Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Fertile Learning Environments

So, in fulfilling the promise I made in my last blog, here are a few observations gathered from the experts highlighting the key conditions most needed for the more adaptable and ultimately healthier learning organisation to flourish:

1. Improve harmony through allowing freedom to adapt . As I said in my previous blog, if change is a top-down "sheep-dipping" exercise of pushing everyone through, then it will most likely fail. The impact is bigger when we think smaller and this is where equilibrium can more readily be established. Jack Welsch, ex-CEO of General Electric, moved from a top-down vision (that GE had to be no. 1 or no.2 in their markets) to a more learning organisation, his "Work-Out" concept. In societal terms, local communities understand peoples needs better than national governments can.

2. Develop trust. Sometimes a leader will say, "Oh we already do a lot of that. We hold monthly team-building sessions, etc." However, consider something more along the lines of getting beneath the "masks" that we wear. Many people have a different persona at work to home for example, and it can be risky to drop them (I do not mean crossing important personal boundaries, such as invading peoples' privacy however). Rather it involves understanding true opinions about ideas, uncertainties, fears and failures without judgement or blame. I remember one occasion where I observed a team all dutifully agreeing with the boss during their management meeting, except one, who was pulled up for opposing the others before then obediently falling into line. After the meeting however, several pulled me over privately to have a conversation much more meaningful than the one I had observed during the meeting. Which information is more valuable in this instance - that shared during the meeting or that outside it? So how as Team Leader or Department Head can you begin to develop more trust? Try exploring opinions and assumptions with attention given to underlying interests and fears; and ensure any "sacred cows" or "elephants sitting in the corner of the room" are broached. Where information is shared there is more transparency and so trust. As Sun T'zu wrote in "The Art of War", to defeat one's enemy one must first understand him. The enemy in this instance is the risk of misunderstandings and opportunities lost that lack of trust brings.

Teams exhibiting poor trust try to avoid failure through working longer hours, experience less job satisfaction, take less pride in their work, and more readily blame others for their shortcomings (Dee, 1995a).

3. Distribute authority.Team leaders who are able to "suspend the hierarchy" and serve as equal team members are most successful (DuBrin, 1995). This entails allowing the right people to make important decisions at the time they are needed, rather than deferring to a higher authority. From fairly inocuous examples of a waiter offering a compensatory drink or aperitif where the meal is taking too long to arrive, to a member of the military's rank and file nominating a peer for immediate stress leave or counselling and being taken seriously, both demonstrate how sharing authority can have an immediate and positive impact. Effective teamwork requires that team members feel free to contribute freely, despite formal hierarchies. This type of freedom is characteristic of high performing teams (McIntyre and Salas, 1995). One basic concept asserted by the leading thinkers in this area (Senge, Ross, Smith, Roberts, & Kleiner) is that teams have "common territories." The implication of "common territories" is that individual team members need one another to take action (Senge et al., 1994) and so achieving objectives is more important than formalised hierarchies.

4. Share the credit. Collaboration won't work where any one person hogs the limelight at the expense of the others. Make sure that any "wall-flowers" are drawn out and consulted and that prolific talkers are managed. Early indicators of collaboration and rewarding the collective as opposed to the individual is the use of language - "we", "us" and "ours" versus "I", "my", "you" and "yours". Individuals who work much harder at retaining their individuality, status or reward than on team goals will hamper adaptability and learning.

5. Respect conflict. High levels of creativity and initiative in team processes sometimes require conflict and many different perspectives. The mindset needs to be "resolving conflict" by working through it rather than avoiding it. Consider how your team's capability at striving for balance between conformity towards group goals and yet retaining uniqueness of thought and actions can be improved.

6. Leaders as coaches. Leaders who make effective coaches resist using management techniques that emphasize giving orders, making threats, setting deadlines, requiring quotas, and handing out reprimands. Flexibility, learning and adaptation will not occur in an intimidating environment.

7. Raise consciousness through dialogue. Dialogue should be considered a "core team competency" because of its impact on team effectiveness and team learning. Dialogue helps to bring faulty assumptions (mental models) to the surface so that they can be challenged. Dialogue requires four processes for success: 1. Invitation; 2. Generative Listening; 3. Observing the Observer; and 4. Suspending Assumptions (Senge 1994). This cannot happen where there is a climate of fear of disapproval, penalty or judgement.

8. Tap into social networks, virtual and real, for more rapid innovation. Technology has caused society to more rapidly change and as social networks are more easily formed the old hierarchical structures of organisations have been made obsolete. A good example might be to consider how traditional government and policy-making is being influenced more and more by a groundswell of a more connected and more informed public. As described by Charles Handy (1996), organisations have become more like "networks," and in order to function, "networks" must have connectivity. Social networks derive energy from feeling good through the act of participation, with contribution voluntary.

I must admit, I struggled to write this list. Each point above sounds like a simple statement of "how to" whereas in reality their execution would be far more complex and open to interpretation. Equally, not all points above hold equal weight. If we bake a loaf of bread for instance, the temperature can afford to be too high and we will still achieve something pretty close. If we forget to add yeast however, we will never get an edible loaf. If I were asked to define the most important thing needed for creating a learning organisation, my thoughts go to control and certainty (the yeast?). At the most fundamental level, how much does the organisation value control and how much does it need certainty? For a more adaptable organisation to exist, as with society, control must be relinquished and certainty sacrificed.