This article was written by Michał Paprocki, CTO at Euroclear with more than 17 years of experience in creating and managing IT centres as well as transforming financial companies into digital business models. Michał is recognised for leading successful agile transformations, for bringing a friendly ease to complexity and for his eagerness to challenge the status quo with out-of-the-galaxy thinking.
There is a moment in Star Wars saga, when master Yoda looks at his apprentices practising to become Jedi and concludes “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is”. This happens right after a serious problem, deemed to be unsolvable by the greatest minds, is easily cracked by the children unaware of the related complexity. It is not seldom that we are stuck with a business challenge and spend hours after hours trying the proven solutions just to accept an inevitable failure. Perhaps, there is a better way?
It could be one of the most influential moments in business thinking, back in 1990, when Peter Senge summarised his thoughts on organisations in “The Fifth Discipline”. The concept of the learning organisation means not only that employees and teams should constantly evolve via a shared vision and reflective conversations, but the ultimate goal is to create system thinking. One could clearly spot various similarities with engineering, where man-made systems are analysed against the external factors impacting the system, as well as their inherent parts are being examined for their impact of interacting together. Although the author provides eleven laws of The Fifth Discipline, I initially did not pay that much attention to the last one: “There is no blame”.
Several years later, a different management theory rapidly started to gain traction and the key word here is agile. This time, with notions like “people over processes”, the point of gravity shifts from mechanical systems and emphasises the paramount importance of teams that… constantly learn. As per the original law of Senge’s book “that cause and effect are not closely related in time and space”, agile methodologies bring forward the system that allows for experiments and constant learning. This approach is empirical and based on a constant feedback loop of delivering products to the customers and learning from their comments. Not only does it allow to decrease the time to market by frequent releases of new features (yes, we are all IT these days), but it also significantly reduces the risk of failures stemming from wrong decisions. As “there is no blame”, agile could be often the very opposite of some traditional leadership practices that tend to manage by fear and actually operate with blame. The value proposition is advanced problem solving by the sheer curiosity to experiment, explore and evolve thanks to empirical checking of various hypothesis.
A report from Deloitte shows that high performing learning organisations are 92% more likely to innovate, 37% more productive and 34% respond better to the customer needs. Looks like the Jedi way.
Instead of command and control approach with leaders that hoard resources and control the flow of information, the Jedi leaders would stress the need of constant learning. It starts with individual curiosity to explore and learn new things, but much more beyond that. A true learning approach means we have to accept the fact that our knowledge gets outdated and our opinions could be proven incorrect given the circumstances. Instead of a one-trick pony, so a leader that drives a rigorous cost optimisation, or a creative powerhouse seeking for new revenue, or a laser-focused customer ambassador, or perhaps the process guru that could mastermind and control complexity, we should keep adapting to the fast changing situation. I recently heard that even the so-called common sense is in fact a set of prejudices that we learned before turning sixteen. And the best proof of this is that common sense could vary significantly over cultures and geographies. It’s one thing to read Fons Trompenaars’ “The Seven Cultures of Capitalism” and a totally different thing to find yourself in a foreign country and conclude that some of the “normal” practices do not work. It has been nearly two years since I relocated myself and yes, 80% of the leadership techniques are surely the same and work good as gold. However, there were numerous humble moments to conclude that, despite my best intentions, the message got lost in translation or a certain action totally failed to bring the expected results. This is where Star Wars comes handy again, as master Yoda would say:
You have to unlearn what you have learned.
Credible learning always starts with yourself as it takes role modelling to stay curious and actively seek for feedback. Just think about simple habits like daily reading, being very open to new concepts, actively participating in discussions and connecting the dots between often unrelated concepts. It’s often very tempting to master the comfort zone and becoming an in-depth expert in a particular field. However, my experience shows that the best learning is whenever I reach out to different domains and try to draw analogies. Just think about multi-layer defense against natural disasters and the modern approach to cyber resilience. Or perhaps the evolution of the energy industry and computer grids. Another learning practice is to take a look at my own domain and personal progress through somebody else’s lenses. It could be a great relief to receive appreciation, but also why would we reinvent the wheel instead of simply asking for advice or help. These days there is a free body of knowledge available on the internet so a Jedi leader can always keep exploring blogs, portals, podcasts and track the industry events. Fellow human beings are more than keen to provide honest feedback and/or advice if you simply ask to.
Then comes the team dimension and, again, agile methodologies clearly stress the role of the team instead of just the individual contribution. You do not have to be a Navy Seals operator with a “leave no man behind principle” to embrace the power of a group of people bound by a shared vision and destiny. Gone are the times of the one-man-army, since it’s impossible for the individual and very risky for the organisation to rely on a hero culture. Agile gurus would say that the product backlog belongs to the whole team and we all pick up items to deliver the results. As a team, we learn by co-creating solutions, but also make sure we spend time in so-called sprint retrospective, which aims to discuss the behaviours and attitudes. This means it focuses solely on team dynamics instead of product characteristics. Highly successful teams are transparent and share their problems, impediments and assumptions, so that cross-team learning can happen and everyone develops. By the same token, the value of the team is constantly assessed by the service consumers that often vote with their money to sustain, expand or terminate the product. On an even more advanced level, teams could go beyond their own company and utilise industry bodies, research agencies, cooperation with universities and peer groups of similar, yet non-competitive, companies.
And last but not least it takes the company level to create a system that fosters learning. The main critical success factors here are trust and safety, so business leaders should communicate this clearly and lead by example. A great practice is to show your vulnerability, admit mistakes, confess ignorance and openly ask for help. Just make sure you remain yourself and stay integral. Learning organisations are constantly re-questioning their raison d’être and actively learn from their customers, employees and broader ecosystem to make sure they stay relevant. A proven habit is to participate, if not facilitate, the industry-wide discussions that are future oriented and relate to regulations, customer behaviours or technology evolution. It is by creating and encouraging various discussion forums, which our agile gurus might refer to as guilds, that exchange of opinions and continuous feedback can take place. One of the most powerful examples is the open source movement, where the company (yes, it’s IT again) actually shares what might very well be its protected intellectual property, in order to see it modified and further improved by other organisations and/or its customers. But again, it all starts with a truly open mindset that admits its own limitations, has curiosity to explore and courage to fail fast.
This is the Jedi way.
Stay tuned for the next episode of this saga!
The next episode will dive into another core Jedi virtue: courage. As Yoda said: “This courage to enter into a new adventure – make you more alive it will. And to people who are more alive, happiness happens.”