DESIGNING ORGANIZATIONS THAT LEARN: THE LEADER’S NEW ROLE
Prasad Kaipa, Ph. D.
The leader's new role in the knowledge age is to encourage people to think from their heads (to unleash their creativity), feel from their hearts (to create a culture of empowerment to nurture themselves and people around them), work with their guts (provide leadership by doing, and practicing what they preach), and integrate their spirit (by focusing on building capacity and appreciative approach to inspire others) in their day-to-day work. This integral, cyclical approach has the potential to create the new wealth--intellectual property --of the organization, tap into the intrinsic motivation of the employees, allow a sense of fulfillment in work, and truly develop an organizational soul that works to a competitive advantage in the internet age. How do you design organizations that learn? You have to develop a learning environment that focuses on competence and capacity building in its people. Then employees can use them to come up with strategy, structures, metrics, rewards and culture of the organization and create a living ecosystem with customers, suppliers, partners and community while creating an organization that learns!
1.0 Designing a Learning Environment
How then can we create a learning environment in which competency and capacity can be developed and not just knowledge and skills? The key is the creation of the organization that learns. This is because learning for the individual is not separate from the contexts of group or team, organization, and community. In other words, all learning occurs within a culture or environment. Leadership is inherently connected with learning.
Learning shows up as ‘growth’ in four dimensions in people: Physical, emotional, intellectual and creative/generative. One can become a great player or swimmer by focusing on physical learning. Emotional learning shows up in abilities to nurture in relationships and in EQ. Intellectual growth is more easily understood as that is the most common way we understand learning while creative or generative learning is at the root of inventiveness, and resulting innovations and intellectual capital. In a general sense, an organization that learns pays attention to creating environment that:
• supports physical well being (and development),
• provides emotional support (affects the sense of belonging and psychological health),
• challenges and stretches intellect and
• facilitates creation of new knowledge through products, processes and services.
The key to such learning is emotional development and hence the leader’s attention has to be to find a way to open the hearts of people so that they co-create the organization that support the development in other dimensions. Let us look at the steps to creating such environment.
1.1 Creating a Foundation
The first step is what I call 'creating a foundation'. It involves creating boundary conditions and ground rules for designing and differentiating this organization from others. In other words, the purpose of the rules is to clarify the game that we are choosing to play. The ground rules shouldn't be limiting to people, their purpose is to create a consistent playing field with room to maneuver, where there is a common understanding for working together. In a mundane sense, restructuring a learning environment like developing operand conditioning a la Skinner. More people are involved in creating such rules, the better the foundation and more interested people are in playing the game.
Ground rules should not be broken. Not because of authority but because you chose to create them in the first place. If you do not follow the rules you set forth, nobody will follow them either. If you do not like the ground rules, you work with the system to change them. If such change is not in the best interest of the organization, you can choose to stay in the system and follow the ground rules or to get out of the organization and find another where a different set of ground rules are present. If, for example, your organization is a business where drugs are forbidden, if any drugs, are found on the premises or if the person is found to be on drugs, the responsible party will no longer be part of the system. There cannot be exceptions to ground rules at the foundation level. True leadership is about modeling the behavior, 'walking the talk' that you wish others to follow. By making the ground rules minimal and clear cut and by following them religiously, you create a safe space for other people to play with you and build with you. In that respect, the first step is all about leadership.
This is not an issue of morality, but more one of conditioning and habit formation. At the body level, the reptilian brain does not operate logically. It does not function by emotions either. It operates in black and white. It operates through fight or flight survival responses and there is no higher level intelligence at this level. It means that you cannot ignore something that you have helped to create. If you do, the survival of the system is threatened.
Once we all agree to work with the minimum required and to always follow the rules, we have a game to play. The role of the leaders is to continually monitor the playground and make sure that the game is getting played. Authority would not work here. Only once all parties have agreed with and committed to all the rules can the game go on to the next level.
An excellent example of creating a solid foundation in the corporate world is the Boeing 777 Program Reviews conducted by Alan Mullaly, VP and General Manager of the 777 program (since I met Mullaly, he moved on to become the president of commercial aircraft division in Boeing). I attended one of the project review meetings that Mullaly managed and was quite surprised at what happened there. Their ground rules provide not only a clarity of where they stand and how to proceed on a project, but they also take into account the emotional, cognitive and generative aspects of learning together. Here are their purpose and ground rules:
• Where We Are On Our Plan
• Where We Need Special Attention to Accomplish Our Plan
Principles and Practices:
• Use Facts and Data • Listen to Each Other
• No Secrets • Help Each Other, Include Everyone
• Whining is OK Occasionally
• Enjoy Each Other And The Journey
• Propose a Plan, Find A Way
• Emotional Resilience
The aspect of physical or habitual learning is reflected in the consistency of their 'Project Review' meetings, which were always scheduled on Wednesday mornings from 8 - 11 a.m. Alan Mullaly starts the meeting exactly at 8 am with a big picture review. He welcomes guests one by one, acknowledging their contribution (if any). He then reviews principles and practices. As you probably noticed in the ground rules above, there is opportunity for people to complain. Once you complain, it is also your responsibility to propose a plan and find a way that would work for everyone. Another key measurement they use in their Project Review meetings is based on a traffic light metaphor:
All items are marked in green on the 'moving on' schedule. Items listed in yellow require special attention. Red listings are warning signals requiring everyone to help each other. The emphasis here is that they are all in it together. The meeting I attended was very nicely organized with no blaming and no complaints. Customers, suppliers and visitors from other parts of the Boeing company who go to these Project Review meetings are impressed at how much information gets communicated, how issues get resolved, and how each of the participants, including guests, gets a chance to contribute, give feedback, and become part of the larger project. Ownership, responsibility and accountability all emerge out of the clear ground rules. A participatory field in which you have choice and freedom to do what works for you and the team is also present. Such is the product of a strong foundation.
1.2 Establishing a New Culture
Once the required ground rules are clear and in practice, it is very important to design a caring and nurturing environment. This can involve the physical environment as well as the emotional environment as created by acting consistently with the values designed into the ground rules. Culture is what empowers or dis-empowers people. In essence, this section is about empowerment ---creating, sharing, and nurturing. A nurturing emotional environment is created through principles and practices that reflect values like care, empathy, trust, listening, sharing, risk-taking and learning from mistakes.
While the game rules and boundary conditions define the play ground, these principles make the game interesting, fair, and fun to play. In relation to the learning dimensions, a nurturing environment leads to emotional engagement. The limbic system has a range of emotions that gets engaged in such an environment.
When good ground rules based on the several dimensions of learning are present, and their implementation has created a safe and enjoyable learning environment, a 'learning culture' forms that is roughly analogous to what we called the phase of 'conditioning' in the cycle of learning. The culture reflects the design of the ground rules and environment, so if one of the dimensions of learning was not included in the design, the culture that arises will not stand on a strong base for learning.
The environment in the 777 program seems to be well designed. When I spoke with Alan Mullaly, he made it clear that during his meetings people tell the truth and do not hide their mistakes from others. This is because Mullaly himself is willing to show his vulnerability in front of others, to tell the truth, and to practice the values he preaches. His deputies have a good role model.
I also noticed that Mullaly only talked about changing behavior through rewards, never through punishment. He implicitly believes in the goodness of human beings. As skill levels are not in question, he is willing to support them in doing what is good for them. In return, his deputies seem to also do what is good for the whole 777 team. New people on the team might not want to practice teamwork and may initially feel uncomfortable and exposed in the "working together" culture of 777. This is likely to change as they begin to become conditioned to the culture of telling the truth and taking responsibility.
Culture is tacit in nature and gets propagated through practice. Children do not have any problem in putting on their seat belts in the car or wearing helmets while riding their bicycles. Why? They learned those habits as part of growing up. We adults, on the other hand, were not brought up during a time when seat belts and bike helmets were an every-day issue. As a result, we kick and scream about our own safety, getting mixed up with other issues like personal freedom and choice.
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