Peter Senge: How to Overcome Learning Disabilities in Organizations

As an organization grows, managing the flow demands work items to move from one team/department to another. In quest to make these teams accountable, very specific KPI’s are established and that breeds non-systemic thinking. People look at meeting their own numbers and push the work to next stage and often, what happens is that while people win (in short term), the system fails. Every team meets the KPI numbers and yet, customers remain disgruntled.

Peter Senge, in his book “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of Learning Organization” outlines 7 organizational learning disabilities. He says,

“It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and, most importantly, the way we have all been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities. These disabilities operate despite the best effort of bright, committed people. Often the harder they try to solve problems, the worse the results. What learning does occur takes place despite these learning disabilities – for they pervade all organizations to some degree.”

It then becomes very crucial that we identify clearly these learning disabilities. Here is a sketch note summary of these 7 learning disabilities.

Critical question then is: How to we overcome these learning disabilities and truly create an organization that learns better? Peter Senge answers that question through his 5 disciplines of learning organizations that I have written about in the past. Here is a sketchnote summary of five disciplines:

More on Creating Learning Organization at QAspire:

Disciplines of a Learning Organization: Peter Senge

If there is one book that has influenced my business thinking the most, it is Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of Learning Organization” and I have referred to it many times over past years on this blog. Written in 1990, the insights contained in this book are even more relevant today when the rate of change has only accelerated – probably a reason why HBR identified this book as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years.

A couple weeks ago, I posted a sketch note on Why Organizations Don’t Learn? based on an HBR article by the same title and someone ended up asking me,

“How do organization’s learn?”

This question immediately reminded me of five disciplines of learning organizations that Peter Senge outlines in this book.  They are:

  • Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.
  • Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.
  • Building shared vision – a practice of unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.
  • Team learning starts with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together.
  • Systems thinking – The Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four.

Source: Wikipedia

In the book, Peter Senge offers a wonderful analogy to introduce systems thinking:

A cloud masses, the sky darkens, leaves twist upward, and we know that it will rain. We also know that after the storm, the runoff will feed into groundwater miles away, and the sky will grow clear by tomorrow. All of these events are distant in time and space, if they’re all connected within the same pattern. Each has an influence on the rest, and influence that is usually hidden from view. You can only understand the system of rainstorm by contemplating the whole not any part of the pattern.

Businesses and other human endeavors are also systems. They, too, are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other. Since we are part of that lacework ourselves, it’s doubly hard to see the whole pattern of change. Instead we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get resolved.

While the book is a must-read if you want to gather better understanding and context behind these disciplines, here is a short summary of five disciplines of a learning organization in form of a sketch note. 

Hopefully, this will help others in acknowledging the foundation of what it takes to create a learning organization.

Related Posts at QAspire Blog:

Why Organizations Don’t Learn? #Sketchnote

Organizations that don’t learn constantly, adapt continuously and execute relentlessly are more likely to be disrupted by constant change and competition.

Peter Senge, in his book defined a learning organization as:

“where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

We have to go beyond formal learning methods if we have to truly build learning organizations in a rapidly changing world. A learning organization is not possible without learning individuals and individuals learn the most with each other in a network and  and through their work in an culture that promotes informal learning.

I emphasized culture because it can be one of the biggest bottlenecks in how organizations learn and apply what they learn to create meaningful results. It doesn’t matter how much you invest in formal learning, tools and methods, if you do not have a culture where people are encouraged to share without any fear, learning may not come to the fore.

Why do companies struggle to become and remain learning organizations? In November 2015 issue of HBR, I came across an article by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats titled “Why Organizations Don’t Learn” where they outline the cultural and individual biases that don’t allow organizations to learn. They also provide useful tips to overcome those biases.

Here is a sketch note I created to distill key biases that prevent organizations from learning. To know what you can do to overcome these biases, I recommend you read the full article at HBR. 

Related Posts at QAspire Blog:

Optimize the Whole

When we think in parts, we improve in parts. Most of the business improvement is the game of ‘sub-optimization’. You optimize pieces without looking at the whole.

When a customer reports problem with your software, you do an incidental root cause analysis and address the code quality problem. You deploy tools, introduce new processes, measure constantly and yet – a few months later, you encounter a similar problem.

But when you look at the whole system, you might figure out that the real root cause is in something which is immeasurable yet important – may be, collaboration with other teams or how you sell. May be, inefficiencies rooted in how you support your customers after product is delivered.

We optimize the silos and the whole misses our radar. If ‘customer centricity’ is one of your key values, you should consider optimizing the whole customer journey with your organization – not just your development processes.

Often, we also optimize that which is measured. If your metrics are narrow, you will never be able to focus on systemic metrics that may really help your business and the customer.

Here are a few important things to consider when you optimize the whole:

We need to cultivate “a discipline to see the wholes, a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots

  • Focus on Value Stream. Value for customer is created in a series of interactions between various processes that starts right from first contact with the customer. Value stream mapping is a lean tool to identify a series of events right from conception to delivery of product or service.
  • Define what “complete” system means. Too often, we think of complete product as a set of completed features. For customers though, complete product is an experience they receive through each interaction with the organization. It helps to define what ‘complete’ means.
  • Measure Right. When you have narrow functional metrics, people in each function will work  hard to achieve their goals and yet, organization will not realize benefits of having such metrics. However, if you have more systemic metrics (and rewards) where people win only when the system wins, it aligns everyone to the same set of goals to ensure that ultimately, customer wins too.

Sub-optimization in organizations is a thinking problem. When you fail to see the whole, you undermine your capabilities as an organization.

And this may be the precise thing that holds you back from delivering a superior performance to your customers.

What Enables Proactive Leadership?

If there is one thing that differentiates leaders from others, it is their ability to remain proactive. I have seen so many leaders in business environment who don’t fix things till they start hurting the work. They devote more time to solve the problems that could have been fixed much before they happened. The cost of solving these problems after they grow big is often very high – sometimes, as high as losing a customer or your key team members!

What are the enablers of proactive leadership? Here are a few that came forth.

  • Systemic Understanding: Understand the System when taking decisions or evaluating issues. It is about understanding the critical interdependencies of parts within the whole. A wrong decision in one department may have long term repercussions elsewhere. The key is to see (and let your team see) those repercussions through the understanding of the system.

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.” – Peter Senge

  • Constant Learning: Learning feeds proactive leadership. We all make mistakes all the time but a learning team constantly apply lessons from past mistakes to prevent them from happening in future. Constant learning also allows people to apply their knowledge to the specific business context. Here are more ideas to build a learning organization.

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John F. Kennedy

  • Foresight. A leader needs to be watchful about the changing landscape and currents. They keep a close watch on discrete events and use their systemic awareness to foresee challenges, issues and risks. While they may not be able to prevent all the issues from happening, but they can always use this awareness to prepare well.

Leaders that fail to assume responsibility for developing the discipline of foresight will eventually forfeit the moral authority to lead. – Bret Simmons (post)

  • Openness to Feedbacks: Feedback and inputs from people at all levels enables leaders to understand situation at a ground level while also staying current on expectations and needs of people. In many situations, this feedback can act as a compass.

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.” – Bruce Lee

  • Quick Action on Solution: Don’t let the grass grow under your feet. Risks, issues and dependencies can derail your organization if they are allowed to grow. A proactive leader maintains a constant cognizance on the potential threats and keeps them in check all the time. If you are a leader, don’t let the problems grow. Act on them.

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” – Theodore Roosevelt

  • Keep the team together. A leader who leads through a compelling vision, fosters learning and builds influence keeps the team together. People need an ecosystem to perform proactively. A leader’s ability to connect, communicate and clarify constantly on vision, values, intent and progress enables teams to take decisions with better clarity.

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” — Kenneth Blanchard


Join in the conversation: Have you seen reactive leadership in action? What have been your lessons? Share them via comments or via Twitter!

Great Quotes: Luc de Brabandere on Change, Innovation and Perceptions

When we encounter a change, we first perceive ourselves in a changed situation. So, our perception of the changed situation actually precedes the actual change and shapes our response.

In the same context, I read two quotes by Luc de Brabandere. The first quote comes from Forbes India article by NS Ramnath about N. R. Narayana Murthy being re-instated as Infosys Executive Chairman, where he quotes Luc:

“We believe that to really make change happen, changing the reality is of course necessary – this involves developing novel ideas for change, and the implementation of those ideas via project management and measurement, templates and the like. But changing reality is not sufficient – we must also change peoples’ perceptions .

This happens on much more of an individual basis; each stakeholder’s needs and biases must be taken into account. This can only be done through careful preparation and communication. So to really make change happen, we must change twice – reality and perception.”

Second quote comes from Luc’s 2011 interview with Boston Consulting Group, where he shares story of how Philips, a traditional electronics company,  executed “new box” thinking to realize a new world of possibilities. He concludes the interview with this thought:

That’s why I have completely changed my mind about brainstorming. I don’t think a successful brainstorm is a meeting at which a new concept suddenly arises. Rather, a successful brainstorm is a meeting at which an existing concept suddenly makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.

This really boils down to what Peter Senge defines as a mental model – our thought process about how something works in real world. When we change our perceptions, we may end up realizing that most of the constraints that we see may not be existent in the real world, except in our minds.

In 100 words: Finding a Way Out of Forest

A blind man, wandering lost in a jungle, tripped and fell over a cripple. The blind man said, “I have been wandering since long in this jungle and cannot find my way out!”

The cripple replied, “I have been lying here since long and cannot get up to walk.”

Suddenly, the cripple cried out, “I’ve got it. You hoist me up onto your shoulders. I will tell you where to walk. Together, we’ll find a way.”

The blind man symbolizes rationality and cripple symbolizes intuition. We will not find our way out until we learn how to integrate the two.

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Also Read: Other 100 Word Posts

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Story Reference: The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

Great Quote: On System of Management by Deming

W. Edwards Deming, the pioneer and guru in quality revolution wrote the following paragraph when commenting on Peter Senge’s book “The Fifth Discipline” and it instantly struck the chord.

Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning.
The forces of destruction begin with toddlers — a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars — and on up through the university.  On the job people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.

The birth of an organization happens with a technical idea that solves a problem. It starts with creativity, passion and inventive thinking. When people start organizations, their sole interest is to focus on excellence to deliver best results. Success breeds success and somewhere in the growth process, the focus shifts from creativity and passion to profits and numbers. At one point, this focus on numbers becomes a chronic obsession. Organization starts being driven by numbers alone and the human aspects of work (respect for people, intrinsic motivation, creativity, innovation etc.) are pushed into the margins. Physical infrastructure gains prominence over emotional infrastructure.

Deming said this in 1990’s and still sounds so true in current context when we look at how our schools, colleges and organizations are being driven.

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The Booker Award: Books I Love

Michael Wade is one of my favorite bloggers who is just amazing. Daily and consistently, he ships goodness on his blog Execupundit where topics range from self-development, great quotes and book reviews to management insights. Michael Wade has nominated me for the “The Booker Award”. This award requires me to list my five favorite books of all time and mention at least five other bloggers who deserve this award.

If you choose to participate, the rules of the award are to: 1) Nominate 5-10 bloggers and let your recipients know. (2) Post The Booker Award picture. (3) Share your top 5 books of all time.

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I read a lot and wish I could read a lot more. I cultivated the habit of reading observing my dad who is a voracious reader and a very fine writer. I want to cultivate the love for reading in my kids and I think the only way to do that is to model that behavior.

With all the books that I read, it is incredibly hard to keep this list to just 5 books, but here I try. These books have shaped up a lot of my perspectives and practices. I have included snippets from these books to make it a little more interesting. So, here they go (in no particular order) :

1) The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma

“You will recall that in the middle of the garden stood a magnificent lighthouse. This symbol will remind you of yet another ancient principle for enlightened living: the purpose of life is a life of purpose.

2) On Writing by Stephen King

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

3) The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

“We need to cultivate ‘a discipline to see the wholes’, a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots. Reality is made up of circles, but we see straight lines.

4) Linchpin by Seth Godin (Read my review of Linchpin and Seth’s Interview here)

“You get paid to go to work and do something of value. But your job is also a platform for generosity, for expression, for art. Every interaction you have with a coworker or customer is an opportunity to practice the art of interaction. Every product you make represents an opportunity to design something that has never been designed, to create an interaction like any other.”

5) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”

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So, who will I tag? I would love to know what books have been all time favorites for: Rajesh Setty (I know he loves great books), Lisa Haneberg, Jesse Lyn Stoner, Becky Robinson and Utpal Vaishnav.

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Join in the conversation: What are you reading? What are your favorite books of all time? Tell us in the comments.

On “Systems Thinking” and Improvement

A few years back, when I was struggling with some repetitive/difficult situations at work, one of my seniors (and a good friend) asked me, “Do you know the root cause of your problem?”. He went on to draw a diagram on his notebook, and connected the problem to the other parts of the organizational system. I realized that I was fighting the symptom, whereas the root cause was something completely different.

He told me, “As long as you fight individual fires and try to find single reason for all your problems without looking at the bigger picture, you will never see any improvement in your work.

Today, when I am responsible for improvements in a business environment, this lesson serves me well. My friend introduced me to the powerful concept of “systems thinking.” Ability to see relationships and patterns in different (and seemingly unrelated) elements of work is an essential skill for a modern day professional, because we are surrounded by systems. Right from human body to software we write and communities we belong to, everything is a system and improvement can only happen when we really understand the interconnectedness between different components within a system.

You can change the system only when you know the system – and knowing the system is a curious and creative pursuit. Improvement starts when you are “intentional” about being curious and creative.

I have seen doctors who try to “cure” isolated parts of the body without worrying about the root causes and I have seen leaders who try to “quick fix” every problem that comes their way. Systems thinking (or seeing the bigger picture) is not just a problem solving method, but an important tool for continual improvement.

In his book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge emphasizes that we need to cultivate “a discipline to see the wholes, a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots

He adds, “Reality is made up of circles, but we see straight lines."

Bottom line: Think systems, not events. Next time you solve a problem or implement a significant change: Solve the immediate problems, but do not forget to look for systemic connections and causes. Observe trends, see patterns, study the history of changes. Remain curious and be creative.

Join in the conversation: How do you see patterns and systems? How well do you connect the different parts of your work? What would you recommend?

Who Is Responsible For Improvements?

Improvements don’t happen if organizations don’t have someone responsible for it. This is the reason why a lot of organizations have senior executives who think about and plan improvement initiatives. From a strategic viewpoint, this makes a lot of sense.

However, there is another side to it. Just because there is one person responsible for improvements, no one else cares to thinks about any improvements. This is counter productive, simply because the most meaningful improvements in work can only come from those who are actually executing the work day in and out.

Improvement comes from learning of what works, what doesn’t and what works better. Learning comes from doing the work, from trying, from experimenting and from failing. So two key things emerge out of this thought process:

Building a culture where experimentation is valued is crucial for improvement

In his book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge writes,

The irony is that if we were only working at the top of the organization we might never have been aware of some of these problems and thus might never have attempted to solve them. But when you build a team that believes that change from any place in the system is possible, significant change can sprout from even the tiniest of seeds.

When people try to improve anything, they will make mistakes. Their experiments will fail. In overly risk-averse organizations where making mistakes is almost a crime, improvements will never come from the real practitioners. Hence, it is extremely important to build a culture where people are free to start new initiatives, look at fresh new ways of working and simplify the complex. They not only need encouragement, but empowerment. Leaders play a crucial role in building this culture.

Improvement is everybody’s job

Senior executives responsible for process improvement are facilitators. They facilitate the practitioners so that they can improve on work processes in tiny bits. Improvement managers then take those small local improvements to the organization level. But involving people in improvement is crucial.The goal of sponsoring improvement initiative is to empower people to enhance their capacity to create. For improvements to have net positive impact on an organization’s efficiency, they have to be driven by practitioners.

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Join in the conversation. What ideas would you suggest to involve practitioners in improvement game? What are the best ways to empower people so that they initiate improvements rather than just executing the instructions?

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Leadership: Not Rank But Results!

In organizations, I have seen people who are “designated” as leaders. I have seen many such designated leaders, who raised their game to meet the expectations that come along with leadership. They make an effort to learn about leadership, read books, blogs and consciously put those lessons in action.

On the other hand, I have also seen designated leaders who create a shield of air around themselves. This is where most of the leadership problems stem from, simply because a leadership position flames their ego and just makes them more authoritative. They get too focused on their own selves (heroes in their own minds).

But the best leaders I have seen never paid any attention to their position or rank within the organization. Their focus is external – on doing what is right for the organization/their vision, on developing people around them and in building systems that constantly help them deliver better results. They don’t see themselves as leaders, but let others do that judgment.

I came across a very interesting story of Hewlett-Packard while reading Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline” –

A Hewlett-Packard employee studying the company’s history once asked co-founder David Packard about his theory of leadership. She reported that after a long pause, he said simply, “I don’t know about theories of leadership. Bill [Hewlett, the co-founder] and I were just doing what we loved and were so delighted that people wanted to join us.

Bottom line:

Leadership is not as much about having other people as subordinates/followers, as it is about subordinating to a cause.  It is not as much about charisma, as it is about delivering the right results.

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Related Post: Quick Thought on Leadership and Subordination to a Cause

Creating a Learning Organization: 10 Actions For a Leader

Jack Welch said,

“An organizations ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the greatest competitive advantage.”

Continuous learning and its respective implementation to generate desired business outcomes is at the core of successful organizations.

Peter Senge defined a learning organization as the one “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Here are top 10 actions for a leader to create a culture of continuous learning for individuals, teams and hence an organization:

  • Drive people to learn by doing. People learn the most when they implement their knowledge to generate meaningful business results.
  • Realize that training is just a tool to impart knowledge. Learning is also about sharing lessons, telling stories, doing, making mistakes and improving constantly.
  • Align middle managers to create a learning culture, because they are the ones who drive learning, not just the HR team.
  • Incorporate learning into your processes. Establish rituals like periodic review meetings and retrospectives to track what went well / what could have gone well.
  • Expose your teams to diverse learning resources like books, social media, online videos, working with cross cultural teams/geographies and so on.
  • Use technology to accelerate learning and ensure accessibility of knowledge. Great thing is a lot of useful tools like blogs, wikis and forums are free.
  • Involve people in important change initiatives to ensure that they learn about managing change (one of the most important learning) and working with diverse set of people.
  • Promote the abilities of people to generate alternative ideas and open up to different view points. (Related reading: On Leadership, Opening Up and Being Prepared)
  • Move beyond metrics to realize that learning is a long term thing which cannot be measured in numbers. Learning is tacit and visible only through results delivered by team.
  • Allow people to make mistakes (and learn from them). People never experiment if they have to pay a price for trying new things out.

Critical Question: What methods have worked for you in ensuring that your team/organization learns constantly, and applies that learning for positive impact on organization/customers?

Join in the conversation.

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5 Key Lessons From Learning Organizations

Problems, challenges and inefficiencies (in one way or the other) are a part of any organization. How organizations deal with them makes all the difference.

In my career so far, I have (broadly) seen two kinds of organizations.

First are the ones who know the problem areas, but are not willing to invest in having the necessary structure to prevent them in future. So, they try to correct it instead. They create teams and structures where people are driven (and sometimes forced) to work harder when problems occur. Same challenges show up in each project. It is almost like knowing the problem but not doing anything about it. Processes (and improvement) are seen as costs.

The end result? Dissatisfied customers, unhappy team members, disengaged middle management and difficulties in scaling the business.

The second type of organizations are what we call “learning organizations”. Even they face similar challenges and problems, but only once. When problems occur, they first correct it but then, give a careful thought to how it can be prevented. They create focus groups on process improvements, document the lessons, relentlessly train teams and incorporate preventive measures in their processes. They realize that it is perfectly normal to have problems, but not  to have same problems again and again. They treat processes and improvement as an investment in future.

A few key takeaways from these observations:

  • Problems are a part of business. Growth depends on whether you face same problems every time, or the new ones.
  • Setting up processes and sponsoring improvement teams may look costly initially, but it actually saves money – by having mature processes and improving on people’s ability to deliver value to customers.
  • Improvement may not always be expensive. You can form small focus group from your current team and improve in small iterations. Once you see significant results, you can invest more.
  • The earlier (in life of your business) you think about processes and improvement, the better (and inexpensive). Problems multiply in scale when not addressed.
  • It is important to realize that it is virtually impossible to develop a process/approach that will foresee all possible issues organization will face. This is true for all businesses large and small.

Stay with me, as I explore other aspects of a “learning organization” in days to come. Peter Senge has done some amazing work on organization development and systems thinking.

What about you? Have you seen such organizations? What are your lessons? Come forward, join in the conversation and express yourself.

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Acknowledgements:

The Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ Blog Picks of the Week – 2010 Rewind Edition includes my posts. Thanks Chris!

QAspire Blog was featured in Management Improvement Carnival Blog Review by Wally Bock at Three Star Leadership Blog. Check out some fantastic blogs at Curious Cat Annual Management Improvement Carnival 2010 hosted by John Hunter.

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Have a great start into the week!