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The Power of Collaborative Leadership:
Lessons for the Learning Organization


By Peter M. Senge

"Whoever does not understand history is doomed to repeat it." This familiar refrain has rarely been more timely, especially in the world of organizations and management.

In this era of profound change, it is hard to find organizations anywhere — businesses, schools, healthcare organizations, governmental organizations — which are not trying to reinvent themselves, develop e-commerce strategies, or dismantle old cultures to adapt to new realities. But their efforts are usually disappointing. The history of success of quality management, re-engineering, or the more recent fad, knowledge management, is dismal. Typically, less than a third of these programs are even still alive a year after they are announced. Those that survive rarely achieve hoped for impacts. Obviously, sustaining change in established institutions is not easy.

But what is even more disquieting is how little serious effort managers seem to muster to understand why change efforts fail. "Try and try again" seems to be the motto. But, repeating yesterday's errors is not likely to produce tomorrow's success. What hope can there be for learning if what is actually going on is that no one wants to talk about "failure." If it is not safe to explore what happened when highly visible change efforts produce disappointing outcomes, these problems will be repeated. Yet, undertaking such reflective self-examination takes time. Analysis can quickly become finger pointing. So, it is also easy to see how it may seem better to ignore disappointments, to declare victory and move on -- even if that means the disappointments will likely be repeated, often by some new "change leader."

Ironically, learning from success fares no better. Because of the lack of appetite to study our history, when successful change does occur in some part of a larger organization, it rarely spreads. In fact, the innovators typically leave rather than dealing with the internal politics and bureaucracy of their former employers.

For example, several years ago, a leading auto manufacturer brought out a new passenger car which proved eventually to be one of its most successful ever. It proved to be a best seller for over 15 years. The team that developed the car became mythical within the industry. They developed extraordinary spirit and camaraderie. They broke lots of rules. They pioneered innovations in process and leadership methods. And, they all left the company within a year of when the car was launched!

Recently, a major American electronics manufacturer introduced a dramatic new product platform, the first fully digitized product of its sort. It is also almost completely re-manufacturable — that is, when the customer is done, they can give it back to the manufacturer and new machines will be built form the old, thereby achieving both substantial cost savings and reducing environmental waste. The product has won many engineering awards and, after two years, its sales exceed all forecasts. Yet, its lead engineer, who also developed extraordinary teamwork through his innovative leadership, has also left the firm, and other members of the original product team have scattered. In neither case, was there any effort by the firm to understand why the innovators were so successful. If they broke rules, maybe the rules are wrong. If they created new practices, maybe others could learn form them. None of these larger changes has occurred, because there was no attempt to study or learn from the innovators. This pattern of failure to learn from highly successful but radical innovations occurs far more often than most recognize.

I have come to the conclusion that the inability to learn from history is not just due to lack of will or political conservatism. Though these undoubtedly play a part, there are deeper issues. We simply do not know how to learn from history where change efforts are complex and their outcomes, both successful and unsuccessful, are threatening. Managers are action-oriented people. They are paid to produce results not insights. Even if they are reflective by nature, which many are not, they have little help in doing so, and very few models to guide them. And matters are getting worse, not better. With overwork and stress levels rising, what little predisposition for reflection and analysis exists is now swamped by a rising sea of day-to-day urgency. The search for quick answers results in "Here's how we did it" books by retired or current CEOs, most of which offer little serious reflection or self-criticism, or typical academic case studies that look at a complex change process from the proverbial "50,000 feet," summarizing everything in fifteen pages. More serious academic studies of change typically take a theoretical point of view that gives little sense for the feelings and thinking of those on "the field of battle." Overall, we lack a genre of reflective histories that both serious practitioners and academics alike would find valuable.

This problem has been very evident to those of us who have worked to develop the Society for Organizational Learning SoL. SoL was founded to promote partnerships among practitioners, researchers, and consultants to build knowledge for fundamental change. Most of the corporate members are Fortune 100 companies. Over the past ten years, SoL members have undertaken many major change efforts, often with researchers closely involved. This has resulted in a series of learning histories and other reflective studies that, we hope, will contribute useful exemplars of what is possible when practitioners are committed to building transferable knowledge and researchers are committed to practical impact.

I am very pleased that The Power of Collaborative Leadership has now arisen from this spirit of partnership and mutual inquiry within the SoL community. It is a rare book, one which actually captures "thinking in the moment" from experienced practitioners. It reflects the complexity of feelings and multiplicity of interpretations that coexist in complex change efforts. It shows how time is needed to make sense of things, and how that sensemaking can continue to evolve for many years. It weaves theory and practice with integrity, by delving deeply to explore non-trivial insights and potential guiding principles that emerge from experience. In short, it is a very exciting book for those of us genuinely interested in expanding our capacity to learn from history. For those looking for easy answers and quick fixes, it is better to look elsewhere.

In many ways, the uniqueness of the book arises from the three-way partnership that produced it. It starts with two very different managers, Bert Frydman and Iva Wilson. Bert and Iva have been involved in organizational learning efforts in large well established firms for many years. Both rose to hold positions of influence in their organizations. Both had a passion for innovation and believed deeply that their organizations had to change.

Yet, you can hardly imagine two more different personalities or styles of leading change. Bert is Canadian/ American. Iva is eastern European. Bert rose through the ranks, starting as a field technician. In a sense, he was always close to the mainstream of his organization. In a sense, Iva was always on the periphery of the mainstream. She was the first woman engineering Ph.D. at a prestigious German university. In turn, in virtually all of her engineering managerial positions, she was the first woman. Eventually, she became the highest ranking woman manager for a global electronics firm. Hers is an impressive CV, but it was not an easy journey, just as it is not easy for most women like her who have breached the walls surrounding previously male-dominated workplaces. Their differing career paths also signal very different leadership styles. Bert is a problem solver by nature, a practical person shaped by what Ed Schein calls the "operator culture" in which he grew up professionally. Iva, by contrast, is a product of what Schein calls the "engineering culture." Because of this, by the time the became executives, they brought with them very different mindsets. Bert tends to see a messy world of imperfect solutions achieved by committed people acting locally, often without much support form management. Iva tends to be "proactively optimistic," to use Schein's term, believing that complex problems can be understood and conceptual breakthroughs are possible.

The third member of the partnership is a gifted researcher, JoAnne Wyer. To her credit, rather than suppress the differences between Iva and Bert, as most would have done, JoAnne Wyer artfully accentuates them. The result is a fascinating tapestry of different perspectives facing the common challenges of transforming organizations. These are exactly the types of differing worldviews that characterize most management teams. When the differences are honored, synergies can develop. When they are suppressed, political gamesmanship tends to dominate, and the team as a whole is usually capable of little more than watered down compromises. So, in this way, Bert and Iva's conversations are a window into how real dialogue among truly different people can energize organizations. Lastly, Bert and Iva differences not only highlight their views, they make it easier to discover your own views. You will find yourself drawn in, taking sides, agreeing strongly with one and disagreeing equally strongly with the other. You will then find that what you are really finding out about is yourself: their passions evoke your own. You are a party to the conversation. The circle of reflection is expanding.

Making the tapestry still richer are four exceptional executive leaders from other SoL companies, whose views are woven into the conversation. Bill O'Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance, helped a bankrupt company become one of the top performers in the US property and liability industry over a twenty year period. Rich Teerlink was CEO during one of the most famous corporate revivals in recent history: the rebirth of Harley-Davidson. Phil Carroll was CEO of Shell Oil for five years, during which the company went from record losses to record profits (Phil is now CEO of Flour Corporation). David Marsing, former VP of Assembly and Test Operations for Intel, has headed some of Intel's most successful manufacturing facilities, and is now COO of Intel's new Network Communications Group. Each also knows the difficulties of learning from history in today's crazy business environment. Together, this ensemble explores how one gauges the readiness of organizations for change, the "creative frustration" that often motivates change leaders, distinctions in organizational cultures that either enhance or inhibit learning, the art of finding the "right amount of tension" around change without triggering automatic responses from the "organizational immune system," and what it means to be ready personally to lead such change. In short, what develops is a fascinating conversation exploring both the inner and outer dimensions of deep change.

When Iva and Bert first told me of their intention to write a book based on their stories, I confess to having had some reservations. They accomplished a lot, but I also knew that both left their organizations disappointed with not accomplishing all that they had intended. They had undertaken change efforts in exceedingly complex situations, with many forces outside their control. They made some mistakes, by their own assessment. Their stories are fascinating, and undoubtedly represent the great majority of change efforts. Still, I wondered how many would be drawn to such a book. I feared that many readers of management books are hooked on (often exaggerated) "great success stories," combined with three easy lessons for how "you too can succeed."

Then I read Bill O'Brien's comments. He too left his company disappointed, forced out after 20 years of dramatic improvements, by a hostile takeover from a parent firm with majority ownership seeking greater control of Hanover's profit stream. "These are not isolated failures of strategy or execution," says O'Brien, "but inevitable setbacks on the road to transforming management." O'Brien observes that the large corporation supplanted traditional family businesses early in the 20th century, bringing with it a new style of governance. "I don't think there's any question that the basic governing theories that took us from 1920 to 1990 are being seriously renovated," says O'Brien. "We're going to have a new (governance) architecture, and this generation of management has to rare privilege of participating in the design of the architecture." O'Brien's comments helped clarify for me why this book is as important as it is fascinating -- and why it will attract the serious readers it deserves. Those committed to the transformation O'Brien describes will know that the journey is perilous and that, over the long run, it is not individual successes and failures that matter but the cumulative learning we can accomplish.


Peter M. Senge
June 2000