Posted in Leadership

Building a Learning Organization

How to create a learning organization?
This probably is the question on the minds of many leaders and founders who are immensely passionate about building great teams and building great organisations.

Peter Senge, provides a model to solving this problem in his widely read book The Fifth Discipline. He  describes a concept called “Systems Thinking“.  According to Senge, systems thinking is very important in creating a learning organization however as the title of his book goes – it is the fifth discipline not the first. The first four disciplines are (1) personal mastery, (2) building shared vision, (3) mental models, and (4) team learning. The 5th discipline is very important as it fuses the other four together to foster a culture of learning and co-operation.

People frequently ask if systems thinking is same as strategic thinking. Systems thinking and strategic thinking are somewhat similar concepts however they are applied in different situations. Both involve looking at the big picture and taking a long term view

Systems thinking 

  • Focus: Looks at the system as a whole, including interactions and relationships
  • Goal: Considers if the system can work differently
  • Use: Can be used in design thinking to understand the user

Strategic thinking 

  • Focus: Makes decisions to achieve specific outcomes
  • Goal: Identifies the gap between where you are and where you want to be
  • Use: Can be used to explore the context of long-range goals

Learning organisations may encounter various challenges or obstacles which Senge refers to as learning “disabilities”. He goes on to describe what these disabilities are and how companies can rid of the learning “disabilities” aka detrimental habits or mindsets, that threaten their productivity and success. He also elaborates on how organisations can grow by modelling the strategies of learning organizations – ones in which new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, collective aspiration is set free, and people are continually learning how to create the results they truly desire.

Senge states that “At its core, learning organizations build great teams – the trust, the relationships, the acceptance, the synergy, and the results that they achieve.” You can look around for yourself and see that unless there is trust within the teams, there can be no synergy and team members will not sacrifice personal goals to work towards a common goal – the success of the organization.

The startups that thrive today can vouch that their teams have “a strong ability to learn, adjust and change in response to new realities.” that is the only way to thrive and grow as per Dr. Senge in the fast changing complex world that we live in.

The distinguishing characteristics of a learning organization include a learning culture, a spirit of flexibility and experimentation, people orientation, continuous system-level learning, knowledge generation and sharing, and critical, systemic thinking.

 It is worthwhile to read more about Senge’s 11 laws of Systems Thinking. These will help you to understand business systems and to identify behaviors for addressing complex business problems.
In brief the 11 Laws are –

  1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions
  2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back
  3. Behaviour grows better before it grows worse
  4. The easy way out usually leads back in
  5. The cure can be worse than the disease
  6. Faster is slower.
  7. Cause & effect are not closely related in time & space.
  8. Small changes can produce big results, but areas of the highest leverage are often least obvious.
  9. You can have your cake & eat it too but not all at once. Not either/or. allow time for solutions to work.
  10. Dividing an elephant in half does not product two small elephants
  11. There is no blame
Posted in Leadership

Top Skill for 2020

Year 2020 will be remembered for a long time for the string of unexpected and unpredictable events that have happened and continue to happen, impacting lives of people across the globe. This has caused us to adapt to a lot of changes very very rapidly in a very short span of time. Staying indoors, maintaining personal hygiene, social distancing, work from home, wearing mask, valuing human lives etc. It has surprised everyone how a tiny virus can bring the entire world on its knees. And people are now bracing themselves for biological warfare as experts say that this is definitely not the last pandemic…

In the Pre-covid era, there was a lot of discussion around ‘CHANGE’ and being a change agent – how the world is changing very fast and that we all need to embrace change with examples of giants like Kodak and Nokia who failed to change with time and so on. 

However, in the last few months everyone has embraced change either voluntarily, forcibly or reluctantly. People have accepted that this is the ‘new normal’. The discussion is now shifting to surviving and thriving in the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. And the top skill that people need now is the ability to deal with ambiguity

Gone are the days when people used to ask about 3 year and 5 year plans. In the current situation people do not have visibility about the next three months. This is truly a live example of paradigm shift. It is like shifting from a waterfall model to an agile approach to life. 

With the events in 2020 unfolding at a rapid pace – starting with Covid19 and then closely followed by multiple earthquakes, locusts attacks, war threats, Floods and asteroids passing close to earth, forest fires… it seems as if the world is playing the game of Jumanji where every roll of dice is triggering some new set of events, threats or challenges. 

Initially these events took everyone by surprise and many doomsday theories started getting popular on social media. However, soon people regained their mental balance and now people are exploring how to excel in the changed atmosphere – and here is the mantra –

  • Learn to deal with ambiguity – it is ok to feel a little uncomfortable
  • Be ready to take the next step even if the whole path is not visible 
  • Have faith. Believe that in the end everything will turn out to be good. This too shall pass
  • Approach the situation with an open mind & positive attitude
  • Calibrate your risk appetite – plan for all contingencies.
  • Last but not the least –  Take action. Small steps taken consistently over a period of time yield great results
Posted in Leadership

Keep Your Flame Burning !

A man, who regularly attended meetings with his friends, without any notice stopped participating in his activities. After a few weeks, one very cold night, the leader of that group decided to visit him.

He found the man at home, alone, sitting in front of a fireplace where a bright and cozy fire burned.  Guessing the reason for the visit, the man welcomed the leader.  There was a great silence.

The two men only watched the dancing flames around the logs that crackled in the fireplace. After a few minutes, the leader, without saying a word, examined the embers that formed and selected one of them, the most incandescent of all, removing it to the side of the brazier with a pair of tongs.  Then he sat down again.

The host was paying attention to everything, fascinated but restless.  Before long, the lone ember flame subsided, until there was only a momentary glow and the fire suddenly went out. In a short time, what was a sample of light and heat, was nothing more than a black, cold and dead piece of coal.

Very few words had been spoken since the greeting.

The leader, before preparing to leave, with the pliers returned the cold and useless coal, placing it again in the middle of the fire.  Immediately, the ember was rekindled, fueled by the light and heat of the burning coals around him.

When the leader reached the door to leave, the host said: Thank you for your visit and for your beautiful lesson. I will return to the group.


Why are the groups extinguished? Very simple: because each member that withdraws takes fire and heat from the rest.

It is worth reminding members of a group that they are part of the flame. It is good to remind each other that we are all responsible for keeping each other’s flame burning. We must collectively promote the union between all so that the fire is really strong, effective and lasting.

Sometimes we feel all lonely and depressed and withdraw from active participation. It is during these times that other people of the group must reach out to them and bring them back to the mainstream.
In social groups whether with family members or with friends and colleagues, some of us are silent, others very active and others report sporadically. Everyone has their own way of contributing and staying connected. The friends that we meet here are to meet, learn, exchange ideas, or simply know that we are not alone and feel secure in the thought that there are people in our lives on whom we can count on and reach out to.

Let us keep our flame alive and help others keep their flame burning!

Posted in Leadership

Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox refers to a situation when a group makes a collective decision that is counter to the thoughts and feelings of its individual members.  

The Abilene Paradox was introduced by management thinker Jerry B. Harvey, Professor, Emeritus of Management at The George Washington University, in an article on the subject. 

It occurs because human beings have a natural aversion to going against the feelings of a group – they want to conform socially. According to Harvey, the paradox may be driven because individuals believe they will experience negative attitudes or feelings if they ‘speak up’ on a topic. And if no one ‘speaks-up‘ then the group ends up  making a decision that is quite opposite to the wishes and feelings of the group.

The below example illustrates this concept beautifully – 
On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner.
The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.”
The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.”
The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”
The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic.
The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.”
The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.”
The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

In groupthink theories, the Abilene paradox theory is used to illustrate that groups not only have problems managing disagreements, but that agreements may also be a problem in a poorly functioning group.

There are three things that leaders can do to avoid their teams being a victim of Abilene Paradox – 

  1. Create a safe environment where team members are encouraged to voice divergent opinions freely
  2. Expect disagreement in teams – that is the reason why diversity is encouraged in teams so that you can get different perspectives on critical issues. 
  3. Actively listen to feedback – leaders must be willing to listen to feedback and not surround themselves with only the “yes” men

Do you want to share any of your examples?

Posted in Leadership

If . . .

“If—” is a poem by British Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling, written in 1895. He wrote a number of children stories. The all time favourite “Jungle Book” was also written by Rudyard Kipling.

If you can keep your head when all about you      
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,    
But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,    
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, 
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,    
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise: 
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;  

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster    
And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken    
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, 
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,    
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings    
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, 
And lose, and start again at your beginnings    
And never breathe a word about your loss; 
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew    
To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you    
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,      
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, 
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,    
If all men count with you, but none too much; 
If you can fill the unforgiving minute    
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,      
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Posted in Leadership

Tale of Two Pebbles – Lesson in Lateral Thinking

Many hundreds of years ago in a small Indian village, a merchant had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to the moneylender. The moneylender, who was old and ugly, fancied the merchant’s beautiful daughter – so he proposed a bargain. He said he would forgo the merchant’s debt if he could marry the daughter. Both the merchant and his daughter were horrified by the proposal.

So the cunning moneylender suggested that they let providence decide the matter. He told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty bag. The girl would then have to pick one pebble from the bag.

(1) If she picked the black pebble, she would become the moneylender’s wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven. 
(2) If she picked the white pebble she need not marry him and her father’s debt would still be forgiven. 
(3) But if she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail.

They were standing on a pebble strewn path in the merchant’s garden. As they talked, the moneylender bent over to pick up two pebbles. As he picked them up, the sharp-eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. He then asked the girl to pick her pebble from the bag.

What would you have done if you were the girl? 
If you had to advise her, what would you have told her? 

Careful analysis would produce three possibilities:
1. The girl should refuse to take a pebble.
2. The girl should show that there were two black pebbles in the bag and expose the moneylender as a cheat.
3. The girl should pick a black pebble and sacrifice herself in order to save her father from his debt and imprisonment.

The above story is used with the hope that it will make us appreciate the difference between lateral and logical thinking.

Here is what the girl did…
The girl put her hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles.

“Oh, how clumsy of me,” she said. “But never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.” Since the remaining pebble is black, it must be assumed that she had picked the white one. And since the moneylender dared not admit his dishonesty, the girl changed what seemed an impossible situation into an advantageous one.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Most complex problems do have a solution, at times the solution is not so obvious and we need to think “Out of the Box”

Posted in Leadership

Can We Accommodate True Creativity?

Many of the most creative persons are also the most misunderstood people in the world because they choose to see the world and its problems through a different lens. Where the world sees problems they see opportunity. These are the people who change the world and in many case these are also the people who are the most ridiculed before they are accepted. We have many examples in history of such genius who walked the Earth. Here is one such story.
Some time ago I received call from a colleague. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed a perfect score. The instructor and the student agreed to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.
The student had answered, “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”
The student really had a strong case for full credit since he had really answered the question completely and correctly! On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade in his physics course and to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this.
I suggested that the student have another try. I gavethe student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said he had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer, which read: “Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its all with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula x=0.5*a*t^^2, calculate the height of the building.”
At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and gave the student almost full credit. While leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said that he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.
“Well,” said the student, “there are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.”
“Fine,” I said, “and others?” “Yes,” said the student, “there is a very basic measurement method you will like. In this method, you take climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.”
“A very direct method.” “Of course. If you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of ‘g’ at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of g, the height of the building, in principle, can be calculated.”
“On this same tact, you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, and then swing it as a pendulum. You could then calculate the height of the building by the period of the precession”.
“Finally,” he concluded, “there are many other ways of solving the problem. Probably the best,” he said, “is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Mr. Superintendent, here is a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of the building, I will give you this barometer.”
At this point, I asked the student if he really did not know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think.
The student was “Neils Bohr” (quantum theory, physics, mechanics, hydrogen atom guru etc ) and the arbiter “Rutherford”.
Posted in Leadership

What Happened To The Last 3 Years…

This is an excerpt from the book “The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue EXCELLENCE” by Tom Peters. I was introduced to this piece of exceptional insight  many years ago by one of my mentors who is popularly known by the initials KK. He was conducting a session on Excellence at work and he shared the below article with the audience. The impact of this insightful piece of writing was visible as everyone was able to reflect on their forgotten dreams and being busy managing the daily grind. I urge you to read it and reflect on your own journey and share what you felt.

I cannot begin to tell you how important and practical I think this item is.
I cannot begin to tell you how much I would like to reach out from this page, and shake you, and shout …
You can do this.
To myself, I keep saying …
You take over a department. Twenty-eight people. You aim to make it a “smoothly functioning unit.” As time goes by, and you deal with brush fire after brush fire after brush fire (we all do), your aspiration-in-reality becomes “making it through the day.”

And next thing you know, you’ve indeed “made it through the day”—about 700 times.
And three years have passed. There have been no mutinies. And your annual evaluations have been consistently “pretty damn good.”
But what do you really have to show for … three whole years of your precious life?
Actually, not much. “Competent survival” might be an accurate description.But nobody’s beating down the door to get into your unit.
And you really don’t have one or two … stupendous … accomplishments to brag about or sleep on.
Well, I don’t think that’s good enough.
For you. For the people in your unit.
I beg you … yes, beg … to review the definition-aspiration with which I launched this item.
I beg you … yes, beg … to talk with your peers and your folks and anyone you can buttonhole about … WHAT COULD BE.
I beg you … yes, beg … to “go public” with a doc called, more or less… “Towering Aspirations of Growth and Excellence” ... and then use it as a litmus test against which you judge 
…every decision, small or large; 
… every project, small or large; 
… every people move small or large.
I believe there is a decent chance that, if you get moving ASAP, three years from now you will be able to look back and say
…“Oh my God, we did that…”
“How cool…”
“How ‘Wow’…
”And, yes, people from all over the organization will be hammering on your door, begging (yes, begging) to sign up and become part of your … Greatest Show on Earth.

Posted in Leadership

Tappers & Listeners

As leaders, many of us have to manage a diverse group of people who are often scattered geographically and throw in the various modes of collaboration like text chat, emails, team meetings etc into the mix and you will realize the need for effective communication to get your ideas across to your teams and other stakeholders.

In 1990, a psychology student at Stanford University, conducted an interesting experiment.  It was referred to as the “Tappers & Listeners” experiment.  The rest of the world first heard of it when the authors Chip and Dan Heath started talking about in public.

For her PhD dissertation, Elizabeth Newton invited her peers in college to participate in the study.  Each student was assigned one of two roles: ‘Tapper’ or ‘Listener’. 

The tappers were given a list of twenty-five popular tunes, such as “Happy Birthday to you” and “Jingle Bells”.  They had to tap out the tune with their fingers on a table, and the listeners had to guess the song.  As you might have guessed, this was not an easy task at all.  Of the hundred and twenty times a tune was tapped, the listener could guess the tune correctly only thrice.  That’s a success rate of about 2.5%. 

But here’s the interesting bit.  Before the tappers began to tap the tune, Elizabeth asked them to predict the probability of the listeners being able to guess the song correctly.  The tappers predicted a 50% chance that they would be able to get the listeners to guess the tune correctly. 

So while they thought that they would be able to get the listeners to guess correctly one out of two times, the reality was that listeners could guess the tune only once in forty attempts.  How come?

Well, here’s what was happening.  As the tapper taps the tune, he can hear the song playing in his head  His fingers seem to be tapping the tune in perfect sync with what’s playing in his head.  And he just can’t understand what the listener is not able to pick up such a simple tune!

And what about the listener?  Well, she doesn’t have the tune playing in her head, without which, she has no idea what’s happening.  She tries as hard as can to make sense of the bizarre Morse-code like tapping that she hears.  Alas, to no avail.  This results in utter frustration. 

As leaders, we often fall into the tapper’s trap!  We give instructions which seem very clear in our heads but our colleagues may have no idea what we want them to do.  Has it happened to you that you called a young trainee to do some work, and when he got back the next day – having slogged all night to finish the task – you were disappointed?  He hadn’t quiet done what you were looking for.  You probably felt a bit frustrated too, that he ‘didn’t quiet get it.’

The next time that happens, do remember that the problem is with the tapper – not the listener.  Because you knew what you wanted to get done, you assumed it was clear to the young trainee too.  That is seldom the case. 

The next time you are communicating with a colleague, think about the “Tappers & Listeners” experiment.  And remember, what’s obvious to you may not be so to the other person.  When the listener says he doesn’t get it, that’s not a signal to get irritated.  It’s probably telling you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and try and be more explicit.  Don’t assume that knowledge levels are the same. 

One more thing. Tapping harder or Tapping repeatedly won’t make it any easier for the Listener!