Posted: 23 Jan. 2020 5 min. read

Bring your own challenge: Leadership development reimagined

From zen garden to the arena

Posted by Wayne RobinsonNeil AlgerKyle Sandell, and Natalie Elghossain on January 23, 2020. 

Billions of dollars are spent annually on leadership development programs,1 yet many organizations continue to struggle to develop the leaders necessary to address pressing business challenges.

Businesses spend a considerable portion of those dollars investing in their newly promoted and high-potential leaders to develop them often in a Zen garden–like setting, with high-touch, instructor-led programs being the norm.This is intended to offer a serene environment to reflect on the latest leadership theory, engage in thought-provoking discussions, and learn the behaviors of effective leadership. Yet this can potentially create a false sense of security that is not reflective of the reality leaders face in their organization daily. Zen garden programs tend to work on an assumption that there is a benefit to removing people from their everyday workplace—that the tranquility of the surreal retreat setting will inspire new breakthroughs in their learning. But in fact, the opposite is true. Considerable research shows that behaviors acquired in retreat-based settings are more quickly forgotten when leaders return to their natural operating environments3—which likely resembles an arena more than a Zen garden.

Furthermore, removing people from a real-work setting can also create a perception that learning is a separate activity from the core of daily business operations. While there is some benefit to being removed from the work to focus on the leadership development experience, the playing field for the overall leader development strategy should be on the job or in an external environment that closely mimics the job. To work as they learn and learn as they work, leaders need to be immersed in an environment where learning can best happen and is reflective of the actual working environment. This tends to be in places close to the action—with high stakes, accountability, and risk built-in. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “the credit belongs to the man [or woman] who is actually in the arena.”

Why traditional leadership development programs don’t work today

Slow-moving, inflexible to the needs of the business, and success depends largely on the individual. Does this sound like a talent program that would survive at your company? Yet that is exactly what many organizations have relied on with their leadership development programs over the past 50-plus years. In many ways, leadership development has reflected this structure and pace at many organizations—but that has changed tremendously over the last few years. Companies and the leaders within them are increasingly stretched by trends such as new and emerging technologies, increasing consumer expectations, and changes to traditional talent models caused by generational shifts in the workforce. These trends comprise the concept of the future of work and present the need for leaders to train like they are in an arena—more so than in a Zen garden—to be agile in leading through unforeseen challenges that arise when navigating an increasingly complex, fast-paced, competitive business landscape.

The uncertainty caused by the future of work is causing leaders to fail fast and fail often. However, the “wrong” failure, combined with the introduction of a hungry competitor or a loss of key talent, can now easily sink a company. In this fast-paced, value-focused environment, leaders cannot afford to languish in traditional Zen garden leadership development courses that are largely theoretical and take them out of their day-to-day business context. Case in point: A frequent, almost pervasive question that comes up by the business prior to enrolling a leader in a leadership program is, “How long will the leader be offline, away from the job, or out of pocket?” This question is an immediate red flag that indicates that a line has been drawn between learning and work and that time away from the desk is being equated to cost. In these cases, the major guiding principle for the participant in training becomes “what is the least effort or expenditure of time I can spend to achieve a certain learning benefit?” Such programs are destined to fail. What if, instead of entering a leadership development program with a “rip-the-Band-Aid-off” approach, organizations could rest easy knowing the content and context of the program were aligned with current business problems? A practical approach embedded in the business context is exactly what is needed in the future of work, and this approach can be achieved by using problem-based learning.4

In this environment, what will work? Why will it work?

Our approach to solving this complex challenge is to integrate problem-based learning into leadership development programs. Problem-based learning was developed and applied in medical schools. However, it has been increasingly adopted in business schools, portions of the military, disciplines such as law and engineering, and recently, businesses across industries where Deloitte has introduced this concept. In the business setting, leaders are developed to be agile and create measurable value in our rapidly changing and complex organizational environments. With problem-based learning at the core of leadership development programs, leaders learn in their natural work environment. They identify and take ownership of not only a pressing business problem, but also the problem-solving process, facilitating a self-directed learning environment where leaders operate as autodidacts like American inventor Granville Woods, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, or Apple founder Steve Jobs. Although we’re not saying this approach creates the next great inventor, it does allow organizations to unleash the potential for enhanced leadership, creativity, and problem-solving capabilities.

Fundamentally, a problem-based learning approach works because it provides a clear and compelling “why” for leaders as they develop. Research from the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience, known as “The Cause-Effect,” demonstrates that a clear and compelling cause embedded in the core of a project is key for motivating people towards action and ultimately leads to hyper-success.5 Many of today’s most transformational leaders are inherently motivated and fulfilled by solving complex, large-scale problems for the organizations and people they serve. Problem-based learning offers leaders skills-based development while providing the added motivation of providing a palpable cause, as well as space and new tools, to solve a problem that creates measurable value and launches them into hyper-success.

The predominant shift in leadership development programs today will be to move away from a content-driven approach to a context-driven approach. Context-based approaches use the real-life problems of the organization as the “living case study.” They operate in the real and relevant context of the business, erasing the claim that learning and “work” are separate. Therefore, as the business changes, so do the leadership experiences. Context-based development prioritizes the “learn as you work, work as you learn” philosophy, always striving to solve actual problems as leaders simultaneously grow their capabilities. The potential benefit of this type of methodology is that you can create a simultaneous and effective impact—solving the challenges of the business while learning at the same time. This concurrent process helps leaders learn as they work and work as they learn, not treating them separately, but as one and the same.

On a practical level, this approach can be easily applied in an organization by using a problem-based methodology for learning. In the Deloitte Leadership practice, we refer to this as BYOC, or “bring your own challenge.” Whether the problem or challenge is small (an attendance problem) or large (using AI to remove bottlenecks in the supply chain), this approach to leadership development has actual business problems at the center and the learning process follows the life cycle of the problem, not the curriculum or the content.

We use the six P’s as the primary basis of our framework:

  • Problem identification: This is the identification, definition, and framing of the problem statement and problem space.
  • POV: This is a narrative on why this problem is important to solve, stating the potential value to the organization and how it also aligns to personal goals and aspirations.
  • Prototype: The prototype is a tangible representation of the solution, primarily meant for testing a concept, gathering information, answering critical questions, and reducing uncertainty.
  • Pilot: This is a test launch of the prototype solution to learn and gather feedback.
  • Pitch: This is a presentation to a senior group of stakeholders to get feedback and guidance on their problem scoping, POV, and what participants have learned from the prototype and pilots. This can also serve as the “ask” for resources.
  • Plan: This is the larger implementation plan and strategy to scale the solution to larger parts of the organization.

The BYOC approach is primarily a bottom-up methodology, which enables leaders in the organization to find, identify, source, shape, solve, and deploy challenges of all shapes and sizes. The exponential power of developing leaders at scale and across an organization is significant—the ability to solve problems where they are happening, fueled by numerous learning opportunities, yielding a powerful change and transformation to the organization.


Leaders must become co-creators in their leadership learning journey. In doing so, buy-in occurs earlier in the development process while pressing forward to develop capabilities needed to succeed in their environment. The BYOC approach enables the leader, their respective teams, and the organization to harness a continuous learning environment and culture, rooted in addressing real problems and achieving sustainable leader behavior change, that ultimately enables the organization to achieve better outcomes and obtain a competitive advantage in the business arena. In blog post 2 of the BYOC series, we will further explore the leadership capabilities developed by the BYOC approach.


Wayne Robinson is a senior manager in Deloitte Leadership & Learning, part of Deloitte Consulting LLP. Wayne has more than two decades of global problem-solving experience and is industry-agnostic.

Neil Alger is a senior manager in Deloitte Leadership & Learning, part of Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Kyle Sandell is a senior consultant in Deloitte Workforce Strategies, part of Deloitte Consulting LLP. He has consulted and authored work in the areas of leadership assessment and development, performance management, organizational culture, learning and development, and employee engagement.

Natalie Elghossain is a senior consultant in the Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP. She currently consults for businesses undergoing large scale transformations, building on her years of experience in leadership development.


1Dori Meinert, “Leadership Development Spending Is Up,” SHRM, July 22, 2014,
2Mike Prokopeak, “Follow the Leader(ship) Spending,” Chief Learning Officer, March 21, 2018,
3C. Lacerenza et al., “Leadership training design, delivery, and implementation: A meta-analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 102 (2017): pp. 1686–1718.
4J. R. Savery & T. M. Duffy, “Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework,” Center for Research on Learning and Technology 16-01 (2001).
5Deloitte, “The Cause Effect from the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience,”

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