Leadership of Learning

Leadership of Learning (Video 5 minutes). 

Vigorous Learning: 

In a world of meaningless management clichés, any organizational leader will say that people in her organization are learning. But how fast and about what? Every failure is a learning experience. Since we don’t want that, surely absence of failure signifies a learning organization. Such circular reasoning turning on itself buries seemingly simple ideas in the graveyard of management fads.

The concepts of a Vigorous Learning Organization concentrate on gut-level human behavior. Millennia of history suggest that “human nature” changes little. The emotional conflicts of dramas written thousands of years ago resonate today, so any effort to modify us shouldn’t be taken lightly. Our pace of technical change is fast, leaving the pace of human change in its dust. (The travails of Uber and Travis Kalanick are a well-known recent example.)

Despite this, we are convinced that real people can master Vigorous Learning. Its components were not composed as an ethereal ideal, but from reviewing the attributes of some of the best companies on the planet over about a 30-year period. No single attribute or technique made them “great.” Each one did a lot of things well.

Each of these attributes can deep dive into much else. That we will leave for later blogs.

1. Mission should create intrinsic motivation. It’s better if environmental goals factor in, but regardless, a mission with socially essential purpose unifies people around doing something in common, something beyond money. A fire department is a great example. Nobody becomes a fireman to get rich. A corporate example is Ventana Medical System’s unofficial mantra, “Find Cancer Faster.” People go the extra mile for that.

Of course, money also intensely motivates, but to what end? People obsessed with money never get enough of it and are oblivious to how it warps motivation and decisions. Money also provokes conflict. Goading people to compete chasing money tempts them to cheat. How do we counter this behavior? Burden ourselves with audit trails.

A mission should be stable for long periods. But it should always be open to the most important question we can ask: Are we doing the right thing?

2. Leadership of Learning is one key to the rest. Few “thou shalt not” rules and policies are needed in a Vigorous Learning Organization. Instead, rules for learning become self-discipline people who are free to collaborate and use their heads satisfying customers and the public, and improving the environment.

A Leader of Learning leads by asking questions; rarely by command. She leads other people to become learners, and sets up the framework of a good learning system.

Want to become a leader of learning? First, never hesitate to admit ignorance. A leader does not have to be the smartest person in the room. Second, lead by asking questions, which takes practice to build into a habit.

3. Systemic Thinking is seeing relationships and wholes. Seek how things relate to each other rather than seeing disjointed pieces and parts. Expand your awareness by trying to peer far afield and deep in time. Who or what are we affecting now? What will we affect in the future? (Risk analysis of our present interests is a limited, defensive version of the idea.)

Systems thinking is a huge field with many spin offs. Systemic thinking is only one. None of us can possibly know everything, but we can avoid confining our thought patterns for solving problems so narrowly that our understanding is from a very limited perspective. In messy problem situations, ignoring important stakeholders is a common cause of later protests; we learned, but too late. And think of the environment as a stakeholder.

4. Rigorous Systems of learning are important in school, and even more when learning what nobody could tell you – by doing. Be scientific; seek evidence. Test whether processes or outcomes work as you think they do – or should. To learn together, people should address problems using a common thought pattern, a method like PDCA, DMAIC, 8D, or some other acronym. However, rigor of use aids learning more than how the method is labeled.

Set up systems to record our problem solving. What was our understanding of a problem? What did we do to resolve it? Did it work or not, and why? Good records keep us from circling back to put Band-Aids on sores that scab over but don’t heal.

Finally, “PDCA methods” address “tame problems” where chains of causality don’t go in loops. “Wicked problems” are beyond this. They are ever changing and entangled in human conflict; ill-considered fixes may only lead to new problems. Techniques exist to help with wicked problems, and all are designed to build up emotional discipline to thoroughly understand a mess before trying to intervene in it.

5. Behavior for Learning is essential, but fragile. Being human, we’re ever tempted to revert to form – to the combative, myth-ridden side of our human nature, arguing, jumping to conclusions, and fingering culprits. To learn, we have to want to learn, to explore, and to be curious when reality scrambles our preconceptions.

Much of the problem is fear of being wrong, of being penalized by management, or of being ridiculed by others if we are wrong. One of Dr. Deming’s 14 Points hit this smack on, “Drive Out Fear.” An organization’s policies can promote or alleviate fear of being wrong. Being demoted or passed over for a mistake is one of those. Paying incentives for more output is another; overlook a problem to meet a mandated target.

All of us need time to see problems and think about them. Of course we can just think and avoid action (analysis paralysis), but leadership can create the expectation that people should think and have time to do it. See a problem, dig for root cause, and fix it or get it fixed. In meetings, speak up, etc. An example of this in software is agile development; things are always changing so it’s work to keep a total package both integrated and moving along. Work from “scrum meeting” to the scrum meeting, adjusting to changes while zeroing in on the intent of the package.

Another element of learning is dialog, learning with other people. To learn with them, meet using dialog rules. By practicing the rules, everyone builds self-discipline (also called personal mastery). Listen to understand others, even if their point of view makes you seethe. Likewise learn to “hear your own assumptions” that don’t conform with reality.

Finally, learn to coach and mentor – and to be coached and to be mentored. A learning culture has to reinforce itself. How else but by people strengthening each other in its actual practice?

Will this kind of human transformation create a perfect organization? No, perfect is impossible. But a Vigorous Learning Organization is less dysfunctional by shedding time wasting clashes. The core of Vigorous Learning is seeking facts as best we can, within the time we have, and adapting to work with them. This is the opposite of fighting for my view, my department, or my company to the bitter end as a matter of honor.

We are in a time of uncertainty with change coming too fast for us to absorb; technical change, environmental change, social change, emotional change – maybe even moral change. Vigorous Learning is the art of creating an organization of open minds that can cope, even to the extreme of deciding to disband itself so that people can reorganize to do something entirely different. We will need organizations that can imaginatively improve quality of life while consuming much less.

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