Chapter 1: Introductions – Why Learning Organizations?

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Opening

We are living today’s reality, regardless our recent or current leaders, that is the result of unresolved systemic issues or vicious circular causalities from our pasts.  Given their nature, our forefathers or past leaders would have found it difficult to “see them”, and therefore that made it hard to learn how one would turn their vicious natures around and solve them.

It would then look like it is easier to blame the leaders for not helping us make things happen.  Employment.  Affordable housing.  Health.  Wealth.  Crime and violence-free living.  World peace.  It will, of course, be harder to blame ourselves for not seeing the vicious causalities that keep us from achieving those.  However, it is when we do so, we begin to realize unless we are in this, learning together, leaders are realistically helpless by themselves in figuring it out which is often the reason they would choose to manipulate others, using the media, social platforms, building alliances and political parties, engaging authority, judiciary systems, seeking government funding, international relations and so on.  They may perhaps be in charge of dispensing national resources, but, they are not in charge of understanding these issues.  Unfortunately, as the case may be, we too did not put them there, because we knew they could resolve them.  We did so because they made it easier for us to pull strings on them to get what we want.  Everyone seems oblivious that we are choosing to play “who is on the top” game.  “Me First” or “This Takes Too Long” or “This is too hard for me or impossible for my enemy” are all products of that same play.

The bottom-line still is, effective resolutions will happen when we learn together about our realities and the “system” of how things are actually happening.  This is where, in my view, the democratic process is, perhaps, still flawed.

And so, till that happens most of us are or have become good at controlling these persistent issues but not resolving them.  However, we pay a price for that happening.  It will cost us.  As long as they stay unresolved, these systemic issues will continue to sap our resources.

However, with the advances we have made here with strategy and management development, will allow us to do so.  Finally.  These series of blogs and pages are a way for me to put out there the hope we would learn to see and understand these vicious structures that work at eroding:

  • Our relationships (with each other),
  • Our relationships with health (with nature),
  • Our relationships with ourselves particularly in developing the verve and tenacity to grow as nations (relations with ourselves and the economies / infrastructure / technology we create to aid our existence on this earth) and,
  • Our systemic connectedness to the rest of world (seeing growth happen systemically), and might I say beyond (smile)!

It is learning to turn these vicious circles of causality around  from their negative to positive natures that will bear the fruit of hope in turning our own realities around for us.  A true mark of a leader is one who develops such a capacity not just for himself but also others and that forms the core work that happens within Learning Organizations, Communities, Nations, Region and the World.  Universe?  Maybe.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR US WHEN WE SAY “SOLVE A PROBLEM”?

What is the bottom-line to solving a problem?  Any problem?  What would that look like?

When we say we solve a problem, we mean that having solved it, the problem would NOT come back.  If it does, and comes back in at another time, space or form, then it is simple.  WE HAVE NOT SOLVED IT!!!

Till we do so, we would have merely applied a band-aid.  To “stop the bleeding”, for now, as it were.

It would be like “solving a mathematical problem”, getting it wrong and needing to do a ‘re-solving’.  It is just that, in reality, we often would not know we had got the solution right or wrong.  Not until after some time or we are left facing consequences “at some other part of the system”.  That’s when we realize that we had got it wrong.

For how long would we keep doing “re-working”?  Imagine year-in year-out had you stayed at the same position on your job for  much of a century and find yourself every few years, applying yet another solution to a problem you had attempted to solve years before, and you find them coming back.   Most times we do not experience this.  Organizational leaders do experience this.

For most others, somebody promote and posts you out of the seat.  Our successors may see it.  But it will still be a ‘new’ attempt on their part.  Can we honestly say then, that we have ‘solved the problem’?  Would that not be the same as saying we were not learning how to get a Grade A?

So, what is the bottom-line to solving problems?

It should not come back!  Period.  If it does, we are just kidding ourselves and hoping nobody is watching us in our watch.

If should the problem not return then, then, yes you certainly deserve that Grade A!  And the promotion.

So, how would we make such an outcome become a reality?

The bottom-line is, WE CAN’T SOLVE A PROBLEM, TILL WE UNDERSTAND WHAT IS CAUSING  IT!

In systems thinking, we add that we can’t solve a problem, particularly if it is systemic, unless we first figure out what is causing it to become systemic (widespread over time and space and is recurrent) and has become resistant (or stubborn) to our efforts to change it.

WHAT DOES STUBBORN OR SYSTEMIC ISSUES LOOK LIKE?

Systemic means affecting most or all of a system and not a small part of the system.

In medicine, systemic means affecting the entire body, and not a single organ or body part.  In systems thinking, systemic means arising from the structure of the system and affecting the general behavior of the entire system.  In social problems, systemic means originating from the structure of the system in such a way as to affect the behavior of most or all social agents of certain types, as opposed to originating from each agent.

Systemic problems arise from the structure of the system. Since, such as, the sustainability problem is a systemic system, its solution requires deep systemic change to the fundamental layer of the system’s structure.  This differs radically from popular solutions, which because they don’t go deep enough are superficial solutions.  The guiding principle is:

Systemic problems need systemic solutions.

Systemic solutions change the fundamental way a system works by changing the structure of its key feedback loops.

Systemic is the level of thinking on which leaders need to run systemic thinking, better known as systems thinking, is not an easy level to reach. But once you arrive there’s no turning back because it’s so productive.

We identify systemic issues through complaints and feedback an organization receives and investigates over time.  When employees and customers are proactive about reporting potentially systemic issues, an organization can work with companies and regulators to bring about redress for everyone affected (not just those who complain), and cut possible wider impact and therefore learn to reduce complaints more effectively.

OUR GROWING SENSE OF NUMBNESS TO THE EXISTENCE OF SYSTEMIC ISSUES

Often, we become numb (“The Boiled Frog Syndrome“) to the phenomena and even  come to accept them as ‘a part of life’.  Crime.  Poor health.  Organizational conflicts.  Global tensions.  Environmental pollution.  Poverty.  The rich-poor gaps.  Epidemics.  And so on.

We then setup establishments and give them the mandate to “fight it”.  They often exist within the government frameworks.

Large establishments have been setup to deal with the issue of crime.  These will include police stations, churches, hospitals, medical departments, justice and prison departments, rehabilitation and incarceration centres, counselling and so on as among the group of stakeholders involved in dealing with the issue.  We then train officers to chase and find criminals, bring him to justice and proceed to put him behind bars.  When we are done with one, we then chase the “next” on the file in line.  Despite these efforts, the war against crime does not stop and continues to grow with grandchildren and great grandchildren, demanding more resources to ‘fight the growing malice of society’ (as the press and the opposition would have it), criminal after criminal, generation after generation.  We might even justify their existence saying, what would those engaged to fight the crime do, if crime stopped altogether?

They are often referred to as “complex” and we pacify ourselves that they have become difficult to discuss and to solve.  In some countries, just resolving these issues consume one’s entire annual budget leaving little room for its development!  So let’s set ourselves up to ‘fight it’, we say, for as long as it takes us, or we give it up entirely (and retire, knowing very well, we have taught our children well to keeping fighting)!  We then resort to depending on other ‘richer’ nations to fund infrastructure development or health concerns under high risk terms and conditions for the country.

 

WHY REFER TO STUBBORN PROBLEMS AS CYCLONES?

In this work we say when a problem has become recurrent in nature, whatever is causing it has also become recurrent and therefore circular or vicious in its nature.  These are not linear issues.  Therefore, the use of tools such as ‘5 Whys’ or “root” cause analysis would not help us here anymore.  At this point, it really should not matter who did it or what did they do.  But instead, the focus needs to be on “Why do they continue to grow”?  Why would they persist?

Just like cyclones.  Why do they keep coming back?

As long as they have stayed resistant to change, they become the subject of study within the discipline of systems thinking to resolve them.

Referring to the structures as cyclones (or tornadoes and hurricanes) present a metaphor that we can use to understand the vicious natures of these circles of causality.  What it looks like, what causes it and what could its consequences look like.  Metaphorically it highlights, two aspects of systemic causalities:

  • That cause and its effect are distant in time and space.
  • That the longer the circles spin, the stronger they become.

Therefore as “these cycles” spin, they take us through the journeys of our realities from far and wide.  We are living the circles of causality without us realizing it.  We may even think we are leading on our realities. However, these circles will eventually prove to us that we are not the ones doing so.  As a matter of fact, these cycles lead us on from a time distant in the past to generations in the future.

Another meaning of these cycles is it gains intensity with time.  The longer they spin in one direction, the stronger that direction becomes.  Like the cyclones, they assume an intensity that grows with space and time, gathering increasing affect and effect on a wider number of persons and entities over time.  Pictorially, they seem as the rises towards a peak on a graph that maps the behavior of the problem over time (refer to the graphs shown above)

Some of us pass on in our lives without realizing these are happening.  In reality, these circles of causality only appears on the surface which we refer to as the “tip of the iceberg” and manifest themselves as problems and conflicts that span personal (personal relations and health) to global (global relations and health) issues.

 

However, the circular nature of these issues makes it difficult “to find it and to see it”.  However, unlike cyclones, the source of their relentless tenacious nature is never easy to spot, as the causalities are hidden from our perceptions of realities and operating within the realities of persons and lands distant from where we are.  Additionally, as our minds are ‘trained to see and think in straight lines and get to the finishing line’, they compound the difficulties we face to spot circles of causalities.  And of course, being ‘in it’ (the vicious circles) makes it doubly hard to see them.

That is where, the tools of systems thinking are designed so that they can assist us in the process of investigating and uncovering the structure.

 

 

HOW DO YOU IDENTIFY SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS?

There are three ways to find systemic problems:

  1. Firstly, it would typically impact persons or entities across wide sections of the populace.
  2. Secondly, you would find that the issue is recurring from our past and promises to continue into the future.  They have a tendency to ‘happen all at once’ and most importantly  recurs (it keeps coming back – like a bad nightmare) regardless of where or when it happens.
  3. Thirdly. it has resisted or defied our efforts to change the course they are using.  I am sure as villages, districts, nations, regions and indeed as the world we can think of several examples of issues that despite resources, money, time and effort, it has defied our efforts to stamp it out.

They may manifest as crimes, illnesses, national financial debts or agricultural production levels, rainfall levels, the productive size of the economy and when taken too far, they take the form of famine, droughts, floods (or global warming) conflicts (along racial and national lines) and wars.

SO WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? HOW WOULD YOU TREAT THEM?

To treat it, we first become vigil to “understanding and seeing these causalities”.  Should we not see them, then like our ‘fore-leaders’ (who also dealt blows, got worn out and left it to us), we too should prepare to leave these problems at our own wakes as legacies for our children.

And what makes it interesting about these circles of causality is, till we “get it” (we see and understand them), these cycles continue to persist, coming back harder and faster each time at us and our future generations.  This means increasing depletion of resources, rising costs, and increased losses and failures.  Just as it is with the effects cyclones leave in their wake!
Love to hear your reactions and comments here.

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