“It takes a lot of learning to keep something stuck.” That was what Nora Bateson said at a recent development session I attended. Only a single sentence – one of literally thousands in a mind-stretching day. Yet it stood out and continues to haunt me days afterwards. Why?
Perhaps because it opens passages of possibilities. What is stuck? What is learning? Why would learning prevent release? It certainly hints at an unrecognised paradox. How can learning keep you stuck when we all know that learning is the solution: the way to move beyond most sticking points? Those were some of the avenues that my mind started to wonder down. The paradox path is particularly rewarding.
Etymologically the term “stuck” implies a stasis: a situation in which movement has ground to a halt or in which thinking has reached an impasse. Often, however, it is used more loosely to describe a lack of progress; where things continue in the same manner they always have. Either would be a state where Einstein would say you need to change your consciousness in order to change your experience.
This is particularly significant when it comes to organisational change, for to shift the thinking of the organisation you have to change the thinking of the people who work in it. It is possibly the failure to recognise this that leads to the failure of the large majority of change initiatives. Too often we see organisations as machines and the people in them as cogs and so consider change as a mechanical process: an attitude typified by the term ‘business process re-engineering’ to frame efforts to design change and “unstick” an organisation. As a result we issue instructions and simply expect change to follow.
By definition, people are all that can change an organisation and the way it operates. And people are biological animals. Consequently you would accomplish organisational change far more readily if you look upon your organisation as an organism rather than a machine. After all, Mother Nature doesn’t have a whole army of change agents and business process engineers on call to project manage progress. Life is perpetuated by a permanent capability to adapt. It is called ‘evolution’.
In her formal talk, Nora showed a slide with two trees. The same species and apparently only a few feet apart, they had grown differently and had very different branches, heights and shapes. This illustrated how they had each interacted differently with their environment, adapting to their respective situations, and the different needs their relative positions had demanded. Organisations should be just as adaptable to their environments. After all, change is just as much of a constant in business as it is in life.
For me this example highlighted the paradox of our approach to change. We regard it is unnatural rather than natural. As a result, instead of letting organisational change just evolve, shaped only by life and our overarching purpose, we try to impose it. And when we do that we significantly constrain our efforts and ultimately jeopardise our prospects of success.
As human beings we are distinguished by our superior intelligence and our ability to apply it. This places us above any other life-form. It means we have to be just as capable as a tree – if not more so – of adapting to our environment. So not putting this to ability to use in organisations is wilfully stupid and wasteful. We need to use every ounce of intelligence available to ensure an organisation responds to ever-changing conditions and adapts and thrives. This means every individual matters and we need to ensure that every individual is in that position.
Leonardo da Vinci said “All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” If you accept the logical premise that knowledge is accumulated learning, then our learning has to be founded on our perceptions. This means:
- It is our learning to date that keeps us stuck.
- We need to learn more to move beyond our current situation.
- To learn more we have to change our perceptions.
For any organisation it is therefore axiomatic that the more people are involved, and the better they communicate, the more perceptions will change and the quicker the organisation will adapt. The following diagram, which I have used before illustrates this point and underpins the argument for a biological or organic approach.
It has become fashionable to talk about the need for unlearning as the way to get unstuck and move ahead. And this is certainly one way to look at things. This, however, tends to diminish what people have already learned and the foundation on which they need to build. It may be better to simply recognise what is inhibiting movement. The “filters” can help here. They graphically depict the barriers to learning that can keep people stuck.
Purpose, context and relationships push people to move beyond the constraints historic learning can impose. This enables them to progress and thrive. And our organisations should provide these essential ingredients. It is a reciprocal need, for our organisations need people who are sensitive enough to what is happening around them to change their perceptions in order to progress, develop and grow. Releasing control and letting people respond in the appropriate way to what they see is the only way to create a learning organisation, where evolutionary change prevails and ensures its ability to survive, adapt and grow.
If you like what you have read contact me today for a free 30 minute conversation about how my ‘Every Individual Matters’ Model can provide the catalyst to help you create an organisational culture of ‘Love at Work’ : one where everyone cares and the business becomes our business, so embracing change and transforming – and sustaining – organisational performance.
Bay is the founder and director of Zealise, and the creator of the ‘Every Individual Matters’ organisational culture model that helps transform organisational performance and bottom-line results. Bay is also the author of several books, including “Lean Organisations Need FAT People” and “The 7 Deadly Toxins of Employee Engagement” and, more recently, The Democracy Delusion: How to Restore True Democracy and Stop Being Duped.