Learning to Deal with the Inevitable

On Reconnaissance, Józef Brandt, 1876


My last post, “Barriers to Innovation”, began with a question. Is innovation inevitable? By the end of the post, that question had changed. Is innovation inevitable for your organization? Tom Cagley left a comment suggesting another change:

Think about changing the question again. “Is innovation inevitable?” might be better stated as “Is change inevitable?” The answer to the latter question is yes but no to the former. Change and innovation do not have the same thing.

Tom’s comment was, of course, right on the money. Change is inevitable and while all innovation is change, not all change is innovation. Scott Berkun’s definition of innovation is still my favorite:

If you must use the word, here is the best definition: Innovation is significant positive change. It’s a result. It’s an outcome. It’s something you work towards achieving on a project. If you are successful at solving important problems, peers you respect will call your work innovative and you an innovator. Let them choose the word.

Change, however, is not guaranteed to be either significant or positive. It will, however, be. It may be unwanted, it may be denied, but it not will be avoided. Organizations, like organisms, demonstrate their fitness for purpose via adapting to change. Organizations, like organisms, die when their ecosystems change around them and they fail to follow suit. Research in Motion, who quickly went from leader to laggard in the mobile communication space provides a graphic example of this.

Back in March, I noted that I find myself increasingly drawn to exploring the fractal nature of systems, both software and social, and their ecosystems. Understanding the social systems that make up the ecosystem of a software system is, in my opinion, key to getting and keeping the best possible fitness for purpose. Technology cannot help an organization when its structure and processes are working at cross purposes. Chasing these fractals to their logical end, we move from within the bounds of the organization out into its ecosystem. This is the level that Tom Graves refers to as the whole-enterprise, the “bold endeavour”.

This chasing of the fractals to form a mental model of the environment in which you’re operating is also known as situational awareness. Situational awareness is critical to effective sense-making which is critical to effective decision-making. Just as a body of troops with poor situational awareness risks walking into an ambush, an organization with poor situational awareness risks similarly unpleasant surprises (at least figuratively).

To be effective, the sense-making/decision-making process should be a ongoing process. Likewise, it is a process that should span the levels of concern, tactical through strategic, that make up the whole-enterprise architecture. To be effective, the process should yield action, adapting the organization to the changing context, not just insights into the divergence between the organization and its ecosystem. To be effective, you need to be intentional or lucky (and you can only control one of these).

My views regarding this are based on my own experience and what I’ve synthesized over the years from a variety of sources. I was pleased to get some affirmation recently while attending an event where Professor Edward Hess of the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business discussed his book, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization. His premise was effective learning, something that humans can be really bad at, is key to organizational effectiveness. This view obviously resonates with me (which carries a hint of irony given that he talks about confirmation bias as something that inhibits effective learning – you’ll have to trust me that that’s not the case here).

Because of time constraints, Professor Hess’ talk did not go into the same depth as his book (which I’ve since read and will be referring to in upcoming posts), but some of the key points relevant here were:

  • a learning culture is useful regardless of whether the goal is efficiency or innovation
  • a learning culture is created intentionally
  • candor, facing the “brutal facts” is essential to a learning culture
  • permission to fail and psychological safety does not equate to lack of standards/control, a learning culture takes risk tolerance into account

His most important point is that while it is in our nature to be “suboptimal learners” who let ego and fear get in our way, we can learn to be better learners, both individually and as a group. Diversity, by virtue of bringing multiple mental models to the table, can diminish cognitive blindness (Gooch’s Paradox – “things not only have to be seen to be believed, but also believed to be seen”). By understanding that we are not rational thinkers, we can take measures to avoid the pitfalls of fast thinking.

In a changing world, sitting still can be deadly. Motion, however, provides little benefit if it’s not purposeful and intelligent. A cohesive whole-enterprise with a culture of intentional, effective sense-making and decision-making (learning) is well placed to make better moves in a dynamic world.


9 thoughts on “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable

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