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Leading learning, leading change: what’s standing in your way?

Leading learning, leading change: what’s standing in your way?
Published: July 27, 2020
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In this volatile world, organisations of all types must keep up with the rapid pace of change in order to survive, adapting the way they work to flex around the dynamic conditions of the times. In response to this need, a whole industry has sprung up around organisational change, with companies, academics and thinkers selling endless books, tools, methodologies, concepts and stories. Yet all the evidence is that organisational change remains an elusive achievement, with only 30% ending in success. So what’s going wrong? 

The first step in thinking about organisational change is to understand that change and learning are symbiotic processes: no learning, no change, it’s as simple as that. But in organisations, we actually find it very difficult to learn, and this is a significant part of our problem with change.  

We tend to think of organisations as machines, as functional entities that operate by certain rules. This mirrors the way that we understand learning as an oversimplified, mechanistic process with clear steps of knowledge transfer and a visible endpoint, in which the learning is achieved and a particular piece of knowledge is ticked off.  

This perception of learning comes from our experiences of a formal curriculum at school or college, which is designed to provide us with a certain credential. This is tell/test learning, and it is expected to continue in an organisational setting, but with a trainer instead of a teacher. They tell you what they know and you write it down and know it; you read your way through a content library and you absorb the knowledge; you can learn anything as long as you have the right tool or tactic, right?  

Wrong. Because all of the things that we need to know, and all of the skills and capabilities we require to truly change organisations are not amenable to tell/test. Organisations are not machines; and all of the messy and brilliant parts of organisations and change, all of the relational, complex, systemic, people and culture stuff, are completely immune to this approach. Unless we update our understanding about what learning is and how it can be approached we will never be successful in creating agile cultures and adaptive organisations.  

Learning is not something for individuals to complete on their own, in isolation. Learning needs leadership and we need to change – or indeed start – the conversation about how leaders should do this. This requires examining our thinking about leadership. What is a leader? Someone above us, elevated and all-knowing? Someone to look to when answers are needed? The problem with this is it leaves no space for a leader to be a professional not-knower, and to lead their organisation into knowing something new. It leaves no room for growth and innovation.   

Leaders shouldn’t be commanders; they should be gardeners, creating the conditions for dynamic learning and change in their organisations. For leaders to foster these conditions they must renounce their image as powerful knowing machines and embrace their fundamental vulnerability as someone who is also learning and changing – all the time.  

Indeed, despite the fact that many still laud Kurt Lewin’s ‘freeze, unfreeze, refreeze’ theory as a successful model for change, it is vital to understand that change and learning are ongoing process – there should be no refreeze. The language of training misleads us into thinking that learning has an end-point. But this isn’t the case, learning, change and growth are never complete – they are part of what makes us human and what makes organisations innovative, adaptable and successful. At the very least, living in a constantly evolving digital world means that we must constantly strive to learn in order to keep up with the technology our organisations need to survive.  

A leader who manages to model this constant and vital process of learning will enable their staff to do the same, laying the foundations for an organisation that can respond to the dynamism of the times by collectively mobilising itself to adapt, change and grow, at all times.