Become a Learning Organization, Not a Copycat

January 23, 2013

It’s not uncommon that companies copy tools and techniques used by other companies, hoping to duplicate the other company’s results that they have observed or learned about. Unfortunately, this copying is too superficial to provide transformational results. Something is left behind.

When it comes to agility, it is more accurate to say that there are interrelated somethings that are left behind. And those are the key leverage point: the mindset and behaviors of being agile.

Our behaviors are driven by our beliefs and values – our mindset – that Dan Mezick has articulated very nicely in his book The Culture Game: Tools for the Agile Manager. (Read more about the Results Pyramid in my post, Adopting Agile: Seeing is Believing.) As I stated in the close of my last post, transitioning to being agile places a focus on changing existing patterns of thinking and behavior that, little by little, change an organization’s culture.

An example of “agile copying” is implementing Scrum, adopting all the rituals, terms and artifacts such as daily stand-ups, burn-down charts and visible task boards, but using sprints as a series of mini-waterfall projects. In this scenario, superficially copying Scrum hasn’t allowed the team to let go of its current way of working, denying the team the real benefits of agile that are possible through an actual transformation.

We’re very used to process discipline, courtesy of the prevalent Control culture. Supporting agile – really supporting it – requires that we develop learning organizations. This challenges Control culture thinking because a learning organization is not a destination; it is a state of being. Learning and improving becomes a continuous activity of the organization and its people.

The people in a learning organization have certain qualities, as pointed out by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. The key attribute of people in a learning organization is that people are seeking personal mastery – striving for a “special level of proficiency.”

These people are inquisitive, committed to continually seeing reality more accurately. And in doing so, they regard themselves as part of a larger creative endeavor, where they can exert influence but not control. And just like the organizations never “arrive,” people with a high level of personal mastery never feel that they “arrive,” either. They are in a continual learning mode.

To foster a learning organization it is critical that management support learning by facilitating ways to spread knowledge laterally. Toyota calls this yokoten. And one of their ground rules is that the person who has learned something new or has discovered a way to improve a practice is responsible for sharing this knowledge.

There should be limited amount of knowledge-sharing via the command hierarchy and institutionalizing learning by capturing “knowledge” in processes or even “best” practices. What is best in an organization where continuous learning and improvement is the norm? Best is only the best for a moment in time, and perhaps only really best for a specific situation, not a universal truth that should be applied in every circumstance until someone can prove that another practice is truly better, and then forced to gain approval to implement it as a new “best” practice.

Organizations only learn through individuals. However, individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning – there can be organizational barriers that prevent this from happening. But the foundation of organizational learning is with the individuals that comprise the organization. Without individuals learning and sharing what they learn, the organization learns nothing at all.

12 comments

Alex Aidar said...

Once again great article. Adopting a methodology with all of its bells and whistles without taking into consideration the needs and culture of the organisation is a recipe for failure.

I believe that methodologies, and anything else that we do in the process of carrying out business activities, need to be adapted to the organisation and/or the project at hand.

January 28, 2013 at 12:56 AM
allan kelly said...

Its great to see more people in the Agile community coming round to the "Learning Organization" point of view. For me the essence of successful Agile is Learning and Changing - in a positive way. Real Learning implies Change (otherwise its just information or noise) and Change should lead to Learning. Unfortunately in some places this cycle is negative cycle not a positive so people learn to become more cautious and risk averse.

I could go on and on but I'd only repeat myself, I wrote a whole book on this a couple of years back, "Changing Software Development: Learning to be Agile"

allan

January 28, 2013 at 5:53 AM
Dave Moran said...

@Alex,

Thank you once again! It's always great to get positive feedback. I agree with you, each organization is unique in its own way, and we need to keep that in mind with everything that we do.

January 29, 2013 at 8:42 AM
Dave Moran said...

@Allan,

I agree with you completely. In fact, I read your book a couple of years back and I really enjoyed it. It influenced my thinking, and I have say I am of the same opinion. An organizations can't be an agile organization without being a learning organization. I just grabbed your book off of my bookshelf, I'll take a quick spin through as a refresher...

January 29, 2013 at 8:54 AM
Scott M. Greer said...

Guess, using technology nowadays is the "new trend" in businesses. You know, because of the continuous technological evolution happening, it isn't impossible to let the entrepreneurs use and devise a better methodology of whatever tools their competitors have.

March 13, 2013 at 4:53 PM
Maddison Wade said...

There should always be a learning process, even an organization that is on the top can make mistakes. A good organization learns from their mistakes and turns it to positive.

April 3, 2013 at 8:57 AM
Dave Moran said...

@Scott -- Technology doesn't always solve all of your problems, does it?

April 17, 2013 at 7:46 AM
Dave Moran said...

@Maddison -- Agreed. And we tend to spend a lot of time and energy attempting to avoid even simple mistakes that actually prevents us from true learning.

April 17, 2013 at 7:48 AM
Howard Quinn said...

There's one problem in the marketing sector. Once a campaign starts raking in the goods, every other band starts jumping on the bandwagon. It should be emphasized that there is a serious need to be unique in the industry. You can't just go sell a type of office chair just because every other store is selling it, too; you have to innovate.

June 17, 2013 at 8:19 PM
Chris Kelly said...

That's the main point of true business growth. You have to learn from your experience with your daily transactions, but not necessarily copying what your competitors are doing.

June 21, 2013 at 6:11 PM
LaWFulEviL said...

I think one great example of that is companies using "i" in front of every product ever since iPhone.

January 3, 2014 at 2:26 PM
Dave Moran said...

Yes, just like variants of the Nike swoosh started showing up in logo designs...

January 14, 2014 at 7:21 AM

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