Sunday, February 18, 2007

Learn, Evolve, Sustain - A Journey of Self Discovery

Management Insights by Preeti Somani

The only thing constant in life is change. You conquer one peak only to see the mountain in front of you. The mountains never cease to exist. To deal with change: you learn, evolve and ultimately sustain. This is the underlying theory of general management and strategy – for individuals and for organizations.

That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way. The most fundamental lessons of management can be summarized in three questions.

What is important?

The most important lesson is learning itself. If you believe that the true purpose of life is the journey and not the destination, learning is important. If General Electric-the world’s most diversified corporation can sustain market leadership for decades by being a “learning organization”, then learning has to be important.

Learning is important at every level, for every phase, for everyone. Learning about the external and the internal systems you operate in is equally important as learning about your own self.

External system

Besides the obvious entities such as customers, suppliers, competitors, the notions such as industry attractiveness and competitive positioning form the key elements of an organization’s external system. A sound business strategy is created when you have understood the relevance of these elements and their inter-connectedness with you (the organization) and with each other.
Companies that have optimized the knowledge of its external system have reached great heights. Take the example of Komatsu. It became a major player by understanding the most relevant aspects of its external system: cyclicality of the industry and its competitive positioning against the unrivalled competitor (Caterpillar). By understanding the inter-connectedness between standards proprietorship and an emerging market, Intel could capture value. Yahoo became successful by understanding the dynamics of a fragmented industry and devising a strategy to hustle based on that knowledge.

Internal system

The elements of the internal system are subtle but equally important to recognize. The immeasurable attributes that constitute the internal system such as processes, brand equity, business model, people, focus, values have a lot to contribute to the organizational well-being. Therefore, companies become most successful when they understand and leverage these success factors.

The ultimate competitive advantage for GE is its recipe for learning and its processes for development of management talent. Thought leadership and client focus is what makes McKinsey and Egon Zehnder successful. Adherence to the strong values and the mission created by Ingvar drives IKEA to win in the ultra competitive retail industry. And staying true to its brand is what sustains growth and global expansion at Starbucks.

The intra-subjective self

As an intra-subjective self, you are always inter-operating with the social system surrounding you. Your interactions with the system are based on the parameters of your own belief system such as trust, relationships, culture, cognition, etc. What is important here is how you can effectively contribute to the collective good, while operating within the scope of your belief system.

- Learn to Co-opete Whenever you are operating in a social context (whether it is a team project or business dealing), you are challenged by two innate yet conflicting feelings: competition and co-operation. Learning to strike the right balance between these two primal feelings is important. You have to adapt to others. But you also have to be able to pick the right battles in order to win the war.
- Learn to deal with ambiguity In real life, the state of “perfect information” rarely exists. You either develop tolerance towards uncertainty or become smarter at anticipating future changes. To understand how much information is sufficient to make prudent trade-offs is a key lesson to learn.
- Learn from failures as well as successes There are important lessons to learn from failure as well as success. From failure, you learn to develop resilience. From success, you learn to replicate it.
- Learn to forgive and forget Everyone deserves a second chance. You need to forgive to enable others to move on and forget for you to move on. You have to make room for compassion in your belief system.

All in all, you need to become more emotionally mature to operate effectively in a social context. That is the true learning.

Why is it important?

To understand what is important is an epiphany in itself. But to be able to rationalize why it is important is synonymous to finding the true cause of the effect. Learning makes most sense when you understand its true purpose.

Form an organizational standpoint, evolution is the primary driving force behind learning. The idea behind a 'learning organization' is that organizations are like living organisms. Governed by the laws of evolution, they must learn, evolve, change - or die. Organizations that do not evolve are victims of the natural selection of the market place. To survive, organizations must learn and adapt at a pace at least as great as change - and ideally faster.

Growth is another key driver. Organizations are measured by how efficiently they can grow. They get smarter in order to get bigger. But companies that grow bigger need to get smarter. This cyclical pattern can only be sustained through learning. Organizations also drive fundamental changes by empowering people with knowledge, information and values.
Evolution is also the reason why individuals learn. As evolutionary creatures, we are constantly seeking ways to adapt to our environment. As a breed, we are also progressive and forward-looking. We plan for the future. Learning is a primary means we prepare for the future. And through learning, we grow as psychological beings. We develop confidence and the courage to believe in ourselves. This yields to more learning.

How to get there?

The ultimate manifestation of learning in an organization occurs when it is followed by execution. Organizations can implement learning in multiple ways. When learning is related to elements of the internal system, it can be disseminated through the organizational structure via training programs, knowledge sharing forums. When learning is related to the external elements, it can be implemented through strategic initiatives.

For individuals, the true measure of learning is in its application. The insights and models offered in books, classroom and other learning forums provide you with a toolset. You have to learn to use the right tool by understanding its effectiveness, given the parameters you operate in and the outcome you seek. For example: even though the five-force framework is the most popular model to assess industry attractiveness, it will produce irrelevant results when applied to an emerging industry. You have to discern the nuances of each tool. Ex: While value-chain analysis can help assess competitive advantage, game theory can help understand how it can evolve over time. You also have to learn to combine the analysis from different tools and when to adapt these tools to meet your needs.

Finally, a coach is the most valuable asset in your journey toward self-discovery. A great coach can open your mind to possibilities. He can challenge you to the limits of your abilities. He will offer you the brush and the palette and the reason you should paint. And he will give feedback on the painting. Personal learning occurs when you understand how to internalize this feedback.

Learning to Learn

My learning does not end here. The questions I raise were means, not the end. The end goal is the realization that the things we do under the pretext of general management and strategy as well as personal achievement cater to one primary cause: sustenance. Whether it is sustenance of values, growth, legacy or learning itself. Therefore, learning is not sufficient anymore. Learning to learn is key. Companies that have realized this phenomenon have tried to institutionalize learning. Individuals that have realized this, constantly seek new avenues to learn. They become true learned men.

Through this entire journey, I have learnt to ask three important questions. These questions are powerful tools in the path of self-discovery. They not only lead you to action but also help make sense of your actions. Through these questions I have uncovered the natural progression between learning, evolution and sustenance. I have realized that sustenance is the ultimate goal. I have learned how to learn. For me that is nirvana, the true wisdom.

The HBR List: Breakthrough Ideas for 2007

HBR's annual survey of emerging ideas considers how nanotechnology will affect commerce, what role hope plays in leadership, and why, in an age that practically enshrines accountability, we need to beware of “accountabalism.”

See the complete list