The ‘Explore’ phase of the U Journey ends when you know where your vision is pointing and you start to consider what means will help you get there. A crucial first step of ‘Design’, the next phase, is the Learning Journey.
You’ve finished the Foundation Workshop and there’s a real sense of accomplishment. Order has been brought to the chaos of change. At a minimum, you have a vision of where you are heading, alignment towards your goal, a clear appreciation of where you are starting from and a program of work to get to your destination. The bonds between the members of the team are significantly stronger from taking deep dives into conversations that matter. You have a greater sense of the diversity of thought within the team and can see how those differences can be harnessed to synthesise something new which creates a whole that is more than the sum of the parts.
But change—deep, systemic change—is not the sort of thing which happens as a consequence of a single workshop, no matter how well prepared or executed. Just think how much time and energy were expended to get your organisation from its founding into its current reality. Transforming the undergirding assumptions about how things get done around here is clearly not going to be an overnight success.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
Both individually, and as the collective who went through the Foundation Workshop, you may well have had profound insights, felt the charge of reconnection to mighty purpose and got to rekindle essential relationships. But the truth is that no one really knows what will happen as you walk out of the proverbial door and back into the real world. Sitting together for an intensive few days and exploring what you want to bring into the world provides a rare moment in our busy lives to remove the shield of cynicism and transcend the everyday for something more noble, fulfilling and purposeful. How do you take the seeds of that experience and turn them into a mighty forest?
In the machine age, Newton’s universe of clockwork mechanics provided the mental model for an infinite array of human endeavour. Whether that was ever appropriate for living systems governed by humans is barely open to debate, but it remains the underlying paradigm of change. Fix this widget, replace that one and in a long chain of complex cause and effect you get from where you are to where you want to be. We need a new metaphor to understand the process better.
It’s common to say that trees come from seeds. But how could a tiny seed create a huge tree? Seeds do not contain the resources needed to grow a tree. These must come from the medium or environment within which the tree grows. But the seed does provide something that is crucial: a place where the whole of the tree starts to form. As resources such as water and nutrients are drawn in, the seed organizes the process that generates growth. In a sense, the seed is a gateway through which the future possibility of the living tree emerges. (Peter Senge)
The Foundation Workshop has germinated the seed of the future reality. Without stretching the metaphor too far, what the learning journeys do is cultivate the nursery where those saplings must grow. The learning journey phase of the transformation could take many months and may involve a wide range of activities facing both into how your organisation gets stuff done, as well as to external sources such as academia, consultancies, vendors, customers and any other organisation that could contribute to the progress of your agenda. In this article I’m going to focus on visits to other organisations. But first, what do we mean by learning?
“You are no longer piling stones to make a wall but
deeply committed to realising the vision of a cathedral.”
Three types of learning
Single-loop learning is the type we would all be familiar with, even if we’ve never heard of the Deming-Shewhart plan-do-check-act cycle, often abbreviated to PDCA. We plan our work, do it, check the results and then act on any improvements required to deliver ever better outcomes. This approach serves us well when we are trying to accomplish a repetitive task, such as manufacturing a widget, or assembling or disassembling a complex piece of machinery again and again.
Double-loop learning goes a step further by not only asking how can we get better at our existing method, but also questioning why are we doing it like this in the first place? Can we automate, take out a step, simplify? Triple-loop learning goes beyond that by asking you to learn from the future of highest possibility. Incorporating the two earlier learning modes, it asks who we need to be in order to bring that highest possible future into being. It is not enough to learn how to improve the mechanics of a task; the question becomes how doing the task serves the deeper purpose you are connected to. As a friend put it, you are no longer efficiently piling stones to make a wall but are deeply committed to the realisation of the vision of a cathedral.
The word journey carries an echo of the Hero’s Journey. An answer to the call to pick up your load, take responsibility for your contribution to the success of the endeavour and march courageously into the future, not knowing how it’s going to turn out. Along the way you will inevitably encounter The Dip and wonder why you got started in the first place. But there’s a universal truth to this kind of adventure. If you focus your attention on your intention to bring your splendid vision into being, then help comes from unexpected places. You learn and grow on the way through, and ultimately you get to live a bigger, more fulfilled life. Failing to answer the call can easily lead to a cynical defensiveness of the status quo, which progresses steadily over time to bitter resentment that life did not deem it necessary to bend itself to making you happy.
Some considerations before you start
Unless your job involves consulting on organisational change, your own working environment is probably the only one you know deeply. But what about the rest of your value chain? Wouldn’t it be eye-opening to see how your vendors operate, or even your customer organisations if you serve other businesses? Perhaps you could visit them, but it’s likely that your presence would influence how they behave. An alternative type of learning journey is a visit to an organisation that’s the same or similar to your own. What keeps them internally coherent? And how do they maintain an adaptiveness to changing market conditions?
Usually you would think that you couldn’t visit competitors or do the journey with part of the same value chain. But Toyota welcomed executives from the American motor companies and shared with them their famous production system. More recently, in the case of the Sustainable Food Lab, the participants developed the idea of pre-competitive collaboration to better support producers, often in poor countries, so that their livelihoods were assured using sustainable practices before the market protagonists took each other on. The principle of any of these types of learning journey is that there’s always an opportunity for mutual learning.
The first step, then, is to determine which organisations you’d like to learn from. You should be willing to share your own experiences with these organisations, as they are just as likely to want to learn from you as you from them. It is a real opportunity for a win-win. For example, Ensemble has clients in the mining sector and in aviation. Both have deep investments in engineering assets and spend a lot of money to maintain, repair and overhaul them, year in and year out. Besides the investment in time and money, both are forever interested in finding innovative ways to reduce the amount of time these assets are being maintained, and therefore out of service, as it always comes at the price of lost production.
Seeing something similar, but not quite the same, to what you are wrestling with can bring fresh and surprising insights. So, once you have selected which organisation you would like to visit:
• Do as much research as you can via the web and other public means.
• Make it clear that you want to talk to/shadow/work with people and not get or give a standard presentation. This is not a benchmarking study that would look only at objective metrics of performance—it’s much deeper than that, and covers their ‘why’ and ‘how’ as much as their ‘what’.
• Determine the people on your team, how they will feedback to the larger transformation team and who their counterparts should be at the receiving organisation.
• Practice observation, listening and dialogue with your colleagues before you go.
• Prepare a thank-you gift and assign roles (speaker, timekeeper).
• Prepare a questionnaire as a team to help guide the conversations.
Areas for exploration
Here are some questions to consider, adapted from ideas in Edgar Schein’s book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, a valuable touchstone for anyone looking to get below the surface of corporate cultures.
• What language do people use for conceptual categories within their own organisation and with those conducting the learning journeys? This is a valuable exercise that helps you understand, for example, that the shortcuts of acronyms and industry jargon come at a price—you can’t assume your knowledge is understood beyond your workmates. Even among yourselves, you may be assigning different meaning to these categories.
• How are group boundaries defined? How does each function, for example, work within the larger organisation? How do these functions interact with their internal and external suppliers and customers? How does a whole business unit work within the corporate group? What are the criteria for inclusion and exclusion from these groups?
• How is power, authority and status distributed? To what extent is accountability for getting the work done matched to the authority over the resources required to deliver the outcomes?
• How do colleagues connect with and respect each other? What can you observe around the norms of trust, intimacy, friendship and even love?
• How is the core mission defined? How well is it articulated? What strategy is being used to achieve it? How well does everyone align around it?
• How do they set goals and achieve consensus around them in accordance with the core mission?
• What means are used to attain the goals? Look at things like organisational structure, the division of labour, the reward system and the authority system.
• How is success measured? And how are metrics, at a personal, departmental and business unit level used to help inform whether or not course correction is necessary?
• How are appropriate remedial or repair strategies arrived at if goals are not being met?
These are useful questions to consider but not exhaustive nor prescriptive. Learning can happen in any number of ways. But the learning journey to a similar organisation is one of the most productive—and one that too few companies seriously consider. In the next article in our U Journey series, we’ll look at the specifics of such a visit, including how to prepare for it, conduct it and share the findings with your wider organisation.
There’s much more on Theory U in my own book, More Than Just Work, which distils my thinking about three decades of managing work into a manageable framework. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy the book here (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by Inbal Malca on Unsplash]
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