Results may not always reflect the performance that we had hoped for, but they always provide an opportunity for learning. If designed well, systems throughout the organization have learning loops built into the processes. While these learning loops take many forms, they are at their core, versions of the scientific method – Plan, Do, Study, Act. Unfortunately, many organizations and leaders are very good at Plan, Do; Plan, Do; Plan, Do… and they often do not take the time to study the results, learn from them, and adjust future actions based on those learnings. But it doesn’t have to be that way! We choose to learn, or not. Creating and sustaining high performance requires a disciplined approach to learning from the past and creating the desired future based on reflection and learning. This learning process is built into a well-designed leadership system.
The leadership system is a large learning loop with many learning loops built into the individual components. A focused strategy is a hypothesis about the goals and objectives that will be reached if the organization implements a specific set of initiatives (products and processes). Strategy deployment and the [Re]Design of products and processes is the “test” of that hypothesis. The design and redesign of the organization’s key components, systems, and processes is a learning process by itself. The evidence of learning is the improvement of performance. But the learning first has to be captured in the design of the system. A new “theory” about the optimum design. The results are reviewed during the periodic organization performance review process (OPR). There are two basic types of learning that occur during these activities – single loop and double loop learning.
Single- & Double-Loop Learning
While there are several types of learning that occur in organizations, there are two main types of learning that occur when running and [re]designing organizations including single-loop and double-loop. Single-loop learning occurs when we execute the system, review the results, and adjust our techniques for implementing the system as it is currently designed. No system design changes are made in single-loop learning. However, sometimes no matter how hard we try to make it work, the system design limits the performance. Double-loop methods of learning include questioning the underlying design and assumptions of the system, resulting in changes to the design. In this last component of the leadership system, the focus is on double-loop learning by reflecting on the lessons learned during the OPRs to inform revisions to the strategy and systems.
Learning from Success & Failure
While organization performance reviews are typically conducted several times a year, every once in a while, it is time to sit down and take a deeper more long-term look at both performance and progress. Unfortunately, we often classify rich data into categories limiting our ability to analyze the data and thus limiting the insights that we can glean from the analysis. By classifying outcomes as either good or bad, success or failure, etc. we are taking rich detail and reducing the level of data to simple categories. This covers up the detail needed to learn from the experience. Also, when we say “failure” people immediately try to cover up the details or pass the buck… Anything to avoid being seen as a failure. Instead of passing “judgment” on the results with emotionally laden words, try simply thinking about the results as the outcome of an experiment to be studied. Using less pejorative language such as “match” or “mismatch” between results and expectations as Chris Argyris suggests, can help open the group members up to objectively exploring the results and the potential causes. Only then can double-loop learning occur and the necessary changes to the strategy and design identified.
Three Leadership Questions to Ponder
1. As a leader I don’t “kill the messenger” and instead create a safe environment where people are free to explore the good, the bad, and the ugly.
2. As a leader, I balance advocacy for my ideas with the inquiry into alternative ideas to encourage collaboration during organizational learning activities.
3. As a leader, I create the environment for frank two-way communications to maximize learning during organization learning activities.
This is the last article in a series of ten articles on the Leadership System. Next week we will change our focus to a new topic on organization design and designers.
Enjoy the journey!