On Doing Things Well

My business partner, Kristin Cobble, is a Peter Senge disciple, and we’ve been having good conversations over the past few weeks about learning organizations. In the course of these discussions, I was reminded of a huge pet peeve of mine. I hate it when people say things like:

“We’re not collaborating.”

“That’s not a network.”

“We’re not a learning organization.”

when what they actually mean is:

“We’re not collaborating well.”

“That’s not an effective network.”

“We’re not an effective learning organization.”

I’m not just being pedantic. Not only does the qualifier matters, it’s the question that most of us actually care about.

Let’s take learning organizations as an example. Senge defines learning organizations as organizations that are continually expanding their capacity to create their desired futures. (This is almost identical to Doug Engelbart’s definition of organizations that are collectively intelligent.)

By this definition, any organization that is profitable is a learning organization, because more money generally increases the capacity of most groups to create their desired futures. Of course, this is not what most people actually mean when they talk about learning organizations. It’s not because it’s wrong. It’s because what we really care about is what makes organizations effective at learning. Profitably can indicate effectiveness, but it is not the defining factor.

Treating things like learning and collaboration as a continuum rather than as a binary acknowledges what you are already doing and supports you in building on that, rather than assuming (usually incorrectly) that you’re not doing it in the first place. It also gets you out of the mindset of trying to follow someone else’s predefined template. In other words, it puts the emphasis on the verb (to learn, to collaborate) rather than the noun.

Senge’s attributes for learning organizations are great, and I refer to them all the time. But when people ask me about what it means to be a learning organization, I turn the questions back to them:

  • What does it mean for you, individually, to learn?
  • What’s an example of something you’ve learned well?  What enabled you to learn that effectively?
  • What’s an example of something your organization has learned? What enabled it to learn? How could you create conditions that would enable your organization to learn more effectively?

Simply taking the time to explore these kinds of questions together is the first step toward making any group effective at learning.