How can we learn as an organisation? (part III)

How can we learn as an organisation? (part III)

Tom Van den Steen
Tom Van den Steen
Programme Advisor Planning, Learning & Accountability

Wholeness is the second elephant in the room of organisational learning, and should not be considered in separation from the first one, complexity (see part II). In fact, both elephants are so much connected that they are sometimes referred to as the fifth discipline.

Continuing the discussion with my colleagues on how to act in a complex environment, their first reaction was: how can we fully grasp the dynamics of the environment in which we work if farmers are not fully open about any other engagements they may have besides their commitment to the cooperative? How unfair of them!

Sure, pointing the finger at someone else is the easy way out of the discussion. But does it really offer a solution? We should never forget that as we point a finger to someone else, there are three fingers pointing at ourselves. (Try it and you’ll see!) Before we blame someone else, ask yourself the following questions: have I never acted the same way in a similar situation? Would I act differently if I were in their shoes?

Refrain from pointing a finger at someone else if you haven’t pointed it three times at yourself. Not only will you be sharing a lot more positive energy as you blame others a lot less, this practice will also make you reflect on your own behaviour, which was the case in point. We cannot control anyone else’s behaviour but that of ourselves. It serves little purpose, thus, to be looking for solutions outside ourselves if we haven’t first exhausted our introspection.

Take a deep and honest look at your own behaviour, at the assumptions and attitudes that guided you through any given situation, and examine alternative courses of action. This is where wholeness comes into play. Is it realistic to expect that we can change other people’s lives if we are not willing to change your own? Of course, this requires leaving our comfort zone and diving into the unknown.

Questioning our own assumptions, habits and attitudes can make us feel very uncomfortable and we will think more than twice before we wholly engage in this practice. Yet, it is the only way to make exponential leaps in your life and work. It is the only way to bring about sustainable changes that lead us out of gridlock, that breathe inspiration and creativity, and that regenerate the environment around us.

Returning to the conversation with my colleagues: the coffee farmers will only show that very willingness that we are looking for to wholesomely engage in driving change in their cooperative and in their communities if we are able to demonstrate the same ability to wholesomely engage with ourselves and how we work with them.

Is it that surprising that farmers don’t share dynamics that may interfere with the plan we are constructing in a participatory way with them? Let’s be honest, this is real life: no one shows the back of their tongue, especially not if you think that the amount of support you will receive depends on the answer you give.

Instead of blaming farmers a lack of commitment and honest participation, perhaps it is time we reconsider the way we go about ‘participatory planning workshops’? Especially if experience tells us time and again that this kind of exercise does not reveal all dynamics at play, therefore impeding our ability to sense signs of success or setbacks beyond the areas already on our radar. Of course, this implies leaving behind the comfort of well-trodden paths, and investing effort into exploring other approaches in search of a more effective one.

This also implies acknowledging that we do not have the answer, that our knowledge and skills are incomplete to solve the issue we face. We feel very uneasy about making such an acknowledgement, not in the least because society has never encouraged such behaviour, rewarding instead success, praising the answer more than the path towards the answer – as if it were a feat to be accomplished without any struggle.

Yet, it is the only way to go about it. Organisations that do not invest in the wholeness of their employees, will always struggle with organisational learning. It would be like wanting to run a marathon on one leg: while not impossible, it will require a lot of additional effort and willpower. Many simply won’t bother running one under such circumstances.

On the other hand, organisations that foster safe work environments, that stimulate leaving one’s comfort zone, and that acknowledge the need for exponential leaps to overcome complex challenges, these organisations provide fertile ground for organisational learning. While in such conditions organisational learning practices could very well grow on their own (not unlike our own learning), it does not hurt to have some minimal structures in place that could facilitate the collective learning process.