impactful learning environments for their organisations or communities.

This style of experiential learning can be both enormously rewarding and at times confronting – not because individual participants are directly confronted, though this can occur, but because these learning modalities open up the participant (and the facilitator for that matter) to him/herself. People learn what, how and how much to trust themselves (and their own capacities and those of others) and also learn and review how much they are prepared to offer to make a difference in the world. Experiential learning helps bring a sense of purpose, confidence and agency to each person’s leadership. This process is personally revealing. People do not; however, discover the same patterns of trust, reflection, openness and behaviour change, let alone confidence and purpose at the same time or in the same way. For this reason we provide many opportunities for review, consolidation and discussion, as well as providing both peer and facilitator guidance and coaching. We structure the process so participants can learn from their own experience and the experience of others. Overall, Case-in-point teaching provides two key opportunities: Firstly, training and educating leaders involves a great responsibility because of the impact change agents can have on the lives of others. It therefore it is important, even imperative, that participantpractitioners “know themselves”, as well as knowing how to manage and lead. In this sense leadership education becomes a developmental expression of each participant. CIP teaching provides an opportunity for regular self reflection, feedback and the opportunity to be more aware of oneself in action.



Secondly, the use of group based methods allow participants to learn by doing and experimenting. CIP is an activity that requires people not only to understand concepts or principles intellectually, but also to be able to act in flexible, responsive and effective ways “in the midst of action” – in the dynamic, fluid, often ambiguous and changing action of daily work life - just as we require this of those around us who exercise leadership. A critical task for the facilitator using CIP is to be clear about the purpose – “what does this moment illustrate that is relevant to our learning and relevant to the practice of leadership in participants’ lives?” The method is not group therapy, though participants sometimes describe it this way and it will not suit everyone, particularly those with a lower tolerance for ambiguity. Facilitators, therefore, must be comfortable operating in an environment where participants are looking for technical solutions (tools and tactics) to their own (and their organisation’s) adaptive learning and be prepared to disappoint them while being willing to hold some degree of disequilibrium in the group room.

CIP teaching requires taking risks. Intervening in others’ interactions, interpreting dynamics or using yourself as a case makes your place in the group more visible, explicit and transparent. The facilitator, as the formal authority in the room, can become a focal point for participants concerns, frustrations and anxiety, a lightening rod for the tensions (and accomplishments) of the group, so one must be able to tolerate the “heat” generated by one’s own interventions as well as those of others. CIP also requires honesty: an intellectual honesty (“I don’t know”) and a personal honesty (“I messed up here”), because participants will be looking to see how you as facilitator model what is being taught. This is not the same as being a “bleeding heart”

but each person needs to ask themselves how much “heat” they can hold and whether acknowledging one’s own “part of the problem” is a control mechanism rather than an honest expression of awareness. In the end if the facilitator is not willing or able to be open to scrutiny, then neither can this be asked of participants. If you create an inscrutable and unavailable model, the risk is perpetuating a model of a leader who is all knowing, who knows the way forward. Thus in CIP teaching the facilitator is on the line – it is risky because one needs to be as open to surprise and learning as the participants, while simultaneously being willing to use the authority and expertise at one’s disposal to create a stimulating learning environment, with a degree of safety, purpose and momentum. Case-in-point teaching requires both facilitator and participants to take risks, just as leaders do, because if you use yourself as a case, review the processes of a group working together, or make the dynamics of the group, including the facilitators place in it, more transparent, all involved will be open to scrutiny. Such “close up” examination may not suit everyone but will make it more likely that participants will learn in a more realistic way, more closely matching the dynamics of the world outside the learning room, than much of current classroom teaching on leadership. CIP can be too much for some people, and mirrors the impact of leadership action in the process of change where some people choose not to participate or simply do not have the stomach for the way events unfold. How to tolerate competing views, conflicting values and the skills of leading people when they are facing hard challenges is at the heart of exercising leadership and the Case in Point method. Some questions to ask oneself as facilitator might be: I

How much tension or disequilibrium can I tolerate?


Am I willing to be the subject of scrutiny?






to act with greater confidence, resilience and effectiveness, because it encourages individuals to “sharpen” themselves and test and develop capacities in an environment that is contained and supportive. People in leadership roles need to learn to tolerate confusion, chaos and even animosity if they are going to lead others in the midst of competing pressures and values. CIP generates some of this confusion and ambiguity and, therefore, allows participants to test themselves and experiment. Given these principles as well as our aspiration for those who we train and develop to have realistic expectations of what is needed to undertake adaptive work and high hopes for what can be achieved, Case-in-point offers a valuable method to enhance our teaching and training endeavours. As David Whyte (2001) says in his book on organisational life:

Am I willing not to know the answer to something when at the front of the room? Do I have tools to regulate tension and disequilibrium and focus attention? Can I keep a strategic (balcony) mindset while also paying attention to what is immediate? Can I tolerate the fact that some people will not like, or be suited to, this mode of learning and will opt out (become ‘ casualties”)? Do I know my own limit points and defaults, how I might “lose it” in the fray, what is likely to push me to the edge of my own competence, how I might pander to others to gain approval?

“If I refuse to delve below the necessity of the day then I will always be in a reactive way, but if I put myself on my own frontier, others will go with me.”


Case-in-point is a form of experiential learning which allows learners to be moved beyond the confines of theory and ideas into practice, one which allows general issues of leadership to be explored, unpacked and practiced in an alive and immediate manner. As an experiential method, CIP also permits the participant as practitioner to increase their awareness of self, others and systems and to develop skills

MAXIME FERN and MICHAEL JOHNSTONE, have between them more than 30 years experience in working with organizations in the areas of leadership, strategic thinking, change and coaching. They are consulting and organizational psychologists with experience in line management, community development, university teaching, research and human systems development.



REFERENCES Argyris, C (1982) Reasoning, Learning and Action, Jossey Bass, San Francisco Bennis, W (1989) On Becoming a Leader, Hutchinson, London Boehrer, J (1995) How to teach a case, unpublished paper N18-95-12850, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University Evans, J (1998) Leaders in Australia: The Australian cultural imprint for leadership, unpublished paper, Cultural Imprint, Melbourne Diver, D (ed) (1999) Best Practice in Leadership Development Handbook, Linkage Press, Lexington MA Heifetz, R (19994) Leadership Without Easy Answers, Belknap Press, Cambridge MA Heifetz, R and Linsky, M (2002) Leadership on the Line, Harvard Business School Press, Boston MA Heifetz, R., Grashow, A. and Linsky, M. (2009) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA. Kegan, R. and Lahey, L. (2009) Immunity to Change, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA. Osterman, K and Kottkamp R (1993) Reflective Practice for Educators: Improving Schooling Through Professional Development, Corwin Press, Newbury Park CA Pallazolli, S (1980) Hypothesising, circularity and neutrality, Family Process, 19: 3-12 Parks, S.D.(2005) Leadership Can Be Taught, Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA. Rioch (1990) The work of Wilfred Bion on group, Psychiatry, 37: 56-55 Schall (1995) Learning to love the swamp, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 14(2): 202-220 Schon, D (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, Jossey Bass, San Fransisco Sinclair, A (1998) Doing Leadership Differently, Melbourne University Press, Carlton Australia Whyte, D (2001) Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, Riverland Books, New York

For the purposes of the paper we shall use the terms “group” or “room” to refer to contexts in which leadership education occurs, be it an executive education seminar at a prestigious university or an in-house training course for an individual organisation. Other protocols used include the term “participant” which refers to the individual learner who attends the training event, be they manager practitioners, community workers, elected government officials or students. For a description of how this teaching method evolved and is integrated with Heifetz’s early theory see Parks (2006, Chapter 7, pp 147-167) For more detailed discussion of this process of adaptation and thriving see Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009:10-20) See Heifetz (1994) for outline of the distinction between authority and leadership. The term “facilitator” will be used for lecturer, teacher, instructor, consultant or chairperson. “Swamp” is a term coined by Schon (1983) to refer to what Heifetz defines as “adaptive” problems. R Kegan (2002) Comment in lecture May 2002. Kegan, a Harvard psychologist and consultant, is the author of several books, including How We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. The capacity to interpret systemic issues and to intervene in groups requires a certain level of experience and training and may not be in the repertoire of many practitioners they are skills that can be learned through training and practice. The application of this framing or contextualising and interpretation into the world of work is connecting the observed action to some core value, goal or purpose of the group in question. What is the gap between the behaviours observed and our stated values, beliefs or goal? For a full description see Chapters 2 and 3 in Parks (2205:19-72) where an edited transcript from one of Ron Heifetz’s teaching sessions is outlined. This case study is summarised from a transcript of a recent session from the Art and Practice of Leadership Development, an executive development programme at the Harvard university, Kennedy School of Government See Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009:114-116) for an elaboration of these important interpretive distinctions These observations reflect the intellectual and clinical origins of Case-in-point in the Tavistock group tradition, based on the work of Wilfred Bion.


Case In Point  

an immersive, reflective, and ideally a reflexive exercise facilitated by an instructor but in best practice, shaped by group/class particip...

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