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Sisyphus Syndrome

The Management Centre

As a consultant I sometimes feel like a morbid ambulance chaser. I make a career from working with organizations with serious problems. Now some problems I don’t mind- we all make mistakes. But some organisations seem trapped in a Sysiphian cycle of not just making mistakes, but repeating the same mistakes again and again.

  • they make and have to undo poor senior appointments
  • they embark on Quixotic ill-thought out campaigns
  • they set themselves unachievable and un-credible service goals

I’m less keen on working with these organisations. They seem dispirited and are frankly dispiriting to work with. Yet other organizations can make mistakes, even lots of mistakes, and still produce outstanding results. I call these organizations ‘learning organisations’ and it’s a pleasure to work with them- there’s a sense of progress every time.

You’ve probably heard the term ‘learning organisation’ before. But what does it actually mean? For Peter Senge, who coined the phrase ‘learning organisation’ it means something very specific. He talks abut “the continuous testing of experience, and the transformation of that experience into knowledge – accessible to the whole organisation, and relevant to its core purpose” from ‘The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organisation’ (Doubleday)

There are some key and challenging ideas present in that definition- it’s about constantly trying new approaches even when things seem to work, and turning that experience into something that everyone can use, with a very specific purpose- to deliver on the mission.”

(If you’re interested in Senge’s broader theories he expanded his ideas in a second book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook – strategies and tools for building a learning organisation (Doubleday).)

So being a ‘learning organisation’ absolutely isn’t about having cool fun offices, or lots of training for staff, or formal policies for everything… and it’s never about having an online knowledge management system. (The last item can bring an organisation to its knees financially and intellectually. Somehow IT and learning hardly ever seem to match up in real life.)

Learning organisations are about cultures and a way of doing things that is empowering. And leaders can help create such cultures. It’s simple. But as John Kotter says in his quote- it’s not even about that most beloved of CEO projects… strategy.

“The central issue [for organisational success] is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behaviour of people and organisations.”

John Kotter, Professor, Harvard Business School

So how do you work at becoming a learning organisation? Here’s my checklist of five characteristics drawing on Senge’s work and my own thinking and experience. I’ve also added some examples of real charities working at becoming learning organisations.

  • Do you continuously test your beliefs and experience? Specifically are you willing to examine and challenge your sacred cows – not just during challenging times, but also when things seem to be going well? What kinds of structures have you designed for this testing? When people raise challenges or even question received wisdom is there a tendency to “shoot the messenger”? To succeed in learning you have to be prepared to systematically and regularily test out every aspect of your operation- and that can feel very uncomfortable.

With Amnesty International’s Board and Senior Leadership Team I famously ran the world’s first Sacred Cow Bar B Que. This was literally a meal in the middle of planning workshop. The deal was the participants only got something to eat if they listed on a post-it some fundamental aspect of Amnesty’s strategy they were prepared to review after lunch. They had to hand it over to the chef-me- to get any food. At first some people thought it was a joke. But driven by the smell of cooking- and an organized absence of any other nutrition- participants gradually came forward with ‘fundamental principles‘ they were prepared to at least challenge. As part of the process Amnesty re-examined its strategy of not taking money from governments, of not allowing sections to work on domestic human rights issues etc. And changes were made as well as principles re-confirmed. I’d recommend a Sacred Cow meeting once a year at least

  • Do you review results? Learning organisations make sure they review outcomes and the processes that led to the outcome. Of course it’s often easier to review BIG issues. But a key factor in organisational learning is the ability to review all action in a systematic way that produces positive change for the next time- so creating a virtuous cycle. This involves the ability to analyse events and activities without seeking to attribute blame or praise. An additional payoff, if you run a ‘blame-free’ analysis, is that individuals are more inclined to ‘confess’ to mistakes and mis-judgements rather than defend themselves and their action.

When working with the British Red Cross on fundraising during the London Bombings in 2005 I came to understand the value of their wonderful ‘after action review’ process. It involves three simple questions being asked after any activity.

The Red Cross questions are in the box below. Notice the focus on facts rather than opinion. And notice especially the absence of a ‘blame’ question! ‘Why’ is a much more powerful interrogative than ‘who’ when you’re trying to create learning.

UNICEF use a similar technique of asking ‘why’ five times to get to a root cause of something. Try it with something as simple as: ‘Why was our meeting so disorganised?’ So ‘why’ might produce ‘because we didn’t have time to prepare.’ Another ‘ why?’ drives down to the next level of cause. ‘Because we’re understaffed.” etc. Whatever your answer ask ‘why’ was that until you come up with a profound cause not a symptom.

  • Are you producing knowledge? Knowledge, in this case, means the capacity for turning data into effective action. This can involve turning implicit knowledge- stuff in people’s heads- to explicit knowledge- ideas expressed publically as a system. You’re a knowledge-creator if you feel as if what you know is qualitatively different – “value-added” – from the data you took in.

Knowledge -creation also involves consciously creating new capabilities. A good question to ask yourself is does your organisation show capabilities and competencies it didn’t have three years ago? Let’s be honest if you’re not producing knowledge then you’re probably relying on that hoary old stand-by of the lazy- ‘best practice.’ Usually ‘best practice’ means ‘what’s safe and used to work.’ It’s like trying to drive by looking in the rear view mirror- noticing where you’ve been and what the traffic was like. You also need to look ‘outside.’ Some of the best knowledge creation involves taking ideas and experience from one setting and applying it elsewhere for a completely different use

Sight Savers, one of my favourite innovative INGOs worked with McDonalds in India to help make their eye operations faster, more efficient and more quality standarised. They took knowledge from a completely unrelated field and turned it to their advantage.

Lepra used just used to deal with the challenge of leprosy. The bad news from an organizational sustainability point of view was that leprosy was being more or less conquered. However, instead of closing down, Lepra decided to identify its core competence as dealing with certain kinds of disease and now tackles TB and other infections relevant to its that fundamental transferable ability.

  • Is the knowledge shared? Producing knowledge is great but it’s not enough. So a further key challenge is whether the learning is accessible to all staff and stakeholders. Here’s a test. Do you hear people walking around saying, “You know, I could have sworn we put out a report on this subject three years ago”? Are there manuals for elegant but unimplemented project management processes lying untouched? Does the central drive for your IT network have hundreds or maybe thousands of files- some important, some not- with impenetrable names like ‘finalreport.doc’? If you do maybe you could try some different ways to share knowledge.

Could you use storytelling as a way to share knowledge? One of my colleagues, Angela Cluff, is working with UNICEF internationally, helping them produce their global case for philanthropic support. UNICEF is, not unreasonably, an organisation committed to accuracy and transparency. However instead of the usual dry and schematic document explaining how worthy UNICEF and its work is they’re using stories and storytelling as a core technique to share ideas and principles across the organization and then with donors. (Note also how well this approach fits with UNICEF’s child-centric culture.)

  • Is the learning relevant? Charities aren’t universities. They’re not there to create learning simply for learning’s sake. (Though that’s not a bad thing!) To be accountable charities have to demonstrate the relevance of the time and resources they invest. In some organisations training and development is seen essentially as a perk- a way to reward and motivate staff. In my view that’s not enough.

Equally don’t simply screen out training in new ideas or techniques simply on a short-term utilitarian basis. Ask yourself is this learning aimed at developing or defining how people can contribute to organisation’s core purpose? Can people make use of it if not now then in the long term? Will it help us deliver on our mission?

RNLI spends huge sums of money on training and development. Its learning centre in Poole is one of the best purpose-built educational settings I know. They have an enormous pool and wave machine in which they can literally create hurricanes to practice rescues in the most extreme conditions imaginable. That’s good. But what’s even better is that much of this training is directed not at full-time staff but at volunteers who’s contribution sits at the centre of RNLI’s ethos. It’s the commitment to volunteers at the highest level that distinguishes them as an outstanding learning organisation.

So how good are you?

All this is very interesting. But here’s the killer question. How do you score on these five dimensions? Give yourself a score from 1-5 on each dimension in the table below

Learning CharacteristicsScore 1-5
Testing?
Review?
Knowledge
Shared?
Relevance?

OK now add up your score and follow my interpretation below

Score yourself

ScoreMeaning
1-5Bottom of the class. Why not just give up now? Or go into ‘special measures?’
5-10Stay behind for extra coaching. You’re probably good at something but not enough.
10-15You’re trying but need to do better in some key areas or you’ll be left behind by the competition.
15-20Really not a bad score. Where do you need to push or improve for real excellence
20-25You’ve got the X factor. The poor, the socially excluded, and the disempowered have some hope!

And if you have any examples of learning in your organisation or in others then let me know… I’d love to share them.

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