Objections to Learning Organization LO24119

From: Jan Lelie (janlelie@wxs.nl)
Date: 03/06/00

Replying to LO24098 --

Dear Sandy and all fellow miners for truth and delusion,

Thank you for adding your clear, valuable insights. I see no need to add
anything to it and the following is merely the way i digest your ideas.
Just chewing before swallowing.

The first thing that springs to my mind, is the warning i got from a
former colleague and friend: "Jan, watch out, you're able to expose the
incompetence of an incompetent middle-managers within half an hour, just
by doing nothing special". I do not mind incompetence - everybody is
incompetent - i hate covering it up.

To rephrase the objection: "the surfacing of, the need to acknowledge,
skilled incompetence is one of the objections to Organizational Learning".

One way to skillfully object is to point out the impracticality of a
Learning Organization. Another one would be to state that it is a belief,
that it is a circle of believers. Another one would be the Red Queen's
argument in Alice's Through the Looking Glass: "Now, here, you see, it
takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place". (Italics
with here and second you by Lewis Carroll). There is no way to argue that
she is running competentely fast (or that he is working hard) and staying
in the same place, so it would seem to require to run even faster.

Another way to prevent this surfacing of skilled incompetence skillfully
might be by allowing one's team to enjoy the fun of a metaphorical
situation - for instance a team building exercise - under the authority of
a skillful consultant. This is acceptable - and fun - because we live in a
metaphorical, a storied, world and a situation away from the working
situation feels - at the start - free and safe. Like reading a new novel.
(Now, why would we call a story a novel?).

However, on reflecting on a situation that differs from a working
situation, participants can choose whether to discuss their views on the
working situation or not. They're offered an escape. And if somebody
chooses to do so, he or she has to map the training situation onto the
working situation - and to address the (perhaps negatively labeled)
emotions of a working situation in the safe (and rather tensionless)
training situation.

Mapping requires an effort of imagination ("searching for materials to
build the raft made me think of they way we deal with our suppliers"),
which can be become a point for discussion as other people find it hard to
imagine something. The mapping can become a point of discussion with the
other participants when they do not want to address the working situation
("you can not generalize from building a raft to negotiating with
suppliers"). And the mapping lacks generalization ("well, we do not have
to search for all materials, some suppliers just keep on offering their
trades"), so the conclusion would also require "hinein interpretieren".
Skillfully incompetence at work. Would the trainer, coach, consultant or
facilitator be able to compensate these arguments or allow the dialogue to
continue, then he or she runs the risk of being outflanked by his or hers
missing knowledge of the working situation ("you do not know what it is
like to negotiate with our suppliers"), or by a counter example to a
generalization or what ever.

Some years ago i played a series of logistical board games for people to
gain insight in improvements for their situation. We invited the people
(engineers, buyers, planners, foremen) related to the same productgroup to
play this game (called "Jitopia"). After playing the game we took three to
four hours to reflect back and connect with the actual working situation.
The game proved to be just the starting point of the remarks and soon we
were back in "current reality". I still remember that when we played the
same game with the responsible managers (engineering, purchasing.
logistics, production, human resources, general manager), we had lots of
trouble to discuss the game and the mapping to the actual situation. We
never came close to resolve the issues.

Sandy Wells wrote:

> When I first started my OD practice, I utilized a good deal of the
> experiential exercises to try to "unfreeze" my clients to try to create a
> metaphorical situation whereby the client would be able to come to their
> own "aha." Time consuming and often, some would get the "aha" and others
> were still lost in the wilderness.
> I have come now to the belief that the process must be expedited through
> analysis of the real work situation (as in action research and action
> learning) because the metaphorical situations never really linked the
> emotional vesting that folks have in their work situations. And, I have
> come to absolutely agree with those "grandparents" of OD, Blake & Mouton,
> that most folks don't have the skills to effectively deal with their work
> situations to solve conflict and engage in productive critique. Note, not
> that they don't have the desire, motivation, whatever, to deal with
> talking about their work situations--but that they are practicing what
> Argyris called (later) "skilled incompetence."

Yep, I agree. It is also a self-reinforcing, self-sealing process. I have
even seen it with very competent change consultants from a big consulting
firm. Beings unable to effectively deal with the equivocality in their
own work situations being unable to deal with changing the equivocality in
the work situations of others. Whatever you do, do not mention
incompetence with them. I once did and got away with it. I was lucky.

> Ergo, I have been focusing my Org Dev work on skill development (not a la
> communications skills classes, by the way, but through a learning
> laboratory format) to create the internal expertise to deal with real work
> problems and start the process of true dialogue that can be characterized
> by candor, trust, and reflection. By building the internal capability,
> one can then more successfully deal with the real life situation.
> My guess is that your interventions may look a lot like the ones I design!

I do not know your designs. My design rules are something like:

1. The intervention has to be congruent, of the same shape, as the desired
end situation. So i usually hesitate with starting separate project groups
with working groups, because in the end, people will have to work in a
kind of continous flow, a staff organization. I even wouldn't hire
outside consultants to "do" things in change processes, from designing and
implementing work processes to interim management ("interim management" to
bridge the gap from one to another managerial person is alright), unless
the organization will have to work with outside consultants in the long

2. Also, i think, the project owner is the problem owner is the person
responsible for the results from the tasks. He or she usually is too
little or too less empowered for the responsibilities and tasks and needs
support in interventions with his team ot the team he or she is a member

3. Make mistakes, try-out new things, show you're incompetence (do you
really think my English is this bad? %-D...) This relates to a funny
story: I gave this advice - make a mistake - to a competent woman who was
about to support the start of a change process, and she wouldn't do it.
She was perfect, she wanted to be perfect and yet, after a few months it
turned out that she had really made a mistake: the group didn't change and
blamed her.

4. Be aware of your own preferences ("Did i talk too much?" I once asked
the guy assisting me. "No," he answered, "talking was all you did").

Better draw a line now,

Kind regards,

Jan Lelie

Drs J.C. Lelie CPIM (Jan)
LOGISENS  - Sparring Partner in Logistical Development
Mind@Work - est. 1998 - Group Decision Process Support
Tel.: (+ 31) (0)70 3243475 or car: (+ 31)(0)65 4685114
http://www.mindatwork.nl and/or
taoSystems: + 31 (0)30 6377973 - Mindatwork@taoNet.nl

Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <rkarash@karash.com> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <http://www.learning-org.com>

"Learning-org" and the format of our message identifiers (LO1234, etc.) are trademarks of Richard Karash.