The Learning Organization

How a Learning Organization will help you in the Agile Transformation

An interesting addition to SAFe in version 5 is the competence ‘Learning Organization’. The Scaled Agile Framework now claims that an organization that wants to be agile needs the competence of being a Learning Organization (among other Competences).

The Learning Organization was coined by Peter Senge and he described the five dimensions of Organization Learning.



What is a Learning Organization?

The core idea behind the Learning Organization is that it is an aspiration model, an ambition to achieve, not a reaction to a problem. It is built around a personal ambition to grow in mastery and the ambition of the organization or society to achieve a goal. Any goal an organization tries to achieve requires collaboration of teams, and Peter Senge argues that this collaboration in teams is the most important cornerstone of actually achieving something as an organization. The strength of teams is that they by definition contain different people, who also have a different take on the situation. Learning how to use these differences in viewpoint in a constructive way is the key idea behind team learning.

Mental models describe how we see the world and help in achieving our objectives. However, Senge focuses more on how our mental models limit us in finding solutions, so challenging those mental models is an important point in our aspiration and achieving our goals.

Finally, Peter Senge is a System Thinker, and he proposes to use system thinking to align the different forces to create an optimal system to achieve the change.

Competences of the Learning Organization

Personal Mastery

Personal mastery is a mindset of continuous evolution.

People with a high level of personal mastery … are deeply inquisitive, committed to continually seeing reality more and more accurately. They feel connected to others and to life itself. Yet they sacrifice none of their uniqueness. They feel as if they are part of a larger creative process, which they can influence but cannot unilaterally control.

Again, Peter Senge is most interested in what is holding us back from creating and achieving. One gets more energy from creating something new rather than from focusing on solving problems (although of course creating something new often requires finding solutions to the problems encountered). Focusing on negative things, on problems, gives way less energy and seems to narrow our mind.

Anyway, learning organizations require that this drive for personal mastery needs to be encouraged and should be tapped into.

Shared vision

Shared Vision is the capacity to hold a share picture of the future we seek to create. Such a vision has the power to be uplifting – and to encourage experimentation and innovation. Crucially, it can also foster a sense of the long-term.

It seems close to what Simon Sinek calls the ‘Just Cause’, the long-term vision of the company’s goal (closely related to the ‘Why’ of the founder). Both Senge and Sinek point out that founders often forget to translate their individual vision into a shared vision.

The shared vision describes what we try to achieve and is a very important motivator.

Team Learning

Team Learning is the process of developing the capacities of a team to create the result the team members really desire. Personal Mastery and alignment to the Shared Vision form the foundation, but people need to be able to act together, as a team. Everyone’s strength contributes, open dialogue makes the team achieve more than the sum of the individuals involved.

Senge defines three dimensions of team learning:

  •          The ability to think insightfully about complex issues

  •          The ability to take innovative, coordinated action

  •          The ability to create a network that will allow other teams to take action as well

Teams can however only manage this level of thinking and action if they are capable to function as a team with trust, open communication, prepared to state hard truths. Supporting the team to achieve this level is what the Team Learning training at ADJUGO is about.

An important point Senge mentions is that working in such well-preforming teams is a highly satisfying experience and that those who have lived afterwards keep on looking for ways to again become part of such a team.

Mental models

“Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior”

Notice the ‘limit’ in the text. Mental models help us think and agree and make fast decisions. But those decisions happen within an existing framework that may not at all be well adapted to the needs at hand. They are like people who can help you through some bureaucratic nightmare, but it is of course the bureaucracy that needs rethinking, not the fact that some experts can guide you through it.

The essential point about Mental Models therefore is not to have such models, but to be able to challenge them and put in place new models that are more appropriate for the connected business world.

Systems thinking

Systemic thinking is the cornerstone (‘The Fifth Discipline’) of Senge’s approach to the Learning Organization. A model of how the different components of an organization work together and what the influence is of say decreasing the marketing budget on future sales is crucial to have long-term success. Unfortunately, it is also quite difficult to differentiate between short feedback cycles and longer-term effects.

The Learning Organization and SAFe

SAFe has made striving for a Learning Organization part of its new Competence Learning Culture, together with Innovation Culture and Relentless Improvement.

Several aspects in the SAFe model are well aligned to and support the Learning Organization:

  • ·         Lean-agile leaders lead by example and therefore need to support and exhibit Personal Mastery

  • ·         The development of a Vision and definition of the overarching Values is part of SAFe. The Vision is regularly updated and communicated to the teams as part of the PI Planning event.

  • ·         Agile teams require technical skills, but also the ability to work closely together. The TeamLearning aspect of the Learning Organization belongs here.

  • ·         Systems Thinking is a cornerstone of Lean-Agile and one of the ten SAFe principles.

More subtly, SAFe 5.0 recognizes that SAFe can be implemented at a low level of maturity and that a company would need to grow in its SAFe implementation. The organization needs to learn how to implement SAFe.

Organization Learning and the Agile Transformation

The Organization Learning model is fairly abstract, but it springs to life immediately when we apply it to the agile transformation.

Moving to Agile requires a Vision, one of focusing on customers, replace project thinking with product thinking, replace waterfall with iterative development, letting go of project plans and budgets and replace it with fast customer feedback and rapid learning cycles.

Agile relies very heavily on self-organizing teams. Teams have up till now generally not had this responsibility, so it makes sense that they need to learn how to become self-organizing and then keep growing to a higher level. Team-learning is the evident solution to support this transformation.

Transforming to Agile requires a mindset that is quite different from the prevailing one. Focusing on the creation of value rather than on cost control. Questioning the hierarchical model and replacing it with a network of closely collaborating teams. This requires a huge change in mental models, and most traditional views on management need to be questioned.

And finally, this very thorough transformation will modify the relations between the different parts of the organization, and a good understanding of how the components influence each other will be required to transform toward a new way of working.

Conclusion

In short, we cannot become an agile organization without the different aspects of the Learning Organization. And it is the organization itself that needs to become such a Learning Organization. Coaches can certainly help, but we can only bring the horse to water, we cannot make the horse drink.

That is why we organize training in TeamLearning and start a more comprehensive schedule for Organization coaches. The goal is to lower the barrier to become a Learning Organization by helping internal collaborators to capture the essence of Team and Organization Learning and spread the attitude internally.

Please check out the ADJUGO training calendar if you are interested in Organization Learning.