October marks my first month of immersion in to the study of organizational learning at MIT and the Society of Organizational Learning in Cambridge, Massachussets. I came on a mission to figure out how to develop the CP Yen Foundation into a self-sustaining learning organization. The following articles are bits of insights I’ve garnered in this first month; I invite you to come along and join the learning journey with me!
Think of an experience you’d call “Leadership.” What for you was the essence of that leadership?
When I was first asked this question by Peter Senge my mind froze: initially thinking of the many times when I failed to act according to my ideals, such as the shame I felt this morning when I saw a little child get caught in a bus door … and I failed to act boldly to help her. My second thought was about the inherent leadership I most enjoy speaking with others about. Uncovering and opening the channel for direct expression of our inherent genuine qualities is the essence of leadership. What makes our leadership outstanding is when we apply it to the visions most dear to us.
Pater waged more penetrating questions:
“What do you stand for? What is your purpose and “work” in life?”
How do you feel when you try to answer these words?
My inability to offer an immediate answer to this simple question both shocked and motivated me to dig further into myself and discover the response. After all, I am the only person has the answer!
My time in Cambridge has equally been about personal discovery as about organizational development. Hanging around Peter, I soon learned that in order to lead one must first look within.
Personal Mastery is the one of the core disciplines of Learning Organizations. These are organizations 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. In this newsletter I will specifically address the topic of Leadership and its relationship to learning organizations outlines by the five disciplines Personal Mastery, Systems Thinking, Mental Models, Shared Vision, and Team Learning.
Following these topics I’ll introduce a concept that’s inspired me to envision the CP Yen Foundation as embodying a learning organization through a “decentralized structure.” Stay tuned to upcoming newsletters to see what this means for you.
I leave you with these provocative words by Arie De Geus, head of planning for Royal Dutch/Shell, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”
May your learning be rich and continuous!
~ Keli Yen
The Incomplete Leader
What do you expect of your leaders? Should they have the intellectual capacity to make sense of extreme complexity, the imaginative powers to paint a vision of the future, the charisma to attract others to the cause, as well as the operational know-how to translate strategy to immediate and pragmatic results…
How realistic is it to expect this much of a single person? Well, the idea of such a complete leader sounds like a myth to me. It’s time I believe that we individually and collectively begin embrace our incomplete leaders.
The implication for management of embracing our incompleteness is to accept that no one can control anything. Such a recognition pierces through mentalities of hierarchy, for when a group collectively realizes that nobody has the answer, it transforms the quality of interaction in a remarkable way. Employees are no longer passive players in the equation but are challenged with the responsibility to create the results they truly desire.
In today’s world, the leader’s job is no longer to command and control they instead are called upon to cultivate and coordinate the actions of others in all parts of the organization. Such learning organizations are based on the basic premise that if people can put aside their old ways of thinking (mental models), learn to be open with others (personal mastery), understand how the company really works (systems thinking), form a plan everyone can agree on (shared vision) and then work together to achieve that vision (team learning) then they will 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. The following article will highlight my recent learnings on the five disciplines of learning organizations.
From an early age, we’re taught to break apart problems to make complex tasks and subjects easier to deal with; but this tends to create a bigger problem: we lose the ability to see the consequences of our actions, and we lose a sense of connection to a larger whole. If you look at the relationships between simple cause and effect, you’ll find infinite complexity and no inherent end or solution to one problem. The quest for improving life’s conditions is to look at how we individually and as a group relate to complexity; this is systems thinking.
“It’s not my fault, It’s the system. I have no control”
Have you ever heard someone say these words before? Complexity is often experienced as overwhelming and disempowering. Yet by seeing the patterns underlying events and details we can simplify life. One inherent contradiction is that people learn best from experience but don’t directly experience the consequences of many of their most important decisions. For this reason people tend to focus on “solutions” that produce improvements in a relatively short time span even though short-term fixes generally produce long-term costs. Take for example a company cutting back on research and development to bring very quick cost savings, but that action damages the organization’s long-term viability. Better appreciation of systems will lead to more appropriate action and some specific key benefits for leaders:
Seeing Interrelationships: Systems thinking starts with understanding the concept of feedback. Feedback shows how all actions have a reinforcing or counteracting (balancing) effect. For instance, in an arms race each party is convinced that the other is the cause of the problem and react to each new move as an isolated event; so long as they fail to see the interrelationships of these actions, they are trapped.
Moving Beyond Blame. We tend to blame each other or outside circumstances for our problems. But it is poorly designed systems, not incompetent or unmotivated individuals that cause most organizational problems. Structure creates behavior. There is no “external,” both you & the cause of your problems are part of a single system.
Distinguishing Detail Complexity from Dynamic Complexity. Detail complexity arises when there are many variables; dynamic complexity arises when cause and effect are distant in time and space and when the consequences over time of interventions are subtle. The leverage in most management situations lies in understanding dynamic complexity, not detail complexity.
Focusing on Areas of High Leverage. Systems thinking shows that small, well-focused actions can produce significant, enduring improvements, if they are in the right place. Tackling a difficult problem is often a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, where a change with a minimum of effort would lead to lasting and significant improvement.
Avoiding symptomatic solutions. The pressures to intervene in management systems that are going awry can be overwhelming. Due to the linear thinking that predominates in most organizations, interventions usually focus on symptomatic fixes, not underlying causes. This creates temporary relief and still more pressures later on for more low-leverage intervention. If leaders acquiesce to these pressures, they can be sucked into an endless spiral of increasing interventions. Sometimes the most difficult yet critical leadership acts are to refrain from intervening through popular quick fixes and to keep the pressure on everyone to identify more enduring solutions.
I’d like to introduce one common pattern of behavior; it’s called “Shifting the Burden”. Follow the arrows on the diagram at right, this is a “Shifting the Burden” archetype depicting how a problem symptom can be addressed by applying a short term solution. Despite initial periods where things seem to have gotten better the problem persists and side effects are generated. While fundamental solutions will reduce the initial problem they often aren’t chosen simply because of delays that occur before the benefits are felt. What situations have you been in that characterize this pattern of behavior? Can you identify where a delay in the sytstem feedback may have been the only obstacle standing between your problem symptom and a fundamental solution?
The best and most poetic way for me to summarize systems thinking is to share with you a few verses from Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the Heart Sutra:
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be”, we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper would be possible? NO, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper elements.” And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at al. Without non-paper elements, like mind, logger, sunshine, and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it
Mental Models determine what we see. They are the images, assumptions, and stories we carry in our minds of ourselves, other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world; and, they are all flawed in some way.
The discipline of mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to have conversations which balance inquiry and advocacy where people expose their own thinking and allow that thinking open to be influenced by others.
The Ladder of Influence is a conceptual device that will help you develop awareness of your mental models.
The Ladder of Influence
Developed by Chris Argyis, The Ladder of inference is a common mental pathway of increasing abstraction which leads to misguided beliefs. It shows how rapidly we can leap to knee-jerk conclusions with no intermediate thought process and without a basis of raw data.
Take a look at the image above showing various levels of our thought habits and levels of perception: Observable Data and experiences occur. From what I observe I Select Data. I then add meanings based on my own cultural and personal interpretations. Then I may make assumptions based on the meanings that I added. I then draw conclusions. This fuels the beliefs I adopt about the world. And finally I take actions based on my beliefs. The caveat is that our understanding of the world is generated from a filtering of data that I have selected, and then altered once more by the meanings and assumptions I attach to them. The insight here for me is that the conclusions I draw are uniquely manufactured by my mind.
Of course I can’t live my life without adding meaning or drawing conclusions, but I can improve my thought process by using the ladder of inference in three ways:
- Becoming more aware of my own thinking and reasoning (reflection);
- Making my thinking and reasoning more visible to others (advocacy);
- Inquiring into one’s thinking and reasoning (inquiry).
Because I am habituated to my own meaning making process, it feels invisible to me. “Reflexive loops” occur when my beliefs influence what data I select. And then I reflexively “jump up the ladder” to generalizations like stereotypes.
In general our ability to achieve the results we truly desire is eroded by our feelings that:
- Our beliefs are the truth.
- The truth is obvious.
- Our beliefs are based on real data
- The data we select are the real data.
The goal is to slow down and be aware of interpretations; then one can have some control.
Reflection is the act of slowing down our thinking processes to become more aware of how we form our mental models. Inquiry is holding conversations where we openly share views and develop knowledge about each other’s assumptions.
The discipline of reflection and inquiry skills is focused around developing awareness of the attitudes and perceptions that influence thought and interaction. By continually reflecting upon, talking about and reconsidering these internal pictures of the world, people can gain more capability in governing their actions and decisions.
To help slow down, try asking these questions of yourself:
- Q: How did I jump up the ladder?
- Q: What might I have done differently?
- Q: What is it that I really want to create? Are my habits consistent with that?
- Q: What is the observable data supporting my/our conclusions?
- Q: Would everyone agree on what the data is?
- Q: Can you run me through your reasoning?
- Q: How did we get from that data to these assumptions?
- Q: When you said “[your inference]”, did you mean “[my interpretation of it]”.
When embedded into a team practice, this tool is helpful for improving communication. The process brings awareness to our choice-making about our perception of the world.
Working with mental models offers the highest leverage for change. The core task of this discipline is bringing them to the surface, to explore and discuss free of defensiveness – to see its impact on our lives and to find ways to create new mental models that serve us better in the world by linking imagination with action.
In the workshops with Peter, we spent substantial time on the discipline of Personal Mastery.
Personal Mastery Principle #1:
- Focus on what you truly want to create (not what you think you need to do to achieve it).
When you really say the truth about what you want to create, amazing things start to happen.
Personal Mastery is being realistic, focusing on becoming the best person possible, and having commitment for realizing one’s potential. People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode (They never arrive, it’s a lifelong discipline). Being realistic means they are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas, and they are also deeply self-confident.
What an individual holds in his consciousness tends to become real in the external world, therefore we do visioning exercises. We learned experientially that our personal vision is the key to unlocking our underlying purpose and applying it with action and commitment.
When one is out of touch with purpose they are said to experience inner toil and pursue objectives that drain their energy (as well as use manipulation to achieve those objectives). When an individual’s vision aligns with personal purpose a powerful reinforcing process emerges as one becomes increasingly internally aligned, and the results s/he create in life are more consistent with a clearer vision and a creative capacity.
Individual vision is also fundamental for a group to become committed to a common endeavor. Eventually the underlying purpose and vision of that group, as a whole, naturally emerges.
A systemic view of personal power means empowering the individual to manifest his/her own personal power simultaneously with empowering the organization to manifest its purpose. Just as a jazz ensemble or a sports team merges together in collective flow, so too will your organization.
I suggest practicing Visioning. To begin I suggest following these guidelines:
- Focus on the result, not the process.
- Focus on what you want, not what seems possible nor on getting rid of what you don’t want.
- Be specific: you would know it if you had it.
- See it in the present.
- Put yourself in the picture.
- Feel the emotions and sensations.
- Close your eyes and gradually envision various aspects of your life: Health, Home, Work, hobbies, relationships and self.
- After the picture is in your mind, name the parts that feels impossible but you really want it.
- Find a partner and share the story of what you saw. If your partner does the same exercise, you’ll likely be surprised to discover that a deeply personal vision has basic commonalities with the vision of others. This is what naturally leads a group’s shared vision to emerge.
Visions spread because of a reinforcing process. As people talk, the vision grows clearer. As it gets clearer, enthusiasm for its benefits grow. Most importantly, people become truly committed to a shared vision when it reflects their own personal vision.
Management’s role is rehearsing and reinforcing the vision through company values: a commitment to common goals. Shared vision is vital for learning organizations because it provides the focus and energy for learning; people strive to learn and excel because they want to.
The mark of a truly powerful vision is one that inspires and motivates the best in people.
Team learning is the process of aligning and developing the capacities of a team to create the results its members truly desire. It builds on personal mastery and shared vision – but these are not enough, people need to be able to act together.
The discipline of team learning starts with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and genuinely think together. To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group allowing that group to discover insights not attainable individually (this also includes recognizing interactions in teams that undermine learning).
Dialogue, is a discipline of collective thinking and inquiry, a process for transforming the quality of conversation, and in particular the thinking that lies beneath it. When dialogue is joined with systems thinking there is the possibility for creating a language more suited for dealing with complexity, and of focusing on profound structural motivators rather than being distracted by superficial questions of personality and style.
First, a bit of history about the study of dialogue through the work of three key 20th century thinkers:
- The philosopher Martin Buber in 1914 used the term “dialogue” to describe a mode of exchange in which there is a true turning to one another, and a full appreciation of the other not as an object in a social function, but as a genuine being.
- Psychologist Patrick De Mare in the 1980s suggested that group “social-therapy” meetings could enable people to understand and alter the cultural meanings present within society that could heal the sources of mass conflict and violence.
- Physicist David Bohm compared dialogue to superconductivity. Electrons cooled to very low temperatures act more like a coherent whole than as separate parts. They flow around obstacles without colliding with one another, creating no resistance and very high energy. At higher temperatures (i.e. stress & tough issues) however, they act like separate parts scattering into a random movement and losing momentum.
Dialogue likewise seeks to produce a “cooler” shared environment. A group moves through various shared environments, also known as containers. A container can be understood as the sum of collective assumptions, shared intentions and beliefs in a group. Bohm suggests that dialogue brings to the surface and alters a tacit infrastructure of thought and enables people to perceive assumptions taken for granted (collective norms), creating a setting where conscious collective mindfulness can occur.
William Isaacs, founder of Dialogos, is an expert on how to make dialogue happen in organizations that have traditionally used adversarial approaches to governance and methods of interaction. These include the idea of evolving a container in which dialogue can take place. The four containers are named below:
Phase 1: Instability of the Container:
When individuals first come together they bring different perspectives with them. This is when dialogue meets its first crisis: seeing the group rather than as separate individuals.
Gradually people realize that they can choose to suspend their views, loosen their grip on certainty, and observe the way they have habitually made and acted upon assumptions. Rather than old habits of dissecting or defending previously held positions, by simply asking “let us see where this instability, this chaos came from” a group can move in to dialogue.
Phase 2: Instability in the Container:
As the underlying fragmentation and incoherence in everyone’s thought begins to appear people often start to feel frustrated at this phase of the dialogue. No point of view seems to encompass all the truth any longer and no conclusion seems to be definitive. Participants feel unsure where the group is heading, they feel disoriented and even marginalized or constrained by others.
Such feelings lead to a “crisis of suspension” where extreme views get voiced and defended. This instability feels distressing, yet it’s exactly what should be happening. To manage this distress everyone must be adequately aware of what is happening; people need not panic, withdraw, fight nor categorize viewpoints as right or wrong… they just need to listen and inquire. Including listening to themselves: “where am I listening from? What’s causing my disturbance?”
A skilled facilitator is particularly critical at this point to help participants become aware of the limiting categories of thought that are rapidly gaining momentum in the group.
Phase 3: Inquiry in the Container:
People begin to inquire together as a whole. They become sensitive to the ways that the dialogue is affecting all the people in the group and they start to see from the whole.
Phase 4: Creativity in the Container:
Where new understandings based on collective perceptions emerge and people engage in more generative thinking together.
Issac’s Dialogue Project realized that facilitation for dialogue requires an advanced form of group process, systems work, and leadership development. Facilitators also need the abilities to create the level of openness and attention necessary for dialogue to happen.
Initial Guidelines for Dialogue include:
- Suspend assumptions and certainties.
- Observe the observer.
- Listen to your listening.
- Slow down the inquiry.
- Be aware of thought.
- Befriend polarization.
3 Core Capacities of Leadership
Leadership can be cultivated by developing three core capacities:
- See the system
- Creative Orientation
- Collaborating Across Boundaries
1. Understanding Complexity/Seeing Systems facilitates collaboration across boundaries and the shifting from reactive to creative orientations.
Systemic problems are an expression of how we operate and the consequences of that. The premise is that if people intuitively understand the system then they’ll naturally balance and regulate themselves. A good systems thinker, particularly in an organizational setting, is someone who can see four levels operating simultaneously: events, patterns of behavior, systems and mental models.
The goal is to perceive beyond the event level, gain awareness of patterns of behavior and then perceive the fundamental systemic structures that produce the events.
2. Creative Orientation:
Creative tension comes from seeing clearly where we want to be, our “vision," and telling the truth about where we are, our “current reality." The gap between the two generates a natural tension.
Creative tension can be resolved in two ways: by raising current reality toward the vision, or by lowering the vision toward current reality. Individuals and organizations who learn how to work with creative tension use its energy to move reality toward their visions.
Creative tension is different from problem solving. With problem solving the energy for change comes from attempting to get away from an aspect of current reality that is undesirable. With creative tension, the energy for change comes from the vision, from what we want to create, juxtaposed with current reality (note: 80% of the work is on understanding the current reality). While the distinction may seem small, the consequences are not. Many people and organizations find themselves motivated to change only when their problems are bad enough to cause them to change. This works for a while, but the change process runs out of steam as soon as the problems driving the change become less pressing. With problem solving, the motivation for change is extrinsic. With creative tension, the motivation is intrinsic.
Finally in the last section of this newsletter, I want to put some ideas on the table about decentralized organizational structures. I often wonder how to model the CP Yen Foundation based on the following concepts. I hope to hear your feedback on how these perspectives have provoked and inspired you.
Senge, Peter, Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., and Smith, B. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.