Tag Archives: complexity

Professional learning, informal learning and ‘wicked’ problems [2]

Following up on my previous post on learning and wicked problems here, the following diagram summarises a learning process in non-routines knowledge work. Again, this comes from Peter Sloep’s Chapter on Networked Professional Learning in Littlejohn, A. and Margaryan, A. (2014) Technology Enhanced Professional Learning: Processes, Practices and Tools. London: Routledge.

What I like about the process described is its iterative nature and that, ultimately, the ‘vague problem’ doesn’t really disappear through a simple solution. Rather, my reading of the process is that ‘solutions’ and their implementation generate further understanding of the vague problem, hopefully making it less vague and so initiating a new round of evaluation and analysis. But also, any intervention also generates new unexpected and vague ‘problem’s to be learned about and addressed.

Wicked problem solving


Design Thinking and the Learning & Development function

There is a wide-spread sense that learning and development functions have not responded at all well to changes in organisations, the work place and the wider environment. As Charles Jennings has identified here, these changes include: the development of the web; organisations increasingly operating on network principles as well as the recognition of the importance of informal and social learning [I don’t really see informal and social learning as new but rather amplified by new technologies, especially social media and more recognised and valued in organisations]. The argument runs that the world of training courses and procedures of comprehensive learning design such as ADDIE no longer cuts it. What does this mean for the L&D function, for Clark Quinn

It’s got to be about culture, and learning together skills, and facilitating productive information interchange and productive interactions.

Which brings me to Tim Brown’s article on design thinking as integrative, optimistic, experimental, empathic and collaborative in visualising and realising desired future states. So, I began thinking what opportunities the discipline design thinking provides for the L&D function?

What is design thinking

Design thinking is a world of idea generation, execution and continuous refinements and improvements – it is about products, services, experiences, organisation and structuring in perpetual beta .

“The idea is that any problem can be approached from an experiential, observational, hands-on manner. Watch and listen, figure out the problem, then solve it”. (The World as Prototype)

A design thinker should be curious in understanding and empathising with real peoples’ behaviours and emotions and seeking to play, to iterate, experiment and prototype. So what does this mean for learning and development? Well, I would say too much of ‘business as usual’ L&D is that it is enamoured of a world as it should be – it should be systematic and planned (and plannable), complicated rather than complex. Sometimes it is but often it is not.  And where it often is not also tends to be where organisations generate the most value – in thinking work. So L&D needs to adopt a designerly approach in its practice, to really understand how the actual work gets done and then probe, sense and respond in experimenting to support performance by individuals, groups and the organisation itself. It is not good enough to operate as if the world works as you want it to or think it should. Rather, L&D should work in the often uncomfortable embrace of the mess of reality where what worked yesterday, may not work today – where learning is the constant practice.


A New Agenda for Organisational Effectiveness?

Earlier this week, I went to a CIPD Knowledge into Practice Seminar and launch of the CIPD book, People & Organisational Development: a new agenda for organisational effectiveness.

The authors argued that the dominant business paradigm of shareholder value is nolonger fit for purpose – we,the public, expect more from companies as “good” citizens. In other words, a return to the stakeholder approach to business and management. Mirroring such changes in the field of HR, they argued that the business-centric approach of the Business Partner model was similarly nolonger appropriate and should be replaced by a more humanistic approach integrating organisational development in to new perspectives on organisational effectiveness. It would be interesting to hear the debate with the CIPDs work on “business savvy” which seems to me to be very focused on the “non-humanist” and “people as assets” perspective.

They proposed a four pronged approach to the required new approach involving

  • language and action – a narrative turn in analysing management practices
  • authenticity and mutuality – acknowledging a two way relationship between the employee and employer. Which itself is highly fluid – as the point was made at the event, as an employee is the offer of enhanced “employability” competences enough of an offer if there is a longer-term job shortage (although this now seems less likely than was thought a few months ago)
  • leadership and management – although what this entailed other than managing people differently and dispersing leadership throughout the organisation wasn’t really clear
  • paradox and ambiguity – as something managers need to be more comfortable dealing with. We could here to approaches like the Cynefin framework or polarity management.
  • What I’m hoping from the book is that we see how these concepts can be operationalised in to [daily] management practice … we shall see

    Managing Complexity: Train Your Brain -link

    svprojectmanagement have this article on complexity thinking in projects. The article reflects some of the key questions I come back to about projects and organisations in general, especially the question on a “school of fishes swimming together without a manager. Why don’t they need overhead?”. See managing complexity by nurturing emergence – interesting stuff that needs exploring further from a pragmatic perspective of doing the right things well. What are the implications of self-organising project teams for project management as (a) a profession and (b) a practice?

    Complex projects – exploring and learning

    Back on to the theme of exploration in project management, I came across an article from Ralph Stacey on strategy as order emerging from chaos – I think its a fairly old article from 1993 or so – which included an eight ‘step’ framework for managing in organisations drawing on complexity science. While the framework was based on the practices of strategy management, it resonated for me in terms of those rare, extreme exploratory projects where the aims, objectives and outcomes are unclear as are the methods and approaches that might be used – think pure research projects, trying things out in high velocity environments etc…. where project management is really all about small learning steps (ie, see here but I’m not talking about projects operating in more ‘certain’ circumstances, if the project is all about product delivery, then what follows is possibly a recipe for failure). The eight steps are:
    1. Develop new perspectives on the meaning of control. Learning in groups encourages a self-organising form of control. Encourage managers to let go. This is clearly echoed in Lynda Gratton’s work on ‘hot spots‘ and in Gary Hamel‘s Future of Management – managers tend to like control and control limits learning

    2. Design the use of power. Too strong an application of power will restrict open questioning and the public testing of assertions. In other words, project management should be about supporting and inspiring team members to be contrary, to avoid group think and keep options open not close them down through fear of scope creep, etc…but also to keep pushing the team to do better

    3. Encourage the formation of self-organising groups. (See step 1) Which means recruiting people to the project who will be comfortable with this.

    4. Provoke multiple cultures. Move people around the organisation (project roles) and introduce new blood. Can really unsettle people but can also produce new ideas and perspectives through asking all those non-expert questions. Personaly, I’ve found this to be really effective in shaking a project team out of complacency, in creative project work and when trying to generate ‘deep’ organisational change.

    5. Present ambiguous challenges or half-formed issues. All about the sort of projects I’m talking about.

    6. Expose the business to challenging situations. Innovation depends on chance and managers must be prepared to compete with the most challenging competitors. Making projects really challenging, not in Tom Peters‘ notion of ‘wow projects‘ but in terms of always pushing – but also embracing that 95% failure rate of change. In this situation, you can’t expect to reach your wildest aspirations, the value is all in the learning journey that takes place.

    7. Give explicit attention to group learning skills. I understand this to be a concern with developing and nurturing competences in how to learn, rather than domain specific/ technical knowledge, skills and understanding – the ability to reflect on, and learn from situations as they arise, shift and change.

    8. Create resource slack by the provision of additional management resource. OK, I’m less convinced on this one – yes to resource slack and having the opportunities to try, test and explore is critical, but management resource?

    All very interesting, but taking project teams out of their individual and collective comfort zone may well not be a sustainable way to do business. Or, its the only way to keep organisations flexible and adaptable in which case, is the current way organisations are set-up (single organsiations, permenant staff, annual budgeting etc) in need of a rethink?

    Project management & complexity – link

    Cognitive Edge

    now this should be an interesting study to keep track on

    to project management sense-making complexity

    its a wiggly world!

    A good post here on the “messy and chaotic” actual world of real organisational life. The emphasis on personal networks that work across and between the formal organisation structures – people both subvert the formal organisation while simultaneously ensuring that the organisation functions (or achieves a lot more than just functioning). The emphasis on management as trying to control this is historically correct and has generated a lot of benefits in the past. But … we’re increasingly seeing, in companies like Google and Gore that real and massive value is generated in this chaos (may be through the social capital o organisational learning). As is expressed elsewhere in his blog, the long reach for managerial control destroys the potential of this chaos (and this is also well expressed by Gary Hamel)

    A Learning-based view of Project Management

    In an increasingly complex and changeable/ chaotic environment I find that in many instances traditional control based project management approaches don’t work or don’t add value. Take Prince 2, for example, the clue is in the title – PRojects IN Controlled Environments.

    Project and organisational boundaries are increasingly permeable and managers need to manage between constantly changing and competing demands of diverse stakeholders in and beyond their organisation. The uncertainty this situation generates makes prediction and planning very difficult – a point well recognise din strategic management. Linear cause and effect models that underpin many project management methodologies are not appropriate in this context as projects are operating with often inadequate knowledge as well as changing and ambiguous stakeholder expectations. In other words, project environments aren’t always in control! Projects in such complex and dynamic contexts have both the great opportunities as well as the enormous frustrations of any learning process. So I’d suggest that project management processes and methodologies should be placed in a broader learning framework. As a first stab at drawing this out:

    Projects as Learning

    Obviously this is a work in progress so any feedback would be great …. (apologies for the messy look)

    I suppose the focus here is on aligning across and managing stakeholder expectations as a way to frame the knowledge gaps. Also, plans become a baseline against which reality can be assessed but all realities are more chaotic, complex and dynamic than any plan could or should capture. A project is focused on generating value that works towards the original vision within that complexity – grabbing opportunities and avoiding pratfalls along the way. The project managers/ leaders role is to challange, inspire and communicate – to assist team members self-manage and reflect and and review and revise the models used to meet the situational context they’re in.