Networks: An Engine For Scaling Learning And Innovation (Part 2)

 

“Our destination is a future whose form we may not find comforting, but which has just as much beauty and potential as the straight lines and right angles of the past century of reductionism: this future will take the form of organic networks, resilience engineering, controlled flooding – a world without stop signs.”  -via McChrystal, Collins, Silverman, Fussell Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

We don’t just live in the time of the learner, we live in a time where the very idea of learning has expanded.  And our very ability to tune into that expansion remains at the heart of growing into the future in a much more dynamic and relevant manner.  For, it is no longer enough to be a learning organization, you must also be a learning individual.  It cannot be one without the other, they have to work in tandem, each pushing the other past the boundaries of the present, in a constant dialogue with the emerging future and the unknown that it provokes, and how we influence that emergence and learn from it.

Very often, our individual and organizational ability to come to terms with the growing anxiety, ambiguity and uncertainty of this emerging future, as well as the intensified turbulence and pace of change that is driving it forward, is quelled and muffled by our individual and organizational awareness (to the signals of changes to come), access (to relevant resources and ongoing flows of new ideas) and connections (to a diversity of ideas, thinking and people who can continually challenge our thinking, ideas and mental models).

One of the ways to tap into greater this awareness, access and connections comes through the networks that we create and engage within, both internally and external of our organizations.  The more expansive our networks, the greater the learning and ideas that we open ourselves up, too.  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 many ways, our networks require us to hold the tension of two ideas at once, to being both open (idea flows) without being overwhelmed (action paralysis).

Not only does network learning allow opportunities for great awareness beyond our current conditions; it provides a platform for enhanced diversity of idea flow, both individually and organizationally.  Networks provide an arena to play with and gain feedback on new ideas and thinking; which not only leads to new learning that can cascade across individuals and the organization, but provides a more dynamic environment for engaging in greater exploration and experimentation towards the growing need for more creative and innovative thinking, ideas and action that move individuals and organizations past static and status quo thinking, processes and structures that diminish learning and growth.

However, it is not enough to engage in network learning, how individuals participate in that setting is important to how effective that engagement process becomes for enhancing learning.  As Pentland shares in Social Physics, in regards to “star producers” utilizing and gaining from network learning, “First, they maintained stronger engagement with the people in their networks, so that these people responded more quickly and helpfully.  As a result, the stars rarely spent time spinning their wheels or going down blind alleys.  Second, star performers’ networks were also more diverse.  Average performers saw the world only from the viewpoint of their mob, and keep pushing the same points.  Stars, on the other hand, had people in their networks with a more diverse set of work roles, so they could adopt the perspectives of customers, competitors, and managers.  Because they could see the situation from a variety of viewpoints, they could develop better solutions to problems.”

Networks in and of themselves, are not fully sufficient for the collaborative and learning processes and structures necessary to transform our organizations and systems.  However, they do provide a platform and impetus for creating the awareness, access and connections that create momentum towards improving and enhancing the dynamics necessary to push individual and organizational transformation.

As Fullan and Rincon-Gallardo share in Essential Features of Effective Networks in Education, “As we enter a potentially transformative period of change for education, where innovation combined with focus and links to impact will be essential, we predict that effective networks will become increasingly critical to system success.”  Or as Bryk, Gomez, Grunow and LeMahieu add in Learning to Improve, “Large networks are powerful engines for innovation.”

As we begin to delve into networks, seeing and tapping their potential for greater awareness, access and connection for our individuals and organizations, internally and externally, we must also understand their power for learning, both in formal and informal forms.  Understanding the differences and features that accompanies each of these networks, allows individuals, leaders and organizations to determine how the power of learning and collaboration will be different, from formal to informal networks, and how we approach each of these networks will require different perspectives and positions, if we are to engage networks as a powerful force for learning, innovation and transformation.

As we consider the necessity of awareness, access and connection, realizing the power of networks can be an impetus towards the learning and idea flow that pushes individual and organizational transformation.

“By harvesting from the parts of our social networks that touch other streams, that is, by crossing what sociologist Ron Burt called the “structural holes” within the fabric of society, we can create innovation.  When we choose to dip into a different stream, we bring up new habits and beliefs; in some cases, they will help us make better decisions, and our community will thrive.  I believe that we can think of each stream of ideas as a swarm or collective intelligence, flowing through time, with all the humans in it learning from each other’s experiences in order to jointly discover patterns of preferences and habits of action that best suit the surrounding physical and social environment.”  -via Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science

In Consideration Of Continuous Improvement: Part 2

 

“Improvement is a challenge of learning, not implementation.”  -Forman, Stosich, Bocala The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the Conditions for Continuous Improvement in Schools

We live in very interesting times…

The pace and acceleration of change and the digital disruption we are experiencing is no longer just about change, as it is no longer enough to just change.  It is much deeper than that…

We have to learn.

We must learn in order to adapt to a world that is shifting around us in exponential ways.

Or as the CEO of AT&T recently stated, “Your skill-set is 2 years, max!”

It is in that ability to learn and adapt, both as individuals and as organizations, that we are able to not only remain relevant, but move towards a mindset of continuous improvement.

This idea of continuous improvement is very different than the mindset from which education has often worked from for many years.  Or as Edwards Deming shared in 1991 in regards to education, “We as a field are characterized by miracle goals and no methods.”

Continuous improvement is a move away from those “miracle goals” to looking at the strategies, processes, methods and structures that allow for ongoing learning, growth, and improvement.

Or as shared in The Superintendent’s Advisory Task Force from CDE,

Continuous Improvement: A continuously improving education system is one that learns from experience by carefully measuring the effectiveness of different policies and practices, supporting the intrinsic motivation of educators and stakeholders, sharing best and promising practices, cultivating a culture of reflection and learning, encouraging innovation, and making changes based on learning.”

Which is a very different proposition than Demings reference to “miracle goals” and “no methods.”  

And while continuous improvement is not new to the business world (be that as Six Sigma, Kaizen, Kanban, Lean, Agile, Scrum, Toyota Production System), it is just beginning to take root in education.

To better understand the ideas behind continuous improvement, the KaiNexus Blog shares the core, or 6 Principles of the Continuous Improvement Model:

Principle 1 – Improvements are based on small changes, not major paradigm shifts or new inventions.

Principle 2 – Ideas come from employees.

Principle 3 – Incremental improvements are typically inexpensive to implement.

Principle 4 – Employees take ownership and are accountable for improvement.

Principle 5 – Improvement is reflective.

Principle 6 – Improvement is measurable and potentially repeatable.

When looking back at Demings reference to the issue with education being “miracle goals” and “no methods” we can begin to see how this mindset/shift to a continuous improvement model reverses Demings concern, as it moves us away from a focus on “miracle goals” towards a push for “methods,” processes, strategies, and structures that lead us towards continual and ongoing learning, growth and improvement.

As with any strategy or shift in the way our individuals or organizations operate, learning has to be at the heart of the change process.  Far too often, especially as we move into the unknowns and uncertainties that accompany any change, we often revert to compliance over creativity and implementation over innovation in pushing the initiatives that we initiate.  We choose control, in place of capacity and autonomy.  Rather, we must learn to understand where each of these has their place, and where each is appropriate to effectively support our individuals and scale it across the organization not only efficiently, but effectively.

As Ron Ashkenas adds in his article It’s Time to Rethink Continuous Improvement from Harvard Business Review,  when approaching the idea of continuous improvement across an organization, we need to consider:

“Customize how and where continuous improvement is applied.”

“Question whether processes should be improved, eliminated, or disrupted.”

“Assess the impact on company culture.”

For which Ashkenas adds, “Continuous improvement doesn’t have to be incompatible with disruptive innovation.  But unless we think about continuous improvement in more subtle, nuanced, and creative ways, we may force companies to choose between the two.”

In closing, when considering this idea of continuous improvement, both as individuals and organizations, and as we learn to move away from “miracle goals” and “no methods,” it will require that we keep continuous learning and adaptability at the center of this improvement shift.  Both as individuals and as organizations.

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”  -Benjamin Franklin

 

Finding Future Signals In The Chaos

 

“Can accelerating technology disrupt our entire system to the point where a fundamental restructuring may be required if prosperity is to continue?”  -Martin Ford Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

For years, in response to the coming future shifts, we’ve continually heard the mantra heralded about that we are getting students ready for jobs that are yet to exist.

A mantra that is changing…

Both in its concerns and in the questions it raises.

And while each age has had its own struggles and anxieties as technology creates new economic and societal upheaval and disruption, many tend to feel that this time may be a bit different.

Issues and challenges of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, outsourcing, globalization, robots, automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning all add into this feeling that it will be very, very different.

Just as getting students ready for an automated future is a very different proposition.

Part of acknowledging the signals emanating from the turbulence of this technological disruption is not only in determining what will be important in the future, but what will stay the same, what will change, and what must be entirely transformed.

In many ways, these shifts will not only disrupt how we work and live, but the entirety of our current organizational and societal operating systems.

Out of this operating systems overhaul, we will need to determine how we best prepare our students, our adults, our organizations, our communities, and our systems to become much more agile and adaptable to these future shifts.

Which becomes our heavy lift for the future…

“We are headed toward a transition that will put enormous stress on both the economy and society. Much of the conventional advice offered to workers and to students who are preparing to enter the workforce is likely to be ineffective. The unfortunate reality is that a great many people will do everything right— at least in terms of pursuing higher education and acquiring skills— and yet will still fail to find a solid foothold in the new economy.”  -Martin Ford Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

Transforming Tension And Disequilibrium Into Breakthrough Experiences

 

“Adaptive work is difficult work.  And when it takes the form of an organizational change, it can easily get out of hand and fail.  As you have surely experienced yourself, in a process like this there is disequilibrium and tension, people perceive loss and react in varying ways, different factions emerge and take positions, uncertainty is rampant, plans fail, and experimentation becomes necessary.  Guiding this type of process is highly demanding and requires a wide range of skills.”  -via Juan Carlos Eichholz Adaptive Capacity: How Organizations Can Thrive in a Changing World

We live in a world that is fueled by tension.

There is positive tension.  Negative tension.

Tension that fuels us forward and tension that binds us back.

Tension from the past, tension in the present and tension for the future.

And then there is the tension of change…

A tension stretched taut by the pull of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and the ambiguity that accompanies and amplifies any change effort or initiative.  Pulling on individuals and the organization.  Causing chaos amidst the calm.  Noise in the quiet.  Pulling us out of our insulated silos.  Requiring leaders to seek out the signals reverberating out of these shifts, continually deciphering and determining what these signals are saying and asking what you are going to do about it?

Often leading to even greater tension and disequilibrium.

As the individual and organizational efforts of the change initiative increase, so does the level of chaos and noise being amplified, often diminishing our ability to decipher these signals.  However, it is only in our ability to gain greater awareness and understanding of these signals, that we are able to cascade deeper organizational coherence and clarity amidst those facing the chaos and complexity of the change process.  It is in that awareness and understanding, and the capacity that we choose to create, that we are able to slowly dissipate the turbulence, tension, anxiety and disequilibrium that accompanies these adaptive challenges that come with change.

However, many organizations still choose a command and control strategy to alleviate the tension and disequilibrium brought on by change.  They choose to move farther away from autonomy and capacity-building towards structures focused more on power, control, hierarchy, and linear processes as a way of dealing with the dynamics associated with change.  Hoping to create safety in the midst of chaos, but most often only diminishing the process, leading to greater frustration and dysfunction across and throughout the organization.

To effectively push through this disequilibrium, we have to determine the individual and organizational capacity necessary to loosen and push people through these bands of tension pulled taut, that we may keep our individuals and the organization as a whole from recoiling back to the status quo core of the past.  Rather, we must focus our efforts on using the tension and disequilibrium of change not as a crutch for non-action, but rather as a dynamic force for creating individual and organizational breakthrough experiences, and eventual transformation.

It is only through individual and organizational capacity that these transformational breakthroughs are achieved, and we actually achieve the epiphany of change.  It is in our capacity-building efforts that the tension and disequilibrium wrought on by change is able to be redefined and repurposed for growth and autonomy, rather than politics, power struggles and dysfunctional structures and processes.  It is only in this shift, that change can emerge as a more productive  and transformational process for our individuals and organizations.

“No two change processes are the same, but all share certain patterns.  There is always disequilibrium and tension; people perceive losses and react; different factions emerge and take positions; there is uncertainty; it usually takes more time than expected; not everything works the way it was planned; and experimentation is necessary.”  -via Juan Carlos Eichholz Adaptive Capacity: How Organizations Can Thrive in a Changing World

Drenched In Awareness: Flat-Footed or Future-Facing?

 

“Regardless of the industry or circumstances, one forecast has always been right throughout history: technology will advance, it will invariably intersect with other sources of change within society, and trends are the signposts showing us how changes will manifest in real life.”  -via Amy Webb The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream

The signals are all around us…

Dots that are swirling, orbiting, spinning, traveling all around our cognitive spaces; disparate dots just waiting to be connected in novel and new ways to move us forward into the future.  Or as Martin Ford may say, “Lights in the Tunnel.”

The problem is that we struggle to see these signals and dots.

Whether they are hidden in the chaos of our exponentially changing times or we find that they are pushed away by our own mental models and cognitive biases that are often too confining to stretch past the fantastical realities they are inferring…

We fail to interpret what they are saying.

We fail to interpret the coming transformation they are inferring.  We fail to infer the disruptive change and changes they are quietly heralding.  We find ourselves trapped by our own cognitive constraints, unable to imagine and envision a new future that is unfolding right before us because of the trappings of our deeply embedded visions of the past.  So we talk of boxes and thinking outside to them, instead of confronting the mental models that we continue to drag into the future, limiting the signals we recognize and the depth and breadth of dots we are able to connect.

Too often, in these times of chaos and uncertainty…

We spend our time recoiling back into the safety of the past, when we should be stepping out into the opportunity of the future.  When we limit our willingness and ability to connect these disparate dots, to expand our lens into and of the future, the signals become dim and distant, unrecognizable.  Rather, our ability and willingness to push past confining cognitive biases and mental models allows those signals to quiver and resonate in the midst of the turbulence created by this new velocity of change, providing our individuals and organizations with a compass in the midst of the chaos and noise that tends to overwhelm those very same individuals and organizations.  Providing a more progressive, relevant and impactful way forward into this unpredictable future.

Too often we are blindsided by the unknown, as these signals of the emerging future emanating and radiating from that space beyond the known are often weak, unnoticed or even unbelievable.

Artificial intelligence, automation, digitization, globalization, outsourcing, poverty, are all dots sending out various signals for us to interpret in these exponential times.  Harbingers of what is to come; not what will be, but what might be.  We need leaders drenched in awareness, awareness of these signals and dots, of the acceleration of change, and of the exponential shifts they are levying across our systems and organizations.

Shifts that are shaking the very foundations of our societal ecosystems.

In the end, the worst stance is to be flat-footed and motionless, when change and disruption comes a calling, determined to pull the rug out from under you, to have the future forced upon you.  Rather, we need leaders drenched in awareness, connecting dots, searching for signals, willing to intentionally design our way forward in a much more proactive manner.

Creating organizational relevance in a time of accelerated obsolescence.

“The best leaders sense the future in order to compete in the present.”  “Foresight is the beginning of the journey.”  -via Bob Johansen Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present

Clash Of Ideas: The Tension Of Innovation

 

“In every organization we studied, we saw how leaders dealt with this ongoing source of tension.  They made sure the disapproval of more experienced expert members didn’t smother dissension, minority viewpoints, or the fresh perspectives of the inexperienced or the newcomer.  They encouraged constructive disagreement.  They gave people discretionary time to pursue their particular passions.  They recognized that individuals need engagement and connection, as well as intellectual and emotional space, to do their best work.  In short, leaders created places where individuals were willing to contribute their best efforts because they felt not only part of the group but also valued by and valuable to the group.”  -Hill, Brandeau, Truelove, and Lineback via Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation

Too often when we think of creativity and innovation, we think of passion, we think of inspiration, we think of the lone genius, and we think of that ‘aha’ moment where it all comes together.

Too little do we consider and understand the hard work and heavy lift creativity and innovation requires, the tension that arises from the need to engage in the positive conflict and candor necessary to get too the best ideas, and the collective effort that must be invested and expelled both cognitively and emotionally on an ongoing basis to make this work happen.

Inability to comprehend and build understanding around the heavy lift of this work is a disservice to the organization and those engaging in more creative and innovative work.  When we understand the demands, we are better prepared to face them head on.

As the authors of Collective Genius share, “Innovation emerges most often from the collaboration of diverse people as they generate a wide-ranging portfolio of ideas, which they then refine, improve, and even evolve into new ideas through discussion, give and take, and often-heated contention.”  

However, this work seldom flourishes in dysfunctional, command and control environments.  To engage in the candor and “clash of ideas” necessary to move past ‘whose’ idea to the ‘best’ idea requires collaborative environments built upon a foundation of high-levels of trust and empathy.

Without trust and empathy, the ‘best’ ideas never even make it to the table, and most often, they are never even shared.

The most creative and innovative organizations don’t just accept ideas, they engage ideas. They wrestle and fight with ideas, not because they don’t think they are good, but because they want to make them even better.  They learn to not hold any idea too close to the chest, understanding that any idea can be built upon and improved.  They approach the idea process with an attitude of positive “plussing” which allows ideas to expand and evolve.

Which is cognitively and emotionally demanding work.

As the authors of Collective Genius add, “Yet the friction of clashing ideas can be hard to bear.  The sparks that fly in heartfelt discussions can sting.  At a minimum, they can create tension and stress.  Many organizations consequently dislike conflict in any form and try to discourage it.  But blanket condemnation of all strife and conflict will only stifle the free flow of ideas and rich discussions that creative collaboration needs.”

Which requires a different kind of leadership.  Especially if you are going to be able to engage the organization in this level of creative and innovative work, especially on an ongoing basis.  It can be difficult, frustrating and even painful at times, which is why many organizations struggle with truly engaging and sustaining creative and innovative work.

Today’s organizations need leaders who realize the collective commitment and level of collaboration required to engage in this work and who are better prepared to create the conditions to engage it.  Leaders who are emotionally intelligent in supporting their people through the cognitive and emotional demands of the conflict and candor required of “plussing” ideas.  Leaders who can not only create the environment that allows this work to occur, but creates the conditions of trust and empathy necessary to do this work positively and effectively.

As the research of Hill, Brandeau, Truelove, and Lineback shows, “In every organization we studied, we saw how leaders dealt with this ongoing source of tension.  They made sure the disapproval of more experienced expert members didn’t smother dissension, minority viewpoints, or the fresh perspectives of the inexperienced or the newcomer.  They encouraged constructive disagreement.  They gave people discretionary time to pursue their particular passions.  They recognized that individuals need engagement and connection, as well as intellectual and emotional space, to do their best work.  In short, leaders created places where individuals were willing to contribute their best efforts because they felt not only part of the group but also valued by and and valuable to the group.”  

Which requires a different kind of leader and a different set of skill-sets to create the environment and culture to not only do this work, but do it effectively and to sustain it over time.

We live in a time where organizations are not just in want of creative and innovative thinking and action, but require it for ongoing relevance in a world that is shifting and changing in an exponential manner and at an accelerated pace.  And yet, we still struggle to hire and prepare today’s leaders for this new challenge, to lead this work in and across all levels of our modern organizations.

The better we prepare today’s leaders to create the environment for creativity and innovation to exist and flourish, the more relevantly our organizations and individuals will move forward into the future.

“Managing tensions in the organization is an ongoing issue…you don’t want an organization that just salutes and does what you say.  You want an organization that argues with you.  And so you want to nurture the bottoms up, but you’ve got to be careful you don’t just degenerate into chaos.”  -Bill Coughran Google

What’s Your Moonshot?

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“A moonshot taps into human aspirations to achieve something unexpected, difficult, and worthwhile.”  -Goldman and Purmal The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business As Usual

In September of 1962, John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University, touched something in all of us.  From expectation to aspiration, his words lifted up the human spirit to reach new heights, to learn to see the impossible as possible, igniting our sense of curiosity, as well as reigniting our passion to pioneer a new way forward, to blaze paths were none existed.

Words that served as the catalyst for Moonshot Thinking…

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Our world has changed a lot since Kennedy’s speech in 1962, but that idea of the Moonshot still seeps into those individuals and organizations that are willing to do what others have not, to challenge themselves and those around them to set the pace, to raise the bar on the idea of possible, to muster up incredible feats of creative and innovative thinking and doing, all in the aim of further, better.  To rekindle and reignite a willingness and “want” to brave the unknown, the uncertain, to move out beyond the bounds and borders of the known and the usual.

To reach for something higher, to bring out the best in each and every one of us…

And while the pace of change has accelerated and the world has determined to move in a much more exponentially manner, the spirit of the Moonshot remains, in us and our organizations that are willing to continually push past the status quo and linear thinking that keeps us entrenched in the known.

The only change may be that our “Moonshots” of the past are quickly becoming “Mars shots” for the future…

As you determine your perspective FOR the future, don’t lose sight of or bury those Moonshots and crazy ideas that often lay buried under the surface.  Remember, so very often, what was considered crazy today, is what changes the world for the better tomorrow.

So as you consider your moonshot, in their work, The Moonshot Effect, Goldman and Purmal give us good understanding of what a moonshot is and that “a moonshot has three essential elements woven into its very fabric:”

IT’S UNEXPECTED: because it lives outside of business as usual, the moonshot is surprising.

IT’S HARD: you cannot transform by doing more of what you’re already doing.  A moonshot demands breakthroughs and disruption.

IT’S WORTH IT: achieving a moonshot represents a major victory, tapping into the innate human aspiration to be the first or best at something.

Very often, especially in getting to those essential elements of a moonshot, a reframe is required.  A reframing of our perspective.  A reframe in how we do, of how we think, of how we work, and even of how we dream.

Out of this reframe, it’s our big questions that become the driver that naturally uncovers our Moonshot…

They move us from the urgent to the important.  They allow us to engage greater empathy and compassion along the way.  They help us to iterate our way forward, determining when a pivot or shift may be necessary or required.  They help us to erect ladders over our barriers and bore holes in our walls.  They move us from “yes, but” to “yes, and” thinking.  They open the door to more experimental, discovery learning (which we could all use a bit more of).  They continually serve as slingshots to our Moonshots.

In closing,

We don’t get a lot of chances to do something truly great in this world…

Finding your Moonshot is that chance, just don’t let it pass you by.

“A moonshot is the antidote to the gravitational pull of day-to-day burdens.  It requires people to discard their business-as-usual habits, and unites them in a collective endeavor to achieve something extraordinary.  In the process, the teams and leaders who set out on the mission are transformed through the moonshot effect.”  -Goldman and Purmal The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business As Usual

So, what’s your Moonshot?