When the Rate of Change Exceeds the Rate of Learning

In an executive program we were talking about the deep change or slow death dilemma, and how organizations begin to break down. Things grow worse as leaders fail to lead and the people begin to lose faith in the collective good. Eventually the decline reaches a tipping point and hope for the future dies. At that point everyone begins to pursue their own personal good. There is still a building and people still sit in their cubicles but there is no collaborative organization, just a collection of self-interested people pursuing their own agendas.

Often this discussion makes it possible for participants to explore things they normally do not discuss. In a recent episode this happened and we engaged in an authentic and probing examination of failure patterns in a given organization. As we were closing the intense discussion, I asked what drives the slow death process. A participant responded, “The rate of change exceeds the rate of learning.”

This simple sentence says so much. Hierarchies tend to be knowing organizations not learning organizations. Managers tend to be expert problem solvers not masterful facilitators of the collective leaning. While external change is intensifying at an exponential rate, individual and organizational learning are constrained. We sense that as individuals we do not understand what is going on around us. We sense that many governments, businesses and other organizations are floundering. We fear catastrophic possibilities.

The discussion led us to search for a solution. We could find only one, leaders who are willing to sacrifice for the common good. I asked if any of them ever had a boss who chose personal good over the common good. Many hands went up. I asked them to identify their first reactions. We concluded that the response is always some form of withdrawal. We reduce our commitment. A participant spoke up and said to an imaginary boss, “It is difficult for me to care more than you care.”

A positive organization is an organization of learning. It is make possible by genuine, shared commitment. Leadership begins with commitment to the common good and inspires such commitment from everyone.

 

Reflection

  • If the rate of change exceeds the rate of learning, what will happen?
  • Why is it difficult for employees to care more than the boss cares?
  • What is moral leadership and what does it have to do with organizational learning and performance?
  • How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?
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