Documenting the Coming Singularity

Monday, December 11, 2006

How to Be your own Learning Organization

Try a little thought experiment with me. (Einstein used one to figure out relativity, so it can be a worthwhile thing to do.) Imagine that you can go back in time, only once, for only one purpose: to convince your younger self to act differently in one instance than you actually did. In other words, you can try to explain to your younger self the actual consequences of his or her actions in order to convince them to make a better choice. If you could do this, what would you try to have your younger self change about your past? And how would you explain to him or her what the consequences were of those choices? How might things have turned out better?

Now, back in the present, imagine that a future you could come back in time to right now. Knowing how your present day choices would affect the future, what might your future self try to tell you? Invest money in the flying car industry? Spend more time with your family? To do this thought experiment, you have to see the future. (Mathematically, there is no difference between past and future, so scientists wonder, if we can remember the past, why can’t we remember the future?) It is apparently not possible see the future, but it is possible to anticipate it. Not through extra sensory perception, but through giving careful thought to your decisions and their long-term outcomes, one year, five years, ten and twenty years on. Obviously, many future events cannot be anticipated, but many can, by thinking through the probable outcomes of your present day actions.

(If you’ll permit me a brief digression: A little-known scientific fact tells us that, at the most fundamental level, nature works on the basis of probabilities. At the level of sub-atomic particles, things cannot be predicted with certainty because of something called Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Things average out at the macro level where you and I live, but there’s still the undergirding of probabilities. Throw a baseball at a solid wall, and it’ll bounce back, but there is the very small probability that it will tunnel through the wall. Sub-atomic particles do it all the time. Your baseball probably won’t, but there is a finite possibility that it will.)

So, you can’t predict the future with absolute certainty, but you can, if you have enough information, make reasonably accurate guesses about outcomes based on probabilities. Often, when actions and choices produce bad results that could have been anticipated, people will ask, “What were you thinking?” Usually, we weren’t. What I am proposing is that you take time to think about your decisions, using as much information, knowledge, as you can put at your disposal. The key to anticipating future outcomes is knowledge. The old aphorism holds that information is power.

The idea of applying business concepts to our individual lives is not new, certainly, but applying this particular business practice is not one I’ve seen appropriated in this way, so to me at least, it’s original. All businesses should do this, but those who do it most or best are called learning organizations. Learning organizations, according to Peter Senge*, author of The Fifth Discipline, are “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” Effective business managers do this all the time. It’s a very effective method of gaining in smarts and positively affecting future outcomes. Let’s look at 4 particular things learning organizations do and see how we can apply the ideas to individuals.

Systems Thinking

Most people consider and anticipate only the very near-term cause and effect relationship. If I do this today, then tomorrow that will happen. They see life and its connections in overly simplistic, deceptively straightforward ways. Systems thinking understands that life is a complex system, and that causes and effects can be quite far from each other. Systems thinkers are oriented toward a more long-term view.

Here’s where our earlier thought experiment comes it. When you considered how far back in time you would go to speak with your past self, how far did you think to go? Last week? Probably not. You most likely went back many years. I wanted to go back to my sophomore year to tell myself not to change majors. Why go back so far? Because the farther back the cause, the more profound, and significant, the effect.

What can you do today, and tomorrow, and the next day, that will likely produce a good outcome in 5 or 10 or even 20 years? Rather than spend $1 per day on lottery tickets, why not invest $1 per day into a Roth IRA? Which is more likely to produce a good outcome? Rather than spend every penny you earn, why not save 10 percent of every paycheck? Imagine how happy your future self will be! What outcomes do you desire? What can you do now to make them more probable?

Personal Mastery

This is where the acquisition of knowledge hits its stride, like a thoroughbred at full-out gallop. Personal mastery is a commitment to continual learning. Again, most people do not do this, and are consequently at a serious disadvantage in this world. For the majority, learning stops at either high school or college (perhaps long before then!). From then on, unless forced by circumstance, they live based on what they already know, or think they know. We are rarely aware of how our deeply ingrained assumptions of how the world works affect our daily decisions. When those assumptions are mistaken, outdated, or even irrelevant, our resulting choices can be unfortunate. Someone who is committed to personal mastery is willing to have his or her most basic beliefs tested, and is willing to alter them based on persistent learning. The objective is the acquisition of the most complete and truthful information possible, in order to master life.

Decision Analysis

A further practice of learning organizations is the habit of analyzing past decisions. We can be intimidated by the term “analysis.” There is no need to be, because it is simply the custom of giving thought to the decisions we have made in the past in an effort to learn from them. Was that decision the correct one? What were the long-term outcomes? Was it based on good information? Was there anything I could have known that I didn’t? What can I learn from this decision in order to make better ones in the future? Are you the kind of person who keeps making the same mistakes over and over? Do you ever ask yourself, “Why do I keep doing that?” Then this is a very important process for you to go through.

Best Practices

Companies that learn are always concerned about discovering best practices. Here’s how the term is defined in Wikipedia: “Best Practice is a management idea which asserts that there is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive or reward that is more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a project can be rolled out and completed with fewer problems and unforeseen complications.” Why not apply this principle to my life? Rather than stumble through life, encountering uncertain outcomes all the way, why not discover best practices? What’s the best way to accomplish my desirable outcomes?

Obviously we’ve only touched on these concepts in this article. I encourage you to begin to become your own learning organization by digging deeper.

*For a more in-depth look at Peter Senge’s work, take a look at his book: