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3 lessons from learning disabilities

Learning disabilities hold special meaning to me, as I was typing away on my assignment on learning organisations and quality assurance mechanisms. The knowledge obtained spammed across two semesters during my masters programme.

It’s really no accident that some organisations learn better than others, not because they achieved the systems thinking(according to Senge). It’s because of the disabilities that form along the way, the culture that has been rooted in the organisation that might result in such ‘disability’ occurring.

Learning disabilities according to Senge in his Book “The Fifth Discipline” defines learning disabilities as:

It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and, most importantly, the way we have all been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities. These disabilities operate despite the best effort of bright, committed people. Often the harder they try to solve problems, the worse the results. What learning does occur takes place despite these learning disabilities – for they pervade all organizations to some degree.

Here I present 3 out of 7 of the learning disabilities from Senge that I felt more meaning in my context of work and experiences.

THE PARABLE OF BOILED FROG

The metaphor of the boiled frog teaches us about awareness and our responsiveness towards danger and the external environment. Our lives are full of commitment as we grow older; our parents require our care, we get married and have kids, our job responsibility raises. There are lots of life events that occur through, some we treasure them dearly, some we overlook.

On the flip side, the accordance of technology as a distraction is an area of concern as well. We want to savour moments as we feel we worked pretty hard for the day/week/month/year. We don’t usually spend our time predicting what’s going to happen in the organisation, keep track of the external environment and how it impacts us.

We can’t track danger as well! Before we know it, we might get swarmed by competitors and a sudden change in the environment around us. So, our ‘radar’ needs to be on while juggling commitments around us. We need peers and colleagues to remind us periodically that danger lurks. Communicate them openly and acknowledge that personal vulnerability could surface due to this.

In addition, Senge mentions that changes can be too slow for us and can often go unnoticed. We will need be patient and slow down to get the best views in lives.

I AM MY POSITION SYNDROME

I am pretty sure that you have at least experience one person in your working career who has something similar to the comic illustration above. Just as Senge pointed out that:

When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact.

In an age where technology truly drives collaboration and teamwork, we’re still at the age of building up areas of going the extra mile and being humanistic about it.

For this to subside, I believe mental models are a good start to get the culture moving. Culture is a terribly slow change management procedure that could work both ways. There might be resistance towards no initiatives. Even when one out of the hundred employees decides to change the existing process, ninety-nine of them would have resisted the change. It could possibly boil down to leadership and how one person alone could possibly restructure a culture of learning and encourage a collaborative spirit.

THE ENEMY IS OUT THERE

This is a common syndrome that is happening across different cultures and organisations. Finger pointing culture is a common phenomenon that most of us experience in our lives. It has became a natural human behaviour that people adopt and can be increasingly challenging to change this. Crediting external events could be a social norm, where people do not praise themselves for the good work they have done. Neither will they take the blame when things do not go their way.

How can we make our journey better? Taking full responsibility of the mistakes made is really one of the extreme approaches we take. Beau Lotto in his book Deviate, informs us on the concept of human and uncertainty. He argues that we inherently make uncertain things certain, just like the example of walking in a dark forest makes us uncertain and frightened as we are unable to predict what is in front of us. I feel that there’s a need for ownership for the things that we do, and understand that there are interrelationships in your work life. Consequences that you might eventually have to bear even though it is not your fault after all.

SO MY ORGANISATION IS NOT MOVING?

Beau Lotto writes,”If we are taught to be cotton, we will become cotton.”

Lotto reminds us that we will become whatever that our brain has ‘determined’ us to be. Senge talks about the importance of leadership in the organisation to drive systems thinking, but at times he might have missed the point that leaders tend to overlook their importance in driving the organisation.

To provide you with some principles, here are conscious thoughts about 3 things:

  1. Changing your existing mindset – Look at the way you perceive and see things. The one way that you are looking at might not be the only way. Perhaps, you should be willing to challenge your existing assumptions you have. For example, Ben Underwood was one of the prominent figures that will stay in me for a long long time. Despite not being able to see, he was able to use ‘echo locations’ to detect locations of objects and accomplish areas such as running and playing basketball. Become emotionally ready to be ‘exposed’ at times, especially when things are against your existing mindset.
  2. Be an influencer(An agent for change) – Senge claims that individuals tend to think of structures as external constraints, formal hierarchical structures that dictate processes(cultural,norms,policies and procedures) within the organisation. We tend to think that we are constraint by the structure dictated by the organisation. Perhaps, we need to think about overcoming the existing invisible boundary we created and work towards the vision and purpose that we came to this organisation for. Be influential to the little things that happen, good things will follow suit.
  3. Coach yourself – In Brian Souza’s book on The Weekly Coach, he says, ” A lot of coaching equals a lot of improvements, a little coaching equals little improvements.” This is invaluable advice on progressing yourself as an individual and finding out your blind spots(as mentioned in Johari’s Window). It is about finding the blind spots so you can progress towards a known area of yourself. This is a difficult task, but with constant(and consistent) practice, you will go a long way with this. You can use the empathy map to define the areas and plan ahead.