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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 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.

Chris Jernstedt on Learning

12 Jul

Chris Jernstedt, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, spoke Monday at the Learning Organization Academy. My summary of key points:

Learning Organizations Should Map to the Brain

If we really want to build learning organizations, they should of course take into account how the brain works; fortunately, we might already be heading in the right direction: chris notes that the literature on organizational growth and change is remarkably consistent with how the brain operates.

Learning Should Include Thinking, Feeling, and Interacting

The brain’s major regions focus on three key areas: social (watching what other people do, emulating it), executive (making decisions, plans, interpretations), and emotional processing (feeling and dealing with how we feel about things). All three are integral to how the brain works; all three should be a recognized part of a learning organization (consider to what extent cognitive / executive thought is privileged now in most organizations and higher education).

Memory and Learning are Active

“Memory and learning are something you do,” said Chris. Rather than files retrieved from an efficient archive, the process of remembering is more similar, for Chris, to an archeological dig (!). Each memory is a product of reconstruction and re-interpretation (!) of a bunch of scattered bits. And the same for learning: rather than receiving knowledge as a jukebox might receive coins, we’re actually building the things we know association by association.

The Brain is Not Neat

“The brain is built to be sloppy,” Chris said. There’s a trade-off between the kinds of mental structures and processes that make for efficient memory and the kind that allow for creativity; the brain allows some sloppiness and inefficiency so we can make new connections, associate unlikely things, invent our way out of a tight corner. But in exchange we’re imperfect warehouses.

Engage or Forget

The most important thing in remembering or learning something new is to use the information actively. Engagement is even more important than overall time spent. Talk about it, write about, do something with it. Otherwise it’s gone in 24 hours, says Chris; 60 to 80% of your learning should require you to be engaged, he said; and he therefore suggested we use symbols to capture the key points of his talk (writing or images). He also stopped every few minutes to challenge us in groups with a provocative question or two. “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning,” he said.

Prompts

The brain uses prompts and incentives to help it learn. Prompts relate to its powerful predictive ability: to survive we need to know what effects follow from what causes; we’re so good at associating effects with causes that after even one highly-charged cause-effect sequence, the brain will subsequently predict the outcome of any similar cause and feel and act as if the effect had happened, even if it hadn’t. Every time you see a certain person, they frown at you? After a while you start to feel frowned-at just by thinking of that person. Good learning understands this strong promptability and tries to unpack and discharge prompt-associations that impede learning, and kindle positive ones that encourage it.

The Three Rules of Feedback

Incentives work on the other end of the cause and effect sequence–a positive outcome makes the brain feel good, and it remembers what it did to get that; then it’s more likely to do that thing later. This process is what makes feedback work so well; as long as feedback is useful, consistent, and rapid, you can effectively learn just about anything. Including to control anything the body does–even lowering high blood pressure certain degrees at your will, slowing down or speeding up your digestive tract, or keeping sperm (if you have them) from swimming. These body-related learnings require a biofeedback monitor of some kind and are done in the lab, but still: if you can control the speed at which food passes through your intestines, you can make all sorts of changes in any of your behaviors.

Transfer Requirements

For learning in one situation to be called upon in another, thus achieving the famous holy grail of “transfer,” Chris notes that the first situation needs to be as simliar as possible to the second. And practicing it three times before the transfer helps, too.

Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Work; Neither Does “Espoused Theory”

No change will come of telling people what they should do, says Chris. Rather, you have to “give them what they want when they do it.” A useful and speedy reward or some kind of feedback that tells their brain that what they just did was good. A second problem with extrinsic motivation is that the brain isn’t fooled by rhetorical positions, claims, values statements, plans, that are different than the real behavior of the individual who promotes them (see Chris Argyris’ famed “espoused theory”). People’s brains will “see” that a given leader isn’t listening to them, even if he or she espouses an open-door policy (and maybe even if they consciously believe that policy).

Stories are Important 

According to Chris, the story you create is more powerful than truth. If you’re given some pictures and told to tell “false” stories about them (that is, stories that don’t truthfully reflect the contents of the pictures), you’ll remember the stories and not the pictures themselves. Which suggests how important it is that we include stories and narratives in our understanding of the workplace environment.

The Unconscious is Powerful

“Most of what you do,” says Chris, “is unconscious.” As much as 98% (!).  Chris referred to research that shows our brain can solve math problems well before we actually know it. The conscious mind, driving to a speedy conclusion, or incapable of processing all the data, can even impair the whole brain from working: Chris noted a study that showed people who were given some minor task to occupy their conscious mind actually solved complex problems faster than people who were consciously thinking about the problem, showing that the brain has a way of drawing on problem-solving capacities we don’t know about. “The brain knows,” said Chris. The way you tap into this power is to give yourself time. Add periods of unscheduled time into the routine; places for reflection, etc.

Being Creative Together

12 Jun

Have just read Min Basadur’s article “Leading others to thinking innovatively together: Creative leadership,” in The Leadership Quarterly 15 (2004). It’s interesting!

Basadur suggests that the big task before all of us in this global, fluid, disruptive age is to manage our organizations for adaptability rather than for efficiency (the traditional focus). Adaptability requires being creative together. We’re not good at being creative together, however; says he: “the attitudes, behaviors, and skills necessary for creative thinking are underdeveloped in many people” (106).

There is fortunately an easy-to-understand creativity life-cycle or process that’s made of four stages, each with its own kind of thinking, and people, it seems, orient to one of these stages by preference (111). The stages are Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing (112). (Which, I note, seem to generally correspond to the Learning Cycle and areas of brain processing; see my previous post on the topic.)

The problem is that, not knowing the different phases of creation, nor their preference for one or the other, people generally jumble all the phases together, achieve naught, and annoy each other.

Basadur describes the kind of meeting this leads to as “undisciplined discussions where facts, ideas, points of veiw, evaluations, action steps, and new problems are interjected randomly” (110). The person oriented to optimize, which calls for “rational, systematic, and orderly analysis” of a project-moving-towards-implementation, for instance, is not open to the incomplete and weird ideas unleashed by the person oriented towards generation (I have that orientation, for the record), who uses engagement with the world, emotions, empathy, and other unpredictable things to concoct “problems, opportunities, and projects that might be worth solving” (112, emphasis mine).  This of course, leads to the famous “how to kill ideas” situation, which Basadur describes as an insufficiency in the basic creativity-thinking skills of “deferring judgment, keeping an open mind, and thinking divergently” (106).

On a side note, Basadur aligns with Chris Argyris in seeing defensive reasoning as another block to creativity: people, says Basadur, “wait for others to find problems for them to solve,” (108); avoid “unsolvable” or cross-functional problems (108); desire to be seen as “practical and economical above all things,” and thereby tend to shut down strange new ideas (106); and “get mired in arguments about functional issues to protect their ‘turf’” (110)–all different ways of prioritizing political safety over productive thinking and creativity. Not good in an age of change.

The way to slash through all this is simply to help people with process.  A leader who knows the phases of creation can act as a creative “process coach” (111) making sure the group knows and honors the phase they’re in and uses and appreciates the particular cognitive skills the phase requires (106).  A good process-focused leader can even go so far as to predict the kinds of help individuals would need based on their orientation, and be prepared to supply that. Such a leader helps the strong optimizer, for instance, “discover new problems and facts.” In my own case, my creatively-oriented leader would help me (the generator) “convince others of the value of [my] ideas and push [me] to act on them” (116).

Importantly, Basadur notes that the highest-performing teams include a representative mixture of people orienting to the four phases of creation (115). But he also notes that people tend to gravitate towards people of like orientation, such that work teams and even professions tend to be made up of one dominant orientation (117). AND he notes that people report higher satisfaction in teams where they’re with birds of a feather (115). So there’s some natural resistance to be overcome: the leader has to consciously combine people with different orientations and help them work together; the diverse team “may experience more frustration initially” but “will achieve more breakthrough results as they learn to mesh their styles” (117).

There are some work-related processes that probably don’t fall under creation (maintenance of existing functions), but these seem less important now than in static environments of years past; Basadur’s model seems helpful for a wide breath of challenges we face at work, and should make up part of any workplace’s ethos. Thinking about the normal flow of creative–or cognitive–process  in the development of ideas and initiatives, and seeing our own orientation towards phases within that process seems particularly helpful.

The Sluice

4 May

There’s a thing I’ve found that a lot of people want in their lives but don’t have. Today I’m calling it the information sluice. Other times I’ve called it an epistemological entry vector and other, even sillier, names.

The idea is that in an age of change you need lots of data about your environment and your options, and these data have to be a kind of stream or flow rich in nutrients that is both constantly regenerating but also getting processed, evaluated, the good stuff noted, and pulled out, and built upon. Like an oyster filtering specks of food out of the ocean or a classic newspaper clipping service on a massive scale. Or the baleen of all the whales together, or some kind of moisture collector system perched on outcrops of rock in a romantic desert on the planet Dune, or, in my new way of looking at it, as if it were a sluice.

You can pan for gold painstakingly in the stream alone with your hole-y overalls and your one little pan that doubles as your complete set of table china, and you can might pick up a little gold dust. That’s the analog grammarian’s way of prospecting, maybe.

But you can also build a living channel to direct a big onrush of water to slowly wash the hillside away and you can create some filters in that sluice to net the fish, as it were. Put a weir in your sluice. And you can have some people watching and tending and regulating the flow and adjusting the filters, or the stakes in the weir, learning which size mesh to use, etc. That’s the Corpus Linguistics gold mining method. That’s gold prospecting at volume.

The bad part of this sluice metaphor is of course that in the real world this kind of mining destroys the earth. The good part of the metaphor, though, is that there’s a flow and it’s constant and refreshing and it generates a lot of dirt, but wondrous good stuff, if you tend it, and you’re attentive in your tending, comes out of that dirt. And you wouldn’t get that wondrous goodness by just sitting around camping or watching TV or panning in the old way, staying on the surface, that is. And of course this is not real earth we’re talking about but rather the hillside is of ideas, an inexhaustible mound, and the gold is not gold but the invaluable, discomfitting idea, the game changer, the second idea that adheres to a first and makes a connection, etc.

A workplace with a sluice has a group–or everyone–involved in the process of gathering and sorting and sharing info. This gathering could be conducting primary research, it could be reading other people’s research, it could be reading blogs, it could be site visits and talking to people, it could be taking notes at community meetings, it could be listening to feedback when you give a talk. It’s probably a smorgasbord that combines formal and informal kinds of knowing across disciplines, mixing the sublime and the ridiculous, and mixing now and then, because the good ideas are not going to be in the places you’d expect. You have to look where you don’t want to look. The ideas that change the way you think about things aren’t going to pop up comfortably pre-categorized within an existing system. They’ll misbelong, like jokers in the card deck, and they’ll have been discarded or ignored by people playing according to Hoyle.

A key part of all this is the conversation between the sluice-tenders. For one, no one person can filter as much as three or four or five, so more learn faster over all than their individual parts, if they share. For two, the other people serve as the necessary feedback on your own filtering: confirming whether your mesh is set correctly, etc. For three, it’s more fun when you learn with other people. This conversation and sharing requirement is important to talk about, because it’s hard. It’s relatively easy to have a one-person sluice. But it’s hard to build it up between several people, and it requires more investment in communication and willingness-to-be-affected-by-others than I think most people expect to make except in their personal relationships, if even there.

Which may explain why it it seems most people don’t experience work as a sluice-tending, weir-adjusting, gold-gathering process. Some people seem to want anything but a flow of new, possibly discomfiting data (although they probably wouldn’t mind if someone else managed the data and delivered them in safely wrapped packages like a lamb chop from the butcher’s). They are happy to simply camp by the creek (and maybe not even prospect at all). But many people do want the sluice, and often they feel alone in the wilderness, intuiting that there’s a limit to their pan-prospecting, but not knowing where to find the partners to aid in the construction of the torrent (and maybe even a little afraid of that torrent themselves).

But I suspect that sluices are on the way. I talk too much about what age it is. I’ve said it’s the Age of the Gums, the Age of the System. I’ll do it again and predict that this will be the Age of the Sluice. In a recent post I noted the trend in the business community to see people’s ideas as a thing to cultivate and grow and tend and respect, as a forester loves a forest of pine–that’s a pro-sluice mentality. At an IT Governance meeting on campus the other day I was delighted to hear a broad-based outcry for a kind of “marketplace of ideas,” through which everyone could know what everyone else was doing–that’s a pro-sluice idea, too (I’ll blog on this particular event later).

Before I leave you, three additional thoughts.

1. It’s Recursive. A weird thing about this sluice — when it really works, what comes out of it changes the people using it, and changes how it works itself. Or you might say, the person-sluice hybrid evolves. On a simple level you can see that happening when people adjust the filter mesh for better results. But this kind of double-loop learning has infinite possibilities for spiraling evolution into unknowable complexities. So we have to see the sluice as a thing to some degree turned back upon itself and always in the process of becoming something else. What would that something else be? A sluice that evolves into a sluice of sluices, a meta-sluice? A sluice that fills the mound of ideas back up, that discovers, evaluates and creates? A sluice that takes away its need to be there, like self-absorbing stitches? I am not sure. Let’s find out.

2. This is what all those smart people do. You know those Ted talkers and Steve Jobses, people who are always popping up with wisdom and new ideas and opening your mind to something–they have found a way to have a flow of ideas pouring through, they are looking for good ones, and when they find them they hold them and start to layer others on as they come in. Doing it makes you better at doing it. This is how they are able to keep generating their Ted talks.

3. Having ideas is an artistic skill. Alan Kay says learning to have great ideas is a mastery skill like any other, like playing an instrument, say, and if you put in 4 – 5K hours, you’ll get there (this from a NITLE talk I summarized in a recent post). As he said, “A good idea is really improbable, but you won’t have any if you filter too early.” The trick is learning to adjust the filter and increasing the probability by accelerating the flow. The fine arts reference is meaningful–artists know all about this sluice idea. What does a painter do, sit around waiting for an idea to pop up and only then get out her paints (the gold-panning method)? Or does she paint a lot and consistently and every day, and discover in her flow and volume the nuggets that become the elemental matter of her personal periodical table? Ask Stephen King or Anthony Trollope: it’s the second option.

4. In another way the sluice is a replacement of school. Your formal education is kind of like a sluice that someone else filters, pointed at you. You wake up every day and have ideas dumped on you; isn’t that the general experience? That’s bad in ways–as in it’s a kind of teacher-centric focus on content that the progressive pedagogy movement has decried for a long time–but in others it’s not bad. Having the intuition or habit of what a flow of ideas is, learning to feel a passionate need for that flow, sense that that flow is related to your personal growth, that’s all good. For many these feelings are lost when they shift to work, and they desperately want to replace them, and I think that’s a salutary impulse. The trick is, of course, to see also that you need to be the sluice-tender, not just the passive recipient, because the thing you’re changing is your way of knowing, not the cumulative amount of knowing you do.

Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (Part B)

16 Mar

This post is the second part of an excerpt from a talk Colleen Wheeler, Gina Siesing, and I gave at NERCOMP 2012.  (See Part A for lots of context and links to professional development events, surveys, and road shows).

Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (continued)

5. Space and safety matter

Space plays a big role in learning. On the one hand, you need what Amy Edmondson calls “psychologically safe” places to learn: places you can be vulnerable, where it’s ok to be wrong as you work your way through challenging information, where the feedback is appropriate and not threatening. Only in such a space will you feel comfortable surfacing and retooling your guiding assumptions and processing all the wonderful points of tension between yourself and your environment.

But space can also as it were train you in how to interact with the world; in one influential school of thought, the Reggio Emilia model, space is known as the “Third Teacher.” On a simple level, clearly you will do better in an office with good lighting, no ear-splitting machinery whirling nearby, and a comfortable chair than you would do in a kind of smoke-filled, physically dangerous Dickensian sublime. We can go beyond that and point to the kind of activities an atelier-like, art studio might inspire as compared to the classic 1980s-era cubicle farm. In short, if the person designing the space expects you to basically write emails all day, you’ll get a chair and a fixed computer and not much else. If the designer isn’t sure what you’ll be doing, but is inspired by your potential, you’ll get freedom to mix and match various possible components of your work, and work in different phases, in different ways, with different tools, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes alone. The first, proscriptive design boxes you in to a way of thinking and being. The second one is a space that teaches you to be the author of your surroundings and reinforces your engagement in what you’ll do and how you do it.

4. Classroom learning theory and design apply to work, too

Many of us spend a lot of time (rightfully) understanding how people learn best in formal settings; what we seem to sometimes forget is that all the lessons about learning in classrooms can also apply to the workplace. Probably because basic laws of human learning are behind both. That is to say, if intrinsic motivation, active learning, experiential learning, and so forth, are important for adults in one setting, they probably are in other settings, too.

The supervisory relationship is a great example of one aspect of the workplace that is ripe for revision–just as the sage-on-the-sage has lately come under the scrutinizing eye of the progressive pedagogue. If extrinsic motivation, as Alfie Kohn has convincingly argued, effectively kills learning, what does it mean that in the workplace bosses generally tell their reports what to do, even unto the tiniest minutiae? If rewards and punishments don’t work (as Kohn also argues), what is left for the supervisor to actually do in those individual meetings required by the HR department? The same line of questioning may in part explain the surprising results of Google’s internal study on successful management, which found that staff wanted managers who were not subject experts (!), and who didn’t tell them what to do (!), but basically talked to them about themselves as people (!), and asked helpful questions (!), without the ever-present proscription (!).

3. Collaboration helps you learn more than cooperation

In a previous post I discuss at a little more length the distinction in the educational literature between collaborative and cooperative learning and what that means to the workplace.  In short, we think this distinction is crucially relevant.

To summarize, collaboration is how people work together when they have to figure out during the work what the goals and roles are. Communication, feedback, adjustments, and learning are intense. It can only happen for relatively short periods, but it is nonetheless the necessary style of working together used during times of change or when new work teams come together; during collaboration you are building and rebuilding your assumptions about the world. It’s transformational.

Cooperation, on the other hand, is when everyone knows the goals and their roles, and interactions are less intense and more predictable. It’s used during periods of stability, when the nature of the work is relatively static; it reinforces existing assumptions about how the world works and so doesn’t tax the mind or the social dynamic. It reinforces and comforts. It’s transactional.

We think the workplace will need to increasingly encourage open collaboration if it is to constantly rethink itself. But we recognize much of work will remain cooperative, even in a learning organization; so what we expect is an increased sophistication in the workplace in thoughtfully adopting and supporting the right approach in the particular context.

2. Individual and team learning are linked

Have you ever experienced that common phenomenon where you go to a great external learning event of some kind, you feel yourself evolve new skills and a new outlook, you return to work ready and excited to be a different and better person, it all fizzles, and you’re dragged back down by the culture into the way things always were, just like Al Pacino in Godfather III?  Or the reverse phenomenon, also common, where the team decides it wants to do something wonderful, but the individuals resist, effectively continuing in their moment-to-moment actions their routine behaviors, and nothing happens?

If, as we suggest above, individuals and teams operate according to hidden programs that are formed and exert control on a subconscious level, and if these programs essentially interlock when we’re at work, then this makes sense. You can try to change your program, but your colleagues and your team are invested in doing things the same old way, and part of that investment is in you being the same.

For this reason, we think the most effective learning organizations will find ways for teams and individuals to change simultaneously: for the team to serve as the safe place for all its members to work on their improvements, while at the same time, the improving individual members of the team work collectively on improving how they interact and perform as a unit. Easier for me to let you explore a different way of being if you’re letting me do the same, etc.

1. We need to invest in learning.  And view learning as an ecosystem.

If you’ve made it this far in the blog post, you’ve probably sensed our main idea: that we should increasingly cultivate the learning in our organizations—individual and team—as we might a beautiful garden, the growth of weird worms on deep-sea sulfurous vents, or other complex ecosystems.  As if it were a system as complex as our computer networks or library circulation systems.  The Kellogg Foundation developed a famous “Logic Model:” a way to visually represent your organization as a kind of machine of production—we think we’ll soon be developing logical learning models or other similar attempts to represent visually the sophisticated learning and development in our organizations, looking for ways to connect the various little dots and dashes of learning here and there into a coordinated and healthy whole. The learning dashboard, if you will.

This will require us to think differently—to put the system of our learning up on the boardroom wall along with the other systems we manage. To dedicate people to the development and management of the learning, to set new kinds of metrics, to design and implement changes and assess their effect, and so forth, just as we currently use a variety of systems engineers and wiring staff and supervisors and external auditors to maintain and grow and improve our digital connections to each other.

Which means we need to be ready to invest. Schein notes that a learning culture requires that part of the culture look at the culture, which is to say that there needs to be at a macro-level a new kind of feedback loop that we currently do not have. Google is famous for allowing its staff one day a week to explore their own interests: such a 20% investment of the resources of the organization, we think, might just be about right.

If that seems like too much, compare the resources we give to the development of a student in formal education. Take one semester in college and add up the dedicated teachers, the carefully constructed curriculum that connects modularly with all sorts of other curricular pieces, the support staff working to help the teachers be more efficient, the carefully maintained physical spaces, the psychologically-safe learning group, the supporting course materials, the variety of advisory staff ready to help the individual learner, the multitudinous levels of feedback available to the student, the surrounding culture and expectations of learning, and so on. By comparison the average staff member might get say .01% of that–a 2-day conference per year and a book.

Which is not to say that we should retool work to be just like formal education. But we should expect the investment of our resources in work-based learning to begin to come closer to what society invests in formal learning. For the things we will need people to learn on the job in a continuously-adapting organization that is proactively engaged in an environment of constant and complex change will perhaps be even more difficult to learn than the things students generally learn in the classroom.

Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (Part A)

15 Mar

Colleen Wheeler, Gina Siesing, and I presented the “Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research” this week at NERCOMP 2012; an excerpt of our presentation begins below.

If you agree with us that the time has come to cultivate learning in our organizations in a systematic, holistic way, as a kind of cognitive enterprise infrastructure—you may be interested in some other opportunities:

  • The Learning Organization Academy (LOA). We have been researching organizational learning as we build out NERCOMP’s new, intensive professional development program, designed to support you as you design and implement projects to improve learning in your organization. LOA premieres this July in Wellesley, MA, at preposterously low cost to you: if you’re interested, the enrollment pages will be opened on the NERCOMP site any moment now.
  • The Workplace Learning Survey: You may also like to take our provocative, associated Workplace Learning Survey; results of this survey will be reported on in the near future, stay tuned!
  • The Workplace Learning Road Show. For those who want to start to apply the lessons of workplace learning immediately, Collen, Gina, and I will come to your workplace and conduct a half or whole-day program with you and your colleagues that includes an introduction to the Organizational Learning literature, your own results on the Workplace Learning Survey, focused sessions on understanding your own culture and targeting areas of improvement, and sessions on surfacing individual and team-based belief systems. Write to me if this sounds fun.

Top Ten Lessons of Organizational Learning Research

10. Learning is key during times of change, yet organizations don’t learn well.

Everyone agrees that during times of change, the way to stay relevant is to learn, adapt, evolve. And we more or less have a sense of what it takes to do this—to significantly change our organization and its performance—it’s a big deal, yes, a three-year process, emotional, etc., but it can be done. That’s for changing once, though: retooling the production line to produce a new model, then just producing that model for a while.

The trick is that we’re now in an environment of constant change, so we need to forget the idea of alternating between periods of change and stability and design our organizations to be in a constant state of learning, of intentional, self-directed learning, and not just waiting for the world to intermittently force us to learn. It’s about managing a self-renewing learning ecosystem, not a factory.  This kind of always-learning organization is a higher order of learning, a much more complex structure, involving sophisticated management that we don’t really know how to do.

Complicating the problem is that we’re not particularly good at even the old change-once model of institutional learning. People by default come to act in organizations according to Argyris’ “Model 1:” they protect themselves from vulnerability, defend their teams from external destabilization, they don’t share, and they don’t trust. Which all means they don’t learn well.

9. People develop

We used to think you stopped learning at around age 21, and that after that point (when formal education generally stopped, too), you pretty much just coasted. This idea has fallen from favor; recent leaps in brain science let us see that the brain is constantly linking neurons to neurons right up to the end; Robert Kegan’s research also shows that adults can grow in cognitive sophistication over their lifetimes, changing the way they see the world in deep, meaningful ways, becoming increasingly able to deal with complexity and ambiguity. Which is good, because we’re talking about the need to teach ourselves how to grow and manage sophisticated learning ecosystems.

The catch here is that many of our behaviors and cultural structures still assume you don’t really develop. Things that focus on changing behavior rather than mindset or belief system (like performance reviews or New Year’s resolutions) are an example: they assume you can consciously decide your way through life, while the truth is that to really learn you often need to grow your consciousness itself. Another example is the cookie-cutter way we tend to understand each other and our organizations: more as changeless and rigid caricatures and less as subtle ontological and epistemological structures in constant state of flux and growth. Don’t we often identify a job and then look around for who can do it? In a learning organization we’d probably do something more like identify a job and ask what we need to do to help someone to grow into the ability to do it.

Carole Dweck’s work is telling. Her research reveals that if you think of yourself as “fixed,” say, as in “good” at something, you will avoid situations that challenge you, because you fear you’ll discover that you are not good. However, if you don’t worry about whether or not you’re good, but you focus on getting better, and if continuous improvement is your identity, you’ll crave any situation, especially the challenging ones, that can help you improve. Succeeding at getting better is of course better than failing at remaining good.

Even an institution built on improving people sometimes misses the point. Take the university. Here we dump enormous resources into the development of students, but nothing (relatively) goes to develop the staff or faculty.  But in an ecosystem every part influences every other part—investments in faculty and staff will help create a virtuous circle that lifts everyone.

8. People learn with loops and groups

Two very basic elements of learning can be summarized as “loops” and “groups.”

By loops we mean feedback loops. The basic learning cycle made famous by Kolb involves some planning, some action, some reflection, and then it starts over; this little sequence basically repeats itself in learning at a myriad of levels microcosmic and macrocosmic, in individual learning, and in team learning.

By groups we mean groups of people. Learning is a social happening (whether we think we’re alone or not). On the theoretical level Vygotsky’s famous Zone of Proximal Development sees in the social context the maximum growth potential of the individual. On the mundane it makes sense, too–clearly you can protect the vulnerability of learners and foster great conversations (important in forming loops!) when a small group of like-minded people are learning together.

An organization thinking about how it can improve its learning will thus likely spend a lot of time looking for places it can create feedback loops and add reflection to the ubiquitous planning and action cycles in the workplace. And when it’s not thinking about loops, the learning organization will be looking at its teams, how they function, how learning happens in them, and thinking about creating new learning teams or reinforcing existing teams.

7. Learning makes you vulnerable

One of the difficulties of learning in the workplace is that (as we saw above) we learn fast not to be vulnerable in the workplace.  But learning requires you to be vulnerable. On a basic level in any cognitive domain you have to be a beginner before you can be an expert: yet the workplace is obsessed with expertise and the appearance of expertise—to be thought of as less than expert, or incompetent, is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to you.

The problem is compounded for a team learning to do something new—in what we call the “double incompetency” problem, if you’re shifting resources from the old thing to the new thing as you ramp up to produce the new behaviors, there will be a point where you are insufficiently doing the old and not yet expert at the new. You’ll be liable to be called incompetent in both areas. From a traditional production perspective you should be fired.

But from the learning perspective the incompetence is required, and not welcoming that incompetence would be more or less immoral. So a learning organization will have to deal with this tension—protect the learners by retooling their expectations and the environment’s expectations, etc. And a learning organization that is in continuous dynamic development will have to learn how to also be in continuous dynamic insufficiency.

6. Learning makes the unconscious conscious

The reason we hinted above that structures that expect you to change your behavior by willpower don’t work is that we all have deep belief systems—both on an individual and social level—that govern those behaviors.  And if we want to behave differently (that is, if we want to learn), we have to adjust those belief systems.  This is the thinking behind Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work, and it emerges in Schein and Argyris as well.

You can change these belief systems, fortunately, and that is indeed the way we evolve through life: but to change them you need to “surface” them. You need to “see” the frame through which you saw the world, and in so doing you can make a new frame capable of handling more complex information.  It requires a king of penetrating self-examination and honesty in conversation that we don’t normally see in the workplace, though. Kegan and Lahey evolved a process, “Immunity to Change” that can guide you and your team in this journey; for Schein, protected conversations in safe “islands” are required to get at these deep beliefs. In either case looking for places you have conflict with the expectations of others is not a bad starting place, and fortunately, that sort of conflict is rife in work, where all our assumptions are basically thrown together and jostled about daily.

(continued in Part B)

Errol Morris and Spirals of Learning

13 Mar

Errol Morris, the famous documentary filmmaker, says the purpose of a documentary is not to document things as they are, but rather to find and animate a compelling mystery. Not a mirror walking down the road, but a magnifying glass stopping on the road and probably even leaving the road. The point is not to reinforce a stable model of the world but rather to add new data to that model. Maybe to add so much data or data so strange that the model itself has to be remodeled.

That seems to be the particular genius of Errol Morris: to discover wonderfully inexplicable complexities right where everyone is fast and desperately trying to demystify and settle things and close down, rather than rev up, curiosity, as we once sprayed dioxin on dust to beat it down. After the trial, after the tabloid furor ends, decades after the war is over, he brings his questioning gaze.

His mysteries seem to re-ravel, if you will, a sleeve of care. To start with a single fiber that the following of attracts more substance to itself, like a grain in a supersaturated solution, and forms loops and lattices, working itself back into a crystal, or a sweater, or a shroud.

Finding simple things that don’t fit the model, and unpacking them until they are so complex and beautiful the mind strains to encompass them might be the very inductive, Deleuze-like, hallmark epistemology of the age. Everywhere we see ecosystems where we used to see simple causes and effects. Maybe civilization evolves by a constant epistemological pendulum, from reduction to production, from resemblance to representation (as Foucault said), from induction to deduction, from E-Pluribus to unum, like music coming out of an accordion, and so on.

In any event, I wanted to point out that Morris’ re-raveling is how we learn important things. If you imagine that learning is improvement with a self-consciousness about it, such that learning includes the experience of seeing yourself learn, then it’s easy to understand that your improvement, since it feeds on itself, grows sort of like money in the bank, where the interest adds to the principle which adds to the interest, and the graph of growth gets steeper and steeper. Or to put it another way the learning gets increasingly complicated and the rate of the increase in complexity gets increased. Or to put it another way, the thread becomes a row of loops becomes a flap of fabric becomes a 3-dimensional sweater. Or to put it another way, the line becomes a kind of spiral of Archimedes, slouching towards complexity shuffling step by shuffling step, and looking with every lunge more like a chapter title page out of the Book of Kells. As if you are always moving from a certain kind of Flatland into a world of plus-one dimensions.

Kurt Fischer, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, developed a scale of universal cognitive development that models this kind of growth—showing learning progressing from simple ideas to relationships of ideas to relationships of relationships and so forth. Importantly, key steps include the whole of the previous level as the first building block. I will insert a pic if I can find one.

Robert Kegan’s work on adult development is similar. Adult minds, if they’re in the right environments, says he, go through a series of epistemological changes—from the “socialized mind” to the “self-authoring mind” to the “self-transforming mind,” where the key starting point characteristic of every level is that you “see” the previous epistemology. You see as an object the thing through which you previously saw the world, or your subject—you form, that is, a relationship with the thing that was previously you—you are two ideas now linked, instead of one, etc.

We could look, too, at the double-loop learning of Argyris: which is characterized by not just reflecting on the performance per the established goals, but which includes reassessment of the goals themselves (!). Or the collaborative learning praised by Lee Shulman, which is distinct from cooperative learning, and in which you and the people you’re learning with figure out why you’re there, what your product will be, how you’ll go about producing it, and what the individual roles will be—all simultaneously, as in a Jazz improvisation: you have to improve to even know why you’re there.

The core experience in all these is the excruciating or exhilarating feeling of stretching your perspective to fit a torrent of nonconforming data, then looking around for new data (including data about yourself looking at data) and doing it again. What’s perhaps unusual about Morris and people like him is a compulsion to inundate himself and us with this nonconforming data. Most people don’t seem as inclined to jump out of the pond at any opportunity to make themselves evolve legs; he is, though. Driven by a kind of faith or fanaticism that there will be a there there as the line grows into a complex spiral. Many theres are probably there simultaneously.

This mystery-as-epistemology is a neat thing on a couple of levels. For one, it’s a humanism. The belief that there are in you, me, and every aspect of the world unfathomable multitudes of complexity and wonder—and that that’s ok–not just ok, but, even, that that’s how we ought to be, and that the highest evolved action might just be to go digging for this stuff—this is deeply reassuring. Much of life seems to involve the opposite: sweeping things under the covers, assuming veneers of normalcy, and dealing with the inevitable neurosis that arises from the conflict between your inner complexities and your epistemologically circumscribed outer self. To do the opposite, for once—to honor the complexity—is nice.

It’s healing, in fact. These mysteries repair the workaday world. Justice system, war, politics, religion–things that are supposed to order the cosmos, answer questions, and regulate–also seem to leave destroyed people and confusion in their wake. A restoration of ambiguity after these kinds of simplicities is a wonderful thing. And if it ends up you need ambiguity to learn, well then so much the better.

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