28 November 2011

Creating “Smarter” Organizations

Several items have collided in my field of awareness and that always merits a post (especially since I’ve been remiss on blogging in the run-up to, and during, my teaching trip to Sweden). I took advantage of the travel time to re-read Westley, Patton, and Zimmerman’s great book, Getting to Maybe—How the world is changed. This is a book about complexity, social innovation, and non-deterministic approaches to intractable problems. It’s about both personal transformation, and transforming our collective understanding of how to effect change when one clearly cannot be in control. Arguably, as one of my friends never neglects to point out to me, you may be in charge, but you can never be in control. Mostly true, of course—especially when dealing with complex human systems. However, there are many aspects that we can control: one of which is our intention; another, the intensity we bring to transformational undertakings; yet another is the passion with which we strive towards our intention.

In the somewhat unconventional way I tend to connect ideas and observations, the triplet of intention, intensity, and passion came to front-of-mind when friend Holly MacDonald asked on Twitter this morning, “what are three things that an organization could do to demonstrate it was serious about learning?” My response (expanded from Tweetish) was: For organizations truly serious about learning? More reflection on the effects of actions; less blaming and witch-hunting postmortems in the name of so-called accountability; and more adaptive behaviours to navigate complex environments rather than deterministic planning and expectations of perfect execution.

I cannot count the number of organizations I’ve come across that consider themselves committed to organizational learning simply because they invest in employee training. (I know there will be some readers who will roll their eyes at that, and others who will think, what’s wrong with that?) Organizational learning, like adult education, requires active reflection on lived experiences. It requires a commitment to be accountable for what can be done to achieve success from where one is located right now, rather than defending past decisions or action. It requires navigation among the complexity of the unforeseeable – including the potential to change destinations – rather than “staying” some arbitrary course, if only to demonstrate that a prior decision was the “right” one. To accomplish effective organizational learning – that is, learning where the acquired knowledge sustains and informs future decisions – requires that members bring an intention to bring about desired effects in their (and the organization’s) interactions with others. To persevere in the face of unexpected twists, turns, and setbacks that often characterize complex situations requires one to bring presence, intensity, and even passion to the situation. Most certainly, being able to nimbly adapt when confronted with navigating complex situations necessitates possessing a comfort with ambiguity, uncertainty, and not necessarily knowing where one might end up.

It is this last aspect that often stymies even the best of organizational learning intentions. Because leaders are expected to be in control (not merely in charge), to be able to plan and to execute the plan (or be executed for failure), it is almost invariably deemed unacceptable for organizational learning initiatives to have a mindset of “we don’t know what we’re going to learn, but we’ll know it when we learn it.” But true organizational learning is all about discovery, making inroads on what we don’t know that we don’t know. As such, it’s impossible to plan for and quantify, to set “measurable and actionable organizational learning targets” (paraphrased from a BAH organization’s annual management objectives review form). Rather, leaders who espouse organizational learning as a core value would be advised to enable environments that encourage their organizations to be ready to learn: embracing uncertainties, being prepared for transformation, and directing intention towards relationship effects, that is, the organization’s tactility. Sustaining such an environment, especially in the face of more traditional action, “accountability,” and achieving measurable objectives requires… you guessed it: those same three attributes!

Now, if only more organizational environments were created in such a way so as not to deliberately stifle intention, diminish intensity, and destroy passion, imagine how smart would those organizations become from all the learning they could accomplish!

15 November 2011

Reflections on Creating a Degree Program: Conversation Café 3

Among the “harvested” ideas that came forward from our third, and final, Conversation Café of this phase of developing our new Master’s degree in Leadership and Organization Development, and Executive Coaching was this: our program should have a “future-driving” orientation, in other words, it should create and enable change. Our eventual graduates will be asked to facilitate other individuals’ and organizations’ transformations, enabling them to move to a new place – literally, basho – rather than being satisfied with attaining new specific goals or objectives. But it occurs to me that the specific expression of this idea – future-driving – is not quite correct. Traditional leadership training is all about driving the future, creating the future, living in the future. Consistent with being in a UCaPP world, I think our greater concern, and indeed, our most pressing challenge, is how to drive, create, and live in the present.

In other words, our focus (as the Café participants also noted) might more effectively be directed towards the question of how to encourage leaders to appreciate, understand, and become comfortable with the “complexity of supporting the change that is happening right now.” How do we create the necessary learning to accommodate emergent change as a way of being, without feeling the need to control or “manage” the change in ways that might stifle the appropriate and necessary evolution of the organization? One key characteristic of UCaPP organizations is that their leaders have learned to become comfortable with complexity (ambiguity, uncertainty, and emergence rather than control). They embody this new-found comfort in ways that, in turn, create new forms of engagement and flexible modes of operating that are consistent with the newly emergent properties of their organizational systems. Thus, our program must create learning experiences that enable participants to become comfortable with ambiguity and complexity in an environment not devoid of structure, but not frozen by it, either. One participant suggested the neologistic metaphor of “cloudworks” in contrast to the highly structured, deterministic “clockworks,” connoting a looser structure of flow and emergent, but clearly discernible, form. This metaphor serves to identify the issue of how to create “complexity education”—learning environments appropriate for participants to embody and assimilate principles of complexity as a guiding model for understanding human dynamics.

When we speak of embracing values of social transformation and social innovation, we necessarily involve processes that substantially encompass more than driving towards pre-conceived goals. This concept represents a substantial shift in the notion of leadership for contemporary circumstances: leadership becomes embedded process rather than embodied role. One aspect of contemporary, UCaPP leadership exists as an “ongoing series of conversations around questions that matter.” So, too, must a program that will help to develop contemporary leaders and organizations. Conversations around questions that matter enable cultures of inquiry – invaluable when it comes to navigating a trajectory of intended effects amidst complex environmental interactions – that necessitate fostering a sense of curiosity throughout an organization. This means that organizational members exist in a space of curiosity that opens the mind to be able to imagine what is possible. In doing so, organizations eliminate the fear of failure—sometimes overwhelming, stress-inducing concerns of potentially not being able to achieve a specific end, goal, or objective. This does not mean that “failure” itself is not eliminated (and as reflected in our program, that all students will unconditionally “pass” irrespective of performance or lack thereof). Instead, it reconstitutes the notion of “failure” in a context of complexity, transformation, and innovation, alternative futures that become possible, and navigating for intended effects.

Our first Conversation Café provided the inspiration for a motto: “Transform the individual. Transform the organization. Transform the world.” This Café suggests “4 Ps” that might characterize the type of applicants and students we would want to encourage: those with Passion, Potential, Path/Plan, and Perception. Consistent with the ideas expressed in the previous paragraph, the “plan” would be a different sort of (complexity-oriented) plan than might be typical of a more conventional graduate program. In particular, we would strive to attract people who see the ethos of this program as a personal life goal integral to their passion. We would invite people for whom this program is personally meaningful in the context of “making a difference in the world”; for them, it would not merely be the “next employable thing.”

In traditional education and training, there is often a large gap between what is academically taught, and what is actually experienced (and adaptively applicable) in practice. “Real life” must intersect with “real play” in the learning environment to create transformative experiences that draw on the creativity of the participants. This observation from among our Conversation Café participants is yet another expression of the praxis principle in adult learning that will be embraced and embodied in the context, process, and content of this degree program. Participants introduced the concept of “Living Labs” that extends the common construct of a practicum in useful ways. Living Labs might sustain between courses, and perhaps involve a larger segment of a given cohort, instead of being an individual placement. Living Labs could be a possible way to create a vehicle that enables a more authentic intersection between “life” and “play.” Such extended, collaborative engagements could provide specific but larger opportunities that would enable students to apply, practice, and transfer learning to real world environments, in keeping with some of the transformative aspirations of our program. On an individual level, students would be invited, encouraged, and actively supported to engage in iterative reflective practices as a means of advancing and assimilating their own experiential learning. As an aside, how many contemporary university courses ask their students to write “reflection papers,” or keep some sort of journal, throughout the course, without providing specific guidance on what mindful reflection is really about? Among the “fundamentals” that underlie the overall learning, I would intend to remedy this common oversight in the service of enabling students to become truly mindful, reflective practitioners.

Many of the ideas shared by the Conversation Café participants reflect what are often understood to be good principles of Adult Education. Good adult learning derives from: embedded, embodied, and explicit knowledge, active incorporation of participant (that is, both instructor and learner) experiences; inquiry from within (in other words, reflective practices); hands-on, experiential learning in and from live situations; combined with feedback and feedforward that continually inform and evolve the program content and process. Thus, we create environments of co-learning. Everyone in the environment is both a learner and a co-creator of knowledge. Knowledge, wisdom, and insights exist throughout the room, not just at the front. As a consequence of these principles – co-learning and co-creation of knowledge – we would consider our program to be successful if our graduates can inspire leaders to create environments of co-learning within their organizations. One way of encouraging this is for students to create an organization within their cohort to put their learning into practice via Living Labs, as I described above. Taken together with principles of co-learning, this idea speaks to the true embodiment of learning, reflective practice, seeking transformation, and praxis. It also speaks to an intention towards social transformation within the organizations that our program will touch and hence, expresses the program’s tactility.

For our students, the profound experience of transformation in the context of the program will be embodied in the visceral experience of being simultaneously awe-struck and awe-inspired. But this raises an important question with respect to evaluation and assessment: In a practical sense, how do we jointly accomplish this transformational experience with integrity, that is, being true to both our and the participants’ aspirations, without abdicating our pedagogical ethos and responsibilities? A large part of the individual assessment will necessarily be subjective, collaboratively completed between participants and instructors, and qualitatively expressed via narratives that describe, for example, the circumstances of the student’s most compelling change process. This idea echoes an idea from our first Conversation Café in which students would be assessed not according to whether they achieved specific, pre-conceived goals, but rather according to the degree to which their goals transformed and emerged consistent with their learning experiences throughout the program. Included in such an assessment would be an understanding of how effectively learning is transferred to workplaces, both during the students’ direct participation in the program and thereafter, as a direct application of what has been learned during the course of the degree. In doing so, our students begin to introduce the process of praxis into workplaces in ways that begin to transform those environments towards becoming a true, reflective, learning organization. This, in turn, means that the design principle of praxis must be made explicit to our participants, incorporated as key element of reflective practice, and embodied as a way of being among our students and graduates.

Finally, our participants strongly expressed the notion that we must be in the business of developing the whole person “in relation” through a series of reflective considerations: Who am I; what do I value; what skills do I possess; what behaviours do I enact; what sort of environment do I enable? To support these critical self-reflections over the time of the program, it will be incumbent on us to provide specific guidance for our participants to manage “energy,” more than just time and resources. Mindfulness practices will likely play a large role here. There must be an explicit acknowledgement of the polarity between “tension” and “serenity” wherein the participants must live that balance during their participation in the program. Such active acknowledgement will enable our program to be sustainable, balancing the considerations of performance with renewal.

10 November 2011

Reflections on Creating a Degree Program: Conversation Café 2

Transformation and language—two key themes that came out of our second Conversation Café seeking ideas and inspirations for the development of our proposed Master’s Degree in Leadership and Organization Development, and Executive Coaching. Not unexpectedly, much of the language that I have been using to describe important, healing-oriented processes among organizations has already been co-opted by the managerialist discourse (according to some of our participants). In particular, the increasingly worn cliché of “change” seems to be giving way to “transformation” as a catch-all, synonymous euphemism for instrumental, mostly unwelcome, counter-inclusive processes. One participant even noted that in her practice, she has come across an organization that glibly uses the phrase “organization transformation” to refer to the heavy-handed, BAH layoffs practice formerly referred to as downsizing (or even worse – from the perspective of management clichés – “rightsizing”).

In what some might call a time-honoured practice, more-conventional consultancies often appropriate language that has been deliberately chosen to suggest new ground, context, and meaning. In doing so, those who cynically adhere to managerialist learning from as far back as the famous Hawthorne experiments of the late 1920s and early ’30s, have come to realize that workers can often be manipulated into compliance (possibly resulting in temporary increases in productivity) by introducing change that appears to be positive, including nominative changes in language. Thus, it is vitally important that as a school and faculty that will create its reputation on true transformative practices, we must first fully understand and appreciate what we mean by terms such as “transformation.”

Among the conversations, one simple yet profound aspect came through very clearly: Self is emergent not through deterministic, goal-oriented training, but from the assimilation of reflective learning of one’s experiences in the context of history, culture, and prior knowledge. Transformation in this sense occurs when the individual explicitly realizes, and can articulate, a fundamentally new context for their life in which prior (and future) experiences can be understood with new meaning. In turn, “emergent self” becomes an agent of similar transformation in other individuals, and among environments in which that individual participates. What this means for the development of our program is that specific skills for personal transformation must be encouraged and nurtured among all our members, including both students and faculty, in a suitably safe environment. These skills encompass an ability for self-awareness and mindful reflection; self-cultivation together with collective co-cultivation; realizing the resultant basho that is thereby created; creating a non-conventional self-plan that focuses on trajectory and navigating for effects, rather than necessarily attaining a specific objective or preconceived goal.

In a similar vein, commonly understood (which means that everyone understands them, but few people would unpack them the same way) terms such as “Leadership,” “Organization,” and “Executive” must be clearly and appropriately contextualized in our program in a way that will clearly delineate and differentiate what Adler’s future master’s degree offers that is distinct from any other institution. Likewise, words like “Development,” and “Coaching.”

Among aspects of our program’s tactility, we would strive for our participants – in-program students and especially graduates – to feel a calling to seed and effect transformations consistent with the values of the program. Such emergent dissemination among the various environments in which they participate would occur long after their direct participation in the program has finished. In this sense, the need being addressed by the program addresses the question: How will organizations redefine themselves and their processes given the complex manifestations of transformation that are now occurring throughout society? This suggests a direct, follow-on question: In what ways can our program demonstrate and offer unique guidance – via our students, faculty, and graduates – towards the answer(s) to that question of redefinition? And perhaps equally important for our sustainable success: How do we appropriately identify those individuals who want (and are prepared) to transform themselves in such a manner for this program to be appropriate for them? 

The short answer is that we would be seeking those people for whom earning this degree would be more than a simple, instrumental benefit, that is, more than a mere “academic exercise.” In traditional education and training, there is often a large gap between what is academically taught, and what is actually experienced (and becomes adaptively applicable) in practice. Pervading our entire curriculum – every course syllabus and practicum experience – “real life” must intersect with “real play” throughout the learning environments. In this way, we would strive to create transformative experiences that challenge the creativity, engagement, and commitment of all our participants. As those who participated in our Conversation Café expressed these ideas, I observe yet another expression of the principle of praxis in adult learning—experience recursively transforming into embodied knowledge that informs subsequent practice. Conversation Café participants identified the concept of “living labs” comprising intervention engagements with practicum clients that could sustain between courses as a possible way to create a vehicle that enables “life” and “play” to intersect in this context.

03 November 2011

Down with Learning Clichés!

Part of the joy – and part of the challenge – in designing a new graduate program pretty much from scratch is the opportunity to reflect on, and incorporate to some extent, my deeply held values and philosophy of education; especially adult education. With respect to the study of media, Marshall McLuhan claimed, “To understand media, one must probe everything … including the words … and oneself.” I would say the same is precisely true with respect to contemporary education, that we must indeed probe everything—our assumptions, our language, and ourselves as both learners and teachers.

One assumption that has become so pervasive in pedagogy that takes on the characteristic glibness of a cliché is the myth of so-called learning styles, and specifically, the notion that everyone learns differently. Nonsense, I say! People do not “learn differently.” That now overly tired and overdue-to-be-retired cliché derives from a post-Enlightenment, early Modernity understanding of disciplinary segregation of abstract knowledge in formal education. I strongly suggest that such a view is no longer adequate as a relevant basis for pedagogy in our contemporary world that is complex and characterized as ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate (UCaPP).

All people learn through repeated and recursive processes of reflection on experiences, be they formally or informally situated; graphically or textually dominant; predominantly visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, or otherwise; coerced, invited, or spontaneous; and combinations and permutations of the foregoing. The key question – arguably, the only salient question – for contemporary educators is, how best to create environments and circumstances that enable optimal conditions for relevant experiences, well-contextualized reflections, and assimilated embodiment of the resultant knowledge that would enable the intended effects of the educational process; that is, praxis.