Networks: An Engine For Scaling Learning And Innovation (Part 1)

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“It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others.  It is not only the most determined who drive change; it is those who most fully engage with like-minded people.  And it is not wealth or prestige that best motivates people; it is respect and help from peers.”  -Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science

We live in a hyperconnected world, which in many ways has provided us a wealth of access and answers to the challenges that we face, while adding new complexities to an already complex world.   In the midst of this hyperconnected world, we are seeing the rapid rise of networks, both informal and formal, serving as engines for new learning and innovation.  The Stanford Social Innovation Review shares, “With the rise of new digital media platforms and social networks, people are absorbing information at a greater velocity and from a wider set of channels than ever before; they are also using that information in new ways.”  For which they add, “Leadership has become distributed and collaborative.  The new reality is that leaders don’t lead alone.  We are all part of a much broader problem-solving network, with many high-performing organizations and individuals-public and private-working on different parts or the same problem or even the same part of the same problem.  The most influential members of the collaborative are increasingly harnessing new technology to share ideas, get real-time feedback, and build knowledge for the field.  Leaders are no longer just steering their own ship; they are helping a network solve problems with the best and must current thinking available.”

It is in this hyperconnected world that we are just beginning to see new distinctions drawn between what some term as communities and networks (communities vs. networks).  While there are distinctions between the two, the better option is in enhancing and leveraging both for better access to greater learning and innovation.  This is best achieved by engaging the AND of both communities AND networks.  As Team BE of Wenger-Traynor state, “For most groups, however, the aspects are combined in various ways.  A community usually involves a network or relationships.  And many networks exist because participants are all committed to some kind of joint enterprise.”  So, while we’ve become much more accustomed to working in “communities” of learning and practice within our organizations, the digital transformation and this hyperconnected world has led to an exponential rise and engagement in both formal and informal networks to support and infuse greater idea flow and new learning into our organizations, leading to better innovative value for both our individuals and organizations.  As Alex Pentland shares in Social Physics, “In the last few years, however, our lives have been transformed by networks that combine people and computers, allowing much greater participation and much faster change.”  

In Learning to Improve, Bryk and his co-authors build on this idea of AND, drawing on the work of Douglas Engelbart in what he termed Networked Improvement Communities (NIC).  It is in this Networked Improvement Community that Engelbart has created an ABC Model for Continuous Improvement.  As Bryk shares in Learning to Improve, there are “three interrelated levels of learning” which serves as the basis for this ABC Model.

Level-A which “represents the knowledge acquired by front-line workers as they engage in their practice.”

Level-B which is when “learning occurs across individuals within a workplace.”

Level-C which is when learning occurs “across institutions.”

This idea of an ABC Model for Continuous Improvement and Networked Improvement Communities was cast over 35 years ago by Engelbart in his assessment and determination that the “complexity and urgency [of world problems] are increasing exponentially, and the product of the two will soon challenge our organizations and institutions to change in quantum leaps rather than incremental steps.”

The one thing to realize is that most organizations, even individuals for that matter, do not operate well in all three (ABC) of these learning areas.  Engelbart shares that “most organizations operate in at least two dimensions,” which is most often Level A and B.

Which is where much of our future work in networks lies, especially since Level C work is vital to improving the learning and the innovative work of our individuals and organizations.

As Engelbart shares, “Most organizations already have all three activities going on, but the ‘C’ activity is generally pretty haphazard and the ‘B’ activities suffer accordingly.”  Whether Engelbart or Bryk’s work in Learning to Improve, we see an emphasis on the importance Level-C.

As Bryk adds in Learning to Improve in regards to Level-C learning, “It is an especially potent form of knowledge generated as ideas are elaborated, refined, and tests across many different contexts.  The development of Level-C learning is not a simple, naturally occurring extension of Level-A and -B learning.  Rather it requires deliberate organization.  It is catalyzed and orchestrated by a network hub and relies on appropriate technologies for rapid communications about insights developing across distributed sites.  Operating in this way enables a network to accelerate how it learns.”  For which Bryk adds, “When individual insights are systematically pooled, collective capabilities grow.  Moving this to Level-C learning radically speeds up this social learning process.  When many more individuals, operating across diverse contexts, are drawn together in a shared learning enterprise, the capacity grows exponentially.”

Understanding the value and importance of networks and the platform they provide for the acceleration of social learning is going to be vital to the future relevance of our organizations as we seek to improve both individual and organizational learning and capacity.  In a world of exponential shifts, the only true advantage to parallel pacing the speed of change that we are will be facing, will be found in how we enhance and improve our ability to learn, at pace and scale.

“It seems that the key to harvesting ideas that lead to great decisions is to learn from the successes and failures of others and to make sure that the opportunities for this sort of social learning are sufficiently diverse.”  Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science

 

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In Consideration Of Continuous Improvement: (Part I)

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“Now we need something Dramatically Different from “getting better” – from even getting “a whole lot better” – at what we did for a couple of hundred years.  Now we need train ourselves to play and Entirely New Game…a game called Re-imagine, in which the rules that define “better” no longer apply.”  -Tom Peters via Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age

Since the early 1900’s, with the rise of Taylorism and the Principles of Scientific Management, we have focused our systems, organizations and individuals on maximum efficiency and standardization of best practices.  The factory model.  In many ways, it was the automation of the late 19th and 20th century, except the automation was of us, rather than the robots of the 21st century that are quickly beginning to take center stage.  It was a focus of efficiency…and for many years and in many ways it worked for what it was aimed at, ultimate productivity.

However, what we are finally beginning to realize is that what’s efficient isn’t always effective, and what’s effective isn’t always effecient.  What has served us well through the late 19th and 20th century is no longer effective for the world that we now live in.  The factory model of efficiency and the hierarchical, command and control style of leadership that accompanied it have lost relevance in a world that is changing, shifting and accelerating at a turbulent pace and rapid rate.

As General Stanley McChrystal shares in Team of Teams, “Over time we came to realize that more than our foe, we were actually struggling to cope with an environment that was fundamentally different from anything we’d planned or trained for.  The speed and interdependence of events had produced new dynamics that threatened to overwhelm the time-honored processes and culture we’d built.  Little of our transformation was planned. Few of the plans that we did develop unfolded as envisioned.  Instead, we evolved in rapid iterations, changing – assessing – changing again.”  For which he adds, “The environment in which we found ourselves, a convergence of twenty-first-century factors and more timeless human interactions, demanded a dynamic, constantly adapting approach.”  As he adds, “continual adaption had transformed it into a fundamentally new organization – one that functioned using distinctly different processes and relationships.”

What General McChrsytal shares in Team of Teams is a lesson that we must realize, and internalize very quickly.  A lesson of what served us well in the past, may well no longer serve us well in the present or the future.  And in many ways, it is those successes of the past that often entrench us and push us towards irrelevance in the future.  For which McChrystal purports, “We’re not lazier or less intelligent than our parents or grandparents, but what worked for them simply won’t do the trick for us now.  Understanding and adapting to these factors isn’t optional; it will be what differentiates success from failure in the years ahead.”

Which will require deep reflection as we determine next steps, both as individuals and as organizations.

We can no longer march along in a linear and predictable fashion and hope that it will be business as usual in the future.  We live in a time of heightened chaos urged on by the turbulent pace and nature of change, supported by accelerated obsolescence and discontinuity, which is leading to greater feelings of uncertainty, ambiguity and anxiety in the present and for the future.  Leading us as individuals and organizations to recoil back to the safety of status quo, of what we’ve always known and done.  What we fail to realize, in the midst of this upheaval and chaos, we will find signals of opportunity, if we are willing to brace ourselves to face the storm in which those signals are emanating out from.

And like many signals, they raise questions that we must consider.

What do we sustain?  Where do we need to change?  Are we adapting effectively to the pace of change?  Do we keep the current direction, or is a pivot necessary?  Are we future-casting and preparing for the shifts we will face in the future?  Are the outcomes we are chasing leading us to the vision we’ve determined?  Are we entrenched in status quo, or are we growing, learning and improving, both as individuals and as an organization?

It is in our questions and reflection that we find our way forward in a world that has shifted from technical problems to adaptable challenges.  It is where we find the willingness and agility to dig past the processes and structures that keep us entrenched in stasis and status quo thinking and doing.

As Atul Gawande shares in Better, “Betterment is a perpetual labor.  The world is chaotic, disorganized, and vexing, and medicine is nowhere spared that reality.  To complicate matters, we in medicine are also only humans ourselves.  We are distractible, week, and given to our own concerns.”  For which he continues, “The question, then, is not whether one accepts the responsibility.  Just by doing this work, one has.  The question is, having accepted the responsibility, how one does such work well.”

Which brings us back to this idea of ‘continuous improvement’ and what that really means for us as individuals and organizations.  A concept that may have been focused more on efficiency, than it has been aimed at effectiveness.  In many ways, we have layered our ‘factory model’ way of thinking upon this concept.  It is this belief that if we work ‘harder’ then things will be ‘better’.  But that is not the reality we currently face, from business to government, and education.  As General McChrystal purports, “All the efficiency in the world has no value if it remains static in a volatile environment.”

Rather, we will need to not only work smarter, but very often, differently.  We are approaching a time where living in beta and constant iteration will be the way we approach our work.  A constant iteration of what sustains, what adapts, and what transforms.

However, first and foremost, this idea of ‘better’ and ‘continuous improvement’ requires a decision, a decision to become uncomfortable, both as individuals and as organizations.  For stretching ourselves towards this concept of ‘continuous improvement’ is not always a comfortable situation, as it requires learning, unlearning, relearning, shifting, adapting, and changing.  A beta mindset.

However, as mentioned before, just working harder will not necessarily get us moving towards a state of ‘continuous improvement’.

It will require AND.  Too often we find ourselves creating situations of either/or thinking that limit the AND that leads to our ability to improve and ‘plus’ our strategies, processes and organizational structures forward.  So, as we consider how to push forward towards ‘better’ let’s consider the AND of 3I’s that can support an environment of ‘continuous improvement’ in our organizations.

Innovation AND Improvement Science AND Implementation Science.

Unless we are going to continue focusing on efficiency and harder, then innovation will be necessary to moving us forward, in meeting the future more effectively.  However, better understanding innovation will allow us to move our organizations more effectively towards ‘continuous improvement’.  Too often, we associate innovation only with change, with the novel and new, when what we need to better understand is that innovation, at its best, is focused on creating value.  Innovation, when focused on value, not only improves the effectiveness of organizations to better support our individuals in their work, it allows us to remain more relevant moving into the future.

However, innovation is only point form which to start, for innovation alone is not enough to support this idea of ‘continuous improvement’.  We have to determine if the why, how and what of our innovative efforts is creating value for our people and our organization.  Which goes back to knowing what to sustain and where and what to iterate or change, as well as engaging our ability to remain agile and adaptable, to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Which brings the AND into our innovation efforts through the I of Improvement Science, providing us a framework to determine if our innovation is adding value to and for our people and our organization.  The Carnegie Foundation provide us with Six Core Principles of Improvement that can be used to support our innovative efforts through Improvement Science.

Which they share as:

(1) Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.  “It starts with a single question: What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve…”

(2) Variation in performance is the core problem to address.  “The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works…”

(3) See the system that produces the current outcomes.  “It is hard to improve what you do not fully understand…”

(4) We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.  “Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track if change is an improvement…”

(5) Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.  “Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly…”

(6) Accelerate improvements through networked communities. “Embrace the wisdom of crowds…”

These Six Principles of Improvement allow us to better determine the effectiveness of our innovative efforts, allowing us to be more agile, adaptive both as individuals and organizations in iterating our way forward more effectively.  Especially, if the goal of innovation is to create value and move us closer towards this concept of ‘continuous improvement’.

While Improvement Science provides a positive framework for iterating our innovative efforts forward, the I of Implementation Science is an AND that adds and plusses forward the idea of ‘continuous improvement’, especially in support of our innovative efforts.

As the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN) shares, “Implementation Science is the study of factors that influence the full and effective use of innovations in practice.  The goal is not to answer factual questions about what is, but rather to determine what is required.  In Implementation Science, implementation factors are identified or developed and demonstrated in practice, to influence the full and effective use of innovations.”  

And while Implementation Science has “Implementation Drivers” and “Improvement Cycles” (not covered in this article), they also have what they call “Implementation Stages” which are considered to be “dynamic” processes that exist within an organization as they move forward with their innovative efforts.

Which they share as:

Exploration Stage:  “taking the time for exploration saves time and money and improves chances for success…”  “Readiness is assesses, as well as created…”

Installation Stage:  “the function is to acquire or repurpose the resources needed to do the work ahead, effectively…”

Initial Implementation:  “when innovation is being used for the first time…attempting to use the newly learned skills…learning how to change to accommodate and support the new ways of work…”

Full Implementation:  “new ways of providing services are now the stand ways of work…leaders must continually adjust organizational supports to facilitate the work…systems continue to change…”

As NIRN shares, “Effective implementation bridges the divide between science and practice.  It is not just in developing these practices, it is in transferring and maintaining these practices in real world settings that make it a long and complex process.”

In closing this first look at the concept of individual and organizational ‘continuous improvement’, understanding how we connect dots and engage the idea of AND is what will allow us to continue to find ways to constantly and effectively get better.  It will not only allow us to innovate in ways that allow us to parallel pace the constancy and speed of change, but provide us processes and strategies that better support and determine if how we are innovating is providing ongoing value for our people and our organization.

Effectively determining what is necessary of sustaining and what will require transformation.

“Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process.  Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible.  It does not take genius.  It takes diligence.  It takes moral clarity.  It takes ingenuity.  And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”  -Atul Gawande via Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance

Stranded In The Future

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Leaders are effectively preparing to leave people stranded in the future…by not preparing our organizations and the individuals within, for the coming turbulence of future shifts in the present.

As Thomas Frey, Senior Futurist at the Davinci Institute shares, “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in all of human history.”  Changes that we see accelerating forward more and more, faster and faster, day by day.  We find that we are definitely living in much more exponential times.  For which Frey adds to these coming changes, “Risk factors will increase exponentially.”  

The bells of change are clanging all around us, but it is up to us to determine if we are going to pay attention to their ringing.  A ringing that is becoming more incessant and accelerated as each day goes by.  Changes that are broad and deep in their scope and intention, especially in how the shifts are and will alter our world and how we live and work forever.  We hear of automation and artificial intelligence that is aiming at ending jobs in certain sectors, or of driverless cars focused on eliminating the necessity for ownership.

How these changes will affect us in the future is yet to be seen, be that positive or negative.  We just know that it will be different…

More and more, in the face of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) that these shifts are creating, the more proactive we can and must be in preparing and future-casting our way forward, then the better prepared we will be to face these changes with greater awareness, adaptability and agility.

Which will be vital in preparing our organizations and people for the future, especially as we see the disruptive nature of the changes that lie before us now and on the horizon.

Whether it is in the next 5 or 20 years, there is this expectation that we are going to see big changes and shifts in and coming to our institutions and organizations, such as government, healthcare, education, as well as the economy and finance, work and jobs, basic services, technology, including automation and artificial intelligence, communication, transportation and delivery, manufacturing and construction, and even the foods we eat and produce.

The thing is that we cannot say how or when these changes will occur, or even if they will occur.  But preparing for these kinds of shifts and changes in rigorous in its proposition.  

Which means that being proactive in preparing assures that we are not being reactive and flat-footed when and if these changes do come.  As Hemingway says, “Gradually, then suddenly.”  Relevance is often lost when we find ourselves lulled into a sense of complacency during the “gradually” period, being left in a reactive and overwhelmed state when “suddenly” appears.

When our organizations and individuals don’t prepare for next steps in the present of the “gradually” then we find ourselves stranded in the future when the state of “suddenly” arrives, often in a volatile fashion.

We have to be aware that we are living in a very different world that is accelerating at a much more turbulent pace, which requires greater awareness, especially of our thinking towards our systems and processes if we are going to become and stay future ready.  Which takes not only a greater level of systems thinking, but design thinking as well.

There will always be fear and anxiety in considering the future, especially a future that is claiming such exponential shifts and disruptions, but having greater awareness and clarity of these coming changes will not only provide the urgency, but the proactive preparation to push past the uncertainty that often mires us in stasis and static ways of doing and being.

In times of accelerated change, disruption and discontinuity, how we leverage these shifts and changes will determine our future relevance.

Which requires us to begin to ask very different questions: How do we prepare for a jobless future?  A gig economy?  A workforce possibly decimated by automation and artificial intelligence?  What do these changes mean for our organizations, institutions and the future of work?  How does it change the focus of education in preparing our students for this future?

Asking these questions not only allows us to get better at designing, iterating and test-driving our way forward into the future…

It allows us to not leave our people and our organizations stranded in the future.

“We are thinking about the future in a local and linear fashion…today we live in a world that is global and exponential.”  -Peter Diamondis