In the LOs Model, created and researched by implementing systems thinking approach, nine organizational systems affect learning. Communication is the most important system that has the greatest impact on learning. The other three systems which have very serious effect on learning are leadership and management, vision and strategy and performance management. Let’s overview leadership and management in LOs, and especially discuss why and how leaders should practice systems thinking.
Leaders and Leadership in LOs
The leadership practices of the three types of leaders that are executive leaders, local line leaders and internal networkers play a critical role in supporting learning. The leaders in LOs are actually leaders of learning because they are designers and stewards of learning.
Executive leaders understand that change is learning and learning is change, so they support the building of learning infrastructures and model the step-by-step process of developing the norms and behaviours of learning culture. In recent years, the foundation of Corporate Universities and Academies of many companies are very good examples for the support of executive leaders and their efforts to create learning culture. I have personally witnessed the genuine dedication of top executive leaders and their support in the foundation of a very successful Corporate Academy. Moreover, the support of the executive leaders has continued so that the Academy has won many awards.
Local leaders are actually the first line managers. The most important role of local line leaders is to design practical learning processes and to lead their realization. After establishing the learning processes, local line leaders should play the role of trainers because they are better than professional trainers since they have trustworthiness coming from their practical knowledge and experience. They can experiment if new learning capabilities result in improved business outcomes. Committed local line leaders are needed since important progresses cannot be made without them. That is why nowadays, first line managers are trained as coaches and mentors. They master skills which can help them to understand the training needs of their teams and skills that can help them to develop people.
Internal networkers or community builders are employees who are all over the organization, and they support organizational experiments and diffusion of new learning. They can function as project managers, co-facilitators, learning historians, and as employees who bring together like-minded people. The most significant feature of internal networkers is that they figure out and comprehend the informal networks that expand information and innovative practices. Internal networkers are effective because they are accepted as trustworthy, knowledgeable, and committed employees who are not a threat to other people in the company. Although they do not possess any positional authority, they are successful. The power of their beliefs and the clarity of their ideas are the origin of the only authority they have. Their main limitation is that they can do little to oppose hierarchical authority, and they have no power to alter organizational structures or processes. Despite the fact internal networkers are needed in organizations, they will be beneficial only if they are in strong cooperation with line and executive leaders. In fact, community networkers can build learning communities that can energize learning and spark creative inspiration and innovation. I think that it is time to support internal networkers who can be very successful advocates of learning.
Management practices in LOs
Management practices in LOs are radically different from the ones in traditional hierarchical organizations. They are based on leaders’ and managers’ continuous learning instead of relying on past experiences. Management practices in LOs aim to encourage, recognize and reward managers and leaders whose behaviours reflect five dimensions that are openness, sense of efficacy, empathy, creativity andsystems thinking.
Openness means that organizations, leaders and managers have to be open to all possibilities in order to figure out tendencies and create choices. This is needed for learning to happen. Managers have to want to give up control that means dealing with details. Focusing on details restricts potential learning. The most important remark that has to be made is that micromanagement and the need of detailed information can be substituted with the need for common and shared values. Managers must understand that their own values and experiences are not superior to the values and experiences of their teams. For learning, understanding cultural diversity and possessing cultural tolerance and even humility are very essential.
A sense of personal efficacy is a feature of leaders and managers in LOs. They are actively self-aware and proactive problem solvers. Also, they believe that they can and should learn to significantly influence their world. Nowadays, many of the managers know their values and goals, yet they do not know, or they do not get feedback from others about the effect of their behaviours. Self-awareness from reflective introspection is not true. For learning, managers have to find information about the impact of their behaviours on others. Shortly, the personal efficacy of leaders should be evaluated and various types of feedback should be given.
Empathy is essential characteristic of leaders and managers in LOs. They have to be sensitive and concerned for human nature. Besides, they must be interested and skilled in repairing strained relationships. Learning empathy is used in repairing relationships. Repair skills are implemented in resolving breakdowns in communication. In conflicting situations, leaders and managers have to remember their responsibility to repair relationships and use empathetic skills like taking the other individual’s perspective, or looking for the new and different dimensions of the other individual and the situation.
Personal flexibility and risk taking, the two aspects of creativity are essential for learning. Tolerance for ambiguity is also needed, but personal flexibility is the main one. It is an ability of leaders to modify their behaviours according to the current realities. Some leaders and managers may be afraid of taking risks because risks can lead to failure. Moreover, they may avoid learning since most of the time learning may result in failure as well. However, some leaders rather than concentrating on the accuracy of their functions may want to take risks and be creative. The current business world requires leaders to be flexible and to take risks to approach and solve problems in different ways. They know that they can fail productively, and they also know that failure is a learning that can later lead to further creativity.
The last leadership practice is systems thinking. Systems thinking is the most important discipline in Peter Senge’s Learning Organization Theory. The discipline of systems thinking is useful for seeing and understanding wholes, interrelations and change patterns. Systems thinking is a set of principles taken from physical and social sciences, engineering, and management, and a set of tools and techniques borrowed from “feedback” concepts of cybernetics and “servo-mechanism” engineering theory. In the modern world, there is enormous amount of complexity because of information overload and accelerated change. There are also issues such as global warming, ozone depletion and international drug trade. All of them are examples of “systematic breakdowns” created from the unmanageable complexity.
Why should Leaders practice Systems Thinking?
They should practice systems thinking because of organizations breakdowns, which result from not being able to utilize the diverse organizational functions for generating innovative products or services; and also not being able to utilize the diverse talents of employees into a productive whole.
“Coming out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes – and facing a new normal that is distinctly different – it is remarkable that CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future,” said Frank Kern, senior vice president, IBM Global Business Services “But step back and think about it, and this is entirely consistent with the other top finding in our Study – that the biggest challenge facing enterprises from here on will be the accelerating complexity and the velocity of a world that is operating as a massively interconnected system.“
How should leaders practice systems thinking?
1. By understanding the levels and causes of organizational complexity:
In organizational context, there are four levels of organizational experience that are interconnected and cause complexity. The first level is the external world. This is environment, competitors, and customers. The second one is the organization’s and managers’ own actions such as strategies, management practices, policies and procedures. The third level is the organization’s and manager’s own problem-identification, problem definition, and problem solving processes like culture, expertise, and functional orientation just to name but few. The last level is organizational consciousness that is the experience of all of the above. Leaders in any organization are engaged in the four levels of experience. They are also engaged in maintenance learning that is needed in handling predictable everyday events. This is possible only if the internal and the external environments are unchanging.
2. By managing anticipative and participative learning:
Now, change is continuous, and that is why maintenance learning should be replaced by innovative learning that has two types anticipative learning and participative learning. Leaders should manage anticipative learning by helping employees and the organization to forecast future needs and events. They should provide the conditions for employees to work together, participate in dialogues, and empathise with each other so that participative learning can happen.In participative learning, employees question assumptions, find out the activities that are not productive, and cease doing them, so they make product and service improvements and innovations.
3. By realizing that they are not helpless reactors but anticipative participants:
A shift of mind by practising systems thinking will help leaders to understand complex situations and realize that they are not helpless reactors to the present but active participants in shaping the reality and creating the future.They also have to grasp the idea that doing the obvious things does not result in obvious and desired outcomes. They can achieve this by practising systems thinking and learning that in detail complexity there are many variables.
4. By managing dynamic complexity:
In dynamic complexity cause and effect are subtle, and the effects of interventions are not obvious. Dealing with dynamic complexity is impossible because management tools are not designed for this. On the other hand, the real leverage or the most effective action in most leadership situations is comprehending dynamic complexity, not detail one. Many of the business activities are dynamic in nature for instance balancing market growth and capacity expansion, improving quality and satisfying customers. Dynamic complexity can be managed by seeing the major interrelationships underlying a problem. Shift in mind is the gist of systems thinking, and it is seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains and seeing process of change rather than snapshots.
5. By understanding “feedback”:
The practice of systems thinking starts with the idea of “feedback” that illustrates how actions can reinforce or balance each other. “Feedback” means a reciprocal flow of influence. In systems thinking every influence is both cause and effect.As a result, for each situation a systems diagram with feedback loops may be drawn. Reinforcing and balancing feedback and delays are the crucial elements of systems thinking.
6. By managing reinforcing feedback system:
In reinforcing feedback system, small actions can grow into large consequences without being noticed. Being able to see this system may help leaders to influence how it works. For instance, in human resources management, managers cannot figure out that their own expectations affect subordinates performance. When there is an employee with a high potential, a manager gives special attention to develop that potential. The employee is successful and the manager helps him/her further. On the contrary, a manager views an employee as not very capable and does not support him/her. The employee’s performance becomes even worse and the manager’s attention decreases even more.
7. By managing balancing feedback system:
In a balancing process, sources of stability and resistance are discovered. A balancing system is a system, which is seeking stability. In nature and in business, balancing feedback systems are very common. Management of the balancing process is very hard because goals are implicit. This can be illustrated by discussing a case. A manager in quickly growing training business tried to reduce burnout among professionals by writing memos and shortening working hours. All these measures were to stop overworking. However, he was not successful because employees ignored the memos, and they continued to work at home. The real reason for this failure was the manager himself who set an unwritten norm of working seventy hours per week. Consequently, the employees worked like him because hard work was the key for promotion. This balancing process with its implicit goal and norm generated problematic behaviours. In comparison with reinforcing loops, balancing ones are more difficult to see since they are hidden, and it looks like nothing is happening.
8. By understanding delays:
Systems also have delays, which are interruptions between leaders’ actions and their consequences. For example, delay occurs when leaders invest money in a new project, and it is known that it will pay off after a period of time. In all feedback processes, there are delays, which are either unrecognised or not well understood.Systems thinking is related with the long-term view, so delays and feedback loops are very significant. In the short term, they can be overlooked because they are not consequential. However, in the long term they occur and cause problems.
In conclusion, practising systems thinking is focusing on the whole instead of its parts. It is an ability to understand the relationships, effects and delays among information, problems, people, events, departments and systems. Leaders should practice systems thinking and encourage their followers to practice it as well because only through systems thinking collective learning can occur. Shortly, systems thinking is a powerful tool for creative problem solving and innovation.
Source: Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the LearningOrganization, USA: Currency Doubleday, 1ed, 1994
(Posted also on LinkedIn Pulse)