Shifts in Organisational Learning – The Nature of your Strength

One of the innovations that allowed the Apollo spacecraft to journey to the moon was the development of a new generation of gyroscopes that formed part of the inertial navigation system. Essentially they formed part of a system that allowed the spacecraft to accurately know when it was moving, and how: how it rotated, when it tilted. Where it was.

To fly a spacecraft, a plane, or indeed to walk to your local coffee shop, two things are important: firstly, to know where you start, and secondly, to know where you are now. You can ascertain ‘where you are now’ either by looking around you (to give you an absolute measure), or by tracking all the details of how you move (to give you a relative one to your starting point.

For example, if i take one hundred steps in a straight line, and say fifty centimetres in each step, then i know for sure that i will end up fifty metres from where i started (a relative measure). Or i will end up in the street (and absolute observation).

As we evolve our Organisations, we may need to ask where our gyroscopes are – or to ask how we know where we are going, or where we have landed.

Gyroscopes are handy if you know where you want to end up, but for Organisations, there are no gyroscopes: there is instead simply the Known, the Visible Potential (what we can imagine), and the Occluded or Denied.

Organisations also differ from spacecraft in another critical way: they may need to crash.

Or to put it another way, they many not benefit from always remaining upright: if we consider the ‘known’ to be our vertical, and the operations of the Organisation today to keep us aligned to that, our challenge may be to tip over. To shift towards either the known space of potential, or into the unknown.

One of the paradoxes about learning to ride a bike is that it seems really hard until the point when you do it, and once you can do it, it’s very difficult to deliberately fall off.

Our legacy Organisations have learnt to travel in a straight line: they are optimised, codified, and structured to keep doing so. They can dream of different futures, but may be denied the ability to travel to them.

The illustration is a simplification, but intended to illustrate this: does your strength lie in the known, in the visible potential (which is the typical place we seen to innovate ‘in the light of what we can imagine or see’), or can it tip into the actively occluded (the space that is shielded from us by the things we already know to be true?

Organisational Learning is part of this challenge, because it is a reasonable assumption that ‘what we know’ is part of this challenge, and ‘what we can learn to do or be’ is another part of it.

Possibly we can even chart the steps to change: to understand with clarity our strengths, vision, and where shadows lie, to understand our structure, constraints, and appetite, to understand our agency, constraints, and momentum.

It is the easiest thing in the world to talk about adapting an Organisation: it’s even easy to move into motion. To build new teams, procure new technologies, to engage consultants and to create LinkedIn videos. It’s easy to desire or aspire. But it’s very hard to lose balance: to throw ourselves truly into this new space. Because it means to get lost, to tilt, to be out of balance, to be sub optimised, to be uncertain, to be confused, to fracture established power and control, and to lose sight of both our starting points and destination.

So, as ever, we veer into the realms of bravery: are you brave enough to change, where change may require us to fall, and even fail?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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