Solving the problem of process-constrained change

-Lucinda Garthwaite and Daniel Sewell, CMP Founders and Lead Partners

We hear from frustrated colleagues all the time that their organizations are not adapting quickly enough to a fast-changing environment.  Nonprofits and educational institutions seem especially vulnerable to this particular challenge to their impact.   Leaders at all levels imagine ways to pivot quickly, meet the latest challenge and avoid threats to their organization’s impact.  But process slows them down.

We value process, when we do, because we understand that if we don’t consider all stakeholder’s perspectives, we’re bound to miss opportunities and make mistakes that could degrade our impact.   So many organizations find themselves in a classic conundrum:  in order to assure our impact, we need to move quickly and slow down enough to consider all points of view.

There is a way out of this. Becoming a learning organization offers the promise of quick adaptation to change, while taking advantage of the wisdom of the whole organization.

The concept of a learning organization, based in systems thinking, has been around for over thirty years.  Peter Senge brought it to the public in his book, The Fifth Discipline (1990, 1996).  While ideas and practices to create learning organizations have evolved over the years, in the corporate sector especially you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone involved in organizational development who isn’t working to create a learning organization.

Senge describes a learning organization as one  “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together” (1990, p.3).

To many of our colleagues who are bogged down in the day-to-day of assuring the survival of their organizations, responding to deep challenges, even crisis, almost every day, this sounds great, but easy to say and hard to reach.

It’s not as hard as it seems.  And the alternative is to stay in the spiral of not changing fast enough to assure your impact in a fast-changing world.

Over the next few blog weeks, we’ll offer some ways to create a learning organization, and to leverage that power to assure outcomes you need in order to increase your organization’s mission.  

Meanwhile, if you’re curious, we recommend a new article on systems leadership, by Peter Senge and his colleagues Hal Hamilton & John Kania, "The dawn of system leadership", in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  It’s a quick, interesting, and hopeful read.