Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Obsolete (learning) practices

Following on my last blogpost on Is Yours a Learning Organisation, I started thinking about change processes. Becoming (even) more of a learning organisation is basically guiding a change process and improving practices.

Yesterday I noticed that my arms are getting sun-tanned but that on the place of my watch there is an extremely white piece of my wrist. That's because I've taken on the habit of having my watch on all the time. Before I had children, I was quite reticent against watches. If I had one (and I regularly lost them) I kept it in my pocket. This all changed when I started breastfeeding. I was living so much by the clock that I kept my watch on day and night (yes, poor mothers even have to breastfeed in the middle of the night). Now my daughters are 6 and 8 years, so no need for breastfeeding - though I heard a story in Ethiopia that a man of 24 in Harar was still breastfeeding but that's another story altogether- and no need for a watch on my wrist day and night.

What does this have to do with changing practices? I'm really intrigued by practices and habits and entry points for changing them. I never liked the phrase 'resistant to change' because I think it lack understanding and respect for the person. Everyone wants to change, as long as you know what for, why and how, and you can see the point. So when you are talking about a learning organisation 'culture' try to find those obsolete practices and try to find out the history. If you can point out why they are obsolete, you have done half of the work. - time to get back to losing my watches!


jb said...

This reminds me of a fable I use in my 'org culture' presentation: (no idea of origin, but the language below is borrowed from http://adscam.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/01/everything-you.html )

"Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result -- all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water.
Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth.

Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that's the way it's always been done around here.

And that, my friends, is how company policy begins."

Joitske Hulsebosch said...

Hi Jb, thanks for writing down this story! I heard it from a colleague in Ghana too and felt it is very strong in explaining culture and obsolete culture. Maybe the story even influenced my way of looking at this I could say!