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!

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