No matter how much you know, it will never be more than a pebble on the beach compared to the vast oceans of what you don’t know. But what if we can establish better ways of learning and sharing our knowledge together?
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
With our system of education, through the colleges we attend, the courses we take, and the careers we then pursue, each of us has come to know the world in ever-increasing detail of ever-decreasing range. There is nothing wrong with having a depth of expertise in a given domain. For example, an accountant can work wonders with financial structuring and provide the means to make the right investment decisions. A lawyer can successfully put together contracts that mitigate risks and maximise opportunities. An engineer can design a new product that solves not only a single customer’s problems but delivers a whole new market domain. The marketing guru can facilitate an organisation finding its way through the jungle of competing products and help its success with sales.
But as we get deeper and deeper into our specialist domains, we become increasingly alienated from the knowledge of what constitutes the whole and, indeed, alienated from each other. We end up with different vocabularies, different acronyms and unknowingly carry with us the curse of knowledge gained from this deep dive into specialisation. Anyone not equipped with that knowledge has little clue what the hell we’re talking about. As a result, we don’t see what our colleagues see. We can’t properly hear what they say. We understand our world of work as if we were watching a silent movie with different sets of subtitles, describing alternate and competing narratives.
“Each of us has come to know the world in
ever-increasing detail of ever-decreasing range.”
On those occasions when we do learn together, it is usually about behaviour, leadership and culture. We investigate our values, reinvigorate the mission and set audacious goals. However, if we undertake learning about our management systems at all, it is often done either individually or in functionally specific groups. For example, the IT developer takes a course to understand how to harness the power of the digitising economy. The finance specialist subscribes to an online webinar about applying the new tax laws enacted for accelerated depreciation. And, the engineers mix it up with their colleagues and professional peers to learn how to use parametric modelling to automate the calculations for a load-bearing beam. What we don’t get is the opportunity to dive into the realms of our colleagues’ domains. Not that we need to be experts in what they do, but rather to understand in a deeper and more meaningful way why they do what they do and how they go about doing it.
A pillar of high performance is the strength and density of the relationships between the people in the team. Good relationships, as the name suggests, are a function of how we relate to each other; that is, the extent to which there is a mutual understanding of the whys and hows of the planning and doing of our work. What inspires, bores, or frightens us is the extent to which we have the capacity to effectively work together toward common goals. It follows, then, that if we want to accelerate the learning within our organisations, we should learn together, in mixed cohorts.
After all, learning on your own is an anxiety-inducing activity. Our internal voice of judgement continually provokes our sense that we are not quite good enough. Not quite up to the task of taking on something genuinely new and different. We can never be so wise as to have the ability to think through all the potential consequences of our planned thoughts and deeds, especially when we are embarking on a journey of learning on a range of topics for which all we have to offer is our ignorance.
We need others to cover for our blindspots as we undertake to cover for theirs. Doing so implies the need to develop trust in each other and to feel safe with the vulnerability that, despite appearances we might project to the contrary, there are many things we simply don’t know. Together, , we become capable of constructing the bigger picture, understanding how the parts serve the whole and hence accelerate our efforts to build a better future.
“If we want to accelerate the learning within our organisations, we should learn together, in mixed cohorts.”
So, if our goal is to better understand and relate to each other and our work, how should we form these cohorts? I want to focus on the manager level of work, or mode III, as articulated by Elliott Jaques in his stratified systems theory. At this level, the appropriate role horizon is one to two years. Managers at this level are generally accountable for discrete systems of management—IT, marketing, finance, operations, engineering and the like. They are charged with the work of efficiently and effectively operating those systems and to continuously be on the lookout for incremental improvements.
The bosses of these folk are either a General Manager or a Vice President, whose role horizon within the construct of the requisite organisation may vary from two to five years. These Mode IV and Mode V bosses are accountable for delivering step changes to the extant systems of management. When working at the requisite level, their job demands they introduce innovative technologies, develop new product and service offerings, and seek out ways to profitably grow their markets. Work at this level inevitably requires leading cross functional teams and integrating technology and processes across functional boundaries.
A critical question for these GMs and VPs is how they help their direct reports, the managers in question, avoid working incessantly in the heat of the daily firefight and apply themselves to focus cool-headed thinking to change up to next-practice ways of working. Whatever learning the managers do must be situated in the specific context of the business in question and cannot be limited to abstract concepts. Instead, they need to apply the new thinking to carefully crafted field experiments, designed to generate better outcomes through pragmatic, practical wisdom.
Typically, this kind of learning would take place over several months. In the case of Ensemble, we split the curriculum into six modules: Systems Thinking as applied to operations, organisational development and organisational design; Critical Thinking; Management Accounting; Project Management; Production Management and Replenishment Management. The idea is to provide a cross-functional cohort of managers with a carefully curated reading and viewing list before stepping into the physical or virtual classroom once a fortnight.
In addition to the prework of reading and viewing, we provide these managers with powerful questions to help them engage in 360-degree conversations with their peers, bosses, subordinates and cross-functional stakeholders. This metaphorically tills the fields of their minds such that when they engage in the workshops, they can seed their ideas within the cohort. Furthermore, suppose each of the cohort members brings their insights from their reading and reflections on the questions to the workshop. In that case, the thus enriched activity within the workshop is sure to bring about significant benefits from their cross-pollination.
While the morning session of the fortnightly workshop is given over to reviewing the topic covered in the field experiments of the prior two weeks, the afternoon session is set up to provide an injection
What are the principles that inform this idea of a cohort of managerial learning? First and foremost, it’s about creating a learning community. This community makes it safe to explore, ask questions without fear of looking stupid, and adventure beyond the constraints of what the participants, acting on their own, would otherwise consider the safe frontier. It allows for healthy scepticism but banishes the cynics. Relationships are strengthened and deepened as everyone comes to know better the world of their managerial peers. They develop a profound respect for the contribution each makes to the betterment of the whole.
A second principle is about accountability. By working as a managerial cohort, there is a strong sense of obligation to each other and the learning required to change up to the new ways of working. It’s not the type of accountability that is worn heavily and crammed down from the top. Rather, it’s more like the accountability of each of the players in a high-performing sports team, each wanting to give of their best, so the team wins not only the match but also the tournament.
Third, it’s about interaction. Not only between the members of the cohort but interaction with everyone with whom they come into daily contact. As they learn, the way they see what’s in front of them changes. They become better and deeper listeners and are encouraged to instil the habits of lifelong learning. They are ambassadors of the epistemic humility that is the ground of the philosophy of science, enlightenment and our age of reason. They come to learn that what they know is only ever a fraction of all there is to be known.
Finally, it’s about impact. The cohort may predetermine a capstone project as the muse during workshops and field exercises, or one could emerge as a consequence of the unfolding of the curriculum. Whatever the case, the team will develop a deep appreciation of what it means to work as one, together, to leverage the highest impact from their newfound capabilities. And, the managerial cohort, having learned innovative ways of working, can apply their newfound capabilities to make a measurable, meaningful and repeatable difference for themselves and those they choose to serve.
To get a flavour of the cohort experience, come to the Systems Thinker Foundations Workshop, on August 26, 2021. It’s free, and you’ll leave with a framework you can immediately apply to your organisation. I hope you’ll join me.
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