Monday, September 04, 2017

Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning - Initial Thoughts (Post 1)

This month of learning is going to be an experiment in Working Out Loud (WOT) or more specifically Learning Out Loud (LOL).  Systems Thinking is the theme and I'll write posts based on what I learn and wherever my thinking is going.

Here's a simplistic way of grasping the concept of systems thinking: Nothing operates in a vacuum. Everything is part of a larger system.  When we analyze things (whether objects or problems) as if they operated in a vacuum, we are missing the bigger picture.

Here is how it relates to some of my work.  I help projects document their lessons.  A key challenge I have as a facilitator is to get project team members to focus on what THEY (within the team) learned and could have done differently or will do differently in the future as a result of their experience and consequent learning.  Inevitably, the team will refer to challenges that were brought upon the team that were outside their control.  The project can be thought of as a system, but it is part of an organization, which is a larger system, and it is connected to outside stakeholders who are part of an industry, which is an even larger system.

Insight:  While it is essential to push the team to focus on THEIR lessons, it is equally important to articulate lessons at other levels, to adopt a systems thinking approach.   When I talk about individual, team and organizational learning, and then intra-organizational (or perhaps industry) learning, I may be talking about systems within larger systems.  How do we ensure appropriate lessons are captured at all levels?  The lessons are distinct at each level, yet interconnected.

Here is how systems thinking relates to some of my earlier work in international development:  Individual international development projects have little chance of having any significant impact unless they pay attention to the broader context.  In the old days, we talked a lot about donor coordination and supporting country policies so that the country environment was more conducive to specific development efforts and donor activities didn't overlap or conflict.  I think (hope) that nowadays, approaches based on systems thinking are more prevalent.  Coordination of donor activities and alignment of policies may be a good start but certainly not enough.

Question:  What's the connection between systems thinking and issues related to scaling development interventions to have a larger impact?

Question:  What's the relationship or connection between systems thinking and design thinking?
For reasons unclear to me at this point, the concepts of systems thinking and design thinking are co-mingled and confused in my mind as if I was meant to connect the dots between them and yet I don't grasp either of them well enough on their own to make the connections.


  • Harold Jarche, Working and Learning Out Loud, blog post, November 10, 2014.
  • An example from USAID's use of systems thinking to support efforts in the health sector: Complexity and Lessons Learned from the Health Sector for Country System Strengthening (2012)
  • Monday, August 28, 2017

    Learning Plan for September 2017

    September is just around the corner.  From a biking perspective, I can anticipate a few long bike rides in the cooler mornings.  From a learning perspective, it will be all about systems thinking, complex systems and visualization, combined with my ongoing interest in building bridges between individual learning, team learning and organizational learning.  This interest is based on the observation that individual learning is typically the purview of the Learning and Development (L&D) department within HR, while organizational learning may be in a completely different part of the organization, including under IT if it is perceived as part of a IT-based approach to knowledge management.  My gut tells me that part of the reason for the gap is that L&D tends to focus on formal learning approaches (aka training) while organizational learning is typically more experience-based.

    Here's an initial half-baked insight/hypothesis:  The bridges to be built involve 1) reinforcing the informal, experience-based aspect of individual learning; and 2) strengthening corporate training based on experience-based organizational learning.

    The question I will try to address is:  How can I apply systems thinking and related methodologies or tools to address complex systems to come up with a more integrated (systemic) approach to learning within organizations. 

    A couple of secondary questions (which might confuse everything and send me down big rabbit holes):

    • How can learning itself benefit from systems thinking?
    • Can insight mapping support a systems thinking approach?

    Here are my starting points:
    • Visible Thinking: Unlocking Causal Mapping for Practical Business Results (a book I recently discussed in a blog post)
    • SPACES MERL: Systems and Complexity White Paper (USAID 2016) ... which is where I learned about...
    • Systemigrams (visual representation of complex systems) and another book.....
    • Systems Thinking: Coping with 21st Century Problems (2008)
    • My own insight mapping practice as well as....
    • Previously posted insights about systems thinking and....
    • A need to clarify the difference between design thinking and systems thinking (I think I confuse them)
    • I also signed up for Degreed and I'd like to test how much I can get out of that learning platform for a rather narrow learning exercise as this one. 
    Anticipated Outputs:
    • Extensive notes added to my Organizational Learning wiki (internal)
    • At least three blog posts and at least one integrative map (public website)
    • Draft presentation package for future use/adaptation, etc...
    • and if this all adds up to something of sufficient value, a post on LinkedIn.
    How is this as a "learning plan" for September?
    • It's bounded in time and scope, though the scope could escape me as I dig deeper and a month might not be enough.
    • It has some intrinsic value for me in terms of learning.  Motivation to learn about this will NOT be a problem at all. I will need to schedule it as a core task to make sure sufficient time is allocated.
    • It spells out possible outputs which will force me to wrap up my own thinking and write things down in useful formats, contributing to other objectives, such as populating the blog with fresh insights and developing materials for presentations, possible lecturing/teaching or other forms of training/capacity building.
    I shall see at the end of September if I achieved all that and where my expectations were off track.

    This is my YOL (Year of Learning) after all.  I might as well make the most of it and plan for it.  I think it's called Walking the Talk. :)

    Thursday, August 24, 2017

    Learn to Plan and Plan to Learn

    Experience is inevitable. Learning is not.  Being intentional and planning to learn isn't such a bad idea.

    I had an interesting conversation this week which triggered some additional reflection around learning plans and learning agendas and then I was asked a question about project learning plans during the NASA Virtual PM Challenge.

    1. USAID is advocating the use of Learning Agendas at the Mission/Country level.  Those are linked to country-level assistance programming.

    2. I've talked in the past about individual learning plans, which can be part of an individual professional development effort.

    3. What about learning plans at the project or program level?  Would it be appropriate to have learning goals at that level?  Under what conditions?  If you're trying out something that involves an innovation, wouldn't you want to have a well thought-out learning agenda?

    At the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center where I've worked with projects for the past nine years, projects have to include a lessons learned plan in their project implementation plan.  It's typically a couple of pages long though I've seen some 15-page documents that were more in line with an essay on project learning than a pragmatic plan of action. I like the effort and level of thinking put into the longer documents, but the key is to make those plans implementable with existing resources.  These plans have not, as far as I know, highlighted any specific learning agendas.  They spell out a number of key practices meant to facilitate team and organizational learning, but they are not tailored in terms of any thematic focus. Sometimes you can't really predict what you'll need to focus on.  In some cases, however, you know in advance that you're trying a new strategy or that there is something unique and interesting about a mission and it might be useful to develop a tailored learning plan.  The science component of the mission is, by definition, a learning agenda.  Each mission has a specific scientific objective, a set of questions it is trying to answer about earth, space, a planet or the universe.  I have always worked on the project management side of the mission, trying to help project teams learn how to better manage the development of the mission from a perspective of cost, schedule, scope, people, etc... Without good project management, the mission will not get off the ground and no science objective will be achieved.

    4. What about learning plans at the organizational level?  How would an organizational learning plan sync with an organization's mission, strategic plans, etc...?

    Tuesday, August 22, 2017

    Going to College... Becoming a Learner

    My youngest daughter is going off to college at the end of this week.  She has a reasonably good idea of what she wants to study, she picked a school with a strong yet not overly narrow focus.  It's more specific than "liberal arts" yet not a narrow path towards a single profession either.

    As my daughter prepares to go off to college, she received in the mail today a little book for one of her classes.  It's a reading requirement for a one-credit class that is associated with her housing arrangement.  She will be part of a living community on campus, spending a lot of time with fellow students studying related topics and engaging with faculty in and out of classrooms.

    I must admit that my eyes lit up when I saw the title of this little book: Becoming a Learner: Realizing the Opportunity of Education, by Matthew L. Sanders.  [As a side note, I get excited just reading the reading list portion of syllabi].  This little blue book should be mandatory reading for anyone going to college. Unfortunately, I'm afraid it's full of bits of wisdom one only realizes are true 20 or 30 years later, when our professional and personal lives have taken us far away from where we probably thought we were going.
    "The primary purpose of college isn't learning a specific set of professional skills; the primary purpose of college is to become a learner." (p. 2)
    Yes, but this requires a more detailed explanation of what we mean by becoming a learner.  In high school, we have students  Students succeed if they become proficient at studying.  If you take the highly rated MOOC called "Learning How to Learn,"  I would argue that you are primarily learning how to study, which still does not prepare you for lifelong learning.  College students who continue in that mode of studying may be successful in the short term, but if they do not evolve into learners, their success will be short-lived because they will not know how to continuously learn and grow throughout their professional and personal lives.
    "Your ability to learn how to learn will be what takes you through the countless industry developments you will deal with in your work and in society.  By recognizing this, you can focus on your development as a learner, which will be more lasting and applicable in all your future endeavors." (p. 14). 
    A student is taught by teachers.  Learners take responsibility for their own learning, decide what to learn and how to learn it. Faculty are there to guide the learning process in specific disciplines more than to teach.

    This is really great reading as an introduction to college learning, and I hope it's fully embedded in the classroom practices.  If the faculty and entire curriculum design doesn't embrace this approach, it will be difficult for individual students (sorry, learners) to embrace if fully.  It will require constant reinforcement.

    Two secondary insights:
    The idea of putting on a broader set of lenses reminds me of a little mental reflex I've developed over the years.  When I feel pretty sure that I know exactly where I am going to be in my life in 5-10 years, I smile (internally) and I tell myself that's not where I'll be, but that's perfectly fine, because opportunities will emerge that I couldn't have imagined and if I'm able to keep an open mind and ditch the plan, I'll be able to capture those opportunities.  Have a plan, then ditch the plan!

    The learning process is more important than the specific lesson.  That's very similar to what I said last week during the NASA Virtual PM Challenge on Lessons Learned.  I was asked what key lessons all project managers should know about.  Beyond general good project management practices, the key is to keep learning, not to know about any specific set of lessons hidden in a database.