Photo credit: David Blackwell on Flickr

the elephant in the room.

Many companies are not addressing the changing environment right in front of them. For work and business to be more responsive and sustainable, we need to tap into the supply chain of social learning and innovation inside our organisations.

In the same way trade opened up in the industrial era, virtual and digital opens up new channels for innovation and learning. Technology enables conversations and connections inside company networks. Exposing employees to different perspectives, experiences and learnings, allowing us to see what has been in the room all along.

“The biggest leadership challenge today is that our awareness is fragmented and focused on ego: what’s in it for me? Real leadership work is to help people see the whole and change their perspective from “me” to a systems view of “we”.”
Otto Scharmer, researcher, consultant and author

the elephant and the blind men.

Having breakfast in Sri Lanka last week, a new found friend shared with me the story of the blind men and the elephant. Although this story is often told to explain religious tolerance, it is equally adaptable to show how easily a large company can become fragmented and uncohesive.

The story talks of six blind men who each describe the elephant from what they experience right in front of them. Their descriptions sound like they are from a completely different elephant. One see the tail as a rope, the other sees the foot as a tree trunk, the tusk as a pipe and the trunk as a snake. As nobody is listening to the others description, none of them are open to seeing the full picture, or putting the pieces together. Although nobody is wrong, each is only holding one piece of the answer.

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

acknowledging the elephant.

One way to start stitching together the different parts of an organisation, is by forming social learning circles. Acknowledging we have different perspectives and bringing together people from different divisions, regions, professions and levels. Allowing employees to expand their learning beyond their place in the org chart.

We need to stop looking at just our one part of the elephant to see what was always there in front of us.

In our experience, social learning circles work best in the following circumstances:

//equal participation — removing hierarchy and levels of expertise. When everyone is equal, then each contribution is part of the learning.

//reciprocity — all participants are there to learn and to contribute. Not just about observing and not just about taking.

//trust — this is one of the most important elements. The help and support we give and receive expands this trust.

//listening — to actively listen is as important as it is to share. This can often be one of the most valuable skills that participants learn from the experience.

When companies implement innovation initiatives, often they focus on employees in a particular division or area. But innovation and learning needs to be encouraged from everywhere in the organisation. Any connection, learning or idea can spark someone to look beyond what is right in front of them and start connecting different pieces together.

WOLCircles and Connectle Company Circles are a great way to start embedding this culture of social learning.

connecting perspectives.

Virtual and digital advancements allow us to connect across multiple borders. Amplifying our reach and removing a number of barriers:

//barrier of location. Not having to be colocated helps remove elements of ego, judgement and fear that can hinder openness and trust. When the boss or teammates are in the same circle, hierarchy and politics can creep in.

//barrier of unconscious bias. Like-minded people and those we see every day often see things the same way as you. You want fresh ideas and views to expand your thinking and your network.

//barrier of time and logistics. Getting a group of people into the same room for consecutive weeks is hard. Allowing people to join from where they are and at a time that suits them, eliminates many stresses.

Learning can happen from anywhere, but virtual helps to stretch and extend our thinking.

Here is a selection of quotes from previous Connectle Company Circles:

“I am a virtual convert. I had no idea I could get so close to people I had never met in real life before.”
“The cross-divisional and cross-regional collaboration opened my horizons. I will extend this to my external networks too.”
“I am more confident about sharing my thoughts and reaching out to people. I keep looking for different ways to collaborate now. I’m hooked.”

Dysfunctional organisations are often those where the different parts stop interacting and listening to each other. When we get so set in our own truths, that we are no longer aware or responsive of what else is happening around us.

Acknowledging the elephant in the room is the first step. Stitching together the different perspectives, is the next.

Join the conversation in our next Connectle Con on Social Learning Circles.
[NB Connectle Con’s are free to join]

Thanks to Smitha Murthy for sharing the story and to Greg Beaver and Mara Tolja for collating the article.