Self Limiting Learning Disabilities

Peter Senge argues that it is no accident that most organizations are ‘poor learners’. The way organizations are designed and structured, the ways jobs are defined, and the way we have been taught to behave and think in organizations create fundamental learning disabilities. The disabilities persist in spite of the best efforts of intelligent and committed people. The learning that does take place occurs in spite of the undetected disabilities that pervade most organizations to some degree.

1. “I am my position”

Most people describe themselves in terms of their jobs and activities, and not the purpose of the organization or community of which they are a part. When people focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact.

2. “The enemy is out there”

When things go wrong there is a tendency to blame someone or something ‘outside’ ourselves. When we focus on our position we cannot see how our actions extend ‘outside’, and when those actions have consequences that come back and hurt us, we see these new problems as being externally caused. The ‘externalization’ is almost always an incomplete story, and it makes it very difficult to detect what to do ‘in here’ to solve the fundamental problem.

3. “The illusion of taking charge”

Being ‘proactive’ is taking action. However, taking more assertive action against an externalized enemy is still reactive. Facing up to difficult issues without seeing how we contribute to our own problems will perpetuate the problem.

4. “The fixation on events”

Individuals within organizations are fixated on short term events, and the explanations that go along with them. The explanations may be true, but they distract us from seeing the longer term patterns of change that underlie the events, and from examining the causes of those patterns. Senge argues that the primary threats to our survival are not from sudden events, but from slow and gradual processes.

5. “The parable of the boiled frog”

A failure to adapt to gradually building threats to survival is extremely pervasive. If you put a frog into boiling water it will immediately try to jump out. If however, you put the frog into water at room temperature he’ll stay there. And as the temperature of the water is increased gradually he will continue to remain put until too groggy to climb out. The frog’s survival senses are geared to the sudden events, not to the gradual changes.

6. “The delusion of learning from experience”

The most powerful learning comes from direct experience – taking action and experiencing the consequences of that action. But what happens when we cannot observe the consequences of our actions, when they are outside of our boundary in terms of time and space? We learn best from experience, but for many of our most important decisions we never directly experience the consequences. Longer term cycles and gradual changes are particularly hard to see and most people have short memories. As a result only very few of the most important issues in an organization are ever thoroughly addressed.

7. “The myth of the management team”

Here is Senge at his best! “Standing forward to do battle with these dilemmas and disabilities is ‘the management team,’ the collection of savvy, experienced managers who represent the organization’s areas of expertise. All too often, teams in business tend to spend their time fighting for turf, avoiding anything that will make them look bad personally … and maintaining the appearance of a cohesive team.” To keep up the image they squelch disagreement and make watered-down compromises reflecting what everyone can live with. “Most management teams break down under pressure … the team may function quite well with routine issues. But when they confront complex issues that may be embarrassing or threatening, the ‘teamness’ seems to go to pot.”

Senge adds, “When was the last time someone was rewarded in your organization for raising difficult questions about the company’s current policies rather than solving urgent problems?”

We also learn to protect ourselves from the pain of appearing uncertain or ignorant, and that very process blocks out new understanding. Chris Argyris is cited as coining the term ‘skilled incompetence’ describing “teams full of people who are incredibly proficient at keeping themselves from learning.”

The learning disabilities create a short term reactiveness and block any appreciation or understanding of the systemic and fundamental shifts that occur.

  • People become their position and fail to see how their actions affect other positions;
  • When problems arise they externalize and blame competitors, suppliers, customers, and each other;
  • When they get proactive and do more of the same, they make matters worse;
  • They don’t recognize the ‘direness’ of their situation until it’s too late;
  • They rarely learn from their experience because the most important consequences of their actions occur elsewhere;
  • The consequences eventually come back and are seen as the very problems they blame others for;
  • The teams become consumed with all of the above and avoiding embarrassment, therefore precluding any opportunity to learn from each others’ experience.

Senge’s advice? Gain the insight and realize that the problems, and the hopes for improvement are inextricably tied to how people think. The solution? The fifth discipline – structural or systemic thinking – the ability to discover the underlying and fundamental causes of self limiting behaviour.