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Learning Ambidexterity in Organization: Building the Dynamic Learning Environment

Last month we discussed how learning can be “incremental and evolutionary” or “punctuated and revolutionary”(see below). The power of ambidextrous learning is that it takes all types of learning into account with its model. We began our discussion on learning with learning in organizations and what made learning in an AO unique.

Learning Ambidexterity in Organization: Understanding the Learning Organization

This month we will conclude our discussion on learning with a few insights for promoting a dynamic learning environment!

Radical, revolutionary learning is considered inadvisable in most organizations and rightfully so, most would be unequipped to deal with it. Usually, only learning and innovation tethered to the familiar is culturally allowed and structurally accommodated. David Owens, author of Creative People Must Be Stopped described what he terms adaptive learning and radical learning associating them with exploitation and exploration. When learning and innovation are considered together Owens contends, “all but the “smallest” incremental innovation is a bridge too far to consider adopting”, though it may be precisely what is needed.

If the single most important thing a CEO does for their organization is set the culture then the single most important thing culture does is create and protect a dynamic learning ecosystem or environment. It’s not enough to allow and encourage learning, you must protect and defend it as well. What can you do to promote a dynamic (ambidextrous) learning environment? Consider these tips for starters and we’ll talk more next month, enjoy! Eric

Find your Polymaths, Divergent Thinkers, Iconoclasts, and Bricoleurs

Bricoleurs are constantly taking the things they know and recombining them in radical new ways to solve problems.

These people are your Marvel Avengers team! What is a Bricoleur? Think of the television character MacGyver who could get out of a locked room with nothing more than a piece of chewing gum and a paper clip. In a now-famous story, sense-making researcher Karl Weick tells of the Mann-Gulch disaster and of backwoods firefighter Wagner Dodge. Dodge and his team of fire-jumpers were racing up a steep hill of dried chaparral grass trying to escape a fire while carrying heavy packs. With strong winds and a wall of flames in close pursuit Dodge did the unthinkable. He lit a fire in front of him and instructed his men to step into the embers of the burnt grass and lay down. A few of the men who trusted Dodge implicitly did as he said while the rest who couldn’t make sense of what he was doing ran around the burnt patch continuing up the hill. Dodge had never thought of doing such a thing as this before, by all accounts no one had. But he did know fire needed three things to exist; heat, a fuel source, and oxygen, by taking away one of the required elements, he broke the chain. The wall of flames parted around the men who followed Dodge into the burnt spot. Bricoleurs are constantly taking the things they know and recombining them in radical new ways to solve problems.

Iconoclasts are people who attack cherished beliefs or institutions, they are defined as “destroyers of images”. Iconoclasts are great for exposing cultural and structural inertia, two debilitating ailments that silently cripple organizations. Set boundaries for your iconoclasts, they must be respectful and not get personal in their critique. But don’t be intimidated by these positive deviants or drive them out. A passionate person cares deeply about what they believe in and if they believe in your company that’s a great thing. Finally, it’s good to have a person in the room with a different opinion!

Polymaths, and generalists, are once again poised to have their day. A polymath is a person of wide-ranging knowledge and learning (think Leonardo Davinci). Where once the narrowed specialist was revered as king, the master generalist is now making a comeback. In a complex changing world, creativity and diverse interests combined with expertise are being recognized as powerful tools. Most recently billionaire Mark Cuban said and fellow billionaire Elon Musk agrees: “freer thinkers with different perspectives are needed” and “creativity and flexible thinking should be seen as valuable assets.”

Divergent thinkers see the bigger picture, the whole landscape, and suspend judgement until decisions have to be made. If a divergent thinker were to cast a net it would be a wide one. They would be looking to catch as many species of fish as they could while the convergent thinker would be busy separating the blue fish from the red ones. The workplace is full of convergent thinkers (specialists) narrowing down solutions to make quick decisions while divergent thinkers are still looking in all the corners, holding back, and asking ever more refined questions. Use your divergent thinkers strategically, keep the funnel going both ways (diverge and converge) in cyclical patterns until you’ve refined the best solution for you. Interestingly, in a testament to the value of a diverse workforce neuroscience tells us women are considerably better equipped to handle big-picture, divergent, landscape thinking.

Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

1 COMMENT

  1. Magnificent article that makes us understand how organizations must evolve to have a favorable development (or at least competitive survival) over time.
    The tension between efficiency and innovation is a fundamental problem in the design of business structures, and is at the basis of the development of a series of alternative solutions in the organizational design. These range from the differentiation of the units in relation to the “environmental problems” faced, to the introduction of integration mechanisms up to the identification of real forms of organization specifically designed to ensure balance between stability and dynamism. In recent decades, the great environmental turbulence and the acceleration of competitive dynamics have generated for most companies a sort of imperative to simultaneously pursue paths of change and exploration and objectives of efficient exploitation of resources and knowledge. A sort of organization that has the ability to continuously and simultaneously pursue stability and innovation, becoming a qualifying and constitutive element of the organization itself.

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