How Your Organization Can Learn from Disruptions

If, like most leaders, you are struggling with the rude COVID-19 surprise, consider that this is just the beginning of a new normal. Some say there are other massive disruptions on the horizon. Perhaps one way to cope is to redefine what it means to be a learning organization.

Back in the early 1990’s I attended a training offered by Peter Senge’s company. He’s the author of The 5th Discipline – The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The concept was a great one – organizations needed to focus on learning in order to adapt to changing times. 

However, that was before the advent of email or the internet. In today’s context, what we thought were “changing times” looks to be quaint.
For example, in the past few weeks, as a leader you have been forced to become competent in pandemic crisis management. Consequently, you can now define a number of brand new terms: social distancing, self-quarantine and “non-essential worker.”

Furthermore, your organization has picked up some fresh skills, albeit in bits-and-pieces: scheduling staff to minimize contact, limiting viral transmissions, enabling work from home and determining critical functions.

To fill these gaps, you have spoken with other executives, listened to the business news, used Google searches, and perhaps even hired subject matter experts. Unfortunately, for most companies, this has been a hit-or-miss affair. In other words, your organizational learning has taken place by “Buck-Up.”

Some CEO’s thrive on high-stress challenges such as this one. But most people don’t. Instead, they want a systematic way to develop the skills and knowledge needed to coast through any future disruption. How can your organization respond effectively to the next challenge?

1. Learn from the Covad-19 Learning Gaps

The best leaders noticed that their organization was caught in a situation where critical knowledge was missing. Even if it had a generic disaster recovery plan, the nature of this disruption defies ones anticipated by textbooks.

Instead, leaders realize that the company which can learn quickly, especially in a crisis, would be the one that has the advantage. Rather than being stalled, it would rapidly assess the threat. The gaps found would be converted into learning content to be disseminated within hours to those who need to use it: board, stockholders, executives, managers, workers, customers, suppliers, et al.

Unfortunately, too many companies rely on the fact that the CEO is a smart, capable person. While this is often true (especially in small organizations) it’s a mistake to equate individual learning with organizational learning. 
The latter is far more powerful and seeks to equip the entire company with capabilities which endure long past the tenure of any particular person.

2. Empower a New Learning and Development Specialist

It’s one thing to identify the need for this kind of rapid learning, but the question is: “Who should manage it?” Most companies have shed whatever training people they once had in prior budget cuts. Plus, the landscape has changed. Years ago, employees sat in three-day Microsoft Windows or Excel workshops. Today, the idea of sitting in a classroom to learn how to use an app is a joke.

The need for this kind of trainer has disappeared.

However, at the same time, the requirement for someone to take charge of organizational learning in challenging moments is evident. But this is not the same small skill-set trainers used to have. What kind of capabilities should this individual possess?

3. The New Learning Skills

Today, this person would be a kind of crisis-manager, but not one that addresses the issue directly. Instead, they would be concerned with uncovering the learning that’s required to solve the problem in the mid-term, so that it never recurs. As such, they’d require a blend of technical and change management skills, plus the ability to respond within days, if not hours. 

In addition, this person should also be a quality diagnostician, able to discern the true learning gaps inherent in novel challenges. In a flash, they can analyze new technologies, alliances, distribution networks, supply chains, government regulations and other kinds of unique threats and opportunities. Due to the importance of their work, they would behave more like entrepreneurs than bureaucrats. 

Finally,  they would also need to think of innovative ways to get people to learn. A CTO-friend of mine developed a practice of assigning brand new technologies to members of his team. Their job? To research the area and deliver a training program to his colleagues after a month or two of intense study. It was a low-tech solution to a very high-tech problem.

This is a simple example. But it reflects the out-of-the-box thinking a learning expert would have to do to prepare your organization for its next rude surprise.

Why Strategic Planning is a Team Sport

As an executive, you must make an annual decision about your organization’s strategic plan. Should the exercise be done as a team, hire outsiders to perform a study,  or simply fall back on the CEO’s thinking? While there are pros and cons to each approach, one generally yields the best fruit.
Once your company successfully grows to a certain point, it must consider the long-term impact of its actions, and make a choice. Does it continue to allow the founder to drive the decisions on each major course of action? After all, he/she is the most knowledgeable person, and the only one who has the full-time job of thinking strategically.
However, even though CEOs are generally smart people, there comes a stage when their brilliance, and this tactic, only gets them into trouble. They find themselves alone in implementing their strategies. No-one else takes the time to understand or invest themselves emotionally. Instead, they sit back and wait for the Boss Man/Lady to do all the big-picture thinking…as usual.
In a small company with a “Snow White” organizational structure (i.e. a single strong extrovert surrounded by introverts) this approach can work. However, an enterprise that must grow by hiring talented people will eventually run into trouble. High performers either refuse to join, or leave after a few months.
An alternate tactic is to invite in an outsider. A consulting firm willingly does all the interviews, data gathering, analysis and report writing. The result is a beautifully packaged set of strategy recommendations.
However, they have actually done their client a disservice.
By undertaking the intellectual labour themselves, they also undermine the emotional commitment. In other words, by the end of the project, they believe in their ideas more than anyone else, especially those who must implement them. Even those who originally had the ideas are sidelined as they become branded by Consulting Firm X.
But there is a third tactic. You could treat the development of the strategic plan as a team exercise, like a sport: an effort in which each person must play their part. However, there are several pitfalls to this approach that need to be avoided.

1. Impartial Facilitation
The best event to forge final decisions is a strategic planning retreat. Unfortunately, most are little more than one of two extremes: a place to air opinions of all kinds without making any commitments, or a presentation of pre-agreed decisions in which people are “encouraged“ to buy-in. Neither produces satisfying results.
Instead, the most effective retreats allow consensus to build from the bottom-up. In most cases, this is best facilitated by an outsider who allows contentious issues to be brought up in a civil way that helps your team make final, binding decisions.
These new points of agreement are the entire purpose of the activity – to craft ultimate, difficult choices that close the door on other alternatives.

2. Immediate Capture
The second pitfall is to think that a hearty discussion is sufficient. In a tiny company, this approach may work as it’s easy to share information.
However, in a larger organization, these agreements must be translated into projects or initiatives which lead to wide-spread behavior changes. To ensure that this happens, your team should document the new strategy immediately after it makes decisions.
In other words, the written substance of each strategy cannot wait to be captured until the next day. If the team waits even a few hours to translate their decisions into words, you may learn the hard way that strategic conversations have a ridiculously short shelf-life. As soon as they are explored and completed, their essence begins to fade once a new conversation commences. 
The only option is for you to capture these conclusions immediately, before everyone scatters to go home.
Unfortunately, this approach is rarely taken because people believe that a fancy Strategy Report is the true final product. It’s not: the decisions your team made are far more important.

3. Instant Ownership
The last pitfall you could make is to leave the retreat without proper ownership being assigned. Overall responsibility isn’t enough: key activities may still languish due to a lack of personal accountability. 
The solution is simple: assign sponsors to each of your new initiatives, even if they don’t possess subject matter expertise. Their sole job is to shepherd the project until a manager is assigned. In fact, they may only relinquish their sponsorship years after the planning event, but when they play their role well, it keeps the retreat’s momentum going.
Every sport has its peculiar conventions and practices. Avoid these pitfalls and you increase the odds that your team will win

Can Your Leaders Lead Without Personal Integrity?

   “All I have is my word.” Back in the day, this was a common saying among working professionals. For them, keeping one’s word was the only honorable, accepted thing to do. But times have changed: Is there a place for that sentiment in today’s Jamaica?

In 2020, many people have a contingent relationship to the promises they make. In other words, they will keep their commitments if the stars align in just the right way.

When they do, it’s because their feelings and circumstances are in the perfect place, and the gain far exceeds the cost. To summarize: the result is not really up to them, but a fortuitous confluence of external events. It provides them with a psychological back-door: a way to escape any future obligation.
Some people specialize in this kind of behaviour, even while seated at a boardroom table. But it’s human: we hate being trapped by promises we made in the past. Some refuse to make them altogether, explaining that compliance is up to God, not them.

While such behaviour is convenient to those giving their word, it wreaks havoc in the world around them. Here are two ways.

1. Reputational Risk

If you have ever been ghosted (i.e. stood up) by someone with a flimsy excuse, you probably made a decision. Perhaps you resolved never to trust him/her again.
However, if you are a habitual “flake”, you may be upset to hear what we won’t tell you: “If you can’t be trusted to satisfy simple obligations, then you certainly won’t be considered for others which are more substantial.” Also, while we may consent to meet with you again, we’ll be calling ahead to “confirm” (aka micromanage) the appointment.
But don’t relax. Whereas this trick may work for small matters, it fails for important commitments. Instead, we’ll just call someone else.
Unfortunately, you may never understand why you are no longer on our list of invitees, or why we don’t return your calls and email messages. Your inability to generate the willpower to keep your promises has resulted in lasting damage.

2. Organizational Weakness

Hire enough chronic promise-breakers into the same organization and you have the perfect recipe for bankruptcy.
Case in Point: A founder, known for honouring his word, dies and leaves the company to an unreliable sibling. The inheritor never understands the invisible glue of integrity that enabled the company to thrive. Consequently, promises are broken on a whim so customers, employees and other stakeholders start a steady exodus to better alternatives.It’s a lack of integrity writ large: a violation of the brand promise, employee compact, or shareholder trust. These are all unwritten expectations no company can break for long.
Arguably, the rise and fall of the quality of Digicel’s mobile service is such an example. When it entered the market in 2001, it delivered a striking, powerful salvation from C&W’s monopoly. But recently, the government reported a meeting with the company to complain, on behalf of consumers, about its poor service: a dramatic reversal for a favorite brand.
What can leaders of companies like Digicel do? They can undertake a return to workable standards on a personal, but public level. 
In an era in which the President of the United States freely reverses his stated commitments to people, precedent and principles alike, the world is short of those who lead by example. It appears that the practitioners of “situational integrity” are “winning.”
This has not gone unnoticed in Jamaican society, however. Organizations like the NIA and CAFFE are pushing to return our country to a simpler standard: a time when people did what they said they would, just because they said they would…especially when it’s hardest to do so.
But the key is not to merely be wary of making promises. The deeper challenge is to relate to one’s word as if it were as important as oneself: a reflection of character.
Unfortunately, when life is working as it should, the challenge seems to fade in importance.
For example, several local politicians have apologised for disparaging remarks made on the campaign trail about an opposition Member of Parliament. In essence they said: “Those comments are not a reflection of who I am.”
The irony is that Digicel and other organizational leaders could see their recent shortcomings as an opportunity to return themselves to who they really are. Jamaica yearns for this kind of leadership: the kind that willingly reveals itself when mistakes are made, at the moments when it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable and unprofitable.
These opportunities demonstrate how to live old-fashioned principles in modern-day life and empower everyone of us to do the same.