Transformative Process Disciplines

The post “Getting Real” is an introduction to the shift in beliefs (paradigm) from an economic-man paradigm to one dubbed, for want of a better term, a realist paradigm. The economic man paradigm and a kernel of a realist paradigm were introduced in another post, Getting Real.

The nature of the economic man paradigm is illustrated by three phrases very common in the business world: 1) Show me the money. 2) Show me the numbers, and 3) How can I believe the numbers? You inch toward the realist paradigm by asking more questions like, “What is really important that is not in the numbers?”

The realist paradigm centers on learning what’s “real,” acting on facts as nearly as they can be ascertained, and overcoming the beliefs of the economic man paradigm – and perhaps some other ideological paradigms. None of us can do that perfectly, but we can come much closer than now. To transform the world, begin by transforming ourselves. The essence of this transformation is mastering a discipline of learning, aware that conditions are always changing, so learning never ceases.

Two kinds of learning: The first is problem solving. Problems identified are like fourth graders being unable to add and subtract fractions, a water pipe having water hammer, or stored potatoes starting to rot within weeks. Identifying causes and finding a resolution may be vexing, but these problems do not require a shift in beliefs about what is important or how the world ought to work.

The second kind of learning is a shift in beliefs or paradigms. When we question whether beliefs we hold to be beneficial or ethical really are valid – and beneficial for what, for whom, and for how long – we enter a different kind of learning experience. Everyone may experience emotional as well as intellectual enlightenment; maybe even group “epiphany.”

Although seldom made explicit, learning is so useful a discipline that earning a diploma is a sign that one has some aptitude for it, and has practiced doing it. However, much school learning is passive learning of concepts discovered by others. “Vigorous learning” is active, directly investigating original phenomena, first to determine if a problem needs attention, and if so, defining it and implementing action to counter it.

Whether a problem really exists depends on point of view:

He: “The DJI stock index crashed 400 points today!”

She: “Stock market? I own no stock. Big deal!”

She: “Green scum on the pond is killing the bluegill.”

He: “So what; the carp feed on it.”

While trivial, these exchanges illustrate how people talk past each other when their belief systems don’t quite connect. If belief system clash appears beyond reconciliation, as with abortion, the clash may escalate into violence, but often, the clash is so fuzzed that it is not recognized.

An example is the inability of managers in companies with lean operations to grant employees leeway to self-improve work processes – or to take other initiatives. By the economic man paradigm, a manager is the agent of owners primarily charged with assuring them a profit. But if the manager is not in control of operations, she fears failure – and she does not trust workers to have that same sense of obligation.

So in many companies lean remains a set of operational techniques, not a different paradigm for what a working organization should be. When this clash in beliefs remains hidden, it’s unaddressed.

A Vigorous Learning Organization should be able to address all problems of any kind, if they develop the discipline to do it. We visualize the progression of discipline in four phases. There is no “cookie-cutter” recipe for the progression, but it centers on forming learning circles. How fast they progress can’t be predicted. After the group has mastered the discipline in one phase, move to the next.

Phase 1, Learning Exchanges: A learning circle of 5-10 people meet for 1 or 2 hours. They come voluntarily and may not know each other, or just barely, so first get acquainted. Then organize discussion by “lean coffee” rules ( ). Members of the group pick the topic or topics that interest them. Someone chairs, someone is a timer, and someone takes notes. The key disciplines in this phase are to limit each participant’s time, making sure that everyone participates – call on them in turn on the first round. The objective is for participants to develop trust in each other so that they open up and speak freely. Continue in this mode until participants are comfortable with the process.

Phase 2, Learning Forum: Wrestle with more topics directed toward “doing better with less” or toward becoming a VLO. Again time discussion and make sure everyone speaks, at least on the first round. No selling; no personal attacks; no drifting off subject. Just present your view and support it with facts. The facilitator may need to create a map as record of the discussion. Use PDCA , A3, or C4 formats if useful.

The key discipline is to agree on what evidence will be accepted as factual in different contexts. One or more discussions might center on that as a topic. Others may be on why transition from an economic man paradigm to a realist one.

Phase 3, Learning Dialog: In this phase, deliberately pick some topics on which participants are known to have major differences in beliefs and assumptions. Add another discipline: Present your own view and evidence without any advocacy, plus state any assumptions and why you hold them. This requires prep before coming to a meeting. In addition, learn to be patient while others present their views. The discipline is to learn respect for others in practice. Also, a common situation is that not all parties affected by a situation are present to state their views and why.

The purpose of this phase is to learn to map out differences and understand them. In this way, build a non-emotional picture of all facts, including emotional factors. That people hold them is a fact, even if their reasons for holding them seem strange.

If a group must decide a matter on which beliefs clash, map out the situation before making the decision. Try to reconcile the clashes with the action taken.

Phase 4, Cascade the Circles: This phase is for operational organizations becoming Vigorous Learning Organizations (VLO). There is more to becoming a VLO than disciplined learning circles, but it is a good training ground and entryway.

When really rolling, an organization has many learning circles. They may rotate people among the circles, so that insights from each one feed into the others. Members of a learning circle that has “jelled” will trust each other so well that they take on roles and report back so that the circle factors in a great deal more information, including clashes in beliefs, than is otherwise the case.

Conclusion: Learning circles may form for many reasons. Some may be people from different walks of life just developing much better insight. Some may be attempting to form a work organization for some purpose. And still others may be existing work organizations wanting to transform themselves into something more like a VLO.

More on these topics will come in later posts.

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