Creating the conditions for triple-loop learning

by Philip Boxer

The blog on Requisite Authority introduces a diagnostic tool that examines the different possible forms of congruence between role and task, depending on how an enterprise defines its boundaries and its relationships across those boundaries.  The underlying drivers of this congruence are the need to differentiate behaviours in response to differentiated demands, and to integrate those differentiated behaviours in the interests of the enterprise as a whole.  This thinking applies to any enterprise, but situational resistance is easier to understand when it is applied to a membership organisation responding to the needs of its members – the modern democratic state responding to the needs of its citizens being an instance of this, another instance being a state actor within an ecosystem, as in the case of the UK’s National Health Service and Social Services responding to local primary care doctors. In the case of a membership organisation, then, consider what happens when

  • either its leadership insists on an organisation that is not congruent with the behaviors its members feel to be necessary in responding to demands ‘on the ground’,
  • or its members, responding to demands ‘on the ground’, insist on behaviors that are not congruent with the way their leadership expects to support them.

Some such loss of alignment is inevitable in the process of a membership organisation responding to growing demands from its members. This may be because members responding to demands ‘on the ground’ either get ahead of or lag behind their leadership[1]. Either way, situational resistance describes resistance by members in which their behaviors ‘on the ground’ challenge the leadership’s approach to sustaining the (competitive) identity of the organisation. A response from leadership to such challenges that aims to conserve the existing identifications supported by the organisation is then counter-resistance.

To think about what kinds of balance emerge between the governance processes of the organisation and members responding ‘on the ground’ to changing demands, three kinds of alignment can be distinguished between the two sides of the diamond:
diamond2

  • The ‘role culture’ expected by leadership is over-determining of how roles should be taken up by members (lhs), reflecting members’ behaviors being over-determined by the nature of the situations they face ‘on the ground’ (rhs) – no choices are left open to role-holders nor do they need to be available to members in practice.
  • The ‘power’ and ‘achievement cultures’ in which leadership constrains but does not over-determine how roles should be taken up by members (lhs), reflecting members being constrained but not over-determined by the nature of the situations they face ‘on the ground’ (rhs) – some choices are left open to role-holders and need to be available to members in practice.
  • The ‘support culture’ expected by leadership is under-determining of how roles should be taken up by members (lhs), reflecting members’ behaviors needing to be under-determined in relation to the situations they face ‘on the ground’ (rhs) – choices are left open to role-holders, in practice needing to be left open to members.

These three kinds of alignment correspond to three possible ways in which leadership may understand how role and task should be aligned:

  • Death ground[2]: the leadership organises particular ways of supporting its members, on the basis of which it must either dominate the competition or die. (For example Nokia competing on the functionality of their handsets alone.)
  • Key/Contentious ground[3]: while still hierarchical, the leadership is flexing the support it provides to its members, but only in limited ways alongside competitors who will be doing the same thing but in different ways.  Attacking competitors is therefore dangerous because they are as capable of extending into the organisation’s domain as vice versa. (For example Microsoft competing with other platform suppliers that provide overlapping capabilities.)
  • Dispersive ground[4]: ground on which the situations faced by members must be responded to one-by-one, so that the identity of the organisation must be derived from the nature of the situations faced by its members.  On this ground, competitors are secondary to members, and the leadership needs to enable its members to share a strong sense of a shared ethic in how they work if the organisation is not to lose a sense of its raison d’être. (For example, a Google becoming all things to all comers and losing people to business start-ups.)

What then happens when there is not this alignment?  There are three ways in which members’ behaviors may demand more support from the organisation than it can currently integrate:

  • Difficult/Bad ground[5]: Members’ behaviors in the situations they face are more complex than those supported by the organisation.  Those trying to do more must press on in the hope that the organisation will catch up. (For example, a development project facing initial technical hurdles to realising its plans.)
  • Serious/Deep ground[6]: Members’ behaviors are wholly driven by the situations they face ‘on the ground’, but the support they need is wholly beyond the capabilities of the organisation.  To survive, those involved in these situations must depend on the benefit they derive directly ‘on the ground’. (For example, a development project that is not supported by its host culture must look for support from its customers.)
  • Frontier ground[7]: The organisation is beginning to integrate the more complex forms of support needed by its members, but not to a sufficient extent. The members needing these more complex forms of support must press on and expect the organisation to catch up. (For example, a development project still held back from fulfilling its promise as an edge-driven business.)

And there are three ways in which the organisation may be capable of integrating more complex forms of support than those demanded by its members:

  • Focal/Intersecting ground[8]: The support needed by members ‘on the ground’ is limited and the organisation is capable of integrating more complex forms of support.  To survive competitively, the organisation must forge alliances with other organisations satisfying different but related behaviors in order that together, their memberships can make effective use of the organisation’s capabilities. (For example, a dotcom trying to build its linkages to other dotcoms in order to improve its offering to its clients.)
  • Encircled ground[9]: The support needed by members ‘on the ground’ is still limited and the organisation is capable of integrating more complex forms of support.  This capability is used by leadership to manage competitors’ understanding of the opportunities open to their members (using ‘stratagems’) as a way of keeping the leadership’s own options open. (For example, a dotcom that must walk before it can run in building revenues while trying to head off competitors from developing services that will compete with its intended future offerings.)
  • Communicating ground[10]: The support needed by competitors’ members ‘on the ground’ are more complex, but while the organisation is able to support those more complex behaviors, it needs to limit itself to making sure that it only supports the behaviors of its own members ‘on the ground’. (For example, a dotcom choosing not to integrate all the services it could in order to preserve its market focus.)

The resultant 9 varieties of competitive ground on which the leadership of an organisation may find itself can be expressed in terms of two axes[11]:

  • An axis of movement, being the relation of members’ task behaviors to the actual situations they face ‘on the ground’, and
  • An axis of difficulty, being the relation of the support provided by the organisation to its members, through which different forms of support can be provided to members’ appropriately differentiated behaviors ‘on the ground’.

9grounds
Changes in position within the resultant diagram provide insights into the challenges that the leadership of an organisation faces in responding to growth in its members’ demands, derived from the challenges they face in keeping task and role aligned to each other.  To the extent that the leadership of an organisation seeks to conserve its identity (aka exercise counter-resistance), resisting the challenges arising from members’ situational resistance, it is likely that the organisation has become impaled by some previously traumatic alignment.[12]

Notes
[1] This issue of the relationship between an enterprise and its environments is explored in THE environment does not exist, its point being that the environment does not exist in general, but always as a number of particular contexts that may not be apparent to leadership. The members ‘on the ground’ may thus be responding to a different ‘logic’ to that expected of them by their leadership and vice versa, where the leaders are responding to interests not perceived by members to be their interests.
[2] Ground in which the army survives only if it fights with the courage of desperation is called death ground. In death ground, fight. Make it evident that there is no chance of survival.
[3] Ground that is equally advantageous for the enemy or me to occupy is key ground. Do not attack an enemy who occupies key ground. Hasten up my rear elements.
[4] When a feudal lord fights in his own territory, he is in dispersive ground. Do not fight in dispersive ground. Unify the determination of the army.
[5] When the army traverses mountains, forests, precipitous country, or marches through defiles, marshlands, or swamps, or any place where the going is hard, it is in difficult ground. In difficult ground, press on. Press on over the roads.
[6] When the army has penetrated deep into hostile territory, leaving far behind many enemy cities and towns, it is in serious ground. In deep ground, plunder. Ensure a continuous flow of provisions.
[7] When he makes but a shallow penetration into enemy territory he is on frontier ground. Do not stop in the frontier borderlands. Keep my forces closely linked.
[8] When a state is enclosed by three other states its territory is focal. In focal ground, ally with neighboring states. Strengthen my alliances.
[9] Ground to which access is constricted, where the way out is tortuous, and where a small enemy force can strike my larger one is called encircled. In encircled ground, devise stratagems. Block the points of access and egress.
[10] Ground equally accessible to both the enemy and me is communicating. In communicating ground do not allow your formations to become separated. Pay strict attention to my defences.
[11] These two axes refer to the way behaviors are differentiated in relation to demand situations (movement), and the way differentiated behaviors are themselves integrated, i.e. held in relation to each other (difficulty) – see integrating differentiated behaviours.  ‘Ground’ here refers to the nature of the competitive landscape within which identity is challenged, the nine varieties of ground being taken from Sun Tzu’s work on ‘The Art of War’ (OUP 1963[500BC]). The notes to each variety of ground are quotes from his work. These quotes are included to see how the metaphor has been used.
[12] This refers back to the challenge to leadership in which what has to be overcome in any development process are the challenges of past traumas. What is particularly at issue is navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of anxiety and innovation, constituting an ethical challenge to leadership.

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