Proactivity kills the learning organization

The concept of the learning organization is getting more and more popular. Still most enterprises struggle when trying to establish a learning culture. In this braindump I’ll take a look on how “proactivity” prevents us from developing learning organizations.

In his book “The Fifth Element” Peter Senge states that learning organizations continuously increase their ability to invent their own future. Following his thoughts the base for this is real, deep learning. For this kind of learning it is crucial to not not only process information but to go through a fundamental change becoming able to look at situations from a different perspective than before. Reading further Senge describes obstacles that keep us from going into that kind of learning processes. One of those is “The Illusion of Control”. He portraits leaders stating that the best thing to do when being confronted with difficult situations is to act proactively, i.e. taking matters into one’s own hands.

When reading this I instantly was reminded of many situations I came along as an Agile Coach. Often there has been little to no appraisal for systemic perspectives trying to pin down the real problem and looking for solutions. Instead there has been demand to behave “proactively”. Phrases like “Wir müssen zurück in den Schlamm!” (“We have to get back into the mudd!”), “Wir müssen die PS auf die Straße bringen!” (We need to put the horsepower onto the street!) or “Wir müssen den Zeiger bewegen!” (“We need to move the needle!”) are all asking for “working fingers to the bone” and solving the problem that way. There are tons of expressions like that and you probably came across some of them. They all may be summarized as “stop thinking about the bigger context and start working on the real problem”.

You might say “It works, so what is the problem with that?!”. And yes, it works. At least it seems like that. When facing a problem and “proactively” working your way around it you will often be successful. You will be able to deliver your project on time. You will be able to raise the budget needed. You will be able to fix that huge bug in your software. You will survive your problem and go on until facing the next problem and then: repeat. There is nothing to say against that. The only thing it doesn’t do: It does not bring you any closer to being a learning organization. It does not help you to increase your company’s ability to invent it’s own future. Instead it makes sure that you are sticking to your established structures, processes and behaviours. In the long run it makes you easy prey to learning organizations on the market which have the the advantage of adapting themselves to the requirements of the surrounding market.

So what are those competitors doing differently? They open up room for systemic reflection. They might ask questions like: “Why did the problem occur in the first place? How did our organization help the problem to occur? What do we need to change if we do not want that kind of problems in the future?”. While asking those questions they will look for root causes even if they are not to be found in close proximity of where the problem showed up (root causes might be found far in the past or in a completely different part of the organization). They will focus on the systemic nature of the problem and not so much on the question who’s fault it has been. Their “mindset” will make them looking out for organizational reasons for the problem and not searching an outside enemy that can be defeated if only you’re working hard enough. In this sense the proactive behaviour described earlier is not even proactive. It is nothing more than reacting to problems. Problems would not occur (forever) in learning organizations identifying the root causes and changing their own patterns accordingly.

Of course it is not black and white. In the end also learning organizations will face problems (otherwise they would not have to learn). They will have the need to work around symptoms as well, making sure their product or service can be delivered in time. They most likely will do so by putting higher pressure on the topic. But they also succeed in deeper reflection, identification of patterns that led to the problem and changing them. This is where most organizations are missing out. Instead of going into deeper reflection they will see that the workaround was successful, promote the person who’s proactivity has been the most visible and that way teach everyone else to behave the same way. They will start the next projects right away, making sure everyone is busy and proactive as much of their time as possible. Those who are looking for the root causes, asking the painful meta-questions will be forgotten. Some might even be punished (no promotion, being asked to act a bit more like those who are proactive, dismissal, …). Proactivity killed the learning organization.

Things to do if you want to become better as a learning organization

Following I will list some simple ideas that can help to improve your organization’s learning habits. It’s not a complete list. Also these ideas will not be sufficient to install real learning in your organization. They might be good enough to start with though. I recommend reading Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline” for a more sophisticated view on the topic.

Give value to organizational learning

  • Stop asking for individual guilt, instead be convinced that the problem occurred as a consequence of the organizational status quo
  • Start promoting people for asking painful meta-questions that helped to improve the organization

Take time for deep systemic reflection

  • Reduce pressure by limiting work in progress
  • Install easy reflection processes
  • Schedule reflection meetings regularly

Search for the reason of your problems within the organization

  • Look out for organizational patterns that led into the problem
  • Search for those patterns within the whole company
  • Also take a look at decisions that were made in the past – long time before the problem occurred

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