Sometimes it takes a long time to get to something – like The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. I remember reading The Fifth Discipline decades ago and wondering slowly how to apply what it was talking about. The learning organization is an interesting concept, but what does that mean and how does one do it? My oldest draft blog post is about explaining how to build a learning organization. It’s still in draft, because I’m still not sure I know how to provide clear guidance on what it is or how to convert your organization into it.
The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook moves the ball forward towards understanding learning organizations in a way The Fifth Discipline never did. It’s infinitely more practical, friendly, and accessible. That being said, I know the draft blog post will remain just that: a draft. The image is clearer – but not clear.
The Ubuntu Point of View
In the West, we tend to think of individuals. We tend to think in disconnected ways. Our culture teaches us this. However, there’s another way of thinking. There’s a way of thinking that we’re all connected in visible and invisible ways. The Evolution of Cooperation shows how seemingly unrelated actors in the form of computer programs ultimately started working together and responding to one another. The very nature of nature leads to an understanding of how connected we all are. You don’t have to read physicist David Bohm’s work On Dialogue to appreciate the beauty of how the universe unfolds from an acorn to an oak tree. The connectivity that we all experience is a part of our very ethos. Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind argues that our ability to work together is what has made us the dominant biomass on the planet.
Ubuntu derives from a Zulu saying that literally means, “A person is a person because of other people.” We don’t exist except through our relationships with other people. We recognize the psychological strain of solitary confinement or voluntary hermithood. We must have other people to help us regulate our thoughts and ideas – or even, it seems, to remain a person.
The Five Disciplines
The concept of the learning organization is built upon five pillars. They are:
- Personal Mastery – The goal of helping everyone reach their fullest potential. From becoming Multipliers to changing our Mindset, it’s about enabling the personal journey to Peak performance.
- Mental Models – Developing a set of views of the world which are more helpful and more enabling. It’s Gary Klein’s Sources of Power and Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited. It’s building systems inside our head about how things work and what we can do to change the systems around us to work better.
- Shared Vision – It’s learning to inspire everyone to that one utopian vision of how things can be and the paths that we need to take to end up in that place. It’s Simon Sinek’s Start with Why and recognizing that we’re all Wired for Story.
- Team Learning – It’s about leveraging Dialogue to lead to Collaborative Intelligence and finding ways to help everyone learn how to be effective together.
- Systems Thinking – It’s about Thinking in Systems in ways that allow us to see how something will work before it actually plays out and how to change the system to get better outcomes.
Developing a learning organization is a wicked problem in that there’s no stopping rule. (See Dialogue Mapping and The Heretic’s Guide to Management for more on wicked problems.) Learning organizations are always on a lifelong quest for learning. It’s slightly more accurate to say that each member of the learning organization is on a quest for learning – both individually and together.
The argument comes from Reiss’ work about whether learning is the end goal. Reiss was careful to avoid the person who is motivated by learning, claiming that their way was/is the way. (See StrengthsFinder 2.0 for learning and Who Am I? for Reiss’ work.) Trying Not to Try explains that even inside the idea of the one way, there are many paths.
The real goal, or rather need, for organizations today is to develop and retain agility to overcome the changes that inevitably come from the market and from the employees. We have to learn to expect that there will be radical changes, and the way to survive is to find ways of weathering the changes more effectively.
Through the Way Things Appear
The deepest nature of things is often difficult to see. Our biases lead us to believe that things are good or bad based solely on split-second assessments that have nearly no basis. (See Blink.) It’s rare that we challenge our assumptions and investigate the deepest nature of the organization. We look past the sacred cows and blindly walk down the same paths we’ve walked before without questioning how the pieces of the environment fit together.
The problem with this kind of piercing insight is that it’s hard to generate. Klein studied it in fire captains in Sources of Power. Tetlock tried to find the secrets of prediction in Superforecasting. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool tried to find it in Peak. Klein and Ericsson chalked it up to experience, which isn’t very reassuring, nor does it seem to be easily accelerated. Tetlock’s observations were that a broad skill base was important, but even the best predictors weren’t great at everything. (The idea of having broad skills runs counter to Jim Collins’ suggestion to be the hedgehog – who knows one thing – in Good to Great.)
Observationally, no one seems to have cracked the code for creating a generic ability for people to have insights. So, the fieldbook’s call for strategy to be a reflection of the deepest nature falls into the category of true but useless.
There’s an old story/joke. A helicopter pilot is flying as dense fog rolls in, and he becomes disoriented and lost – but he is able to communicate with a man at a window in an office building. The pilot asks, “Where am I?” The man answers, “In a helicopter.” The pilot’s passengers are aghast as he heads directly for the heliport and lands safely. They ask him how he did it. He answers, “I knew I had to be at the Microsoft support building, because the answer I received was true but useless.”
So, while I appreciate the suggestion that strategic planning should be about reflecting, I’m equally concerned that it’s not actionable.
We can’t really see planets around the stars that we see in the sky. They’re not directly detectable, but we can see their influence. Every relationship – gravity being one – causes a reaction on both sides, not just one side or the other. Just as the star pulls the planet around, so, too, does the planet tug on the star. Obviously, the degree of impact is different. A star has much greater mass than a planet, but if the planet has enough mass, we’ll see the star appear to wobble and create a slight Doppler effect. The star will appear to change its light frequency in a very predictable, rhythmic way. It’s a technique that’s been used to find many planets beyond our solar system.
The influence of relationships scales down from planets to quarks. Heisenberg stunned the physics community in 1927 when he claimed that we were changing the world as we measure it. Again, if we’re measuring through changes, those changes will have an opposite effect on the thing being measured. The more we measure, the more we change. In human terms, we are in relationships with others. We change them, and they change us. (See The Power of the Other.)
Ultimately, accepting that we are in relationships with others and those relationships are mutual allows us to be more effective together. Instead of treating others as objects, we treat them in ways that acknowledges our mutual influences.
Maps and Territories
Cartography – map-making – is an interesting art form. It’s about not only what to include but also what to omit. We must, when making mental maps or regular maps, decide what’s important and must be a part of the map and what can be omitted without challenges. Invariably, we get this decision-making process at least a little wrong. We include something that we shouldn’t, or we omit something important in our quest for clean, beautiful designs that turns out to be critical.
This is just fine as long as we don’t confuse our mental maps – our simplifications – for the real thing. It all goes well until we treat or mental maps as exact replicas of the world instead of the approximations and simplifications they are. When we fail to question what we believe based on the maps, we can end up in real trouble.
That’s one of the reasons why the kinds of changes and strategic planning that is so carefully executed often fails to deliver the planned results. We’ve accepted that the simplification, the map, is right and that we need not concerned about reality. The old saying goes that, in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.
If we’re looking for success in any effort inside of an organization, but particularly change and transformation, we’re much better off to have a compass and a clear direction rather than an explicitly designed map. When we have a guiding purpose and some simple guidelines to keep us on track, we can not only focus on the desired outcome, but each of us can become a problem-solver that is working together with others to reach the objective location.
Short-Term and Long-Term Measures
Richard Hackman explains in Collaborative Intelligence that performance of a team isn’t the best long-term measure. While it’s important to meet minimum performance objectives for the team, the real measure was how the team learned to work together and to be more effective. However, quantifying those long-term metrics isn’t easy. Deep learning – the kind of learning that drives innovation – isn’t easy to measure, and, more importantly, the payoff may not happen for a very long time.
Many organizations have terminated entire teams for lack of short-term performance while failing to realize that they have developed deep learnings that would have paid off dearly for their organization if they had only been more patient to see the benefits. The pendulum of performance had moved too far to the short-term to recognize the long-term benefits that were being forgone.
Admittedly, there’s a challenge to maintaining people if they’re not performing. On the one hand, there’s deep learning that’s hard to measure but intensely valuable – particularly for innovation. (See The Innovator’s DNA.)
Which Came First: Trust or Intimacy?
One of the classic challenges is which came first? In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, they assert that the lack of trust is not a cause of a lack of intimacy but a symptom of it. I disagree, but in part because they’re presuming a single causal arrow – and in the wrong direction. The relationship between trust and intimacy is reflexive – one leads to the other. When I unwound trust, vulnerability, and intimacy in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited, I discovered that it’s small amounts of trust that lead to small amounts of vulnerability, which leads to small amounts of intimacy, which opens the door for greater trust in a positive feedback loop.
One could reverse the direction of the causal arrows, but the starting assumption is wrong. The assumption must then become that you start with intimacy and that you must have it before you can establish trust. The problem with this is that we trust people with whom we have no – or almost no – intimacy.
In the Moment
We tend to see the world consistently. We don’t like inconsistencies and unless we interpret an inconsistency as potential threat, we’re likely to ignore it. We might shrug our shoulders for a moment, but we’ll allow the thought to slip out of our mind quickly. To learn from our world and our organization, we must commit to seeing the world as it is, not as we want it to be.
That is harder than it seems. Every perspective we have, every model we use to simplify the world, creates biases and distortions in our perceptions. The way that we frame the problem shapes the problem, and because it shapes the problem, we’re seeing it as we want rather than the way it is.
The best leaders are able to look at problems from multiple perspectives and from multiple systems, thereby correcting for the distortions like the expert predictors did in Tetlock’s Superforecasting.
Red Pill or Blue Pill
There’s a scene in The Matrix where Morpheus asks Neo whether he wants to take the red pill or the blue pill. To take the red pill is to have our vision of reality disrupted, and the blue pill restores us to blissful ignorance. Perhaps Jay Forrester didn’t know that he’d eventually call system dynamics “the new dismal science” when he first started. Perhaps what we think of as the forerunner of systems thinking didn’t look so different or life altering when he started – but today it is.
Perhaps the most disruptive thing that one learns when they truly embrace systems thinking is that A+B = C… at least most of the time. When you peer into the details, you find chaos theory and Lorenz attractors and times when A+B doesn’t equal C. Sure, most of the time it does, but one time out of a hundred or one time out of a thousand, it doesn’t equal C at all. Systems thinking acknowledges that much of what we believe are just loops with probabilities and those probabilities over time generally dwell in a range… but not always.
It’s a dismal science, because it shakes the foundation of our safety, like Heisenberg’s assertion that we change things in our attempts to measure them. If you’re willing to push forward, you have to acknowledge that the world is much more uncertain and chaotic than any of us were ever led to believe.
In learning circles, there is a bit of research that is troubling but consistent. Adults won’t learn unless there’s a sufficient level of difficulty. (See The Adult Learner and Efficiency in Learning.) That’s problematic, because one of the other axioms of adult education is to decrease the non-germane cognitive load. In short, make it easy. (See The Art of Explanation.) There is, therefore, a degree of difficulty which is necessary to induce learning. It can neither be too much nor too little, or no learning will occur.
One of the common challenges that we face is that we often attempt to shield our employees (and our children – see The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable) from the natural consequences of their actions. If we compensate for a weakness or recover a fault without any consequence, they’re never able to learn the important lessons that they need to be able to be effective in the future. In other words, they continue making the same mistakes over and over without learning. This is particularly problematic, as the scale of the mistake tends to get larger over time and therefore harder to compensate for. As we’re looking at resolving issues with systems, we need to consider whether we’re hiding problems in ways that will prevent learning – or make bigger messes down the road.
What it Does
It’s not what a vision is that’s important. It’s what it does. It’s not the deliverable of the vision that’s powerful. It’s powerful because how it motivates and aligns people. It’s also powerful because the process of creating it requires a degree of thinking, challenging, and coordinating that changes the way that the management team will work with one another.
Many time people ask for deliverables that they’ll never use, and it frustrates those they ask for it. However, the deliverable is never the thing that the leadership wanted. What they wanted was the thinking that was required to create the deliverable.
Fear is a Lousy Motivator
Fear is perhaps our most powerful motivator, so why then is it such a lousy one? The answer comes in two pieces. First, there’s the volatility. Second, there is the issue of sustaining it.
The problem with fear as a motivator is that it fundamentally operates with the idea that you’ll be able to overpower someone or threaten their livelihood. That comes with the inherent risk that the person or people will believe that overthrowing you – or calling your bluff – is a better answer. It’s also an unpredictable motivator. You may want people to travel in one direction, but the direction that minimizes fear faster is a completely different way. It’s one you didn’t consider, but being forced to live in the space of fear, they did – and they took the quickest and easiest way out.
Fear may be powerful, but it doesn’t have staying power. Let fear drop for a moment, and it stops motivating. Other forms of motivation tend to stay connected and don’t need the kind of constant reinforcement that fear requires. Even when fear is sustained, it’s doing damage to everyone in the process. We know that stress – caused by fear –causes our bodies to release a cascade of chemicals that ultimately result in hypertension and other mortality-inducing conditions. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)
So, either way you lose with fear. Either you reduce the lifespan of those you’re motivating – or you lose your grip on them, and they escape the fear.
Problems are the Result of the System
The parting thought of the fieldbook is a thought from quality systems. 95% of the errors are caused by the system. They’re not personal defects, faults, or foibles. They’re the result of the design of the system. Thus, if you want to prevent errors or develop a learning organization, it might be time to pick up The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook.