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Team Learning: Looking Beyond Yourself

March 18, 2018

KidsTeam learning builds on the discipline of personal mastery. It’s a process that encompasses aligning and developing the capacity of a team to achieve the goals that its members truly want. While individual learning at one level is important, it’s irrelevant at another level. Individuals may learn but the organization as a whole does not. There is no organizational learning. Teams become, therefore, the essential ingredient for learning.

There are three key components of team learning:
1. Teams must probe and explore complex issues, drawing on the talents, knowledge and experiences of one another.

2. They must work in concert, coordinating their efforts and communicating openly and closely. Trust is essential since members must be able to rely on one another.

3. Teams must interact with each other so that they can share what they learn.

Nested Teams is one way to express this interaction. Just as there must be interdependency within a team, so too must there be interdependency among teams in an organization.

Team learning must therefore be seen as being a collective discipline. To say that ‘I’ as an individual am mastering team learning is irrelevant. Team learning involves mastering the two primary ways that teams communicate: dialogue and discussion. By dialogue, we’re talking about deep listening and the free exploration of ideas. Discussion, on the other hand, refers to searching for the best view to support decisions once all views have all been presented.

For a team to grow and develop, and to be effective, it’s necessary that conflict be present. This notion may no doubt surprise some people, but unless a team’s members disagree at times, the team will not learn. To think creatively, there must be the free flow of conflicting ideas.

Of course, the team must know how to use disagreements productively. Conflict becomes then a part of the continuing dialogue among the team’s members. Senge explains: “...the difference between great teams and mediocre teams lies in how they face conflict and deal with the defensiveness that invariably surrounds conflict.”

The issue of when and how to use conflict productively is one that escapes most organizations. The consequence is the regular use of defensive routines. To admit that one doesn’t know the answer to a question or problem is to reveal one’s supposed incompetence. This has particular applications to managers because they’re expected to know everything that is going on in the organization. This becomes part of managers’ mental models. Senge states: “Those that reach senior positions are masters at appearing to know what is going on, and those intent on reaching such positions learn early on to develop an air of confident knowledge.”


When managers internalize this mental model, they create two problems. First, to maintain the belief that they have the answers they must shut themselves off from inquiry from their subordinates. They refuse to consider alternative views, especially if they appear provocative.

The second problem they create for themselves is that they sustain their ignorance. To keep up the facade they become very skilled at being defensive. After all, they wish to be seen as being effective decision makers.

Through his work, Harvard emeritus psychology professor Chris Argyris found that such defensive behaviour becomes an ingrained part of an organization’s culture. As he’s stated: “We are the carriers of defensive routines, and organizations are the hosts. Once organizations have been infected, they too become carriers.”

Organizational learning is obviously severely impeded in such a culture. This is underscored especially when teams engage in defensive routines, which block their energy and prevent them from working towards their shared visions.

The more that defensive routines take root in a team, and more broadly the organization, the more they hide the underlying problems. And in turn, the less effectively these problems are addressed, the worse the problems become. As Argyris puts it: “…defensive routines are ‘self-sealing;’ they obscure their own existence.”

All is not lost, however. A team that is committed to the truth will find ways to expose and address its defensiveness. The same applies to a manager who has the courage to self-disclose and examine his mental models to determine where defensiveness may be hidden. This in turn creates energy and the willingness to explore new ideas. Openness and dialogue then become the norm in the organization.

The journey in between what you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place.
 –– Barbara DeAngelis

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So Where Are We Now? — The World’s Still Standing

March 11, 2018


So what were you doing on November 7, 2016?

That’s okay if you don’t remember. Here’s a reminder, however: After what could only be called a political circus, a reality show star, who dabbled in real estate, beat out 17 contenders in the Republican Party to be the first-past-the-post ahead of Hillary Clinton.

Oh! Now you remember.

The past 14 months since inauguration day of a narcissistic 71 year-old (45th President of the United States), replete with what British author and social commentator Martin Amis has described as a “woodland creature” atop his noggin, have been a roller coaster of incredulity, orgasmic delight for the late-night talk show hosts, and repressed giggles from CNN commentators and the like. And not to forget, most obviously, the obligatory seriousness of various pseudo experts and network contributory analysts.

The only really good news in the age of Donald Trump is that the world has not exploded. For anyone with the self-imposed initiative, take the time to read up on the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 16-28, 1962) and you will be not just impressed but actually astonished with President John F. Kennedy’s calm leadership in the art of de-escalation and crisis management. It’s one of America’s pivotal moments in Presidential leadership.

Think I’m full of shit? Well, first off, I’m a Canadian, and second I’m apolitical with no party or ideological affiliation. I’m a long-time student of leadership.
That brings me to where we are today. Usually, I’d be writing on a substantive leadership topic without any political or controversial overtones.


I must confess that while I delight in watching such late-night talk show hosts as Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert skewer Donald Trump (sorry, but I’m unable to precede his name with the word President), there’s admittedly a pre-conceived bias with these folks to crap on this neophyte politician. We mustn’t forget CNN and the other mainstream news broadcasters. Trump can’t do anything right. And we conveniently forget the revolving door of past administrations, though the current one has probably set a Guinness Book record.

It certainly wasn’t by design that Mr. Trump bizarrely stumbled into an upcoming meeting with North Korea’s haircut-challenged dictator and Dennis Rodman fan, Kim Jong-un, whose eccentricities, since claiming control of one of the world’s poorest and most repressed countries, have been fodder for Saturday Night Live.

What gets lost in the parodies of Kim is that he has proved to be highly strategic in playing the long-game with the United States and the rest of the Western world. Like son, like father, except the former has proven to be even more cut-throat and provocative. He’s closing in on where he wants to be: in a strong position to negotiate with the U.S. and South Korea to ensure his country’s long-term survival.

The idea of a united Korea is sheer folly. The re-unification of East and West Germany was hugely challenging and expensive. It’s still in progress. For example, former West Germans’ net wealth is about 50% higher than former East Germans. Materialism (eg, expensive cars) is more common with the former West. And cultural differences continue. Those who’ve studied Germany since integration expect it will take at least another generation to significantly close the gap.

Re-unifying the two Koreas dwarfs the German experience. Point made.
From a political operative perspective, Trump would be smart to work towards an official peace treaty with North Korea, and with any luck Kim Jong-un would climb down from his desire to be an official member of the nuclear weapons club. However, trusting North Korea, based on past behaviours, is an exercise for fools.

President Ronald Reagan continually used the expression “Trust, but verify” with President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 (much to the Soviet Union’s leader annoyance). Fast forward three decades and Democrat Party leader contender Hillary Clinton rephrased it to “Distrust and verify.”

Choose your preferred phrase.

Where will we be a year hence?

United wishes and good will cannot overcome brute facts. Truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it. Ignorance may deride it. Malice may distort it. But there it is.
—Sir Winston Churchill (from his war memoirs)

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Shared Vision: Do Others See What You See?

March 4, 2018


When we talk about shared vision, we don’t mean an idea. Instead, we’re referring to a force that is in people’s hearts. Peter Senge states: “When people truly share a vision they are connected, bound together by a common aspiration. Personal visions derive their power from an individual’s deep caring for the vision.”

Shared vision is an essential component of a learning organization because it provides the focus and energy for learning. The underlying force is the desire by people to create and accomplish something. And the bedrock, as Senge calls it, for developing shared visions is personal mastery.

Shared vision emerges from personal visions, and this is how energy is formed and commitment created. Managers must therefore walk a fine line when they express their own visions. To master the discipline of building shared vision requires that managers understand that visions are not announced from the top or that they come from strategic planning processes.

The traditional approach to creating a vision for the organization has largely failed in most organizations because employees have been unable to connect with the vision developed by management. In other words, the vision that’s communicated to employees has not built on the personal visions of others. They’re not enrolled in the vision. The consequence has typically been apathy and a lack of energy on the part of people.

Of course visions can, and indeed should, be conceived by senior managers. But senior management must realize that their vision can’t be considered ‘shared’ until others in the organization feel part of it. Their personal visions must connect with the larger vision.

Vision 2.jpg

Building shared vision requires daily effort by managers. It must be a central part of their work. And they need to remember that the visions they develop are still their personal visions. As Senge asserts: “Just because they occupy a position of leadership does not mean that their personal visions are automatically the organization’s vision.”
Creating shared vision goes hand-in-hand with systems thinking.

The latter enables people to understand what and how the organization has created. Vision portrays what people want to create. Because most managers don’t experience that they’re contributing to their current reality, they have great difficulty in seeing how they can contribute to changing it. They see their problems as being caused by the system or by external factors.

This attitude, as Senge explains, “…can be elusive to pin down because in many organizations the belief ‘We cannot create our own future’ is so threatening that it can never be acknowledged.” To be a good manager (or leader) means that you are in charge of your own future. A manager (or non-manager for that matter) who openly questions the organization’s ability to accomplish what it’s attempting is quickly labeled as being not on board or as rocking the boat. The underlying cause for this occurrence is that organizations tend to be dominated by linear thinkers instead of systems thinkers.

This leads us to the final discipline: team learning. As we’ll see, team learning is all about ‘alignment’ and getting people working in synch with one another. This is where creating shared vision can be a powerful force.

The medium of leadership is the energy of other people.
 –– Dick Richards

Next post: Team Learning

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Mental Models: How Do YOU Perceive the World…and Why?

February 25, 2018

Mental Models

Each of us carries our own sets of assumptions, views and prejudices that affect how we interact with others. While we often attempt to deny certain views or prejudices we hold, it’s difficult to maintain this stance when our actions are not consistent with our words. Chris Argyris explains: “Although people do not always behave congruently with their espoused theories (what they say), they do behave congruently with their theories-in-use (their mental models).”

Our mental models strongly affect what we do because they affect what we see. As Albert Einstein put it: “Our theories determine what we measure.”

From a management perspective, mental models are extremely important because of the associated consequences, whether good or bad. Therefore, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to develop systems thinking if one’s mental models are ingrained in past experiences and beliefs.

For example, how can a manager deal effectively with an interpersonal problem in her work unit if she has certain opinions about an individual?

Or, how can a manager bring his followers on board with a major change in the organization if he’s unwilling to understand the underlying causes for the change and the many interdependencies involved?

To be an effective systems thinker requires the discipline of mental models. These two disciplines fit together naturally. Systems thinking concentrates on how to modify assumptions in order to show the true causes of problems. Mental models, in contrast, look at revealing our hidden assumptions.

For managers, it becomes essential that they take the time to reflect on their existing mental models until their assumptions and beliefs are brought out into the open. Until then, their mental models will not change and it’s pointless to attempt to engage in systems thinking.

To be a successful manager in the 21st century…calls for a new mental model of manager, one suited to a world of chaos.
- Toby Tetenbaum

Next Post: Shared Vision

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Personal Mastery: The Never-Ending Quest for Self-Discovery

February 18, 2018

Personal Mastery.jpg

Personal Mastery is the expression used to describe the discipline of personal growth and learning. People who possess high degrees of personal mastery are continually increasing their abilities to create the results they seek. Their never-ending quests for self-improvement and self-discovery underlie the spirit of organizations that buzz with excitement and creativity.

When we speak of personal mastery, it’s important to be clear that we’re not just referring to skills and competencies. Personal mastery includes spiritual growth and approaching life as a creative work. It means that we continually clarify what’s important to us and continually learn how to see the real world more clearly.

People who possess a high degree of personal mastery share some basic traits.
First, they have a strong sense of purpose that supports their personal visions and goals.

Second, they’re individuals who work with change, not against it.
Third, they feel connected to others and to life itself. And perhaps most importantly, they live in a continual learning mode.

Systems thinking brings out the more subtle aspects of personal mastery; for example, combining reason and intuition, seeing the interconnectedness of events in the world, compassion and commitment to the whole. To embark on a journey of personal growth means that one has made a conscious choice. It’s impossible to force an individual to engage in personal growth. As Peter Senge says, “It is guaranteed to backfire.”

There’s a key lesson here for managers: you can’t push against a string. People must want to change. Managers help create the environment, which includes modelling the desired behaviours.

Managers must work daily at creating a climate that promotes personal mastery. They must, above all, establish an environment in which people feel safe to create their personal visions, where they can challenge the status quo, and where inquiry and commitment to the truth are the norm.

If managers live this on a daily basis, personal mastery will be strengthened in two major ways. First, it will reinforce the notion that personal growth is indeed truly valued in the organization. And second, it will provide a sort of on-the-job-training, an essential part of personal mastery. The manager who is serious about her own quest for personal growth will send a powerful message to her followers.

Think about learning plans, a concept that many public and private organizations have adopted in recent years. Unfortunately, in many cases learning plans are done TO employees instead of WITH them. People thrive when they’re given the chance to empower themselves; when they’re controlled they shrivel up in spirit and performance.

Last, personal mastery is seen as one of the two individual disciplines. The other one is mental models. However, it’s important to remember that the five disciplines are interrelated. In the case of mental models, they’re also intertwined with systems thinking because they deal with how we view the world.
People don’t grow old. When they stop growing, they become old. —Anonymous

Next Post: Mental Models

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Systems Thinking: Can You See the Big Picture?

February 11, 2018

Systems 2

Last week, I kicked off a six part series on how the five learning disciplines help us become better leaders. Today, we’ll look at the cornerstone of the learning disciplines.

Systems thinking deals with seeing wholes, or what some would say the big picture. It’s a discipline that enables us to see interrelationships and patterns of change, as opposed to snapshots of situations. It helps us to determine cause and effect, an important point because it’s never influenced in just one direction.

An important element of systems thinking is that of feedback and the role it plays in cause and effect. There are two types of feedback processes: reinforcing and balancing. An example of reinforcing feedback is a manager who does not fully appreciate the impact her expectations have on an employee’s performance. If she believes that the employee has potential, she’ll give him extra attention. In contrast, if she believes that an employee will be a poor performer, he’ll receive less attention.

This type of behaviour by a manager produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the first example, the employee will grow and develop, while in the second he’ll languish. In the latter example, a downward spiral can actually begin, one in which the interaction between the manager and the employee deteriorates, the consequence of mutual diminishing expectations.

The second type of feedback is balancing. These processes abound in organizations and are difficult to address. For example, we’re all familiar with the heroes who work long hours. They often complain about having to work on weekends. And it’s often these people who advance in the organization because working long hours is considered a virtue and an informal requirement to advancement.

Some organizations have attempted to eliminate this practice using formal communication. However, what they have found is that despite the official line from the CEO and other senior managers, the informal rule is that working long hours is still valued. Staff see management doing it, so it must be right.

Systems 1.jpg

When managers attempt to implement a change, they often find themselves caught in a balancing process. They’re surprised to discover resistance by staff. Managers must therefore model what it is they’re advocating. In the case of discouraging staff from working long hours, managers must practice what they’re preaching. As Senge states: “Whenever there is resistance to change, you can count on there being one or more hidden balancing processes.”

These norms, in fact, are embedded in the power relationships in the organization. The challenge facing managers is to be able to identify the source of the resistance and to focus on these norms and power relationships. Pushing harder against the resistance is futile because it only strengthens it further.

In a true learning organization, managers come to understand the need to see the whole and the interrelationships that make an organization what it is. They are then functioning as systems thinkers. Senge sees systems thinking as an art, in which the individual is able to see through complex issues to the underlying forces. Mastering systems thinking means “…seeing patterns where others only see events and forces to react to. Seeing the forest as well as the trees is a fundamental problem that plagues all firms.”

Senge speaks of what he calls The Primacy of the Whole. This refers to the concept that relationships are more fundamental than things, and that wholes are of a higher order than parts. Managers are conditioned to see their organizations as “… things rather than as patterns of interaction.” They look for solutions that will ‘fix’ problems, instead of searching out the underlying causes. The consequence is the “… endless spiral of superficial quick fixes, worsening difficulties in the long run and an ever-deepening sense of powerlessness.”

While organizations learn through their people, this does not guarantee that organizational learning will result. This takes us to Senge’s second discipline: Personal Mastery.

Over the next few days think about Systems Thinking. Have you been part of the quick fix? What was the result or effect? Is there a sense of powerlessness among your co-workers?
The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained. (David Bohm)

Next post: Personal Mastery

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The Five Learning Disciplines: How They Help Us Become Better Leaders

February 4, 2018

Learning Disciplines

This is the first of a six-part series on the Five Learning Disciplines, based on Peter Senge’s phenomenally successful The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (1990). Viewed as the seminal book on the learning organization concept, as well as one of the 20th Century’s most important management books, Senge lays the foundation from which organizations have the opportunity to grow and prosper. He states upfront that he assumes no credit for inventing the five disciplines; they’re the product of the work done by scores of people over many years. Senge has devoted, however, most of his career to studying these disciplines.

Senge is the Director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School for Management and the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning. He has introduced his work to tens of thousands of managers in dozens of organizations throughout North America and Europe. He continues to be seen as one of the world’s leading thinkers on organizational learning.

Before delving into the five disciplines and what they mean for learning and leadership in organizations, let’s begin with a look at the Seven Learning Disabilities. Understanding what these disabilities represent, and the impact they have on how organizations function, is critical to developing a more complete picture of how people collectively learn in organizations.

The 7 Learning Disabilities

Most organizations, not surprisingly, have difficulty learning when viewed as a collective of people. To address this problem we first need to identify what’s called the Seven Learning Disabilities. After each description of a disability, a few thoughts and questions are included for your reflection.

1. I am my position. 
Because we’re expected to be loyal to our jobs, we tend to confuse them with our own identities. As Senge explains: “When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact.”

Try this little experiment: the next time you meet someone for the first time (e.g, on an airplane, at a party or a social function), ask them what they do. Listen carefully. Does the person talk about their corporate position and how important their work is? Or do they talk about family or a passion, such as music or photography? You’ll learn a lot about this individual just from their response.

2. The Enemy is Out There. 
We have a tendency to blame others when something goes wrong, whether it’s another unit in the organization, a community board of directors, or a competitor company. Pay attention to what YOU say during times of trouble. Effective leaders don’t finger-point; they solve problems. How often have you been caught in this learning disability.

3. The Illusion of Taking Charge. 
We hear all too often that we must be pro-active, taking action to make something happen. However, pro-activeness can really be reactiveness in disguise. True pro-activeness comes from our ability to see how we contribute to our own problems. In essence, it’s the outcome of how we think, not how we react emotionally.

Are you engaged in “busyness” or in moving forward in a strategic way for the betterment of your organization? If you’re in a managerial position, are you really in charge? Who are the real leaders in your organization?

4. The Fixation on Events. 
The ongoing discussions and conversations in organizations focus typically on events, those “urgent” day-to-day issues that grab our attention. But the real threats to our survival are not events but rather the slow, gradual processes that creep up on us. We need to move away from short-term thinking to long-term thinking.

Take time to periodically reflect from where you’ve come and how you got there. Do you see a pattern? Is your thinking locked into the daily grind? What do you need to do to integrate events into a big picture perspective?

5. The Boiled Frog. 
This parable states that if you place a frog in boiling water it will hop out immediately. If you place it in cool water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog will remain in the pot, growing groggier until it cooks to death. What we learn from this parable is that if we wish to see the slow, gradual processes, we must slow down and pay attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic.

How are you coping in a frenetically-charged world? Do you take time out to do some personal reflection and thinking? Are you able to see the gradual, long-term trends?

6. The Delusion of Learning from Experience. 
We learn best from direct experience. In organizations, however, we usually don’t experience directly the consequences of our decisions. A major underlying reason for this is the functional silos that exist. These silos impede the flow of communication among people. The organization’s ability to analyze complex problems is subsequently greatly weakened.

How often (and how long) have you been in this environment? What can you do to help move your organization off this track?

7. The Myth of the Management Team. 
This reflects the desire for management to appear as a cohesive group that’s pulling in the same direction. The reality is that in most management ‘teams’ the need to uphold their image means that dissent is frowned upon and that joint decisions are ‘watered-down compromises.’ As Harvard’s Chris Argyris has discovered through his research (and referred to frequently by Senge), most organizations reward those who promote senior management’s views. Those who pose probing questions or who rock the boat are penalized.

What is your corporate culture?

Are you and others (including senior managers) operating in a compliance mindset?

What will be the ultimate effect on the organization’s performance and longevity? Do you wish to be part of this culture?

This brief look at the seven learning disabilities helps set the context for an exploration of the five disciplines. One key point needing emphasis is that these disciplines are all interrelated. They do not stand independently. And this is the beauty of understanding the five disciplines: because they are interrelated, they help us make sense of the complexities and turbulence inside and outside our organizations.

Our starting point is what Senge calls the cornerstone of the five disciplines: systems thinking. It underlies the other four disciplines: personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning.

To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner. You never arrive. The more you learn, the more acutely aware you become of your ignorance.
— Peter Senge

Next post: Systems Thinking

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