learning & change

Creating a culture of organisational learning

Why do organisations need to be good at learning?

As leaders, we are dealing with increasingly complex environments. Some of our most important challenges seem incredibly difficult to solve, if not impossible.

We’re responsible to countless stakeholder groups, all with competing opinions. We are making decisions with incomplete or contradictory data, and at the same time, our context is changing so fast that our solutions are often obsolete by the time we’ve worked out what to do. All this pressure is wreaking havoc on our wellbeing and our ability to produce sustainable results.

Dealing with this level of complexity needs new ways of thinking and interacting. Organisations need to create conditions where individuals and teams are constantly learning, creating new ways of seeing the world together and applying their insights to make sustainable positive change.

What is a Culture of Organisational Learning?

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge suggests that our organisational culture is a result of how we think and interact. He describes his vision of a learning organisation and makes the case for how organisations that learn are uniquely positioned to achieve better results in complex and changing environments.

Senge offers five practices to shape a learning culture. These ideas enable individuals and teams to learn from each other and the broader system to tackle complex challenges and improve outcomes.

Here is an overview of the five disciplines and some question prompts to get you thinking about how they might apply in your context:

Promote Personal Mastery
Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our unique vision, focusing our energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively. 

Individual learning is a prerequisite for organisational learning. This discipline isn’t just about learning new skills that will help you in your job. It’s about developing a growth mindset, one where you see the world as an opportunity to create something worthwhile and have a positive impact that outlasts your career.  Creating the conditions for personal mastery is about encouraging the view that life is a creative discipline. Rather than getting stuck in the reactive loops of thinking and acting, we can focus our energies on learning and growing towards our own desired future state.

  • How do you involve your people and give them choice and control in their learning and development opportunities?
  • How might you help them see mistakes as opportunities to learn, change and grow?
  • How do you build connections between learning opportunities and job requirements?
  • How might you frame learning as a way for your people to show up in line with their values and move towards their personal and professional goals?

Develop Mental Models
Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even images that influence how we understand the world and take action. This discipline is about how we unearth our internal representations of the world and hold them up for scrutiny.

Our brains create mental maps to help us simplify and make sense of the complexity in the world around us. Over time our maps can become so ingrained, we can forget that they are just maps and not the actual territory itself. So long as our maps accurately represent reality, then there is no problem. Unfortunately, our models quietly prevent us from seeing reality when the world changes.  We become blind to our inferences, assumptions and biases and, as a result, unable to notice when our maps are incomplete or incorrect.

  • How do you create the conditions where your people feel safe enough to share their inner perspectives and be confident enough to open their views up for scrutiny?
  • How do you help surface deeply held assumptions about how the organisation works and what needs to happen to improve things?
  • How do you encourage learning the skills of provocative questioning, deep listening and compassionate inquiry?
  • How do you create spaces and opportunities for your people to test each other’s mental models and encourage new, shared models to evolve?

Distil a Shared vision
Involves the skills of unearthing shared visions of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than compliance.

Learning cultures that are sustainable tap into a genuine, compelling collective endeavour. This shared vision inspires individual and team learning and helps push people past fears of uncertainty or potential failure in service of something that really matters. Leaders can’t impose their vision on others. To act as a catalyst for learning, they need to create space for individuals to share their hopes and aspirations and, over time, identify how these overlap in meaningful ways.

The challenge with inviting a greater diversity of views is that it naturally leads to conflicting perspectives that aren’t always easy to reconcile. A shared vision emerges from a diverse set of competing visions. It takes time to synthesise competing visions into a shared vision that all can get behind.

  • How do you create opportunities for people to see where their aspirations align?
  • How can you embrace diversity without compromising unity?
  • How can you invite teams to imagine their own future within the reality of a larger system with its own needs and demands?
  • How can you enrol and enlist newcomers in a joint vision and still give them space to make their own meaning?
  • How might you turn a high-level vision statement into something that inspires tangible learning and change?

Encourage Team learning
This discipline is about how teams learn through open dialogue, in which people feel free to share thoughts, ideas and opinions, regardless of position or rank.

Team learning is a collective discipline that hinges on respect and openness to ideas different from one’s own. Team learning is about creating opportunities for interaction like skilful dialogue, where all parties genuinely make space for different perspectives so that new understanding can emerge. Unlike debate, dialogue seeks to surface insight that was not previously held by any of the participants.

  • How might you create the conditions where your people can learn from each other?
  • How can you reduce fear and defensiveness so that teams can engage in generative conversations?
  • How can you improve your group meeting practices to encourage dialogue full of curiosity, courage and compassion?
  • How might you use routines and rituals to set up the conditions for action-based learning?

Enable Systems Thinking
Systems Thinking gives us the ability to look beyond the immediate cause and effect and understand that everything that happens in a system is connected to and impacted by everything else.

Learning organisations are good at noticing patterns in an organisation by looking at it from a holistic viewpoint rather than small unrelated manageable parts.  Recognising that an organisation is like a living organism allows us to see better the interconnected nature of the systems we exist within and how these systems shape our beliefs and behaviours.

Our ability to learn from complexity increases as we notice how systems tend to work. We start to understand the unintended consequences of our actions. We see how quick fixes usually don’t last and notice that small changes can produce significant results.

  • How might you encourage your people to step back and see the bigger picture?
  • How can you bring in more perspectives to build the pool of shared understanding?
  • How might you help people notice the connectedness in your systems?
  • What might make it easier to move from analysing separate parts of a problem to synthesising more holistic views?

How can we create conditions that foster a learning culture?

The concepts that Senge and his colleague introduce are not prescriptive. You can’t approach them like a checklist to work through. He uses the term disciplines to evoke the idea of something you hone over time through deliberate and mindful practice. Finding tangible ways to set up experiments in each discipline is a great way to learn from doing.  If you need more ideas to get you started, check out these resources:

Personal Mastery

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow. Harper Collins.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset. Random House Digital Inc.
Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016) Peak. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Sinek, S. (2011). Start With Why. Penguin.

Mental Models

Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design. Harper Collins.
Dobelli, R. (2014). The Art of Thinking Clearly. Harper Collins.
Harris, R. (2013). The Happiness Trap. Exisle Publishing.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish. Simon and Schuster.

Team Learning

Hawkins, P. (2017). Leadership Team Coaching. Kogan Page Publishers.
Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2014). The Adult Learner. Routledge.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2011). Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition. McGraw Hill Professional.
Schwarz, R. M. (2013). Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams. John Wiley & Sons.
Scott, S. (2004). Fierce Conversations. PenguinBaeder, J. (2017). Now We’re Talking! Solution Tree.

Shared Vision

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The Leadership Challenge. John Wiley & Sons.
Scharmer, C. O. (2018). Essentials of Theory U. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Systems Thinking

Johnson, G., Scholes, K., & Whittington, R. (2009). Exploring Corporate Strategy. Pearson Education.
Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in Systems. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Senge, P. M. (2010). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Random House.
Senge, P. M., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., & Dutton, J. (2012). Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised). Currency.

Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash

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