What is the Learning Drive of your Organisation?

By Morten Leth Andersen

All of my 19+ year professional career I have been helping out on change initiatives.

Most of them aimed at getting us to a higher level of business impact via a plan of influence to new systemic experiences, perspectives, beliefs and behaviors, and then a question always pops up:  How do we organise our work to deliver better impact?

This has led me to the hidden dynamics of organisation, which together with the learning gears and learning fears are very key to tune into, when we want to achieve lasting systemic impacts.

I call these hidden dynamics the inherent learning drive of organisation.

What is an Organisation?

Before going to them, let’s first step back and reflect a little on what an organisation is, as our immediate thoughts most likely are that an organisation has nothing to do with learning, and instead all to do with structure and the best use of resources aka people.

An organisation is indeed also about a visual structure which tells us how our organisation is setup and supposed to work.

It shows a balance between our needs to divide business activity into customer and business impactful groupings, as well as to integrate these groupings for max effectiveness and efficiency.

In organisational design quite a lot of work goes into sorting out this visible structure. Here are a few examples. Maybe we find our own organisation represented?

A Hierarchy: Function, Market, Solution Type, Geography, Channel or Category

A Matrix: 2 dimensions, 3 dimensions or “out of world”-many dimensions

A Project Organisation: Account, Complexity or Specialty

A Service Stream: Service Family, Shared Service or Business Model

A Network: Eco-system, Mesh or Platform

In organisational design efforts we also focus a lot on clarifying and aligning on key principles of organisation, like for instance decision ownership, chain of command, span of control, specialisation, default and right conflicts of organisation, scalar chain, balance, continuity and simplicity.

However, an organisation is not just about structure and principles of organisation; it is also about the non-visual choices of psychological boundaries of connecting.

That is, answers to questions on our mission and focus, accountability and authority, responsibility of action, influencing and politics, and perhaps most important our collaborating identity.

Picture 1: Choices of Psychological Boundaries of Connecting. Inspired by Larry Hirschhorn and Thomas Gilmore.

And we are all aware, that no organisation is perfect. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and so we tend to always wonder, what is really the most attractive one to us and perhaps our customers?

Picture 2: Pros and Cons of Organisation


What is the Learning Drive of Organisation?

What most of us seem not to put into these choice making exercises on organisation is why organisations repeatedly run into the same kinds of learning challenge?

That is, they just do not learn beyond certain boundaries, and so in all their efforts to change, they never change for real.

What happens is that our invisible choices of organisation grows into an immune system, and so its learning drive reflects invisible survival automatisms, which addresses:

How we Seek and Respond?
or deal with emergence and volatility

How we Flow Information?
or deal with capacity and commitment

How we Lead and Carry Out?
or deal with complexity and feedback loops?

Picture 3: Survival in Which Reality

I see 3 archetypes of this inherent learning drive of organisation:

a Hierarchy learns for power stability (status quo) and minimising own effort

a Service Stream learns for flowing better and delivering faster to its customer

a Network learns for customer value and flexibility in solution design

and their typical approach to a new reality differs tremendously:

The Hierarchy just changes its structuresit adds, merges or takes out expertise domains. It just keeps assuming stability, simplicity and scarcity, and never does it consider the customer who pays its bills.

The Service Stream re-works its operating model – that is it evolves its balancing capabilities. It keeps assuming middle of the road learning drive, and never that it has reached a dead end.

The Disruptive network pivot to another value delivery hypothesis and following constellation of people. It keeps assuming dynamism, complexity and abundance, and never is it time to settle.

Further, there is in all organisations a winning coalition, and the preferences of this coalition holds the learning drive of organisation.

Few organisations master well the 3 learning drives as an integrated whole; their leaders and associates seldom grow all round backgrounds and aspirations, so there is always a clear bias in one, the other or third direction.

What is the winning coalition in your business? When you know, you will know when organisational change is coming, as well as what it will imply.

Here is an overview on how these constellations operate, based on their invisible choices of organisation, and corresponding learning gears and learning fears.

The Hierarchy > The Past and perhaps Today > Stability and Minimisation of Effort

The Learning Gears
Gear 1: Specialised Tasks + Efficiency Driven + Fragile
Gear 2: Projects of New Ideas + Output Driven + Anti-Agile

Mission and Focus: Who are we serving?

The hierarchical organisation strongly believes it exists for its own sake to make its own great solutions, and to design and deploy great tools and technology in doing so, and so it focuses on narrow expertise.

However, technology, tools and experts designed to achieve specific for own sake outputs do not possess the ability to go outside boundaries. They do not understand context. Not even Artificial Intelligence.

In fact, they are as dump as can be, and so always respond to new reality by deploying more of the same dump answers – that is even more specialised tools and technology, and even more specialised experts.

Accountability and Authority: Who drives our agenda?

All interactions are being directed towards the specified law and order, in the sense that all divisions, integrations and boundaries are made explicit to everyone; and so all should work accordingly.

This means that anything or anyone that sticks out to form a different course gets killed. Creativity has little hope to survive. The drive is towards a resting optimum of perfect stability run on automatic pilot.

That optimum is according to the logics and emotions of the boss, who is the real customer of work.

There is a low level of trust – in people, in tools, in data, in customers, in suppliers, in government; in you name it – and so control by boss is of paramount importance, which is stressed over and over again by the boss.

Responsibility of Action: Who does what?

Performance is to follow orders of the boss, and to get tasks done with a minimum of effort and complaint. Each is assumed to know and do as need be, and there is a massive feedback loop to all confirming that heroics and standing out as individuals is all that matters.

Some bosses even deploy halls of fame showing to all, who are the stars of the expertise; the reliable and responsible ones. The most advanced on this is something called succession planning.

Accountability is therefore never taken; it is always something people are held up to by the ruling boss, and the responsibility to act is always directed, never self-driven. All other people than the bosses are to operate like small children and need constantly to answer to daddy or mommy.

Influencing and Politics: What is in it for us?

The bosses are occupied with making their functional kingdoms of expertise bigger and technically better, and so to provide more awards, power and money to it and its people aka themselves.

Core conversations are on my outputs (called results), my technology (called innovation), my shop (called expertise) and my budget (called investment in future proofs), and when a functional kingdom is down in points, then the talk is about how poorly the other guys are doing and which poor characters they possess.

Us-and-them positioning gymnastics steal most of our energy, and it stands out most practically in periods of vacation. We always decide time off considering our own needs, never the needs of partners or customers or colleagues cross the company. All others have to understand that we are now off, and so we are totally blind to principles of business continuity. At the end, we are here to serve ourselves, so why bother.

Collaborating Identity – Who is and is not – us?

There is no collaborating identify. Our organisational structure is supposed to take care of such a thing, and so we have lots of specialised departments of expertise, and 100s of administrative so called coordinators pushing power points and messages around, and when the experts do go wrong of each other, we just deploy another army of coordinators to take care of that.

Picture 4: The learning drives of the hiearchy

In our organisation some are clearly assumed to be of higher worth than others, and we spend a lot of energy on titles and promotions.

We  also like to make expertise explicitly known, and so we tweet and spam frequently around to tell how great our work is, how unique we are, and what we now have been up to including which peer awards we have achieved or which peer conventions we have attended.

Practically never do we share which customer success we have achieved as a whole, and which feedback we have gotten from our customers, as we frankly do not know who our customers are or what our outcomes are. We have no relation with them and only know of outputs.

Learning Fears
The key motivator behind this learning drive of organisation is frankly fear and anxiety, like being afraid of not looking good, losing face or position, or being afraid of not knowing how to do.

The learning trouble of the hierarchy is that it cannot perceive beyond its naval centered expertise view of the world. Everything is purposed from an inside out perspective. Work is something that happens to us, and never will anyone question into whether what is being done really have an impact. We are generally speaking totally ignorant to outcomes, and have no incentive to go beyond, on the contrary.

When a hierarchical organisation therefore wants to break its pattern of learning, it will never happen from the inside. It must be forced upon it, first and foremost by taking out some of the key people it consists of who just sit there doing comfortable lazy jobs, and so do nothing for the learning capability of the organisation.

The winning coalition has to change, and some of the most dominant players of functional heroism and the “look-at-me-I-am-the-boss”-culture needs to be replaced by real leaders, who drive from questions of customer, models of business delivery and so inter-play.

In relation to the football story from the learning fears piece, then hierarchical organisations are just like the 0-4 graders playing football. It is the kindergarten level – all in one big messy pile – and then one or two main characters visibly bossing around with all the others. It is a tremendous waste of human potential; however they know no better, and have no sense for another reality as a viable possibility.

Learning Excuses

Be aware that the number of learning excuses being deployed by a hierarchy is astonishing. Practically all the excuses mentioned in the learning fears piece we encounter. They create great Dilbert stories.


The Stream of Service > Today and perhaps Tomorrow > Flow and Max Impact

The Learning Gears
Gear 3 Service Flow + Throughput Driven + Robust
Gear 4 Service Impact + Balance Driven + Agile

Mission and Focus: Who are we serving?

The mission is not what suits us; instead it is to help our customer, and so focus ourselves on how we as a team do that, and so how we grow still better and cross business visible standards of knowledge.

To illustrate the shift, look at the industry I am employed at, that is pharma. In the blockbuster pharma era we come from, we had the rule of a few clever bosses aka doctors. They focused on their passion; the research on that next great blockbuster and the deployment of hands to help their big brains.

Now this belief system is coming to its end. We are no longer here to serve ourselves. We are here to serve specific patient populations and their realities. Standards of knowledge, systems of service and streams of service are now relevant.

The difference to the blockbuster is clear, new research now must bring better possibility to the patient populations we take lead to help. No longer do we jump from one therapeutic area to another as our research opportunities may dictate us to do. We are no longer married to expertise.

We are here to help dedicated patient populations get faster to a better life. Hence all our many functional kingdoms are up for scrutiny: how do they need to change to support our mission, and so the end2end flow to customers, and why do we need so many highly functionally oriented IT systems?

Accountability and Authority: Who is driving our agenda?

A real team is defined by its drive towards outcomes, not outputs. Without that outcome focus there is no team, only a group of people running around pursuing output expectations of bosses.

We now see, feel and take account for how all take part in delivering needed customer outcomes. There is a strong move from a vertical to a horizontal orientation of business. From being fearful go doers in narrow areas of expertise to being self-driven adults collaborating for shared customer aims.

The key motivator behind the learning drive of organisation is now “effectiveness” and so enabling us to deliver still better and faster. Simply put – the customer is now the boss!

Trust exists. We rely on and respect one another, as we have come to know each other as well as how we all play a role in both delivering and enabling better and faster outcomes, and under no circumstances do we any longer accept passive shop keeping behaviors.

We perceive our business as a whole and we prioritise business continuity over events of the moment. There is a clear robustness to our way of being.

Responsibility of Action: Who does what?

The focus on the knowledge growth of both our Business System of Service and our Business System of New Services Introduction enables us all to take accountability for it, and so to function more autonomous and self-directing, than was possible in the boss rule of the hierarchy.

And so we expect from each other that we do so. Managers are not bossing around, however keenly focused on growing business capability; to enable all to see opportunity and take account; grow counter measures and experiment on possibility, and so grow our shared knowledge of customer delivery and impact.

The boss rule is hence replaced with the boss as enabler, and so coach and questioner. For employees the shift is just as recognizable. Gone is the time of performing like a dump lemming jumping from one boss idea to the other. All now orient themselves towards overall outcomes, and collaborate autonomously to make it still better.

We operate as Shared Services and Pools of Shared Resources, and so we reconfigure quickly to changing demand as well balance in better the use of our human potentials.

Influencing and Politics: What is in it for us?

We have visible – collectively conscious and easy to use knowledge and feedback loop practices – and they are all linked together to form our habits of both continuous improvement as well as maintenance of knowledge standards. We improve our impact collaboratively, and evolve via experiments our shared knowledge. We do not have hundreds of information systems. We have only one integrated one, focused on flow.


Picture 5: Visual basis for learning


Influencing and politics therefore is about results of the service flow, and so there is a strong drive to improve performance of overall service vs sub-parts – to stay relevant for our customers.

Key is that we do experiments not with projects in themselves as our primary attention points, however with projects as a support to the ongoing service flow, and so we initiate and deploy projects only as they fit into the service flow.

We have grown our collective learning to a high level of service orientation and customer impact thinking, and so realized gains and savings are deployed back into further improvements to both our business system of service and our business system of new service introductions, never is it just taken flat out.

In all we are working on our business system, not merely working in it.

Collaborating Identity: Who is and is not – us?

We have enabled upfront flexibility in demand intake, and our “commitment-to-deliver” practices are linked to the impact of waiting, not to us, however to our customer. We now really know the cyclical nature of our business and deal with its ebb and flow responsibly as a collective.

Our collaborating identity is therefore something we are all very conscious about, and we see it as fundamental to our work.

We all recognize that we are not limited to functions or individual expertise, and so we are keenly interested in what others do, to learn the wholeness we all take part in, and so to learn how what we do individually is used by others. This so we continuously are able to see, and get rid of what does not bring impact, and so keep sharing and socialization only proven knowledge.

Picture 6: Learning Drive of Streams

We are deeply concerned with deploying standard work, to deliver first time right capability, as well as to build in quality from the beginning. Test, then design is our mantra, and so we look for and weed out poor quality as early as possible, not to upset our customers downstream, and hence we work on the end2end flow of value, we quickly see, intervene and fix the flow before it breaks down and we work together to improve the flow.

At any day we will argue for Effectiveness First, Efficiency Second. We find there is nothing as useless as doing efficiently what should not have been done in the first place.      

Learning Fears

The key motivator of this inherent learning drive of organisation is our own effectiveness in bringing about customer impact. The learning trouble of our service stream and its cross functionally shared resources, is that we cannot perceive beyond our linear learning drive.

When we want to break our current knowledge pattern, and so go beyond current perspectives on helping our customers, we need to bring about a higher purposed orientation. It is a matter of abstraction on inter-action levels. Where do we cut the line in the sand?

To use an example from Phillips, then are we helping our customers with the problem of appropriate lighting methods, or are we simply here to provide our customers with a guaranteed service of light, and so take on the accountability to also operate and maintain lighting methods ourselves.

The later position of play represents quite a jump in the purpose of helping, and demands quite a strong flexibility in seeing and understanding the service need of our customers, as well as both our business system of service and business system of new service introductions. Going towards circular economics, industry 4.0, internet of things, virtual models of reality and so forth seems crazy to most.

Therefore jumping to the inherent learning drive of a disruptive organisation will only happen when we grow a real hunger to sustain beyond ourselves, and this hunger comes about in a winning coalition only when some of the leaders in it stick their own neck out, and through own example demonstrate vulnerability as well as call out examples of others that grow that psychological safety of play for a higher leveled purpose.

In relation to the football story, then the stream of service organisation is behaving just like we were playing football in our late teenage years. We are highly conscious about self and each other; the passing of the ball and the communicating with each other. We practice smart running patterns and create space for each other, and so we are simply oriented towards making each other better. However we do not want to stand out as totally crazy ones and so we still limit ourselves and our real potential.

Learning Excuses
The key learning excuses are hence all related to definition of service, and so the perspective we limit ourselves to have on the problem of our customer which we are all about taking care of. The most common ones are Inertia, Short term thinking, Groupthink, Futility and Future Shock.


Disruptive Network > Tomorrow & the Day after Tomorrow > Flexibility in Solution

The Learning Gears
Gear 5 Service Life Cycles + Adaption Driven + Anti-Fragile
Gear 6 Disruption + Needs Driven + Holistic

Mission and Focus: Who are we serving?

To exemplify, then in pharma many assumptions of organisation are being put to scrutiny as we move from the slow moving functional, expertise driven, bossy models of inter-play with its narrow solution perspectives, to open up, show vulnerability, reach out and learn about the real needs and effects we have on the service problem of our customers.

We are changing mission from being all about drugs, to now be all about patient problems in eco-systems of care, and so we move our perspectives from a very narrowly defined attention span to a very wide one with large networks of opportunity – basically towards logics of circular services.

Examples on that are the moves towards personalisation of health services and services beyond the pill like own health monitoring, delivery to home and as well easing drug intake via smart devices. Basically enabling a much more proactive way of being to evolve, and so a reality in which we are enablers of not only healthier lives, but also of enriching human potential.

This changing reality and so higher leveled purpose is concerned with enabling all people to own and use their own health data. It is about the move of this data from all the silos of functional expertise to us all as mature individuals, as well as to our individual wishes to use this data in social life, on the spot delivery of health solutions (i.e. with 3d printing and the like), as well as to use it in all kinds of digital gear supporting us in pursuing these new possibilities.

New possibilities of service thus seem to lie in making it easier for people to feel ownership of own health and health data, to orient themselves about possible options on a healthier life and to identify, get and activate available services to do that, perhaps even to take part in creating these new eco systems of service.

Hence as we mission ourselves to still higher purpose, flexibility towards our previous well-conceived definitions of service increases. It is now all about imagining and testing out new connections.

Accountability and Authority: Who is driving our agenda?

As we go from service chains to service circles – and so move our organisation to new spaces of inter-play, then we change also radically our sense and perspective on accountability.

We grow a much stronger willingness to jump from the known past into the emerging future, and so not only work on our ongoing systems, however possibly even abandon some of them. The only constraining condition really is that what we experiment with has a sustainable purpose.

The initiative, the resourcing and the people at play we form based on passion for our customer, their problem and our mutual attraction to each other. We feel accountability for the whole, and set out for change journeys instead of belittling ourselves and our potential power of influence.

People taking accountability are good at building an environment of Trust and Flow, whereas imposed accountable people find themselves powerless and burdened by Fear and Pretend. All have critical knowledge to include and test out, and so bring to play, and so contextual leadership and agile experimentation based on lean startup practices is our code of conduct.

The key motivator behind this inherent learning drive is of course addressing the needs of customers from completely different solution and business model angles. Simply put – the need is boss!

Responsibility of action: Who does what?

Performance feedback loops are essentially about taking a step back approach on the ways service demand is shaping up, and on the emerging social and technological opportunities, as well as our current models of business, and our assumptions and especially drivers of assumption.

With that comes much wider perspectives and so possible spaces of knowledge growth to evolve the service problem of our customer towards, and we see it as our responsibility to help this to be tested out. Perhaps approaching service problems from life cycle perspectives unearths totally different spaces of impact for us, as well as enables our customer to plan and act out from much better life cycle options.

Influencing and Politics: What is in it for us?

We deploy a long term focus in our investments into our customers, and so allow for continuous experimentation to understand and deliver better on their problem.

Influencing and politics is therefore about both our perspectives on and relations with customers and potential partners of future.  We are keenly focused on enriching our understanding on not only the core service problem of customers, however just as much on how all may shape up the new service landscape of our customers.

Core conversations are hence about reaching out to each other, forming new tests together and bringing our diverse strengths to play across networks. The Innovation focus is on new service break troughs, and in essence concerned with combining knowledge in new ways which always crosses present day official and unofficial organisational boundaries.

Collaborating identity: Who is and is not – us?

Now we truly understand that great services emerge from inter-play, and not from functional or individual ego-drive or from services delivered detached from the context people live in!

We keenly believe in and support each other to deploy decentral collaboration, and so we have very few kinds of formal co-ordination, to allow for multi-way communication (no one ways) and real associate experiences (no branding), and so we make use of multiple ways of informal touch points, and are as a consequence highly connected (no contacts only).

Picture 7 – The learning drives of network. From ‘Lean Strategy’ by Michael Ballé et al.

What really matters to us are our practices of inclusion and helping each of us feel we belong for both who we are and the creativity we bring to table. We do not accept positional power plays, instead we keenly support each other deploy decentral collaboration. We are fully inter-dependent and do not make fake walls of isolation – why would we?

Learning Fears

In the disruptive network, the classic learning fears are put at bay, and as in the football story, we are concerned with futures and making them become real.

What matters to us are our choices of play, and so the speed in which we use emerging opportunity or defend against imminent risks coming our way. It is about how we proactively seek out opportunity to influence the game based on our collective strengths.

We are Anti-fragile and are here for the long run to win tournaments. We are keenly focused on advancing the mental atmosphere and to grow a superb sense of belonging, and so risk taking for common cause – essentially to become more and more effective in making opportunity become real possibility and so acted out. Our combined Power to execute is crucial to us.

Moving the Learning Drive of Organisation to a Better Fit for Purpose

Perhaps the move from a hierarchy that seeks stability, over a service flow that seeks continuous improvement of impact to disruptive networks that seek to jump the curves of impact, looks like this.

Picture 8: Evolution in Learning drive of Organisation. Inspired by Stanley McChrystal ‘Team of Teams’

To this move do realise now, that diversity without inclusion is still being dump. Most forget, that diversity is not in itself the answer to innovational power. As it is so often said great individuals do win matches, however it is great teams that win tournaments, and great teams know that inclusion and belonging is the pivotal leverage platform to deploy diversity from – not the other way around.

We may thus say that economic development is a process of inclusion. Cultures that nurture human creativity and progress are better than those that do not, and so if we do work on our learning drive of organisation, we are able to leap ahead, improve and sustain change.

To summarise, I find these quotes from Adam Smith and Eric Hoffer to be very saying on the learning drive of organisation. Instead of “Man”, put in “Organisation”.

“The man whose life is spent in a few simple operations has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for difficulties which never occur.  He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be” – Adam Smith

“The savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets. In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists” – Eric Hoffer

Leave a Reply