Thursday, November 8, 2018

Agile structure is the panacea for learning in organizations and so for agility

Learning is increasingly getting the recognition it deserves, with active learning and learning strategies likely to be the top priority by 2022 (World Economic Forum). Of course, you can only be agile and innovative by learning with each other. Hagel talks about scalable learning; accelerating performance is becoming the new standard, with workgroups acting as the spark igniting its potential. According to the new report about the Future of jobs (the World Economic Forum, 2018), people will need to adopt an agile learning mindset if they want to succeed in the organizations of tomorrow. Chris Piri (General Manager of worldwide learning at Microsoft) illustrates this in a recent interview:

 “the time is ripe for a total transformation of corporate learning. Learning principles are infused in the entire ecosystem, a deep learning culture is built up to create sustained competitive advantage. Microsoft embraces a growth mindset culture by learning from failure, pursuing deep customer empathy, and celebrating curiosity. They harness the social learning already happening across and between organizations and set their teams free to learn from customers and each other.”

Wow!! OK, learning is top priority; talent and skills are the number one hot issue for organization leaders! However, learning processes are tough and, in general, little progress is made; it is hard work and there is no easy solution. Download article.

The problem space
A learning culture is key, but alone is not enough for successful learning processes. First, I thought that transfer is the issue, since we know for years that transfer of training to work is a weak link; but there is much more at stake. I observed that learning processes at work only happen occasionally[1]. Even advocates for change within organizations do not make much progress with regard to learning; one reason may be that they are asked to organize too much themselves. My gut feeling said that we should organize work differently, but I could not put my finger on it. I developed an app, to support people to organize their change in behavior. Good idea, but it meant another additional app, and it was not fully embedded in work; it was still too much a learning world thing. In between, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, the thought leader about economic behavior, published his book, “Thinking slow and fast”, describing the unconscious, intuitive, errors of reasoning that distort our judgement of the world. It is even more delicate when you know that information, as input for learning, is more and more biased and manipulated by machines and AI. The World Economic Forum 2018 advocates analytical and critical thinking, which Kahneman calls “System 2 thinking”; but businesses and employees are overwhelmed by data and information, and the pace of work is accelerating. We are all too busy, leaving no time for reflection or slow learning, or to just do nothing. Then forget all the romantic beliefs about (scalable) learning!
We desperately need something, it should be simple, at hand, which invites people to learn actively and which makes the adoption of a learning mindset very appealing.
What should we do, then - and what do we even mean by “learning”? What do the learning principles mean for the design of organizations? Something else than the well-worn path of the learning organization! How should we organize work? And can we structure the organization - or better, the ecosystem - in such a way so that scalable learning happens everywhere, almost organically and by everybody?

Instead of “learning”, I prefer to use “sensemaking”. Klein defines sensemaking as:
the process of creating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty in order to make decisions
Apparently, it makes sense to use the word sensemaking; since we work more and more in complex situations, and agile is developed for complex business environments. Sensemaking is in essence a relational or social activity (Weick, 1995), because people develop meaning in the interactive process with others. People give feedback, initiate reflection, and consciously promote friction. The trick is to hit a nerve with the other person, to connect with the other person's mental model in the conversation or via another medium, so that the other person can make sense of that information. Each person relies on the other to interpret reality - to “make sense”. Therefore, listening carefully and mindful interaction is crucial!
Weick describes the process of sensemaking as follows:
  1. Enactment: What you notice first from the external environment gives you direction; as you cannot notice everything at once, you make a selection. That selection is not accidental; it’s determined by preferred ways of looking, and past behaviors. We bring our own biases to the environment, so that what you perceive and pick up is subjective.
  2. Selection processes play a role interpreting this information among competing possibilities for interpretation. They determine what you put in the foreground, and what remains in the background.
  3. Retention: After interpreting the information, you assign meaning to it.
  4. Actively question the received wisdom and operated assumptions and become aware of new enactments emerging from the learnings.
The meaning that someone gives to something is in any case a simplified representation, in which much richness, traceability, and ambiguity is lost. Peter Senge refers to these representations as mental models and Weick as "causal maps." They represent what you consciously or unconsciously ‘learn’('retention') from interpretation ('selection'). And also, that gives you cues for your attitude and which new information you will notice ('enactment').

Figure 1 Sensemaking, Weick & Kahneman

Sensemaking starts with (ecological) changes enacting perceived signals from the environment. How do you keep the relevant issues in the foreground, so that new cues might be linked to these issues which give you the chance to make sense? Becoming aware of weak signals is a crucial skill in today's overwhelming information era. As Varela argues: people are largely unaware in their daily lives (Valera, 1991 and 2016). The addiction to social media and the smartphone deadens once more the senses to perceive the potential relevant cues; more and more people look at the media and unlearn to perceive the enactments of their own body, in interaction with the environment and other people. Mindfulness, the practice of becoming more aware, is described by Varela as an 'enactive' approach, in which cognitive processes fit into the relational domain of the body, as a self-organizing system connected to the environment. Embodied enaction and emotion not only influence interpretation, but are a means by which interpretation occurs (Kudesia, 2017). Mindful awareness brings forth relevance, in which the new might emerge. In the books “Presence” and “Theory-U”, Senge (2006) and Scharmer (2009) build on the ideas of Varela.

Sensemaking processes are mainly selection processes, in which people interpret what these changes mean, and they choose the mental models that they think are best suited to the observed stimulus (Weick). Mental models are deep-rooted assumptions, generalizations, images that influence how we see things and how we respond to them. The function of mental models is mainly to simplify information processing about the environment. But we are biased in our observations; people have a tendency to see what we want to see. You might also say that we attenuate external variety and we have no guarantee that we may discard the wrong information. And since we know that only variety is able to absorb the rich complex variety in the environment (law of requisite variety, Ashby & Beer), we should just amplify our capacity to absorb variety.

People tend to confirm their own arguments and own reality and avoid the inconvenience of disruptive external evidence or signals. When signals from the outside world do not fit into people’s mental model, it is difficult to respond adequately and efficiently to those signals. They will then have to change themselves, and by implication, their existing mental model about their outside world. Changing a mental model generally doesn’t happen automatically; people often have to experience an inconvenience (friction), which makes them feel compelled to do something with it. Working with mental models starts with looking at yourself; you have to learn to expose your own unconscious images and examine them critically (Senge, 1990).

Thinking: Fast and slow
To deepen our insight into the selection process, we look to Kahneman (2011); one of the founders of behavioral economy. He contends that cognitive processes are divided into two systems: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast, impulsive and intuitive; it responds to impressions, is easy-going, and makes causal connections at lightning speed, even if they are not there. This system governs most of our lives, making a coherent story immediately of everything that happens, with a head and a tail. It guides us through the day and through life; it is crucial to survive. With System 1, signals that do not fit into people’s mental model are pushed aside; they are not noticed consciously, and people carry on in the same old way.

If life or work becomes difficult, System 2 (slow thinking) can come into effect. It enables us to reflect, argue, behave more cautiously and give attention. It exercises self-control. This part does the hard work, but it is lazy and slow, often needing a conscious effort to engage ('Stop! Think!'). System 2 often chooses the path of least resistance, and is eager to take over what System 1 tries to tell us.

Above all, life is determined by 'cognitive convenience'. A good mood pushes System 2 to the background. When people feel good, they are more intuitive and creative, but also less attentive and receptive to logical errors. In his book, Kahneman presents one example after another, how System 1 is fooling us, and this fits Weick's selection processes. It’s critical, then, that we master the skill of becoming aware. Mindful awareness of Varela fits initially in the slow System 2; displaying something on the table, taking time for it, and letting go. Letting new ideas and insights emerge is a System 1 activity again; in a way, System 1 is then nested in System 2.

We are inclined to let our emotions influence our idea of the truth and live in an era in which emotional engagement seems to be more important than facts (populism). System 1 thinking becomes even more dominant. Bobby Duffy argues in ‘The perils of perception’ that we often misinterpret things, thanks to argumentations of other people (e.g. social media) and experts are not trusted anymore. The field between trust and science has become an ideological battlefield. Therefore, Duffy argues for more awareness; if we understand to what extent our emotions influence our idea of truth, then we might be more resilient to wrong assumptions (a System 2 activity).
We desperately need System 2 for life and work. We would have to make the threshold very low to slip easily into the slow, lazy System 2 thinking
To make sense, to learn, you constantly need the slow and lazy System 2 to:
  • observe well and not be guided by biases; to practice conscious perception. Do not be led by your own mental model;
  • reflect and take time to think about something.
  • to interact with others about what you perceive, and to receive feedback on whether your perception and interpretation is correct
  • reflect personally, or with someone else
  • promote friction for yourself, or among others: asking the right question, promoting argumentation, interacting mindfully, ....
  • to allow inconvenience to yourself; not avoiding conflict, challenging assumptions, and engaging in debate
  • release yourself from certainties and face ambiguity
  • be open and ready to receive feedback
  • monitor psychological safety in the team, and be very alert to disturbances that endanger it
  • be alert to vulnerability (both your own, and others), and pay immediate attention to it
Note that formal training sessions fit some requirements for learning! For learning, we should appreciate friction - the discomfort, the contradiction, to discover black swans, asking questions, confronting information, the counter-argument, and humor. “As organizing becomes disorganized, the forgotten is remembered, the invisible becomes visible, the silenced becomes heard […] creating an opportunity for learning‟ (Weick & Westley, 1996).
For sensemaking and for the sake of agility and innovation we will have to make constant use of our lazy, slow System 2 thinking, which according to Baumeister also has a limit (ego depletion). It is too easy to call for scalable learning, because it takes too much energy to constantly turn on System 2 thinking; that is the hard reality. When the tank for System 2 is empty, intuition takes over as the guiding principle, and we are back on System 1. If people have to organize the requirements mentioned above all by themselves, then they will often not be able to achieve sensemaking adequately, even when they are highly (intrinsically) motivated. People may have a great learning capability and yet not be able to make sense.
People will make (too) little sense (learn), when they have to organize sensemaking all by themselves
It’s a big ask to constantly switch to System 2; sometimes, we simply forget to reflect, to give attention, to give feedback, to question what we perceive. Our best intentions will not get us there, and statements about romantic values and culture may be counterproductive. It requires from us a cultural change; we should invite one another to go to System 2; to be constantly tempted to dwell on experiences, and to think about it, to pay attention to it, to have attention for the other person, and not follow our intuition as a matter of course.
Can we develop and design organizations in which people will automatically, organically slip into system 2 thinking to make sense, interact and learn?
Agile and Scrum as learning structures
Structure and organizing play an important role for sensemaking. We could design the organization in such way that learning principles are leading, in which interaction is regularly sought. In 2013, I was inspired by Richard Sheridan’s book about the learning principles in Menlo Innovations; an organisation often mentioned as a beacon of best agile practice, despite Sheridan not calling it agile.

Agile is based on a set of principles set out in the “Agile Manifesto”, such as valuing “individuals and interactions” over processes and tools. It is a mindset, rather than a framework, relying on empowerment and trust, and (although not explicit in the manifesto) cultural characteristics such as autonomy, servant leadership and teams. The argument for interaction is even more important as there are indications that more and more people neglect the skill of interacting by the addiction to smartphone and social media, it is badly needed to reclaim the conversation (Sherry Turkle, MIT).

Over the last decade, there has been an increase in agile adoption, driven overwhelmingly through the application of Scrum in organizations. The Scrum Guide is a framework for implementing agility, comprising of roles, events and artefacts. Its success is obvious when we recognize that a new way of working can only be achieved with a new structure; an organization in transition has to provide support, an anchor, for all employees coping with uncertainty and ambiguity. Scrum eases the difficult transition to a new way of working by providing a pattern of behavior and rules for engagement. People will have to experience what it is to work together in a different way; a helping hand supports and when felt supported they might be willing to experience it.

I was surprised that using a framework like Scrum to implement agile, you can encourage learning in so many ways. Transforming towards agility may give the space for System 2 thinking. Below I describe the structural elements of agile that have to do with learning.

Teams The cross functional team is one of the pillars of agile. The team can be considered as a learning community or learning lab. It is the meeting place or space for intimate interactions in a safe environment. In the context of the requisite variety in a complex business environment, the team interacts with customers and team members experience and learn from the rich customer environment.

Roles Depending on how you implement agile, there are a number of (leadership) roles to be played. In Scrum, these are Product Owner, Scrum Master (agile coach), and eventually the chapter lead. In any context, people should pick up roles that fit them; and then strengths may flourish even more. Well thought use of the ‘scrum’ roles is key. The Scrum Master, agile coach or Agile & Learning(A&L) adviser can provide best practice and guidance as to how to best implement agile; they are also responsible for ensuring the morale, safety, and learning capacity of the team remains high. They promote a learning climate in which team members feel free to interact, to look for inconvenience and make biases explicit; making entering System 2 thinking cost much less energy. This will start in the meetings and will increasingly take place in work, informally. When it is a role and A&L advisers fit that role, entering system 2 will cost much less energy for themselves and they will invite team members to do the same, using their close proximity. In time team members will jump more and more into the coaching role to foster the interaction climate.

Small wins or sprints Central to agility is shortening the learning cycle, or having quick feedback loops. By breaking down work into “Sprints” and creating smaller viable products. The team is able to evaluate progress more regularly and learn quickly from errors and experiences.

Meetings Scrum events in every Sprint offer a foothold to start the conversations within the team. Each event presents an opportunity to assess and adapt part of the process: planning & review meeting, retrospective meeting, daily scrum, … For instance, the 15-minute Daily Scrum is an opportunity to assess a team’s progress toward their Sprint Goal, the impediments and adapt their approach if they are unlikely to complete it. The feeling of having a daily forum to ask for support is almost revolutionary. Furthermore, every Sprint, the team meets at the Sprint Retrospective to assess and adapt the way they work together and promote psychologically safety; something we could only dream about in traditional project management.

Rituals Rituals are designed to reduce complexity within the framework and allow to enter System 2 with less energy; they are kept at a consistent time and a consistent point in each cycle. They offer support and a ritual goes without saying, you do not need a system 2 for that. The daily stand-up in the morning at a certain time is a ritual. At Menlo Innovations at 10 am all people come together and at 3 pm all people have a short walk outside.

Code of conduct The way of working should be made explicit. As an organization scales, it should have a small set of easily remembered codes or rules. For example, ING has an “orange code” with only three rules. These rules offer support, and guidance toward organizationally-acceptable norms and behaviors. They should constantly be subjects of conversation, you live them. At least one rule should refer to System 2.

This is by no means a definitive list, as there are more aspects linked to structure which might support the learning principles. The agile structure is on a good track to establish an interaction and learning climate; to facilitate scalable learning. The agile framework offers interesting perspectives to make the threshold very low to slip easily into the slow, lazy System 2 thinking to make sense and learn. Each organization or company will have to develop its own structure, though; their own organizational learning process. Of course, there is no organization model; that is contradictory to the learning approach. And when we recognize that the way we organize is crucial for learning, it is wise to refer to organization experts like Henry Mintzberg and Stafford Beer (see my former articles).

Values like trust and empowerment linked to the agile mindset are the guiding principles to develop a structure for sensemaking. People need a support to which they can refer regularly, while developing an effective structure. In a world of growing mistrust (think Facebook data leaks, Trump, etc.), individuals need System 2 thinking to challenge the status quo; leaders need System 2 for wisdom and ensure they have smart advisors to support them.

By using Scrum or another agile framework, the organizations affords team members the opportunity to apply System 2 for sensemaking more frequently. For example:
  • Each team member plans a personal learning activity, linked to their learning goals and writes it on a post-it in the sprint planning meeting;
  • Daily Scrum affords team members an opportunity to reflect and share on learning experiences and tell about their learning experiences to come that day;
  • Sprint Retrospectives encourage mindful interaction and team-wide reflection; opportunities for learning in work are reviewed.
Application of learning structures in teams
All this should take place mainly in a team that is psychologically safe, and with team members who care personally for others; trust and mutual vulnerability are needed to explore the potential of friction and inconvenience. Groups that organize mindfully anticipate potential disruptive events, and are constantly updating their shared understanding of real-time events; by sharing information and expertise, instead of relying on assumptions derived from past experience. As such, they are better able to notice and respond to minor disruptions in their environment before these disruptions cascade into full-blown crises or opportunities are missed (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2006).

The challenge before us is to design organizations in such way that learning processes (sensemaking) take place naturally and organically. We would have to make the threshold to activate System 2 very low, and I am convinced that the structure and the way of organizing plays an important role in this. System 2 thinking can flourish in environments that foster learning, dialogue, openness, and courage. If teams can be mutually vulnerable in psychologically safe spaces, we no longer have to construct spaces or interactions for System 2 thinking; everyone would organically makes 'sense' at a high speed, resulting in increased agility, better quality output, and strengthened learning abilities. A prerequisite of this is leaders who dare to put employees at the center and do what they say (Archyris); only then will trust have a chance.
Agile is a vessel to transform the way organizations view learning, and indeed, how organizations learn.
For sensemaking we need an (agile) structure, in which team members:
  • know that all these interactions in formal meetings and informal encounters are necessary to be seduced to slip into System 2 thinking;
  • enact constantly and mindfully new cues; by doing, by experimenting, and by sharing and questioning these enactments with other team members and other contacts;
  • are invited to question what others perceive and interpret, making biases explicit and trying to avoid group think;
  • are invited to look for the inconvenience and value friction, while maintaining a safe learning and work environment;
  • encourage each other to take time for reflection, to become aware in the now. 
Next to a learning culture, organizations need a learning structure based on learning principles and agile values. Structure paves the way for a free space with a lot of interaction, in which team members feel encouraged, motivated to interact and make sense. The agile framework might offer a structure and a support in which people experience the new working climate. They are seduced almost organically to activate the lazy and slow System 2 thinking, which is necessary for agile learning.

The agile structure also offers a new lens to view the changing nature of organizations and workplaces.  Psychological safety and vulnerability, as pillars for excellence are conditional, and the agile learning Adviser plays an important role in this. The agile mindset implies that the hierarchy of authority is replaced by the hierarchy of competences. As such, the agile structure and mindset offer perspectives to make the 2022 vision come true (World Economic Forum 2018), in which people will have the appropriate skills to perform, with the top priority skills such as analytical thinking, active learning and learning strategies.

[1] I worked 12 years at Schouten & Nelissen as project leader, at that time market leader in training and change of behaviour in the Netherlands