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Collaborative Culture: Peter Senge on the Foundations of Organizational Learning

CHARLOTTE, NC. January 2011, by

On the road to unlocking collaboration, our culture series has taken us through a review of Schein’s many layers, Handy’s four structural models, and Kotter’s eight steps for change – lots of ways to slice and dice the cultural barriers.

To me, it was important progress and worth the deep dive, tapping dozens upon dozens of insightful comments, for which I remain grateful.

Looking back, I’m increasingly convinced:

Cultures can, over time, be intentionally shaped and directed by visionary and resilient leaders. But the complexity of organizations, markets and other social ecosystems invariably worsens with scale, raising the bar for mitigation ever higher.

We need some breakthrough thinking. How can we foster collaboration and cultures that encourage it?

Where do we turn now?

Peter Senge, in his 1990 watershed work The Fifth Discipline (latest ed. 2006), laid an important foundation for Learning Organizations that still resonates today. As we look to frame the core dynamics of effective collaboration and the many challenges of the necessary culture change, I think we need to go back to the source.

While Senge advocated 5 critical disciplines for the modern organization, I struck gold on several foundational takeaways, each resonating with my views on collaborative innovation. Not all of them qualify as ‘disciplines’ as he defined them, but they all seem to have strong relevance to the challenges at hand.

Let’s look at them:

  1. the power of dialog to weave new insights on broader, divergent ways, in his words “open to the flow of a larger intelligence” and “taking us in directions we could never have imagined.” (is it just me, or does that sound a lot like Twitter?)
  2. exposing the vital role of context as the critical lens through which our ideas relate to the world, to each other, and to potential innovations
  3. understanding our social ecosystems, with a nod to “systems thinking”, exposing relationships across parts of the whole; this was an important stake in the ground for interdisciplinary thinking, concepts at the core of the collaborative model and Senge’s view of organizational learning
  4. recognizing that cultures can and must promote learning through deeper inquiry, encouraging us to challenge the rigor of our thinking; ‘critical thinking’ has lost focus in the commercial space and across western society, creating a fundamental problem in education priorities (but that’s another stream!).
  5. harnessing heuristics and paradigms to capture the mental power of abstraction, which he called “mental models;” these help us frame ideas, solutions, and (eco)system relationships in visual, more intuitive terms
  6. importance of the study of nature’s patterns, many holding secrets to how our world and our problems relate, with key messages for ecosystem sustainability and a means to understand complexity around us.

Senge looked to future organizations to master these challenges, becoming increasingly skilled at complex problem solving, and increasingly motivated to take on harder problems, adapting to handle more complex environments and challenges. Successful organizations, he hoped, would demonstrate resilience, and an expanding, repeatable capacity for learning.

Like many visionaries, Senge challenged future leaders to pick up the cause and drive these conceptual ideas into practice. Where are those leaders when we need them?

Some of them may be staring back at us in the mirror.

As we depart from Senge (with much to mull over!) let me direct your attention to the work of Marcia Conner, who has produced a series of books that lay out much of the work ahead in crafting a viable, sustainable learning organization.

Perhaps you’ve connected with her at #lrnchat, on Twitter?

Read up, and listen in.

Ultimately, we must promote cultures that value both learning and collaboration. That’s where innovation and great ideas come from.

We’re at a crossroads, of sorts, and here’s why:

Talking around notions of collaborative cultures is easy, in the same way people banter about collaborative innovation. Small wonder there’s such a buzz about it. But fostering cultures that spawn collaborative behaviors is hard work. I wonder: do we have the resolve to take it on?

Ahead: I’ll provide more specifics on the mechanics of effective collaboration. The journey continues, and we’re picking up the pace.

Here’s some additional dialog just posted on Quora, based on this thread.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Parent Engagement: Exploring Key Roles in the K12 Ecosystem

From my experience, parents want their kids to have a great education, and most are willing to pitch in.

On a good day, it might mean helping them study for a killer algebra test. On a bad day, it’s a more thankless task: helping them reevaluate priorities, prying fingers from the high tech keypads, smartphones and controllers stashed under every pillow.

Education is a complex topic, which deserves and is getting much discussion. But as a parent, I think understanding our stake in the process is an increasingly critical conversation, one that doesn’t always get air time.

I’d like to frame the question like this:

With school districts grappling with troublesome finances and even more troublesome test scores, what roles can and should parents play in the education process?

K12 Education today functions like an ‘ecosystem’. Most of the many interdependent stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, administrators, legislators, policy makers, text book companies) work diligently, but not always in tandem. No one entity has full control of the process. Across the diverse stakeholder groups are multiple, often conflicting objectives. Each depends on the others in the food chain for the system to function, but there is little optimization taking place.

Across the education ecosystem, too often it’s become a challenge of survival.

You may have seen “Waiting for Superman” and learned that across the nation, drop out rates are accelerating. Or maybe you saw “Race to Nowhere” about the pressure schools and parents are together putting on children, and how we must reevaluate how to define success. A more extreme example is the “Parent Trigger” where states allow parent-led coalitions to takeover problem schools.

While education leaders have much to do in sorting this out, parents have an important voice. We often forget that kids acquire language, behavior, and foundational learning skills before they set foot in a public school. Approaches will vary, but parents have the first crack at making learning a priority, and must work ever harder to sustain that. Schools, in turn, must understand what the family is experiencing, to effectively participate in an open collaboration.

Let’s tee up a few discussion topics to help us get at the core challenges of Parent Engagement.

Q1. What is the ideal role of parents in the education process?

Q2. How could we, as parents, help in a meaningful way? Here are some starter ideas, to get you thinking (do these resonate?)

  1. quality time on foundational skills (especially pre-K)
  2. finding creative ways and times to teach (story, play)
  3. fostering respect for knowledge and learning
  4. focus on resilience
  5. focus on mastery (deep learning) over performance (test scores)
  6. focus on critical thinking
  7. making innovation in education a priority

Q3. Who helps parents navigate these challenges, and should schools play a role in supporting them?

Q4. Can parents and teachers find the quality time required?

Education is undergoing some much needed transformation. From multiple sources, we can see innovative schools working diligently on new approaches. But time is short. And that’s an issue on many levels.

I sense that kids today start kindergarten well behind the power curve, leaving parents with few choices and many frustrations, and often no sense of what they could be doing to help.

No silver bullets here. But that’s all the more reason for the conversation.

We’ll tee this up at our weekly #ECOSYS chat on WEDS 1/5 at 9pET. This opens our 2011 Education Topic Agenda, on our wiki, under “T1 Parent Engagement”.

As always, please share your thoughts as comments, I’d love to discuss your perspective.

Catalysts for Social Change: Tapping Christensen’s Insights on Public Education

Thought Leaders, by definition, play a valuable role in helping to shape our perspectives. It’s not that they have all the answers. But they can serve as a catalyst for new thinking. The very best ones will challenge our world view, reframing our old paradigms and giving us new tools to attack long-standing problems.

As Ecosys continues to explore the many challenges of our Education ecosystem, we see value in “checking-in” to those insights.

Our discussions can’t help but be enriched and further informed.

Tonight, WEDS 10/6 at 9pET, we will look to the work of Clay Christensen in “Disrupting Class” (2008) to discuss his deep and thought provoking insights on social innovation, in the specific context of public education.

Click here to join the conversation.

It’s worth noting that Christensen’s heavily circulated work on ‘disruptive innovation’ (which we’ll discuss) is not limited to education, but also areas like healthcare. This is significant, because our foundational ecosys framing shares a similar broad base. The thought process? Large, complex, interdependent ecosystems of people and organizations have trouble working resolving conflict. The larger and more mature the ecosystem, the more deeply the traditional beliefs and paradigms are held. Environments and social realities change, but often, the ‘system’ struggles to keep pace.

We can’t do justice to “Disrupting Class” or disruptive innovation in one 2 hour chat. But let’s try to get our arms around the following main points.

Q1 Learning Intelligences & Custom Learning (ch. 1)

  • Is there consensus on different learning styles & intelligences per Howard Gardner (80’s)?
  • To what degree are the benefits/advantages of custom learning embraced?

Q2 The “Factory Model” of Public Education (ch. 1)

  • Want to discuss foundations of the standards movement in historical context, fueled by rapidly expanding populations. Over the ensuing decades, what has scaled? And what hasn’t?

Q3 Textbooks & the Establishment (ch. 5, 7)

  • It seems important that uncovering prevailing paradigms & understand resistance to change, per Kuhn (60’s)
  • Is there an appetite for evolving how teachers teach (“coaches”, “content architects”), and how students learn?

Q4 Disruptive Innovation (ch. 3, 4)

  • Christensen suggests local innovation focus where there is no prevailing competition. Do his target examples resonate? (Pre-K, home school, tutoring, AP, credit recovery, special needs)
  • Is “student-centered” learning viable and what is the potential of technology to enable this?

Q5 Framing Success (p. 185-190)

  • Engagement is critical, because “where people are plotting change, they are often talking past each other”. Agree? How do we get there?
  • Need common solution language, so we must “negotiate” and use diverse change tools – to coerce, guide & inspire (as appropriate)

Do Christensen’s perspectives resonate with your experience?

We’ll spend 20 minutes framing and discussing each of the above 5 topics tonight, and will capture what can be captured in our wiki. There will certainly be more to come after that.

RESULTS OF THIS CHAT ARE POSTED ON THE ECOSYS WIKI, HERE.

While this is just the inception of our Thought Leader series, you can probably tell from our framing how much work lies ahead.

As always, we’re up to the challenge.

We hope you’ll join our conversation.

Pathways for change in the K12 Ecosystem

It’s easy to toss aside the notion of meaningful social change. For starters, you’d have lots of company. But let’s take a look at an area with mounting problems and the highest of stakes:

Un-packing the Challenges of K12 Education

By any measure, our western culture and economy – and within that universe, our education systems – have grown so large and intertwined that we quickly scoff at the notion of doing something to improve them. Countless well-intended efforts have failed. Or they succeed for a bit locally, but then can’t scale. Frustrations mount. Those inside the hardened silos of our aging institutions are just as trapped by their realities as those on the outside.

It’s not a lack of passion or desire. It’s just that, as a society, we’ve become overwhelmed by ‘the system’. It’s been going on for a long time – by most accounts, over 100 years. Quite simply, it feels like we’ve lost control, and in some important ways, we have.

What if we changed the rules?

The problem with social, cultural and economic forces – the complex result of human interaction – is that the outcomes don’t align with our intentions. Most of us were reared in a simple (linear, Newtonian) world of ’cause and effect’, and we expect a simple answer to every problem.

Why can’t we just fix schools? Or healthcare? Or the economy?

What we’re learning is that complex systems – especially the human variety – work and behave very differently. We must focus on actors, motivators, outcomes and patterns.

We must attack these problems in a different way.

EcoSys is a social innovation group that started in August 2009. The goal of the group has been to apply a new science – the study of complexity in social ecosystems – to the hardened problems we face as a society.

Intriguing? Ambitious? Yes, on both counts. But open your mind for a moment.

Can you imagine the potential of global thought leaders discovering a focused problem-solving dialog, adding to it, and ultimately building a shared knowledge base of solutions?

Can you imagine an objective exchange of ideas and concerns, shared publicly in the spirit of collaboration, subordinating agendas and special interests in favor of meaningful, scalable innovations?

Can you see social media – Twitter, in fact – as an engine for change, with the connections of each contributor serving as pathways to deeper insight and focused action?

That work is underway, and we’ve posted some K12 progress here.

We’ve still got some work to do on it, as we continue to refine our issue framing.

Are you ready to Engage?  Join us each MONDAY at 9pET using hashtag #ecosys. You can use TweetChat  (try this link), TweetDeck, TweetGrid or HootSuite to join us. Just be sure the #ecosys hashtag is in each tweet, and search on that tag.  Bring your insights and an open mind. It’s free, unaffiliated, and destined to make a difference.

How do we know?

Because 3 years in and some +40,000 tweets later, our topics are gaining traction and spontaneous conversations are starting to break out. We call that momentum. And we’re working to take a step to the next level.

Stay tuned. And welcome to the K12 ecosys.

Original framing blog
Full process
EcoDNA (our first emergent innovation)
EcoSYS founders

The DNA of Collaboration: Unlocking the Potential of 21st Century Teams (where Ecosys is a case study)

A “Playbook” for Open Government: A Grass-roots Federal Community that’s focused on Collaboration

On Wednesday, April 28, agency and industry stakeholders gathered for the 4th workshop in the “Open Government Playbook” series. The session was held at USDA facilities in Washington.

With the vantage point of three consecutive Playbook Workshops (one virtually, two in person), I have become a regular. But reflecting on our last session, I’ve grown even more intrigued. The ideas are getting traction, and I’m starting to see momentum.

Workshop Highlights

From the last session’s outset, balloons filled the meeting room as Lucas Cioffi, conference organizer, put a demo of collaboration in action. It was a hands-on exercise showing how teamwork could drive value. Participants were learning that more interactions produced more value, as they “traded up” to the highest value balloons.

Our special guest, Beth Noveck, Deputy CTO from the White House, shared her vision for Open Government, focusing on the energy building in response to President Obama’s 2009 Open Government Directive. She used a reference to Thomas Jefferson in the “lighting of a taper” as a metaphor for collaboration, with a powerful image: passing the flame to a new wick does not reduce the glow of the original.

As further framing, I offered insights on the need for active engagement in effective collaboration, and the need for a clear vision and a strong guiding coalition as a foundation for the required culture change.

Next came the main event: session breakouts.

For nearly 3 hours, roughly 60 participants engaged in intense conversation and brainstorming, with questions they had generated live, in real-time. Using a ‘self-organizing’ approach, topic suggestions went up on the board, and break-outs formed around topics of greatest interest. In groups of 12 to 30, the discussion around Open Government literally went full circle, as group members shared ideas and possible solutions.

Takeaways

Notes from the Workshop breakouts are still being posted here, but several themes emerged from our conversations:

  1. Open Government (“OG”) is not an end in itself, but a means to better accomplish agency missions
  2. Silos are everywhere; guidelines for navigating them must evolve
  3. Collaborative approaches are key and must evolve as well, eventually becoming ubiquitous
  4. Focus on OGD compliance should not overshadow the objective of driving change in how government engages with stakeholders (internally, across agencies, and externally, with citizens)
  5. A core OG community is forming, based on shared objectives

Several noted that Open Government has been tried before.

Al Gore led the “reinventing government” charge (aka “NPR”) in the mid 1990’s, an effort that stalled. The reasons for that are still debated, with cultural resistance often high on the list.

What seems different now is the level of interplay among diverse stakeholders. There is growing energy around OG innovation that runs wide (across agencies) and deep (spanning both political and civil service hierarchies). But the OGD Playbook conversation is not limited to Federal employees. In this forum, thought leaders from all quarters are encouraged to participate, adding much needed insight from industry.

The magic is happening in the middle.

It’s a place where change can be envisioned, articulated, and given the chance to take root.

At the end of the Workshop, as participants summarized what they’d learned, there was energy on quality of inputs and progress. Many said they’d received a level of insight that exceeded their expectations, and said they planned to return.

Can OG innovations of this magnitude be sustained?

That’s a critical question, and the focus on the next OG Playbook event, targeted for May/June. We hope you’ll come out and join us. Watch the OGD Playbook Wiki front page for the latest.

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Kotter’s 8-Steps: Leading Change in the 21st Century Organization

CHARLOTTE, NC. April 2010, by

Is there a good way to attack change in organizations? To influence (and maybe even ‘fix’) the complex org cultures that drive the collective behavior of their members?

That’s the focus of this post, the 5th in my series on culture change.

John Kotter gave us perhaps the best-circulated approach for change in his HBR paper that turned into the classic: Leading Change (1996). With the caveat that there are no silver bullets I believe Kotter provides a strong, intuitive and timeless approach to grappling with change.

Unfortunately, too many have given up along the way.

Organization change and, more specifically, changing an organization’s culture, share a common scope and scale. They are, in many ways, intertwined. That means Kotter can take us in the right direction. Let me recap his 8-point outline here, providing some 21st century insight and ‘solution language’ of my own to update his framing.

  1. Urgency. Per Kotter, one of the biggest enemies is complacency. Why change? Keeping things the way they are is easier. That may be. But the path to major improvements of any kind will be held hostage with this mindset. Low standards or segmented (silo’d) accountabilities can create a false sense that eveything is okay. Change requires everyone to get beyond that comfort zone, to “step up” for something new, different, and better.
  2. Coalition. Inspiring and sponsoring change is the work of leaders, so it’s critical that they engage. That means an oversight group that includes respected leaders is key. Without it, the organization will sense management’s lack of investment and will fail to participate.
  3. Vision. The organization needs to know where it is being asked to go. Having a strong, unambiguous statement that frames the future state is the only way for the organization to focus on it. A well-written vision is motivating, inspiring the organization to come together.
  4. Communication. Many change efforts fail because they don’t reach far enough into the organization. An effective communication program makes the work of the change initiative part of the organization’s daily affairs, embedding messages in as many artifacts and venues as possible. Think ‘saturation’ and you’ll be on the right track. But it needs to be simple and actionable, to retain people’s attention.
  5. Empowerment. Employees often don’t feel they can influence the vision. If they feel disconnected and removed from the issues, they will feel ineffective and powerless, and will not to want to waste their time. The key is to establish a link between how specific employee and departmental actions can realize the vision. Barriers must be removed. And management must start letting go of their unilateral decisions, trusting larger cross-functional teams to work things out. There is less control and predictability in this mode, but empowerment creates the conditions where new ideas can spark and flourish.
  6. Momentum. Major change takes time, and there will be detractors. Kotter notes that posting interim gains drives credibility when it is most needed – on the long road toward implementation. Focus here also puts energy to fine tuning the vision, applying lessons learned along the way.
  7. Integration. I love Kotter’s quote “resistance always waits to reassert itself,” so ‘consolidating gains’ is important. If change initiatives have structures that sit outside of daily operations, we must weave the new programs, policies, people and structures back in. If change remains outside the mainstream for too long, it can seem foreign to the rest of the organization.
  8. Anchoring. The organizations culture must reflect the new changes if they are to survive long-term. Organizations tend to have long memories, and if the leadership changes or the initiative is called into question, there will be many who offer the “old way” as an alternative solution to all the change. That is why bringing the culture forward to align with the change is critical.

Kotter says “human beings are emotional creatures, and we ignore that at our peril.” I agree. I put it like this:

It is not enough to make the case in facts and figures. People have to believe in the change, own it, and live it. Ensuring organization culture incorporates the change elements is the only way to ensure long-term viability.

Again, it would be a mistake to simply follow these steps (or others like them) and expect change to result directly. As we’ve discussed at each post in this series, the many dimensions, structures, and complexities in organizations create challenges at every turn. Leaders recognize this, and adapt their approach over the life of the change effort.

At the core of it, is a commitment. They can’t ever lose faith. To lose forward momentum is to accept defeat.

We started talking in January on barriers to ‘2.0’, with the idea that ‘social media’ integration and, more broadly, ‘innovation’ itself faced many cultural barriers. Leading coordinated change initiatives (vs. traditional ‘change management’) appears to be the only truly viable path forward. It is truly ‘no small task’. But that’s not to say it’s impossible. It’s simply hard work.

Call me old fashioned, but the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be done. I say (again): let’s get going.

Culture Change in Government: No Small Task

Per our framing, we’ve spent the last several weeks exploring theories of culture change, ranging from Schein (dimensions) and Handy (structural forces) to Eoyang (complexity).

Now let’s move to a specific scenario, to tie this all together.

With focus on large organizations, the Federal Government is a good place to start. This is even more timely given the recent push by the Obama administration for “open government”. The President’s January 2009 “Open Government Directive” (OGD) mandated that agencies move to a more open, participatory, collaborative stance.

As I’ve said in my GovLoop posts, that’s no small task.

Let’s explore the cultural forces underlying the challenges ahead.

Bill Eggers and John O’Leary in their 2009 book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government” offer some excellent insights, especially when held up to my prior posts on Schein and Handy.

The Agency Dimension. Like Schein, Eggers/O’Leary recognize multiple dimensions. While they claim there is no overarching “government culture”, they identify several operating cultures for each agency, according to the mission of each. Without naming specific agencies, the authors categorize the space by role: enforcers, instructors, helpers, processors, builders/fixers, housekeepers and scientists. To each they assign a cultural mindset which drive behavioral biases. Their distinctions are useful, as they bring focus to diverse objectives of each agency. Semantics could be debated. But Eggers/O’Leary are pointed us in the right direction. This alone has value to OGD planners.

Culture Clash: The Great Divide. But they also focus on an even more critical dimension: the divide between political appointees and civil servants. This is where Handy’s framework of 4 structural forces is immensely helpful. The political appointees in agency leadership roles follow Handy’s central, power-based, shorter horizon mindset. The civil servants? Clearly aligned (if not defining) the role-based, bureaucratic model, embracing structure, continuity, and focused on long-term horizons.

That means a deep culture clash runs through the management chain of the Administrative branch of our Federal Government.

Casual observers and insiders alike will quickly see this as ineffective, with compounding inefficiencies due to distrust and delays. Doubtless this was never part of the design. The U.S. Constitution is silent on culture. But the effects are nonetheless pervasive. Government moves slowly, often at cross purposes.

Raising the Bar (Further). To make matters worse, our last post developed a very modern concept of effective collaboration that, when deployed into complex, highly structured organizations, favors adoption of still another cultural structure: Handy’s ‘task/network’ model.

“Open Government” must be adapted and applied to the cultures of seven operational delivery models (per Eggers/O’Leary), supporting three non-aligned, competing structural forces. And that’s not to mention generational divides: a critical dimension to be certain, with yet another set of change factors.

No small task, indeed.

Path Forward with “OGD”. For Open Government to succeed, culture change must be taken on aggressively. Political appointees and civil servants must learn to see and to bridge their long-standing cultural divide. And both must seek to understand and adopt a new culture of networked collaboration that is inherent in the OGD vision, extending the work of government beyond its borders, involving and engaging citizens.

Al Gore and his “NPR” team ran into these obstacles in the mid-1990s, when “Reinventing Government” took a run at these topics, but the challenges (or politics) of the day seem to have won out over lasting change.

Will history repeat itself?

Perhaps not. Obama’s “Open Government” mandate appears to have a vital combination of leadership backing and increasing momentum.

Beth Noveck has not only helped to shape the vision for this, she has been asked to lead it, as Deputy CTO for Open Government. In her 2009 “Wiki Government”, she lays out the challenge in the context of fundamental transformation:

“The entire agenda for change cannot rest on any one CIO or CTO .. collaborative governance depends on having people through the agencies with the skills, ability, and willingness to innovate .. taking risks, and implementing collaborative strategies.”

What does this mean to our concept of Government? Noveck continues:

“Citizens are no longer talking about the process; they are the process. The future of public institutions demands that we create a collaborative ecosystem with numerous opportunities for those with expertise to engage.”

The Open Government vision is as strong as it is ambitious.

Significant work lies ahead. But in corners of the world and even in Washington, that work is underway.

What’s Ahead? Next post, I’ll make an updated pass at John Kotter’s well-circulated “8 Steps” toward cultural intervention. I’ll argue that all of his ideas still apply, but that they’ll need to be amended, at a minimum, to cope with complexity. Your input would be valued.

In the special case of Government (which I’ll keep on radar) those updates will need to focus on the impact of 3 divergent cultures: political, civil servant, and collaborative .. as well as the many operational dimensions that compound those differences.