Learning in Chaos

by Ron Potter

As Peter Senge defines it, a learning organization is an organizational structure in which “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 how to learn together.”

In this sense, a learning organization is an organization that is continually expanding its ability to create and re-create the very patterns and structures by which it operates.

At least that is the goal.

Quick-Deciding Creates Chaos, Learning Order

Unfortunately, what I have found in my work is that quick decision making has won. In many cases, leaders have abandoned the learning organization in favor of the quick-deciding organization.

In times of chaos, confusion, and change, peacemaking leaders need to focus attention on making sure their organizations are quick learning rather than quick deciding.

The fast-paced environment of product development, competition, and shareholder expectations has forced many organizations to adopt a quick-deciding mentality. In this model, a team (much like a football team needing to score before time expires in the fourth quarter) is in a hurry-up offense. The goal is to make decisions. But as Tom Peters correctly observes, “As competition around the world boils over as never before, firms caught with bloated staffs and dissipating strengths—from Silicon Valley to the Ruhr Valley in Germany—are looking for quick fixes. There are none.”

Leading Toward Learning

So how would a two-pillar, peacemaking leader respond?

The goal of the quick-learning team is to seek out and develop opinion rather than steamrolling over it or quickly mustering forces against it. Feedback is highly desired rather than feared.

In contrast, feedback is offensive when you are a quick-deciding team. You develop “sides” on all issues. The competition heats up. Winning at all costs is what counts.

Members of a quick-learning team are all on the same side of the fence, looking at an issue with differing opinions, experiences, and ideas.

Meeting Agendas

Meeting agendas are often a surprising enemy. Leaders, staring at an agenda, feel compelled to make decisions within the time allotted. In most cases, true discussion of the issues and everyone’s opinions (the rooting-out process) is bypassed in favor of table talk that centers on implementation.

We suggest a meeting agenda that maps out what the team wants to learn about an issue. Learning should be the goal with good decisions the result. Remember that the goal is learning quickly and then making good decisions, not just deciding quickly.

Patience is Key

“Patience,” said Saint Augustine, “is the companion of wisdom.” Problems and day-to-day crises test our wisdom and our ability to make decisions under pressure. Great leaders are people of patience and constant learning.

It is the leader’s job to pull everything together into a quick-learning rather than a quick-deciding environment. The leader holds the dialogue together and asks questions that are designed to help team members clearly communicate their information and thoughts about the agenda item. In this way, the meeting’s goal is met: quick learning—rather than quick deciding—for the purpose of making good decisions.

The leader needs to develop not only an inclusive mind-set but also one that honors people for who they are and what they bring to the process. Each person brings unique strengths and outlooks to the table.

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