Schein on Dialogue

23 Aug

I am enjoying Edgar Schein’s “On Dialogue, Culture, and Organizational Learning” (Organizational dynamics 22.2 (1993): 40-51). My summary.

Dialogue in the general parlance means conversation. But dialogue, for Schein, is different. It starts from a change in mental approach–the use of a somewhat unnatural “suspension”–instead of reacting when we hear discomfiting information that triggers us, we pause for a moment, and evaluate what we’re thinking. “Is this feeling I have true? Or is it based on a mistaken perception?” we ask ourselves, and wait a bit for additional information before we decide how to act. Dialogue means bringing a kind of mindfulness, or cognitive self-awareness as we talk–”knowing one’s thought as one is having it,” says Schein.  Thinking about a thought rather than being the thought. Leaving the animal-like, mechanical push-and-pull of a conversation, and watching, as it were, partially from above.  As Schein says:

I have found repeatedly that if I suspend, I find that further conversation clarifies the issue and that my own interpretation of what may have been going on is validated or changed without my having to actively intervene.

“Not having to intervene” feel unfamiliar? Probably because conversations where people are practicing this at first feel different than other conversations. There is no debate. Instead there’s a feeling of a “disjointed . . . random conversation.” The point is not to “convince each other” but to “build common experience.” People think of the process–at first–as a “detour or slowing down of problem solving,” but Schein notes such dialogues are necessary. And he says people come to want them, once they’ve got the feel.

Why?  Why focus on building experience instead of problem solving? Because it heals the miscommunications, misunderstandings, and problems caused by clashing mental models that are a bane of organizational subcultures. For Schein, our continual problem is that we form tacit and private understandings, beliefs, norms, assumptions, languages in our different contexts, teams. or hierarchical levels, and without work at getting these on the table, we won’t understand what people in other teams or at other levels are saying. And they won’t understand us. We also won’t say we don’t understand, because we are socialized “to withhold information that would in any way threaten the current ‘social order;’” so the misunderstanding remains until the cross-functional project we’re working on stalls, and we point fingers.

But if we’re using dialogue, we’re watching ourselves thinking as we simultaneously listen to what people are saying, we’re seeing and assessing our built-in assumptions as they pop up, we’re thinking about what language means, we’re holding multiple possibilities in mind simultaneously. Because we’re suspending our reactivity in favor of listening to the modulations of the group thinking, it’s less about individuals talking to each other (as happens in traditional feedback, for instance) and more about the group as a kind of network or hive mind. A good group-think, where the group thinks and learns at a higher level than the individuals could on their own, rather than the opposite. Through the meandering dialogue process we form a new understanding of how the group uses language, how it conceives of its work, what mental models it uses, and, perhaps most importantly, we create a psychologically safe space where we can efficiently develop new languages and new models. Not to mention we also get better at using dialogue itself, until it becomes an efficient tool we can put to use whenever we feel the need.

In any event, without dialogue, says Schein–and this is the kicker–you can’t do much at all. Dialogue is “at the root of all effective group action,” it allows groups to “achieve levels of creative thought that no one would have initially imagined,” and, finally, without it, you can’t learn, you can’t change, and you can’t adapt:

Learning across cultural boundaries cannot be created or sustained without initial and periodic dialogue. Dialogue in some form is therefore necessary to any organizational learning that involves going beyond the cultural status quo.

The Learning Picture and The LOA Way

12 Jul

We held the second successful incarnation of the Learning Organization Academy this week.  A second wave of feedback from our participants and speakers is coming in. More than ever I’m reconfirmed in my sense that LOA (as we call it) is a wonderful, necessary, unusual professional development program. What exactly do we do there? Here’s what I think: we try to paint a picture of what a learning culture looks like, and we try to empower people to seek that culture, using our “way.”

The Learning Picture

What does a learning culture look or feel like?  It’s seeing people not as individual units but as a complex adaptive system, a kind of hyper-complexity of interconnectedness interwoven with a sense–an ethical call–that the parts and the connections between the parts and the overall system can and should continuously improve, develop, evolve, adapt, become more capable, understand more, see more, be more, do better, do more good.

It’s a feeling you’re with people who perceive you deeply and care about your development. It’s chatter, it’s movement, it’s connectedness. It’s a fascination with information or idea flow and with sharing and with perspectives. It’s information residing in between and among people. It’s a suspension of the individual and the group. It’s a hyper-individualism suspended in a bionic group. It’s icky and wonderful and true and healing and difficult to hear and necessary and life-changing like support groups and Alcoholics Anonymous. But it’s also intellectually challenging, mind-blowing, inspiring, visionary, like great keynotes or Ted Talks or moments of wonderful brainstorms or getting, say, Spinoza for the first time. It’s a kind of platonic intimacy. It’s also mindful, calm, reflective, consolidating, simplifying, like the presence of a great meditation teacher.

It’s not superficially happy, as in the avoidance of bad feelings from fear of them; because it involves a desire to improve, it requires a constant grappling with discomfort. Because it’s learning, it involves real, meaningful, true feedback. You’re supported in the grappling, though. It asks you to re-evaluate or put in context a bunch of existing structures you’ve absorbed and perhaps not really considered, that we use to make sense of the work world (and life), like production, power, authority, efficiency, limits, boundaries, success, rules, norms, the bottom line.

It’s a delight in the awareness of yourself improving, as you had when you were a kid, and a happiness in being able to help people improve, as you have when you are a parent or a teacher or a coach. Mixed with the joy of doing what you love or the simple wonder of perceiving the natural world. All this with the kind of sense of collective achievement you would have from, say, working on the crew of a winning America’s Cup yacht.  It’s Maslow’s idea of a society of self-actualized people, plus the feel of the classroom in Alfie Kohn, plus the lab-like discovery in Eleanor Duckworth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas, plus the fascination and love and being-with-people that the humanistic psychologist Carl Rodgers models, plus the mindfulness of the Buddha, plus the curiosity and intellectual stimulation of, say, Richard Feynman. Plus the fun of learning to whistle. Plus the crinkly-eyed humor of a whimsical anecdote. It’s learning and being with people the way you wish you could.

The LOA Way

So that’s the picture. So how do we help people get there? What’s our “way?” Well, we do share some tips, tricks, techniques, approaches, projects, perspectives. But I think the main part of what we do is not so much to give technological or instrumental advice or answers but to model or encourage a way of being or a disposition or an attitude.

This didn’t quite come to me until I reviewed the website of another professional development program shortly after LOA had ended. This program struck me as embodying a kind of industrial-masculine-skills-fixed-knowledge-surgical-breathless-mechanical approach. It was about learning discrete things and applying them. Cause and effect. Focused-intellectual-logical-IQ stuff. Intensely individual. Maybe I picked up a sense of underlying anger or conviction or intensity. It was a closing trap. Fixing, fixing, fixing. Driving. Mechanical.

The LOA way is the opposite. It’s perhaps more feminine, organic, slow.  It’s about perception, appreciation, spaciousness, and joy.  It’s about the context, replacing the parts in the whole, resolving dualities, healing divisions, not rushing to solutions, yet embracing spontaneity, thinking, being mindful, sensing, sensing, doing less, questioning certitude, imaging other possibilities, sloughing off a veneer of sophistication or adulthood or responsibility for a cultivated youthfulness or naiveté. It’s perhaps primarily about seeing and understanding the richness and beauty of things as they are as much as it is about gentling nudging them along.

Copying, Synergy, and the Test Kitchen

30 Jun

I’m thinking about another entry in Maslow’s Eupsychian Management, “Synergic versus Antisynergic Doctrine.”

Here Maslow beings by exploring two ways of seeing availability of resources: as limited and as unlimited or regenerating.  In the general, dog-eat-dog world of life or the office, (or in Theory X, as Maslow would say), we see things as limited, so we have to grab what we can get and do whatever we can to keep others from grabbing it back. The problems with this are fairly obvious in general, but it’s particularly problematic when the “limited” way of thinking is wrongly extended to things which when shared generate more of themselves in an ever-increasing way. Good things, like ideas, knowledge, psychological well-being.

Science, for instance, only works when ideas and learnings and experiments are shared. Of course, that is the whole idea of science. Everyone can build on each other’s experiences in an ever-increasing virtuous circle. The times when we try to limit knowledge–like to keep it out of the hands of the Soviets, for instance–hurt the “us” more than it hurts the “them,” because the us don’t benefit from the virtuous cycle of the knowledge percolating through the aquifer of our collective thought. And the them probably find their way to the information in any event.

To share knowledge is to generate more knowledge; and that’s a “synergic” way of looking at things, from a generative perspective rather than a perspective of limitation. To think “I need to hide the secret in the safe,” that’s “anti-synergic.”

Anti-synergic thinking shows a confusion of the product with the more complex and more beautiful and more fleeting and more valuable and less reproducible people-thought-action-system (my words) that produced it. Ideas in business are a good example. Of course it’s common to develop a product and then want to keep the stuff we learned while developing it secret so our competitors can’t redo it and thus steal our potential earnings and glory, etc.

But you can look at things differently. Take the voltmeter from Nonlinear Systems (Maslow’s example). Nonlinear invented the voltmeter, apparently, and could have kept how to make it secret, but they didn’t. Allan Kay, the leader, pointed out that anyone could copy the voltmeter, but they couldn’t as easily copy the complex system that developed it.

About that “system.” For Maslow, it seems, this system consists of three key parts: a creative disposition, a commitment to iterate, and an ability to perceive things in their truth, regardless of predispositions.  (I guess a fourth necessary part that goes without saying is that the system needs to have people in it). These three, or four, things make a process or flow, a virtuous circle–a thing half ceremony, half discovery, have foundry–from which the particular product is but a kind of snapshot or a thrown-off snakeskin, only marking where things were at a certain point.

Someone can copy the snakeskin, but it would be hard to copy the “snake,” the fluid, creative, productive, self-corrective, honestly-perceiving ecosystem that gave it birth.  And if you did recreate the snake, or Nonlinear Systems, that would be good in any event, because you’d be bringing a “Theory Y,” healing, self-affirming, goodness-making, not-believing-in-limitations, social machine into being, and that would have all sorts of positive effects on the lives of the people that came into contact with it. And your new Nonlinear Systems would probably get along OK with the Old Nonlinear Systems, since good organizations would of course get along with good organizations. You would probably form a system between you of a higher order of mind-process-production that couldn’t have been conceived until then.

The flow of the creative-iterative-perceptive system feels like it has parts in it of my idea of the information “sluice;” but it also contains a built-in doing component (the “foundry,” per me, above), because you’re making things. It feels akin to Basadur’s Creative Problem Solving process, which says an idea is not creative if it’s not implemented. But it’s also meta. I take Basadur’s CPS as a kind of subroutine; whereas the kind of organization or process Maslow is talking here about feels more like a superordinate way of going about things. One that might contain within its parts both synergic and anti-synergic subroutines.

I should stress the observation part. I added it; Maslow doesn’t break it out as such in this entry, but it pops up in others. And it resonates. Perhaps the most important part of this creative synergic flow is the ability to look at yourself or your process with Bergsonian pure perception, or with Maslow’s B-cognition. Objectively and lovingly and without predetermined ideas, but rather seeing the context for the context, the product for the product. Not clouded by a desire for the thing to be good, or for the struggle to be over so that you can coast, or for a desire to defeat your enemies, but just in itself. This ability to step out of yourself would seem crucial to generating the kind of creative ideas that would fuel iterative improvement.

For the record, the idea of sharing things in order to have more of them, for Maslow, works for other things we often assume we have to hoard in work or in life: power and love being two.  He refers to Linkert’s idea (in New Patterns of Management) of the “influence pie:” where managers allowed their reports to have more influence and suddenly discovered they themselves (the managers) had more, too.

As an aside, cooking shows are connected to this. You can watch the person make a dish and know how to make that dish, but you won’t learn much about the life of their kitchen, or how they relate to food, and what sparks new dish ideas, and how they refine things, and how they get feedback. You might mistakenly focus on sourcing ingredients and getting the right pot and wake up to find yourself in a antisynergic mode. When it’s not about the particular ingredient or pot or outcome, but about the culture hidden behind and among those things. Even America’s Test Kitchen doesn’t really teach you how to have your own test kitchen.  Which is sad because I think a synergic life would be a kind of continual test kitchen.

On “The Very Superior Boss”

24 Jun

“The Very Superior Boss” is an entry in Abraham Maslow’s Eupsychian Management: A Journal (1965, Richard D. Irwin and The Dorsey Press)In it, Maslow doesn’t enumerate the characteristics of superiority, instead he focuses on the strife-filled relationship between the high-functioning leader and the rest of her team.

Maslow sees problems when someone who already knows or can quickly find the answer is thrown in with people who need to work out the answer through the various slow processes of communication, postulation, trial, and error. On the one hand, the business won’t make speedy decisions and the manager will herself suffer the excruciating pains of impatience and self-suppression if she waits for people to figure things out.  On the other hand, she will breed resentment and render her staff less capable than they are if she always tells them the answer, and she won’t ultimately be preparing them to lead themselves (or to live in a post-her world).  A third, stranger problem arises from an attempt to reconcile the first two–to artificially speed up the team’s processing by a kind of trickery, making it seem like they’ve solved the problem when really the leader has been perhaps not-so-subtly putting words and thoughts into their minds and mouths the whole time.

Another way to view the tension, says Maslow, is as between short-term results and long-term growth.  If the organization needs to “last past the death of the supervisor,” says he, “then greater patience is required and greater participative management, more explanations, more giving out of facts, more discussion of the facts and common agreement upon the conclusions.”  And he notes, “this is the only way to train good managers and good leaders in the long run” (145).  

The problem is similar to the one between beautiful or gifted parents face: having to stop being beautiful and gifted themselves to let their children develop.  Maslow associates it as well with the problem all creative children have in general: feeling “apart” from others; and in this way he suggests the problem is not just about a power-struggle, but also arises from basic differences of perspective or cognitive processing.  Important in his view of the tension is the fact that people often dislike or suspect intelligent or gifted people, even when these people are their best leaders; similarly, insecurity leads people to seek, and like, leaders who give clear and consistent answers, whether or not this consistency is related to intelligence or to pathology.

As a partial solution, Maslow calls for a shift of focus from the self of the leader to the situational context: asking what sort of decision-making or development is necessary to the group, and then integrating the related style of leadership. Which might very well mean giving people leaders they don’t particularly like.  As another partial solution, he suggests, interestingly, that the superior boss might just separate herself from the team, in order to let the team figure out how to solve problems on its own.

Ultimately, though, the tension is irresolvable:

This is of course, an extremely difficult problem, a profoundly human and existential problem, which in truth has no good solution even in theory. The fact is that great superiority is unjust, undeserved, and that people can and do resent it . . . . I don’t know of any good solution to this situation which demands honesty but in which honesty and truth must necessarily hurt.  (148)

The quote above might not leave you feeling great, but the idea that a slight reorientation of our focus–from “leader” to “context”–a reinsertion of the separate element into the soothing suspension–holds the potential of reducing some of the pain of the tension between us and others–that’s helpful and healing.  We might decrease the pain a little more by thinking of the separating “superiority” not so much as the boss’ intrinsic better-ness but more that she is at a particular place on one of many development tracks–and it just so happens that she is further along than us on that track, but nothing prevents us from moving in that direction, or in being further along than she in some other area.

Of course a person able to see things through B-Cognition would breathe the universal context, and would be OK with someone else’s betterness, in fact would appreciate it, particularly if it emerged clearly from their essence, but not many of us do that.

In any event, everyone can probably connect with this conundrum. I imagine we’ve all seen the three problematic aspects Maslow mentions, from both sides, too.  As both the person with the answer and the person without the answer at some point, in some way, whether the “superiority” be related to work-based problem-solving; experience, skills, or performance of some kind; or something more like emotional stability, comfort with ambiguity, and so on. Who hasn’t been in a situation where she or he had to bite their tongue while others slowly processed something? And who hasn’t discovered the disheartening feeling associated with being asked questions when you know the questioner already has a particular answer in mind. Of course, much of education traditionally has engendered this feeling.  Perhaps the third, or “trickery” experience is less common, but I have been guilty of it myself–and I can support Maslow when he says it never works.

We probably identify, as well, with the problem of seeking an “all-knowingness,” or a sense of conviction and consistency, in our leaders, because we’re scared or nervous in some way, when what might do us better is a little bit of ambiguity, consideration of multiple perspectives, some emotional and intellectual struggle of our own. Trying something without firm conviction now and then.

Finally, the suggestion that benign superior bosses, who see themselves as a blockage in their team’s development, might simply leave now and then is beautify in its simplicity, and I’ve known leaders who I think have done this well, though I suspect many leaders would scratch their heads at the idea.  “I’m not leading if I’m not there, I need to see what they’re doing if I am to control it, etc.,” they might say.  On the other hand, as Maslow points out, healthy people do not exhibit the need to control other people.


21 Jun

Abraham Maslow studied self-actualized people–highly evolved people, you might say, advanced in their thinking, sophisticated in their humanity, expressive, expansive, generous, loving, confident, healthy, gifted, alert–and what made them special. In particular he focused on the way they perceived.

He thought they knew things in a different way, which he called B-Cognition, short for Being-Cognition. In B-Cognition, the individual perceives the object as if the individual were part of the object. A loving, universalizing, interrelated way of knowing. Knowing the object so well that you discover in it yourself, or links to yourself, and through those links, you intuit more links–to everything.

A way of looking or knowing that encompasses the object’s existence and your own existence and so is also a kind of being, hence the name. A way of knowing that radiates love, joy, contentedness, acceptance, appreciation, forgiveness to those in contact with the individual.

The great people manage to exist in B-Cognition; the rest of us get in there now and then: in the process of artistic creation, listening to music, in meditation or in mindful moments, walking in the woods, in a moment of “flow,” or generally, in moments of being teased out of routine cares by things.

Maslow distinguishes B-Cognition from D-Cognition, which we all use all the time, to my everlasting chagrin. This is Deficit-Cognition, perceiving in a way that separates the looker from the looked-at. Judging, categorizing, assigning relative value, assessing relevance, bracketing off, determining usefulness or beauty, investigating logical truth, etc.

D-Cognition is the lens through which we see each other and the world: “To what extent is this thing useful to me?” we are asking at some level every time we perceive anything. Or perhaps the question we ask ourselves has another form, too, coming from a position of anxiety: “Will this thing impede or injure me? Expose a vulnerability?”

If you pay attention to the flicker of thought in your mind and in the faces of others as you meet them in the street or in the office (imagine doing this!), you’ll see D-Cognition at work. Instantaneous judgements and rankings and assessments and associated thoughts and anxieties well up with every glance, no matter how fleeting.

I think D-Cognition is basically the only perceptory apparatus of the workplace, which is logical, I suppose, because the prevailing idea at work is that we are practical, efficient, and attuned to the bottom line, and we need to judge, judge, judge, judge. Or be judged. 

In aesthetic and academic circles I think there might be a little more room for B-Cognition. A scholar writing about Wordsworth, for instance (I picked him on purpose!), I hope, is (or was at some point) motivated by a B-Cognition-like experience of (or with) the text. Of course she then writes about it and has to defend her writing against other scholars and other interpretations and in creeps D-Cognition.

Maslow’s study of perception connects with other similarly-oriented ways of thinking. My personal saint and philosopher, Henri Bergson, always sought “pure perception,” for instance, which was to be achieved by intuition, a penetrative, organic, knowing-from-within, like B-Cognition.  I remember writing in my Master’s thesis decades back about the experience of using intuition on a text and hypothesizing that at some point down in the trenches of that perception you were seeing yourself or seeing an interplay between yourself and the text that changed both. Some kind of quantum effect.

B-Cognition is also a good way to describe the goal of mindfulness and meditation, very popular now (and deservedly so) in our frazzled, overloaded, hyper-material, people-argue-with-each-other-on-TV, tabloid-y culture.  These activities, coming out of the Buddhist tradition, focus your attention to your inner experience of life in the moment; and one of the key points, as you come to know yourself, is to come to know yourself as existing in a kind of suspension of selves, one big oneness. Mindfulness chips away at the unhealthy personal and interpersonal effects of D-Cognition and aims to get you to the place where you can radiate in all directions the kind of contentedness and love that Maslow’s modern Buddhas did.

B-Cognition and mindfulness also align with Constructive Developmental Psychology, which I’ve mentioned a few times, and in particular with the fabulous 5th stage of Robert Kegan’s hierarchy of epistemological sophistication.  This is the stage where your interest in being a “self” fades and you begin to take very seriously other selves and relations between selves. You laugh happily at your own fallibilities, which you would never do if you were trying to keep your you-ness intact.  And of course they align with all those wonderful, inscrutable, contradictory, healing messages from thinkers and artists working along the same lines. Walt Whitman, of course. Maybe something in the Cubists. Etc.

I like the path Maslow took — starting with a psychological investigation more or less according to the way of Western science (although feeling perhaps more like archaeology than psychology?), he ended up confirming what he was seeing by drawing similar connections to thought in non-western-scientific containers: religion, philosophy, aesthetics, literature.

One last point that I think is key. In B-Cognition, we have the data of D-Cognition, plus much more. It is not that we suddenly lose our ability to discern or to think; B is not intellectually inferior to D. Those D-data are all there, but contextualized, re-membered, put back together, held together with contradictory information, resolved, understood in a different way by an epistemology at a higher order of complexity. A small piece replaced in a big puzzle.

For myself I’m about getting more B-Cognition to the people. At work, in life. On a personal level, on a local level, on a national level. B-Cognition of others, and maybe more importantly, of themselves. Appreciation of B-Cognition. Restitution of wholeness and relatedness in the deconstructed and compartmentalized lives of people.

The Hopper and the Innovation Pipeline

30 Jan

I want to talk a little bit about something we’ve done recently in the Northeast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP). NERCOMP, like any organization, is faced with a tension between doing things now and doing things later. We’re trying to direct our energy and attention to existing, operationalized activities, while still making sure we save a little bit for new ideas that may one day become wonderful and important activities in their own right. This is trickier than it seems, because it takes a different quality of mind to keep things going than it does to recruit and envision and cultivate new things to do. But you need to do both, because you need to be successful in the present, of course, and you also want to be successful in the unpredictable future.

There are two basic knots of problems you face when you try to both have new ideas and maintain existing services. One relates to the new ideas: How do get them? Where do you put them? What do you do with them? How do you turn them into something real? The other comes from the antagonistic relationship between new ideas and existing operations. How do you keep the crazy, zany, emotional, fad-like, breathless quality of new ideas from disrupting the staid, responsible, serious work of operations, and vice versa–how do you keep the harsh noon-day realism of what exists from prematurely scorching the delicate nocturnal tendrils of the new thing being born?

The solution, in my mind, has two parts: first you need a place to put ideas, and second, you need a process that tells you what to do with them. NERCOMP, I’m proud to say, is working on both.

The Hopper

How do you get these ideas? Who knows when an idea is going to pop into someone’s head, and who knows whose head it will pop into? Apart from those rare people who continuously sprout ideas regardless of how they’re received (I’m one of them), how do you make people comfortable even saying their ideas out loud, given that new ideas tend by definition to sound somewhat crazy? How do you create a culture that says proposing ideas isn’t just OK, but expected?

Well, we’re not totally sure about the answers to any of these questions. But here’s what we did: we thought we might at least lower to the minimum the work someone had to do to get an idea from their head into ours, such that while they’re still in the thrill of the moment, and before they’ve thought better of it, they can dash it off, and we can capture it. We took a simple, one-text-box Google form, put it online, and tested it with our board members, by having them pull it up during board meetings and other NERCOMP activities. Anytime they had a thought or suggestion, they could put it right into the form. We called it the Hopper, because that name made some of us envision a kind of rotating tube full of crazy ideas, like the cylinders of ricocheting ping-pong balls used famously in lottery drawings or bingo parlors. And it worked. We gathered over a hundred ideas in a matter of weeks; too many to process, really, so we stopped encouraging it for a bit while we come up with a way to regularly review and process the contents. Now we have such a process, so we’ve made the Hopper open to all NERCOMP members (here, if you’re a member) and are poised to announce it beginning with our upcoming annual conference.

The Innovation Pipeline

Getting the ideas is the first part of the battle. But then you need to know what to do with them. Here we were influenced enormously by the work of Dr. Min Basadur, whom I’ve written about before. He breaks creative problem solving into four stages– Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing. In the first step you think of the idea; in the second you flesh it out, as it were, in theory; in the third you begin to take that theory and make a plan for its implementation in the real world; in the fourth, you implement the plan.

We took Basadur’s stages as a kind of growth chart for our ideas, if you will, and let the stages tell us what we should be doing for and with ideas as they evolved. We added transition points or firewalls between phases–places you have to check in with the board to move on to the next phase. We made these check-ins progressively more difficult. Moving from having an idea to developing it (or “conceptualizing”), we thought, really only required an interested person willing to think it through. But moving from development to optimizing (which we renamed “testing”) required a legitimate plan for the test. And moving to the final phase–implementation–required data from a successful test as well as some clear ideas about where the resources would come from to operationalize the activity. We called the whole thing the “Innovation Pipeline,” and you can see one of our early (somewhat silly) versions as we were developing it.

The Innovation Pipeline has a lot of great benefits. Most importantly it addresses aforementioned problem knot number two: it protects new ideas from operations and operations from new ideas. It trains us to modulate our expectations and behaviors and feelings towards ideas as they grow–we’re gentler on the new ideas, and we ramp up the prosecutorial rigor as they come closer to operationalization, as is only appropriate. We delay, as they say, our evaluation of ideas–we don’t burden them with premature expectations of perfection. By the same token, there are three check-in points that an idea has to get past before it can really be considered operational and thus rightly become part of our routine activities, and, effectively, force us to drop or reduce some other activity to allow for it. These three check-in points are like police road blocks. Nobody gets by who shouldn’t, thus protecting our fragile operations from the threat of disruption by frivolous novelty. A secondary benefit of the pipeline is that, surprisingly, it helps people get along better. A key flashpoint in every organization is between what the creativity researchers call the ideators (people who generate cascades of possibility and love brainstorming meetings) and the evaluators (people who say no to everything new in order to continue to say yes to what they are already doing): in our pipeline the ideators get their space to think of and develop ideas before they hand them off (at stage 3) to the testers and implementors, who are ruthless. But the ideas by then are ready for reality.

In any event, there you have NERCOMP’s approach to the age-old problem of new vs. existing activities. We’re implementing it now, and we expect some iterations and tweaks before it’s perfect. A key test will be when our rank-and-file members embrace it and put ideas in the Hopper that really challenge us to grow, be creative, and innovate. Will we be able to rise to the bold new vision they propose? Only time will tell. It’s a start, and we’ll report along the way.

As a P.S. let me give a shout out to the Learning Organization Academy–NERCOMP’s intensive new professional development program. It was LOA thinking (“how can we learn better as an organization?”) that led us to tackle the problem in the first place, and research for a LOA workshop that pointed us to a solution.

The Disruption Percentage

16 Oct

I’ve been thinking about the right balance of learning and performance at work. Or the balance of disruption and consistency of action, or of painfully self-aware norm-forming and happy living within established norms.

I say disruption because I think significant learning–adaptive, as opposed to technical–is disruptive. Especially at work. At some level you are re-thinking an assumption, a rule, an understanding, a belief, and while you are in between the old rule and the rule you replace it with, you are uncomfortably aware of two alternate interpretations of the world, and you can’t float along with autopilot engaged, as we all prefer.

This disruption isn’t that big a thing when you’re in school. On the one hand, you’re used to it, because you’re reforming rules constantly. On the other, you’re not that far away from your early years, when your whole existence was a messy and constantly discombobulating attempt to understand what was going on around you. And the school environment reinforces you. You’re learning things with a peer group. You’re helped by an expert who’s led people your age through the ideas you’re facing time and again. All your time is essentially set aside for you to learn, and society is happy with you doing it. But perhaps most importantly, there’s a certain philosophical remove from what you’re learning. It isn’t yet you. Whether you really get Moby Dick or Astrophysics isn’t going to deeply affect what you think about yourself and who you are and threaten whether you can pay your mortgage and send your kids to school.

Not so at work. Here learning is harder and more disruptive, because what you’re learning is a sapper’s tunnel to your identity. The rules and norms and behaviors and beliefs that are changed in workplace learning are linked to our image of ourselves as professionals, to our sense of belonging to a social group, to our belief in our power to influence people, to protecting ourselves from shame, and then through the transverse theory of the paycheck, they’re linked as well to our sense of financial and familial stability. Our workplace norms in a sense pay our mortgages, put food on the table, get us a Bosch dishwasher, etc. These thoughts are all connected in one big constellation of dark matter stars, and it’s a way we deal with living in an uncertain world.

If you start to question workplace beliefs and rules, you trigger this system. “If what I have been doing,” people will think to themselves on a certain level, “and what people around me have done for years, and what I painfully learned the hard way to do, etc., isn’t totally right, then . . . uh oh . . . I might not be able to do the new thing expected of me,, I might loose face in the workplace, I might loose influence over the world around me, I might be exposed to shame, I might not be able to pay my mortgage, I might not be able to get food, and there goes the Bosch dishwasher, etc . . .”

That’s what I mean when I say learning is disruptive, especially at work.

But of course we have to learn. To change, to adapt. As individuals, as teams, as organizations, as a society. In a world of constant flux, that is the one constant, everyone is agreed. You can either figure out a way to activate or initiate your own learning and change in some controlled and regulated system, like a prescribed burn, or you can wait and have external change, which you can’t control, wash over you like a tsunami, or wildfire.

The idea of the learning organization is basically the former–instead of thinking that we can achieve a stable state, to refer to Donald Schon’s book Beyond the Stable State, we accept that our context is always changing, and we try to find and bake in ways to help ourselves constantly and consistently learn and change. If external change obligations come along, fine, we’ll take advantage of them; if not, we won’t sit around eating pistachios, we’ll concoct our own internal change obligations.

So given that learning and change at work are disruptive and highly anxiety-provoking, how do you do that? How do you manage to do them regularly, consciously, intentionally? Clearly you can’t change everything everyone is doing or question everything everyone is believing all at once. Without some amount of consistency of behavior and expectations, the organizational identity dissolves. We don’t know why we’re here and what we’re doing. Chaos ensues.

I like Edgar Schein’s idea. The leader of the learning organization, he says, in my beloved chapter 20 of Organizational Learning, has to simultaneously assuage his team’s anxieties and prompt people to learn and change in some particular area. “We’re ok in general, but in this little bit, we need to do something differently,” she would say. We have to, that is, finesse a kind of propping up of the existing norms, while we rewrite some of them. It’s about a balance, or a percentage. We have to reinforce our status quo in, say 80% of our work, while we help people deconstruct and reform the status quo in the other 20%. It’s like a rolling blackout, but it’s not a blackout, it’s a spotlight.

But what would the right percentage of learning–the disruption percentage– be? I think the 80/20 rule probably works just as well as any other. I come at it from the opposite angle–If you take the reciprocal of work, when we’re learning full-time, in college, say, and you look at the ratio of learning to performance, you come up with something close to the 80/20 rule reversed. The average college student, say, works 10 hours a week, and has four classes, each roughly 10 hours a week, when you add up class time and homework. That’s a 20/80 work/learn rule, and we can induce from it that full-time work could be the opposite and do OK. In addition, it’s the percentage Google has seized upon in its famous workplace learning initiative.

Of course you’ll ask, percentage of what? Of time, of units worked, of number of work “categories”? I think you can use whatever metric you settle on with your team to organize what you do. It’s a rule of thumb, after all.

The point is to be humble in the breath and scope of your norm-changing initiatives, but be bold in the consistency and continuousness which which you inexorably promote them.


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