In a business environment, the term “learning disabilities” might sound like a concept better suited for education. However, Peter Senge, in his book “The Fifth Discipline,” introduced the idea of learning disabilities in organizations, shedding light on how they can silently sabotage the performance of teams and entire companies. Understanding these learning disabilities can unlock the potential of high-performance teams and organizations.
The Learning Disabilities: A Quick Primer
Peter Senge identified seven core learning disabilities that hinder an organization’s ability to adapt, learn, and grow. These disabilities are:
- I Am My Position: This disability occurs when individuals in an organization primarily identify with their job roles and responsibilities. They focus solely on performing their tasks well without considering the broader context. This mindset can lead to siloed thinking and hinder the organization’s ability to respond effectively to complex challenges.
- The Enemy is Out There: This disability manifests when organizations view external factors as the cause of their problems, such as blaming the market, competitors, or customers. It prevents organizations from recognizing that the root causes of issues often lie within their own structures and processes.
- The Illusion of Taking Charge: Here, organizations believe they are taking decisive actions to address issues when, in reality, they are only addressing symptoms or applying quick fixes. This disability delays the resolution of underlying problems.
- The Fixation on Events: This learning disability makes organizations focus on short-term results and events rather than on the long-term systemic issues that contribute to their challenges.
- The Parable of the Boiled Frog: Senge uses this parable to describe organizations that fail to notice gradual, cumulative changes because they occur slowly over time. Organizations suffering from this disability often overlook the warning signs until they face severe consequences.
- The Delusion of Learning from Experience: We all know that we frequently learn from our experience. If we, for example, fail in some of our activities, then we may do a retrospective to analyze and learn what can be done better. However, regularly, it takes too long to see the consequence of our actions, so that the cause and effect is not clear. We are coming to the wrong conclusions from our actions.
- The Myth of a Management Team: Due to “I Am My Position” and “The Enemy is out There”. Often, when we come into a crisis, Management Teams are rather protecting their turf, instead of collaborating and finding solutions together. This can lead to even worsening the situation and challenges at hand.
A Real-World Example: The Chaos of an Airport
I was recently travelling from Ho Chi Minh City to Kuala Lumpur. And I could witness, the classic case of “I Am My Position” in action. Each part of the airport – immigration, airlines, and security – operated as efficient as possible within its boundaries, but the overall system was far from optimal.
The immigration queues snaked through the entire terminal, while security checks were woefully understaffed. To expedite passenger boarding, some airlines resorted to cutting the lines, which only created more chaos. Cutting the line was a short-term solution that worsened the problem for everyone.
The root issue lay in the learning disability of “I Am My Position.” Each department did its best within its role, but no one considered the bigger picture. The airport’s performance suffered because no one examined the system as a whole.
The Impact on High-Performance Teams
Traditional performance management increases these learning disabilities. For example, in a bid to reward top performers, organizations tend to provide incentives for individual excellence, while struggling performers are often let go. This approach can result in low performers leaving the organization instead of improving. Over time, it puts pressure on the system as a whole, leading to recruitment challenges and more significant issues.
A lack of understanding of systems plays a significant role in low performance. When individuals focus solely on their specific roles without considering the broader organizational context, performance suffers.
The Solution: Embrace a Learning Organization
To overcome these learning disabilities, organizations need to embrace a learning organization mindset. Two disciplines from Senge’s learning organization model – shared vision and team learning – can help teams and organizations understand the importance of looking at the bigger picture and improving the system as a whole.
In the airport example, the airport management would need to establish a shared vision to enhance the overall passenger experience. This vision would encourage all airport staff to consider how they can collectively improve the system and ensure passengers have a smooth journey.
By breaking free from learning disabilities, organizations and high-performance teams can foster a culture of continuous learning, adaptability, and growth. They can address complex challenges effectively and improve their overall performance.
In a rapidly evolving business landscape, learning disabilities can be the invisible impediment to progress. Recognizing and addressing these obstacles is a crucial step toward unlocking the full potential of high-performance teams and organizations.