Chameleon Organizations: Always Learning, Always Changing
As a youngster, and much to my good mother’s horror, I used to love to catch chameleons. As a rural Idaho boy the chance to catch these fast, color changing lizards was an exciting annual challenge while we spent six weeks in southern Florida.
The annual jaunt to Florida was much anticipated for any number of reasons as my father prepared for the approaching baseball season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Not the least of these reasons was outdoor boyish adventures involving a variety of reptiles, particularly the chameleons. Elusive because of their speed and hard to detect because of their ability to change their color I learned at a young age that change and speed generally equaled “survival.”
Years later I listened carefully to two members of my staff as they reported recent accomplishments. “We’ve added a new program, changed vendors, merged two departments, changed our internal reporting, and developed a new marketing approach.” Then the teaching and learning opportunity, “We’ll be glad when things get back to normal.” It was my privilege to help them realize their change efforts were not just short gusts of change. For survival and for them and the organization to thrive their conditions of change must be normal, everyday occurrences woven into the fabric of the organization’s culture. Sad and numbered are the days of those unable or unwilling to embrace continuous change; to change their colors so to speak.
Leadership “authorities” have dubbed quick response and adaptable organizations “learning organizations.” They are organizations which possess unique characteristics, characteristics which as a leader I have been able to instill in the organizations where I have held senior leadership responsibilities as a COO or CEO. I’ve personally learned, taught others, and led organizations to grasp the following concepts.
Learning Organizations Allow Debate
Employees are free to disagree and are expected to work out solutions among themselves. Leadership and management give fewer directives while they are viewed as supportive of the work being performed to achieve the organization’s mission and vision. Internal respectful disputes over the way to accomplish established performance objectives are fine. They do not interfere with – indeed, they can enhance – individual and organizational performance.
Learning Organizations Encourage Continuous Experimentation
We don’t have time to figure out the ideal way to respond to our customer demands,” a manager in a learning organization once explained. “We simply try something and, if it doesn’t work, we try something else.” In my personal experience I’ve learned that there is wisdom in making these determinations more calculated, more strategic. Regardless, the focus on continuous market driven improvement is a fixture within the organizations. Emphasis is on actions; try it, and fix it.
Temporary Not Permanent
Nothing is forever, in learning organizations; employees understand that seemingly long-term policies are temporary and subject to review. A new policy, program, or procedure – or even products and services – may be in place for only a short time.
Contradictions Are OK
In learning organizations, it is not necessary for all practices across all areas to be in synch and that just like situational leadership, there is value in practices fitting the circumstances. Accordingly, within the organizations where I have provided leadership I knowingly adopted short and long-term plans that conflicted. I held inherently contradictory expectations, such as high quality vs. low cost, quick response vs. no mistake, thorough discussion vs. quick decisions, seasoned judgment vs. inexperienced people.
Overarching Management Principle
One overarching management principle to which I have held tightly in developing learning organizations is that leadership is open to input from many sources, and we continuously adjust to better serve those I term, “stakeholders.” Further, the organizations’ cultures have been altered to embrace this basic truth that the organization welcomes continuous improvement, and that continuous improvement requires a commitment to individual and organizational learning. Additionally, there is organizational knowledge that in the absence of learning and adaptation to the environment, like the color changing of the chameleon, we simply repeat old practices which means we likely don’t thrive nor survive.
Definition of a Learning Organization
With numerous definitions proffered I have found personal identity in David Garvin’s explanation. Garvin says a learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.
Five Main Activities
In successfully implementing this definition I have led the implementation of policies, processes, and programs that encourage the following five main activities. These activities are found in any organization that has adopted the theoretical underpinnings of becoming a learning organization:
1) Systematic problem solving;
2) Experimentation with new approaches;
3) Learning from individual and organizational experience and past history;
4) Learning from the experiences and best practices of others, and
5) Transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization.