The Essence of a Learning Organization
By James T Stodd, SPHR
This is our first newsletter of 2013, and it goes without saying that I hope each of you were blessed with peace, joy, and precious time with family and friends over the holiday season! I know I was, at least for the most part.
You might recall, however, that just a couple of weeks before Christmas we sent out an electronic greeting card with the hope of wishing each of you, in a very “personalized” way, the best during the holidays. The word “personalized” is important in that it was our first attempt to use the available technology to individually address the electronic greeting card. In preparation we studied the process, took a few stabs, and even ran a sample test to ensure the salutation was personalized before taking the last steps to launch and share our holiday spirit with each of you. Now let me just tell you how “freaked” I was when I received numerous replies politely pointing out that the salutation of the delivered e-card read “Dear (Contact First Name)”. How mortifying!
You can imagine how that made my day! Here I am trying to spread some “cheer” in a friendly but professional way, and all I do is end up embarrassed in front of…well, there are lots and lots of people in my Constant Contact database. I’m telling myself, “way to go Jim…let’s just take one step forward and six steps back”. Needless to say, the holiday spirit left me for a while as I did what most of us often do when confronted with a grandiose mistake or failure…I looked for someone else to blame!
The next day, however, I woke up blessed with a much different perspective. In fact, I actually started looking at this obvious failure as somewhat of a “success”! Let me explain…over the last couple months I’ve been doing quite a bit of study on learning organizations, and that study has changed my attitude about learning, the willingness to undertake new things, and the value of mistakes and failures.
Let me share just a few things I learned in the process that helped me (at least after some medicinal eggnog, a few Christmas carols and some sleep) look at this situation from a much different perspective:
1. Given the rate of change we must deal with today, it is highly likely that the only organizations capable of achieving the adaptability and sustainability necessary for long-term success are those that engage in what Senge(1) refers to as “generative learning”, that is they have developed the ability to “continually expand their capacity and to create their own future”. In short, they are learning organizations that have developed adaptive, explorative and innovative competencies.
2. Generative learning begins at the individual level, and all learning organizations are composed of and led by learning individuals.
3. Generative learning goes beyond being a studious reader; it involves acquiring new knowledge, skills and competencies by experimentation and often by simple trial-and-error. 4. We all love “trials” when the outcome is successful, but a true learner is a person who understands that mistakes and failures are part of the generative learning process. If we (as individuals and organizations) are ever going to be able to meet the challenge of generative learning by recreating or retooling ourselves and our organizations, then we need to see mistakes and failures as natural and important steps in the process. In my opinion, this positive attitude toward risk-taking, trial, mistakes and failure is the “essence” of any successful learning organization!
5. Accepting mistakes and failure is difficult, largely because our society has schooled us from an early age to avoid and even fear failure. But failures and mistakes are a “must” if we are going to really stretch ourselves, make something new without an established recipe, or acquire a new competency that we don’t already have. In one of the best books I’ve ever read(2), author John C. Maxwell put it this way, “The terrible truth is that all roads to achievement lead through the land of failure…failure is simply a price we pay to achieve success”. In fact, through the following illustration Maxwell went on to demonstrate that mistakes and failures are often the steppingstones for success:
6. Most of us accomplish very little on our own these days; rather we do and must work in teams. And while difficult, it’s important for us to take personal responsibility for our part in team mistakes and failings. That is, we all need to take a good look at how we contributed (either through commission or omission) to that failing, do what we can to improve upon our contribution, encourage others to do the same, and create a positive environment for learning and growth.
7. The best boss and personal mentor I ever had once told me that sometimes you have to take a “READY-SHOOT-AIM” approach to what you do and accept the fact that now and then you’re going to miss the target. The longer I live the more I appreciate the wisdom of this advice, particularly with our current rate of change and the need for us to be proactively responsive to that change.
8. Business organizations are notorious for talking a good game, but in application they often fall short. In fact, the acclaimed psychologist Chris Argyris3 said “most managers find collective inquiry inherently threatening. School trains us never to admit that we do not know the answer, and most corporations reinforce that lesson by rewarding the people who excel in advocating their views, not inquiring into complex issues”.
My Questions of You
With this newsletter we have again tried to use technology to “personalize” our message. And since you are reading this newsletter you already know (probably before I do) whether or not what we learned from past mistakes has been sufficient to make “personalization” a true competency. If “yes”…yeah for us! If not, well I guess we’ll just have to try again and again until we get it. My question for you is “how are you doing with generative learning in your personal and organizational life?”
a. Do you “fear” mistakes, failures and setbacks, OR are you able to positively take on risks and shrug-off personal setbacks?
b. Do you punish yourself and others for performance outcomes that are less than perfect, OR do you recognize and reward yourself and others for at least trying to get off a “good shot”?
c. Have you created a culture in your organization where people are reluctant to risk creating something new, or take a different approach, because failing may result in them being labeled as a “looser”, OR do you proactively appreciate and recognize innovative attempts?
d. Have you created an environment in your organization where people feel the need to cast blame (i.e., “CYA”) after a less than desired outcome, OR are they encouraged (individually and collectively) to take ownership, learn from their mistakes and failings, then try a second, third or even fourth time?
e. When it comes to recognition and rewards do you only reward “success”, OR do you recognize the value of those willing to step up, take a shot, and keep at it until they’re successful in creating something new and unique, or perhaps establishing a new and improved way?
One of my favorite historical characters is Christopher Columbus. To me he was the consummate visionary hero, risk-taker and change agent. But it might do us good now and then to remember that in his quest to find a shorter route to the orient, Chris was a dismal failure. I for one am very glad!
About the Author
Jim Stodd is a Principal and Managing Director of JT Stodd & Associates. Jim has helped numerous clients develop the organizational architecture and infrastructure required to achieve their strategic visions and goals. In addition, he has assisted other organizations to build strategically-focused and highly successful human resource management programs by introducing forward-thinking approaches to talent management issues. Before starting an independent consulting practice in 2001, Jim spent more than 15 years in senior management positions where he was responsible for human resources, organization development and change management. In addition, he was associated with several leading professional service firms including Ernst & Young LLP, Hay Management Consultants, and First Transitions, Inc. Jim is a specialist in Strategic and Organizational Planning, Change Management and Human Resource Management. He currently teaches classes in those subjects at Louisiana State University and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Prior to that he taught at the University California-Irvine, where he was a recipient of UCI’s “2010 Distinguished Instructor Award”.
1 Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization; New York: Doubleday, 1994.
2 John C. Maxwell, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2000.
3 Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses; New York: Prentice-Hall, 1990.