Stuart Smalley, Darwin, and Business Transformation

by | Monday, September 16th, 2013


Ah, self-improvement. A concept that evokes visions of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character from Saturday Night Live reciting daily positive affirmations in front of a mirror. Over the last 50 years or so the self-improvement culture has grown tremendously; originally driven by alternative postmodern influences and the ’60s counterculture and now by large market incentives from the growth in demand for self-help guidance. One can argue that the value of self-improvement has morphed over time from a purely socially positive activity to one in which modern generations have become too focused on oneself working against the societal goals of early self-improvement culture.  Nevertheless, self-improvement has become accepted as a practical methodology that drives individual learning and growth.

Corporations Are People Too

However, the underlying concepts of self-improvement are still valid and are finding their ways into corporate cultures as modern companies grapple to remain competitive in rapidly changing markets. Remember, companies are people too.  We’ve seen this in a legal sense as recently as the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in 2010. Corporations are made up of people and behave like any group of people would. They take on the characteristics of human behavior, but as a group rather than as an individual. They make mistakes like normal humans do and they, hopefully, learn from mistakes as humans do.

I say “hopefully” because corporations actually don’t learn as well as individuals do. Corporations also suffer from natural human behaviors of self-preservation, greed and power-seeking that can derail efforts to learn as a whole. Until now corporations could get away with this dysfunction and still be successful. But that is becoming increasingly less true.

Failure Is an Opportunity to Learn

Self-improvement is based on the concept that failure isn’t bad; it’s an opportunity to learn. These opportunities may be expensive and potentially catastrophic, but if taken as a positive step rather than being punished, one can improve; thus the realization of a second concept in self-improvement: always think positively about yourself (think Stuart Smalley).

This is how society has advanced from cavemen to astronauts. It’s the underlying principle in Darwin’s theory of the Survival of the Fittest. Those who learn from their mistakes survive; those who don’t, don’t. Modern economic environments force Darwin’s theory upon corporations competing for relevance. But the evolutionary time periods to adapt are much, much, much shorter than for biological beings and getting even shorter as we move forward in time.

The Learning Organization

The concept that corporations are like people and can learn like people is not new. In fact, Peter Senge introduced the concept of the Learning Organization in the 1990s with his organizational development book, The Fifth Discipline.  Senge argued that in order to excel in their markets, companies needed to adapt quickly and effectively following these three principles:

  1. Organizations must design their operational models to optimally achieve desired outcomes.
  2. Organizations must be able to recognize when they are diverging from those desired outcomes and build in mechanisms that can support quick and effective course corrections.
  3. Organizations must adopt a pattern of learning that supports group learning as opposed to individual learning through Systems Thinking. Systems Thinking suggests that complex systems, such as organizations, cannot advance through simple individualized learning as changes in the individual (parts of a system) necessarily have an impact on the other parts of the system (the other people) where relationships exist. Essentially the behavior of the whole (the organization) is greater than the sum of its parts (the individuals that make up the organization).

Peter Senge was ahead of his time. While his concepts were valid and remain so, the environmental drivers to force companies to adopt his practices were not there. This was before the Age of the Internet and Information Explosion, when companies had large windows of opportunity within which to adapt in order to survive. In other words, companies had the luxury of allowing change to happen organically over time and still survive. The barriers to entry into markets were high and competitive innovation were low and protected through strong intellectual property laws.

Modern economies have changed. Continuously rapid advancements in technology are lowering barriers to entry and shortening windows of opportunities. Companies must adopt modern practices that support rapid organizational learning and adaptability. Corporations must be able to apply continuous self-improvement in order to survive. They need to design into their operational models processes that drive a Culture of Continuous Transformation.

Modern Learning Practices

However, companies must recognize that those same rapid advancements in technology that have fundamentally changed how markets operate have also heavily influenced systems of learning and need to adopt modern learning practices that embrace group think and social learning concepts. They need to be more open and sharing with their competitors regardless of how counter-intuitive this may seem.

Traditional models of Knowledge Creation and Learning were separate and kept apart with well-defined and embedded interfaces reflected in our troubled educational system today. Experts created knowledge and owned its transformation. Learners consumed this knowledge at the discretion of the experts. Never the twain shall meet was the credo. These norms are changing rapidly. Advancements in technology are breaking down this model and allowing the lifecycle of Knowledge Creation and the lifecycle of Learning to converge into a single, fully integrated lifecycle. Learners become experts and experts become learners. Social Learning, Social Business, etc. are the latest buzzwords that reflect this change. I’ll write more about this concept in a future blog. But essentially, companies must adopt these modern practices utilizing the underlying social technologies that support it.

Designing Continuous Self-Improvement Into Your Organization

Emerging Innovation and Idea Management technologies, Social Intranets, Consumer Crowdsourcing and Sharing and advanced Consumer Intelligence Tools are enabling companies to continuously transform and adapt to rapidly changing environments. It isn’t enough to simply deploy these technologies into the workplace and sit back and let the magic happen. Technologies don’t work by themselves, but succeed with proven practices and processes that drive them. RE:INVENTION can help you choose the right technologies for your company and adopt and learn the right practices to drive them. Our seasoned experts can help put your company on a path of continuous self-improvement that will allow you to evolve and survive in today’s highly competitive and rapidly changing marketplaces.

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