How are we Agile in Learning to Grow Impact?

By Morten Leth Andersen

Part I. Creative Connecting. Entropy and Syntropy.
Part II. Creative Potential. Love, Hate and Indifference.
Part III. Creating. The Power of Using Opposites.

Part IV. Agility in Learning. Getting our Mind Around and Into it.

Part V. Collective Agility in Learning. Going Beyond Oneself.
Part VI. Collective Agility in Learning. Insights from Lean.
Part VII. Collective Agility in Learning. Insights from Agile.

Part IX. Let’s Move On. The first step is hardest. Make it easy!


Creative Connecting. Entropy and Syntropy.

Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.

You probably read through my past pieces on collective learning (else see here and here) and are ready for this next piece on agility in learning.

To begin, I take you to the concepts on Entropy and its opposite Syntropy, and so the life work of George Land and Beth Jarman.

We are all taught in school about the second law of thermodynamics and that eventually everything ends up as debris in a chaotic universe. That left to herself Mother Nature will destroy and ruin, and so all processes inherently hold a tendency towards decay and disintegration. Entropy.

What if there is a totally opposite reality? That is, Mother Nature creates and prospers, and at the deepest level in nature there exists a creative force. Syntropy.

Creativity occurs when two or more things connect, and bring about something different from the past – that is something which is more than the sum of its parts – AND – there is a creative force in the Universe which makes particles merge to make atoms, and atoms get together to form molecules, and molecules join to make life. This creative force is nature’s own positive thinking and law of attraction.

This emergent force does not fit our logical mind-sets, and we would not exist if we were not also unexplainable accidents outside of logic. We need non-standard thinking to grasp what nature gives us. No scientific formula can explain the creative happenings or help our search on the why of creativity.

Math deals with quantity and has difficulty dealing with changes in quality, especially qualitative change. The limits of our logical thinking made us make a law of destruction, not creation, to explain the Universe.

So what is this why behind creative connecting?

Well, to leap in, if we change the way we connect and think together, fantastic futures can become reality. We envision our future, our dream, keep that in mind; dare to work towards it, and sometimes, for some persistent people, it does become real. Weird.


Well, our natural creativity, when applied deliberately, influences how we connect, which is key for directing how we seek to learn and create new order.

George and Beth explain 3 aspects to that:

Power of Creative Growth
Being truly open to the unique thinking that energizes major breaks with the past.

Power of Future Pull
Being pulled by the possibilities of the future to create what’s never been seen before.

Force of Connecting
Building open, accepting partnerships to co-create new solutions transcending traditions.

Right now, it most likely seems weird to you, as through our past we have created societies in which we tend to honor our logical mind and neglect our natural creativity.

We are now going towards a future in which we will shift this balance and focus more on our creative gifts; as Einstein let us know, the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind its faithful servant. 

Let’s learn to set loose our creative mind. This is what agility in learning is all about. Become more meaningful, work on our purpose and with Mother Nature’s blueprint for creative change.


Creative Potential. Love, Hate and Indifference.

The worst sin to our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that is the essence of inhumanity.
George Bernard Shaw

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that creative adults grew up in families which embody opposites. Parents that encourage uniqueness yet provide stability, and who are highly responsive to their kids’ needs yet challenge them to develop skills. It results in adaptability in times of anxiousness and in age of paradox.

Opposites may not be what we first think. What appears as obvious may not be the case. We might understand that the opposite of pain is not pleasure, but rather the absence of pain.

Love and hate are opposite emotions that may be directed towards someone or something while indifference does not really care one way or the other. The best word that describes indifference is apathy; a total absence of compulsion; a genuine lack of feeling, motivation or concern.

Picture 1: Creativity comes from Opposites. Inclusion of Difference, not In-Difference

Indifference at first glance seems less painful than love or hate, more comfortable to sit with. But it destroys us and our creativity as it requires nothing on our part. Love and hate requires us to care. It requires us to feel. It stirs in us, and the best by-product is the desire to help change find its way.  

Picture 2: Love, Hate and In-Difference

From Elie Wiesel we know that we must cherish love and hate, but be very very afraid of indifference. Indifference causes entropy, is incredible damaging and in severe cases lead us to destroy ourselves.

Picture 3: Damages of In-Difference

Indifference is what makes us okay with people dying of starvation or crimes being committed to people of different beliefs, race or orientation. It is what creates societies and communities of sofa-voting, leaving it to the experts, and statements like “if it does not affect me, then why should I care?”

Every day we have a choice to break indifference. Perspectives on our world and acknowledgement of our fellow beings are our potentials for change and growth. Care about someone and something. Love and hate finds a way, indifference finds an excuse. Let’s seek the way of Syntropy.


Creating. The Power of Using Opposites.

I don’t have goals; I have fantasies.
They’re like goals but without the hard work.

Charles Thompson

From Allan Leslie Combs we have the learning that our consciousness is like a complex system comprised of chaotic-like processes. This allows for flexibility and adaptiveness, as our consciousness draws elements from the chaos and places them into some kind of order. Our mind orders random physical processes.

Charles Thompson is one of the best practitioners of this chaos to cosmos potential in all of us. His work is all about opposites. “What would you never do to achieve your desired result?” he asks us. Then next to flip our “newer answer” to see the big possibility, and not be constrained with the answer of the expert.

His creative intuition is simple: “I see in opposites, I look for what’s right about every failure, I reverse words, and connect adjacent, unrelated possibilities”. Wild ideas trigger a “What’s right about it?”

Based on this Charles has grown some succinct rules of thumb on creativity which we may all use. They are divided into three steps based on the experience that they will hopefully create.

Picture 4: Imagine, Ignite and Inspire Opposites

He also has a very important ask to our logical mind:  “what do we wish we knew when we started that we know now”. As he states, then our creative success will be determined “by what we know and by what we can forget”. Unlearning the rules we grew up with may be the quickest way to a breakthrough.

Picture 5: Rules of School and Nature

As George Land also identified with the creativity test he made for NASA in the 60ies and which he applied on kids growing up in the 70ies, then at five years of age, we score higher in the creativity test than at any other time in our lives. At middle age we score the lowest – so clever and stuck in the past!

When a child thinks up or hears a new idea, her initial thoughts are about all the possibilities and the fun she will have. But mature, schooled minds first see what is wrong and why an idea is no good.

Let’s open our hearts, minds and will to new ideas. Each day in a world without change and growth is like the last day of our life.

Here are some practical guidelines from Charles to go the creative way:

Picture 6: Creativity Rules of Thumb

I love this. His insights are playing in the universe of opposites and they invite in perspectives and our fellow human beings – someone or something that matters.

A person who views the world at 50
the same as they did at 20 has wasted 30 years of their life.
Mohammed Ali

In the 1950’ies, Louis R. Mobley realized that educating people to think and act creatively is foundational to success – not financial accounting.

His Boot Camp at IBM was built on six core insights.

Picture 7: Core Principles of Modley’s Creativity Boot Camp

The last creativity insight from Modley – permit to be wrong – is really important. Learning to be creative is a collective challenge. It requires practice in a supportive environment to develop creative muscles.

Knowing to use opposites and to ask stupid questions is not enough. We need to dare, which we especially do, when we are encouraged to apply our ideas, despite the failures we may run into.

A person, a team and a business open to creativity, learning and dreams of higher impact accepts failure. Indeed expect failure, want failure. For without it, there’s no learning and no improved impact.

At first, expecting failure may sound counterintuitive; it could mean loss of money, self-confidence, and reputation. On second thought, those willing to lose to make a difference, ultimately learn the most.

By thinking in opposites and acting through trial and error, NOT trial and rightness, we move the needle – AND – as our creative ideas are mostly going to fail, let’s act on them to fail as fast and cheaply as possible. Agility in learning is crucial to quickly leap ahead.


Agility in Learning. Getting our Mind Around and Into it.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Robert A. Heinlein

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.
Søren Kierkegaard

The concepts of learning, agility and mindset contain insights we can use – as a person, as a team, and as a whole business – to change the way we connect and think. We can learn faster and achieve higher impact by seeking future, using our opposites and making use of syntropy.

Learning is about experiencing connections and correcting mistakes, which we see and do when we really care, especially as our environment encourages us to care and as we have the capacity to care.

Picture 8: Insights on Learning

Agility is about quickly changing direction based on new learnings – it is about flexibility and speed – and we learn faster when we have the ability and capacity for rapid change.

Here some agility examples:

Picture 9: Insights on Agility

To the insights on learning and agility it is crucial to distinguish between schooling and learning; that is between becoming an expert and becoming a better learner.

Picture 10: Learning vs. Schooling

To these insights, Peter Hinssen shared this lovely overview at the Next Conference in 2018. Highly mindful I find it to be.

Picture 11: Schooling vs. Learning at Next Conference 2018

Our mind indeed frames our world, and to operate with several mind-sets at the same time – to tolerate ambiguity – and – to be able to switch mind – are central aspects of agility in learning.

Picture 12: Success Mindsets. Overview by Ryan Gottfredson.

Growth vs. Fixed Mind-Sets.

Carol Dweck found a sharp difference in learning strategies and outcomes based on what we believe about our own talents.

A growth mindset believes that we can cultivate our qualities through our own efforts, strategies and help from others. When we believe our talents can be developed we have a growth mindset.

The opposite of having a growth mindset is to have a fixed mind-set. This is when we believe that our qualities are carved in stone and that our talents are innate gifts.

Picture 13: Differences between a Fixed and a Growth Mindset

The fixed mindset limits achievement and fills our minds with interfering thoughts. It makes indifference take a hold on us, effort disagreeable and it leads to inferior learning strategies. What is more, consciously or not, a fixed mindset let us make other people judges, instead of allies of us.

Open vs. Closed Mind-Sets.

Ray Dalio found that success to a large extend depends on our degree of openness to other perspectives.

When we possess a closed mindset, we are concerned about being seen as being right. We seek to have our ideas supported, are inclined to provide answers and are opposed to asking questions. We avoid other perspectives, and see disagreement as a threat. All this, as we believe that what we know is best.

When we possess an open mindset, we are concerned about reality. So, we ask questions, seek new perspectives, seek to understand, and see disagreement as an opportunity to learn more. All because we believe our own perspectives are limited and that they can be mistaken.

Picture 14: Differences between a Closed and an Open mindset

One word strongly describes the difference between those with open and closed mindsets – humility. That is our willingness to sincerely hear and understand others’ ideas and perspectives, regardless of who they are.

Promotion vs. Prevention Mind-Sets.

From Heidi Grant Halvorson and Edward Tory Higgins we have the distinction between playing to win or not to lose.

When we possess a prevention mindset we want to “prevent the boat from sinking”. We are all about not “rocking it”, and focus on not creating problems by maintaining status quo and limiting risk taking.

When we have a promotion mindset we are all about “getting to the destination”. We anticipate problems and risks on our way and take calculated risks; we learn and adjust to reach the destination.

Outward vs. Inward Mind-Sets.

Consciously or not, to make other people our judges or allies in growth, to invite in opposing perspectives or avoid them, and to limit risk taking to maintain status quo or to take calculated risks to reach new lands; these mind-sets all concern the biggest lever in change we have, namely the way we mind and regard connection with and obligations to others – that is our inward or outward mindset.  

From the Arbinger Institute we have the insights on these fundamentally different ways we connect with others, and their impact consequences.

An inward mindset is convinced that how we feel and think about other people is caused by the others; by what they have or have not done, by how inconsiderate they have been. When our mindset is inward we do not care about other people’s needs and objectives, instead we focus on what we need from them to achieve our objectives. We are concerned with others’ impact on us, not our impact on them.

Not caring for others may seem to make life simpler, but it requires us to feel justified for not caring. We burn energy in seeking justification, which we could have used to contribute to creating impact. This energy-draining, time-wasting, silo-creating effect of our justification seeking is the worst of problems in human endeavors. It is a key contributor to many of our passive aggressive, future avoiding, non-collaborative and essentially myself-cultures in which indifference, apathy and entropy flourish.

An outward mindset has realized that we see other people the way we see them because of ourselves. We have gotten over ourselves, and are alive to and interested in other people, their objectives and needs. We help others be able to do things, and so perceive their true capacities and competences – their strengths – and we do not pretend to have the answers. Rather, we seek to create environments that encourage others to take on responsibility for finding questions and answers to the challenges we as a whole face.

An outward mindset implies to take responsibility for the impact we seek together, and it implies the capability to change the way we ourselves see and work with others, regardless of whether other people change. This way we overcome the biggest challenge to any change, namely the inward inclination to wait for others to change before doing anything different ourselves.

An outward mindset is able to achieve far greater results than we would be willing or able to do alone, because we commit ourselves to something that is bigger than ourselves. It requires the best of us, and so we are disciplining ourselves by the commitment we make to others, and we feel a heightened obligation to learn and consistently perform our best. We owe that to others.

With an inward mindset we act to protect and advance ourselves, whereas with an outward mindset we act to strengthen and grow our collective impact.

Personal Agility in Learning

To bring the insights together on learning, agility and mindsets, then personal agility in learning is the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and to apply that learning to perform well under new and unfamiliar situations, not knowing what to do and figuring it out. It is about dealing with new experiences flexibly and rapidly by trying new behaviour, getting feedback on the attempts, and making quick adjustments.

People who are agile in learning are willing to seek out new and challenging situations to expand and broaden their experiences.  They deploy an active process of curiosity and experimentation to gain insight and perspectives, and they seek feedback and reflection to embed learnings. They simply perform better in new circumstances because they have more experimentation ideas, approaches and solutions to draw on when faced with new challenges.

In essence people agile in learning are very differently driven than people who are experts in content.

Picture 15: High Performance and High Impact Orientations.
Inspired by Creative Leadership Coalition

Personal agility in learning asks us to hone general ability over specialization, and that we manage our career around obtaining diversity of geographical and functional experiences. Breadth of perspective and the ability to connect the dots is more important than depth of expertise and ability to know a dot.

Picture 16: I Work, We Contribute

So what?

Well, if our purpose is to grow higher impact together then our agility in learning mind-sets, practices and behaviours need to be fundamentally different than if our purpose is to do a better specialised job alone and still significantly different than if our purpose is merely to do a specialised job alone. The purpose we aim for matters tremendously in our agility in learning.

So, when we suffer from the tyranny of expertise, our schooled mind, not value, has become our purpose, and the methods, the tools and the specific matters have overpowered the power of our creative growth, future pull and the force of connecting for future impact. We indeed then get entropy, not syntropy. We hold each other back from the possibilities of major breakthroughs of future.

Our relational environment sets the tone for our learning explorations and agile adaptions. Is it open to and promotes challenges to the status quo? Does it belief in growth, and see mistakes as a crucial part of learning? Or does it dogmatically fixate us onto the schooled knowledge of the past – the expertise?


Collective Agility in Learning. Going Beyond Oneself.

The performance of the whole is never the sum of the parts, but its product of their interactions.
Russel L. Ackoff

The difference between transformative and incremental changes is that the former require new ways of thinking and behaving, particularly by those in leadership.
Janet Szumal and Robert Cooke

Collective agility in learning depends on our ability and capacity as a whole for rapid change in learning. That is to see, experiment with and fix mistakes as a whole; the errors of co-mission and errors of omission.

The real challenge in that is that we via schools are indoctrinated in the mind-set that success depends on parts, specialization. We do not learn to connect and see mistakes as a whole nor how to fix them together. We do not see inter-dependency and inter-actions, nor impact potentials or consequences.

The tyranny of the experts and expertise is well at work in us and all around us. Our schooled minds kill opportunity to grow collective agility in learning. Fixed, closed and inward mindsets make methods, tools and specifics our core purpose. It overpowers our inter-relations and shared value creation.

As a private example on this, then when I joined Grundfos in 2002 I was asked to review work that engineers had done in applying the EFQM Business Excellence model.

It struck me that all the content boxes in the model – leadership, people, strategy, partners & resources, processes, products, services, people results, customer results, society results and business results  – were the sole attention of the engineers. There were page after page describing each box, but the arrows and the connections in the model were not mentioned with a single word.

Picture 17: EFQM Business Excellence Model, Old Version

Different business functions had been tasked to explain “their box”; the work they “owned” due to their specialization. The purpose to use the model to learn how the whole business was integrated for impact and to discover opportunity to improve it was nowhere to see. No-one owned such perspectives.

So, the exercise of the engineers had become a classic school paper one, focused on describing specialization and the rightness of it. What a pity, what a missed opportunity for learning as a collective, and to adapt to new insights of impact.

At the heart this problem is pretty simple: incentive structures, business metrics, positions as career goals, and our well-schooled subject matter egos keep us focused on ourselves, often to the harm of the whole. Most businesses are inward, closed, fixed and prevention minded, and they get stuck. Entropy creeps in.

Picture 18: Relational Capability. Inspired by Jody Hoffer Gittel, The SouthWest Way

To reinforce our specialization mindsets, we are throughout school told that to make a mistake is baaad. When we join a business it repeats this message; to make a mistake is reeeally baaad. Now, as we succeed not to make any (or conceal them) we learn nothing, and as a consequence deliver little value.

It is this mistake-judgment-culture that let expertise be a purpose in itself and indirectly cause status quo. To grow agility in collective learning we must challenge it, and bring into play the powers of future pull, creative growth and the force of connecting. That is change how we connect and think together.

Picture 19: There is NO Box

To think about how seemingly unrelated developments may impact each other, is something that teams and businesses with agility in learning naturally do. They seek and experiment with the inter-dependencies, inter-connections and inter-actions across bodies of knowledge, businesses and even industries, and they imagine how changes in one can disrupt operations in another one.  

To grow higher agility in collective learning starts by accepting that at heart we are all creative integrators, fully capable of breaking the tyranny of expertise to change for the future. We can together become effective learners of future instead of staying back alone in the past as certified smart experts.

Picture 20: Moves from Schooling to Learning. From Entropy to Syntroy.
Tools of a Systems Thinker by Leyla Acaroglu

I find the “day-after tomorrow”-notions of Peter Hinssen powerful in challenging our agility in collective learning. Where do we – team and business – spend our time, attention, cash and talent together? Which percentage do we we spend to clean up the mess of yesterday, to deliver the order of today, to improve the stream of value for tomorrow or to innovate our business for the day after tomorrow?

Picture 21: The Day after Tomorrow, Peter Hinssen

When we see beyond the inside of our professional specialisation boxes and so challenge ourselves to look at our inter-dependencies, inter-relationships and the inter-action across time and space, then we take part in a collective effort to learn the value of what we create as a whole, and begin to seek and work on opportunities for reaching still higher levels together.

You cannot think outside the box, when you are in it.  The principal creator of thought in almost any area comes from outside the area.
Russel L. Ackoff

So what are we doing?

This is a question that depending on our perceptions and mind-sets explained will be helpful or frightful. In growing agility in collective learning this question is crucial.

The question invites our energy into clarifying who is our customer, their purpose and problems, and as well our integration of effort to deliver on it, and it enables us to weed out irrelevant for impact matters.

By finding the answers to this question we may feel more like we are on top of the value we are contributing to, that we are honoring our time together and so spend our life pursuing meaningful ends.

However, I have encountered many teams during my career who perceive this question on “what are we doing” in the directions of “do you not trust us?”, “that is not your business – mind your own?”, “what did we do wrong or miss to understand?” or “why are we to blame?”

Picture 22: T.E.A.M. – Together Everyone Annoys Me

Clearly inward, fixed, closed and judgmental mindsets are ruling, and let us seek prevention of status quo by all means. It is a real pity, and in my mind the biggest waste of all on planet Earth. 

More to it, inward minded teams often act in softer ways than what is effective. Wanting others to think well of them, they indulge, pacify, or placate others when direct actions are much more helpful.

A team or a business that operates with an outward, growth and ally seeking mindset, promotes and encourages all to engage their whole brains in the planning as well as in the doing.

This includes ways to accelerate the quality of decision-making, knowledge on whom to involve to quickly come to a high-quality basis for a decision, to be quick to recognize and correct bad decisions, to disagree and still commit, yes and to recognize true misalignment as early as possible and address it quickly to get it resolved. They do not act as independent isolated islands minding their own business.

A great example on all this comes from Ford and its former leader Alan Mulally, who helped Ford change agility in collective learning, and to move from an inward to an outward minded business.

Most famously Mulally led via a change of impact measurements and meeting behaviors. It included Business Review meetings that were used to assess collective achievement of business targets and the movement in initiatives, and they were followed by Special Attention Reviews which were used to device collective and tactical solutions for the challenges and issues identified in the Business Reviews.

Now, these new meeting and measurement structures were important. They made a clear physical change to the previous reality of executive meetings which had been used to report power point slides from own area and so to show off. But the new structures were not enough in themselves; the transformative trick was to let the team work its inter-dependencies, inter-relations and inter-actions.

Picture 23: The Collabortion Continuum, Tamarack Institute, 2017

To begin, all executive leaders in the Ford team of teams were showing green data on all metrics in the reviews, as in the past inward culture of specialization and expertise, what counted was to be assertive, to portray being in control and to be in-dependent. In fact, they all competed to look the best.

In the past anyone in the team would “get killed” if they let own problems surface in a lead team meeting. These meetings were to be used for anecdotal storytelling, looking good and even teasing others for not being up to speed and progress.

A purely inward oriented culture, which meant problems or issues were never shared nor at all any invitation given for other perspectives. It was totally unheard of to ask for help on problems from across the business or to seek out other possibilities together.

Mulally changed the conversations and the dynamics in the meeting room, by calmly insisting on the fact that the business was losing out in the millions, and that each member in the team was showing each time there were no issues in their area. That could of course not be so.

Finally, when one of the execs dared to share the reality (out of desperation and from feeling cornered) that “he was in fact in red“, Mulally jumped on the opportunity and stated that “you are not in red, the issue you are working on is in red“, and then swiftly he turned the attention in the room to the full team by inviting all in to offer their perspectives and to help out – “who can help on that problem?”  

Mulally used many leadership opportunities to instill ten outward beliefs that helped them connect and work differently together. They are very much linked to the learning and agility insights from part II.

Picture 24: The Culture in the Team of Teams, Ford when Alan Mulally was CEO

What a way to drive orientations from self to others, from schooling and looking good to real agility in collective learning and so speeding up the creation of value and delivery of impact.

The business reviews gave each executive leadership team member of Ford visibility into their own contribution to the whole and each other. It was up to each one to engage in the process with an outward mindset, and so to seek to help each one on the team to succeed.

When the team saw the challenges faced by each other, they were invited to step up, and so set in motion the pull of future and creative growth. They gathered each week to see how the help they provided made a difference. They measured impact and achieved an inter-dependent understanding of the whole business and its opportunities.

Agility in collective learning is all about driving our learning orientation towards shared value creation. It is about growing collective habits that enable us together to see, experiment with and fix our business problems. It comes about when we approach impact as something relational, meaningful and collective; and where we care very little about schooled knowledge or expertise, but instead our whole impact.

To the Mulally story of turning outward, there is a path forward to operate with an outward mindset.

Picture 25: A Path to Agility in Collective Learning Culture.
Inspired by Arbinger Institute – ‘An Outward mind’


Collective Agility in Learning. Insights from Lean.

No one in a business works in a vacuum. Business adds value by delivering services, and it is done through a business system. How effective it is, is up to us all to design, experiment with and improve.

Picture 26: Integrated Chain of Business Whether Demand of Production Driven

It is about a move in our perspectives from working IN A business with our independent specialization skills to working together ON OUR business to deliver customer impact.

There are 3 important aspects to that, which Marc Warren calls principles of a learning system.

Picture 27: Principles of a Learning System, Marc Warren

In applying the principles we must not mistake activity for adding value. That just leads to the tyranny of expertise. Maybe we can get rid of problems and work disappears. Then the activity is no longer needed. Gone is the need for “expertise”. As an example, who knows how to make wooden wheels for horse carriages these days, and is that really a problem for customers of transport?

Agility in collective learning is the ability as a whole to quickly learn and adjust to changes in the needs of customers. It means to quickly go from customer insights over ideas to deliver value – as a business system. We do that through processes that rapidly experiment with, implement and deploy ideas.

The slowest process limits the speed of the whole, and this may just as well be an overloaded strategic initiatives portfolio process – seen or not – as it may be a poor interface process in product development, a bottleneck in a specific product value stream or a misalignment in an enabling process. To improve the performance of the whole, we must improve our constraints and make work easier for all.

Now, the purpose of visualizing business models, strategic initiatives portfolios, value streams, integrations and interfaces, and to setup Kanban logics is not to do that for the sake of doing it. Making them is to enable us to facilitate a totally different conversation of learning and experimentation on our constraints as a whole. Something we cannot do when we look at or fight with specifics, our expertise.

The visualizations enable us to be agile in our collective learning. The agility comes from the questions we ask with this newly enabled way of seeing at the level of inter-dependence, inter-relationship and inter-actions. They are on our whole business opportunities and learning experiments to go after them.

Agility means not waiting or being inflexible, and dependencies cause waiting time and rigidity. It is normal that strategic initiatives and strategic improvements to a current product value stream take oceans of time. Not so much because the work itself needs time, however because the dependencies involved drags time out.

If we believe that agility is simply to make a department, a single business process or even a single team agile, we end up with wasted efforts. Of course we can apply agility in collective learning principles to development or delivery in isolation to the rest of the whole, but the effect will be limited, and the agile teams will get stuck when they reach the borders of non-agility in the business.

Agility in collective learning works where we remove the “us and them”. It is not important how fast individual teams deliver, it is important that the whole business system is quick.

It is a cultural process and it begins with leadership. It starts with the team of teams, people that are accountable for the future of the business. Real agility in collective learning integrates the upstream, the midstream and the downstream into a single value chain to create a fast and steady flow. Strategy, operations, development and delivery work together and, most importantly, towards the same aims.


Collective Agility in Learning. Insights from Agile.

The future value of a business is the finalization of its learning capacity.
Eric Ries

We need agile interactions. This requires communication; you must actively coordinate the flow of work through the system.
Russel L. Ackoff

The only real competitive advantage we have is our agility in collective learning, so what are we doing?

We owe it to ourselves, each other and our customers, to care for the whole and not hide in isolation.

There is a great metaphor developed by Klaus Leopold to help us get going – the Flight Level metaphor.

Basically a flight level describes how high an altitude an airplane is flying, and accordingly the degree of detail we see on the ground below and the distance we can see into the future we are flying into. Thus each flight level has its own characteristics, advantages and limitations.

What is attractive about this metaphor is that it works independently of any method of work a team uses, and it helps us identify where our leverage point for a higher agility in collective learning lies in a business.

Flight Level 3. The Overview.
The business model, strategy & portfolio of strategic initiatives

As Klaus Leopold has found then the journey to become agile in collective learning often begins with a local focus – we aim for fast moving agile teamswhereas we really need to begin with the team of teams and so the global strategy and portfolio of strategic initiatives.

The highest leverage sits at flight level 3. This team owns the business strategy, business models and the strategic portfolio of initiatives to make our business fit for the future. This includes new ventures, new service offerings and major changes to our complete business system.

Not only does the team of teams own the strategy and its initiatives, it sets the tact of change to and in the whole business, by deciding when to get going with or to stop initiatives. This team thereby balance the flow of the strategic initiatives and enable the agility in collective learning of the whole business.

The effect of this depends on how large a portion of the value chain this team attends to and how many initiatives it decides the business may work on at the same time. Generally, the wider the end2end and the more initiatives at the same time, the better an opportunity to enable agility in collective learning, as most inter-dependencies then are included.

Picture 28: Flight Levels of Agility in Collective Learning. Inspired by Klaus Leopold

Consider that most businesses do not operate like this at all, but rather like this. An executive has a meeting planned to listen to somebody that has been preparing for weeks to present an initiative idea. They are enthusiastic and as the executive listens in she agrees to the initiative, and now the trouble begins. Not only does she agree to the idea, she also gives a go ahead to begin the initiative right away.

On the following day another team presents another initiative idea to the executive which they have been working on for a long time. It takes 20 minutes, and then again, the executive gives a go to get started. The next day another meeting and the same pattern occurs.

This approach to leading change to and in a business is classic, and it is a big error of omission. We make strategic choices in isolation and by doing so we miss our inter-dependencies. We rob our whole business from the opportunity to faster learn and shift direction together.

As a consequence we tend to spread ourselves thin with a large number of non-synchronized strategic initiatives being worked on at the same time (+1000 in my last company). We drag on and on to finish them, and we slow down our ability as a whole business to learn of systemic mistakes and to fix them. We are not agile at all.

The flight level 3 addresses this by making use of strategic management for the entire business. The team of teams sees as a whole all that is happening – at the high altitude, not detailed – and so which products and service developments as well as strategic initiatives are influenced in what way, how far deployments have come and whether initiatives pay of strategically and are as successful as we aimed for.

Having many initiative ideas is fantastic, but they are in competition with each other to both be chosen as well as to be started. At flight level 3 we wisely choose and combine them, recognize dependencies and optimize the flow across the complete value creating chain. Also we set limits to the number of projects that can be entertained at the same time to avoid traffic jams in our complete business system.

The ratio between strategic initiatives started and those completed has a direct effect on time2market. A strategy board and a portfolio board of strategic initiatives are ways to enable a team of teams to take care that the ratio is in a good balance, and that initiatives align to the overall business strategy.

In relation to this the team of teams needs to enable the rhythm of strategic decision making to be in sync with the responsiveness it wants to enable throughout our business system. An example is the budget, which often is a big fight once a year, when executives decide on initiatives. Collecting ideas over such a long period kills agility in collective learning. If we want to enable responsiveness in the business on e. g. a monthly basis, then we also need to have at least a monthly replenishment process!

This does not mean to start something new each month. It means that work-in-process (WIP) initiatives must get finished and WIP limits considered during the replenishment – aka strategy and portfolio meetings – so we do not begin new initiatives before we are able to deliver them. One trick is also to make initiatives small enough that they are fast to carry out and deliver to market.

In these ways of visualizing the strategy and its initiative portfolio we enable us to see the true dysfunctions of our whole business. The real way to improve is by managing the flow of initiatives (IN, ON, OUT) and limiting the amount that is allowed into the business system at the same time.

It is all about meeting in front of the boards with all the current and planned initiatives, that way we can see how newly pitched ideas fit into what is already under way and what is already planned as well as to bundle where it makes sense. We choose and combine for value.

Lastly, it is helpful to enable improvement of the collaboration at flight level 3 by the use of retrospectives. It allows those working on the strategy and the portfolio of initiatives – e.g. the team of teams and delegates from flight level 1 and 2 – to regularly review what has occurred over a time period.

Flight Level 2. The Dependencies.
Across Product Value Streams & Operational Portfolio of Initiatives

Agility is often seen as a challenge for individuals and individual teams, rather than for teams and the team of teams. It supposedly is all about individual teams holding daily stand-ups and searching for improvements in their own work during individual team retrospectives.

However, a whole business is not agile by stringing together a bunch of agile and lean teams. No-one attends the dependencies between teams; there is neither illumination of nor end2end management on the value chain. Further, when that is the case, it does not make sense to speak of high performance teams. We are back to the tyranny of the experts, as a team may increase its own performance, at the expense of the whole business.  The entire chain can get totally messed up as we know from lean thinking.

A classic example concerns the inter-faces and inter-dependencies between product development, product launch and commercialization of a product. Time2market burden is often placed on the market launch team to deliver faster, but the market launch team can only attempt to catch up a bit of the time that is being lost in all the upstream processes, and that is typically a lot, as inter-actions with and concern for downstream needs often are not attended to upstream. They are a big error of omission.

Basically downstream have waiting time for deliverables from upstream, and business support teams as well as from the team of teams that drives the strategic choices to our business system. The whole point at flight level 2 is to make a full and visual value chain oriented towards what the customer wants.

Agility in collective learning in business is created through processes that rapidly implement ideas and so help teams across the value chain to deliver something quickly together. It is not important how fast individual teams within a business works; it is the speed of the full chain that matters. Therefore we need to enable the right team to work on the right thing at the right time by working on our inter-dependencies and inter-actions at the full chain level, not in the individual teams alone.

When the flow of work across the entire value stream of a product is being attended to, quality of deliveries are improved and waiting times at the inter-faces are reduced. Most importantly bottlenecks are visible, so the tact end2end can be set accordingly, and work to improve it targeted.

The larger the business, the more product value streams we have, and so we have more than one flight level 2. Further, as there often are dependencies between product streams, and as they often pull in the same business enabling teams like it, hr, finance, quality, marketing etc. we also with great benefit can combine the various product streams into one overall operational portfolio board.

Flight Level 1. The Value Creation Work.
Business Process in or supporting a Product Value Stream.

The classic setup for agility in collective learning helps individuals deliver together at the level of value creation. This is flight level 1.  We typically establish a cross functional team that works on one product or service. We do so by visually managing all work via a product value stream contained in a Kanban board. Then we meet to align and progress our work via daily stand-ups and weekly retrospectives, and we use data on 2 metrics to learn about our effect and momentum – throughput and cycle time.

What is important about this is that it forces us to work on the inter-actions and inter-relationships within our team. It simply enables us to learn by seeing together the work actually being done.

The prominent part of this is visualizing work via the Kanban board. Everyone is enabled to see what is currently being worked on and where problems lie. It is also key to do daily standups or tier meetings because fast feedback loops allows for quicker responses and coordination to changes.

Lastly, it is helpful to take a step back from operational work on a regular basis, which is what a team does in a retrospective. It uses it to contemplate what can be done differently or better in the future. If we continue to do what we always did we will at best only get what we always got.

Mindsets over Methods

The biggest shift to agility in collective learning is the change in our mindsets. It is to move from our schooled “I am working on it” to a learningful “what we are doing, together”.

Inter-actions require integration and collaboration. We must manage our business system and strategic changes to it. Our mindsets determine the effectiveness of this. When we fly with inward, closed, fixed and prevention mindsets we grow little agility, even if we invest in setting up agile and lean methods.

It is all about how we let our minds meet. Maybe we take part in too many monkey meetings, which enforce learned helplessness?

When our mind is occupied with self and own points, it tends to be very silent about dangers and opportunities as a whole. We see nothing, we hear nothing and we say nothing. 

Picture 29: The Monkey and the Learningful Meetings

Back to the example of Mulally and Ford. Meeting dynamics in which we build on each other’s understandings and intuitions are the most learningful. This is where our mind when entering a meeting is setup to move together to achieve impact, it is not caring about proving self. 

Indeed, the purpose of boards is not to have them, or to use them to prove each other wrong or right. It is to manage dependencies together, and enable the right people talk to each other about what they see. It is about becoming aware together and seeking flow as a whole. It is to see the streams, then synchronize decision flows and processes, and lastly balance demand and work in process.

No matter if it is strategic initiatives, development, launches or delivery items, managing dependencies means continuously examining what is on the board and coming to the right conclusions together.

Picture 30: Frequency of Meetings matter Greatly in Growing Agility in Collective Learning

Also, the longer we wait to meet again, the more we risk drifting into other matters, and so also risking that our schooled mind takes over and we find ourselves in a reporting mode, not an agile learning mode. So cut down those long low frequency meeting sessions. Make them short and frequent.


Let’s Move On. The first step is hardest, make it easy!

Once you stop learning, you start dying.
Albert Einstein

I like to finish up and inspire us to move on with the drowning story Dan Heath presents in Upstream.

“You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of the river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water – a child is drowning. Without thinking, both of you dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight, and another and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. Where are you going? you demand. Your friend answers, ‘I am going upstream to tackle the guy who is throwing all these kids into the water’.

Downstream actions react to problems once they occur. Upstream actions aim to design systems, so that the problems we react to drownstream will not happen.

When we create organizations, we do it to give focus. We give all a license to be myopic. We say this is your problem to take care of. Define your mission, create your strategy and align resources to solve it; you have the full right to ignore all of the other stuff that does not align to that.

This specialization focus cause efficiency and productivity, but it stifles agility in collective learning and so real value creation. We grow learned helplessness and become rigid as a whole.

There is a core reason we favor reaction and efficiency to wholeness and impact. It is more tangible. Downstream work is easier to see, and easier to measure. There is a maddening ambiguity upstream, and how do we prove what did not happen? Helping kids learn to swim is a fantastic upstream solution; it helps them from drowning. But how many did not drown due to our intervention?

So, there are real barriers to change agility in learning in self, the team and the team of teams. Dan Heath lists them as problem blindness, lack of problem ownership and tunneling.

Picture 31: Barriers to Agility in Collective Learning

As you recall, learning is about seeing and fixing mistakes – both the error of co-mission and the error of omission – and agility is about the degree to which we quickly adapt to the learnings, and move in a different direction.

Now, when we organize to give execution focus and so exactly NOT to enable agility in learning then that is what we must change. We must re-think and re-do this.

We find leverage by looking outside the lines of our own work. Are we intervening at the right level?

We have to somehow make us feel the consequences and break our myopic thinking, and so the way forward is called experimentation – especially with upstream matters.

We must meet at the board and work it out together. Experiment quickly and seek prompt feedback. Feedback loops spur improvement, and where missing, create them.

Picture 32: Which Experiments are we Doing?

Agility in collective learning starts with humility and courage to get going. Business systems cannot be controlled, but they can be designed and re-designed by using the experiments of opposites. We cannot move forward with certainty, but we can learn forward. We cannot control, but we can dance with syntropy.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules, and they have not respect of the status quo… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Steve Jobs

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