Interview for ”the Learning Manifesto” – SSE Executive Education (IFL)

Today’s challenges differ from those of the past due to their ever increasing complexity. Predictability decreases, which places new demands on risk assessment and decision making. In an intensifying globalized world, perspectives and goals also differ among the organization’s various stakeholders. This places new demands on how we lead and develop our organizations. We have methods and experiences that provide greater assurance in navigating this new complexity – Conscious Leadership.

What is knowledge and why is it important?

Göran: I use a model (Bill Isaaks – MIT) from which I work that makes distinctions between different ways of communicating.I believe that what is known as innovative dialogue is a key to learning and that it generates the kind of knowledge we need for the future.

The dialogue model has four rooms. On the axis, it says individual-collective and conventional-new. The first is called the Courtesy Room where people talk about harmless things and common conventions. In the next room – the Debate Room – one has to prove more (for example, by asking such questions as “Where do you stand politically?”) The third room is called Exploratory Dialogue, where people must dare to bare themselves and say: “I realize you have facts that I do not. Tell me more.” In an exploratory dialogue, the required technique is how to ask questions, inquiry: “What do you mean? What do you base that on?”

The fourth room you enter is like “jazz”, “a jam session” or “the flow”. Here, people gain access to many different perspectives. They can experiment and create something new together. A lot of learning takes place there, as when people feel impassioned about topics and start jotting down ideas on napkins. This fourth place is about Innovative Dialogue; it combines the key words collective and new. The necessary component is trust.

In the management group or the boardroom inquiry is not that common, rather personal positioning and advocacy of own opinions.. What we are doing to guide participants to the fourth room is what I call supportive-infrastructure. I use nature because this is where nature helps us, as I see it. When I am “sitting on a tree stump”, I am inclined to explore another colleague’s experience a bit more.

The setting is very important, I think, for getting into “the flow” where one really gains and  adds a new perspective It can be incredibly rewarding.

So infrastructure can help to open up people’s minds and create a willingness to learn? And, it can also provide tools and techniques to provide support for the participants in the programs. It is good for participants to be able to focus on what should be created while you at the course provider focus on creating the conditions.

Göran: Absolutely! The management system we have today is based on the notion that the world is predictable. When I talk about this model with the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, they say: “The industry wants predictability.” But, can this really be true? The world does not look like that. Our client companies must compete in an international market and will encounter many different perspectives out there. Just face it! This is all about the fourth room: Innovative Dialogue. Leaders work with a high degree of risk and find decision processes to manage risk. They must manage multiple perspectives in a constructive way. That is what the model is based upon – dialogue.

Consider creating the sense of full trust in a management team, and getting the full potential out of your team. When I say this to CEOs, then they realize that their management team is 90% of the time simply a debriefing forum. They also realize that they need the experience the competence of others. They have recruited top people and can see how everyone is positioning him- or herself, while we move towards a future that is very uncertain. They are all co-creators of a culture that makes them not get what they need, what they really should get out of their management team.

Is this another form of knowledge: the knowledge of how we actually get clear about what we do? Some form of decision knowledge and understanding the processes? Is it the wisdom. and art of being authentic?.

Göran: I sometimes work with something we call learning canvasses. By starting with an exercise, you can build the security of those who seek order and structure, those who think that visionaries are too far off in the distance. If you look at what you already do today, it usually reveals that those who are a little resistant to the visionary dare to take the next step. That’s been my lesson. If you leap to the visionary too soon, you get resistance from those who feel that “Hell! We’ve got a lot of basic things we don’t take care of.”

In times like these, handling many different perspectives on the unpredictable future is one of the big challenges in leadership.

The so called U Theory (Scharmer, Senge, Jaworski, Sueflower) has a phase called “presencing”, where you focus on what is being created. In this part, we do not benefit from looking back at history. Otto Scharmer usually talks about the notion of self with a small s, and this is what has been built up until now. The challenge is how to create the space for what wants to emerge and evolve. It’s when you work with people and, as they begin to access it, you can see that spark in their eyes. It’s great fun.

What is this program really for?

Göran: It is definitely one of the greatest gifts you can receive. As a participant I get the time to do what I know I should deal with a lot more, but don’t.  I am given the time to reflect, for example. I think about things that concern the future and how I work as an individual and in my various roles. It’s a catalyst for what needs to be done. You truly develop, regardless of what program you are involved in.

What do managers or specialists need to know?

Göran: It’s re-learning learning itself, and understanding the principles of learning. I call it “sensing” since it relies on you to consciously rediscover your senses by actually listening and consciously thinking. Once you have had contact with your senses, you regain a kind of basic knowledge regarding how we, as humans, work.

You get more out of life; it is exactly the same thing with learning. There are certain basic components that we forget in our age of information overload.

One component you need to understand is how you yourself function. Personal development and awareness are really important Another component is the learning and dialogue in a conversation. If you have reached this position as many of our participants do, they have run such a tough race and have been so focused on some specific areas, that these basic skills have not been fully trained.

Then, it could also be specific areas of knowledge that they need to learn, for example finance, marketing and sales.

A third area is to know how we get the most out of our organization in relation to our common goal. And then we mix these. The interesting thing is to know when to use these tools.

Göran: When designing a program, I think we should look at things that we normally do not look at. For example, allowing participants to conduct interviews with colleagues. We call it the observing phase and has done this for a long time and been very good at experimentation: precisely the observing phase. We allow participants to be influenced by what is sometimes difficult to digest, but is actually the reality.

Then the next phase happens: the bottom of the U, which can be difficult to package and sell. Sitting by oneself and reflecting? In the Tällberg Forum we design this process and introduce the concept of “the stump”. Each participant receives a stump in the woods: a place where they can sit and reflect each day. This is a great way to absorb the information and process it in your own way. You have to open up the mind, heart and will to tap in to and let the inner wisdom to emerge. Se Picture:

Then when one designs the next part, “bringing it home”, insights can go a bit awry. It does not mean to crawl into tight spaces in some traditional structure; then you lose that sense of thinking “outside the box”. To truly ensure that you are building this kind of “idea lab”, where you can be creative in a structured way. And then, take it home and try to implement it into a system that already exists.

It becomes a balancing act because if you are a group that will work together, it’s extremely important to provide tools to involve the organization itself.

Consider a program, which really brings in the challenge. Where the challenge is the true participant. It is a good idea, but it is still a question of how to bring in the organization. In some way, we would really like to bring in the whole system.

Göran: Given the way the world looks today, I would like to develop those ideas. I think that many organizations understand that Business As Usual does not work. There are so many structures that collapse, and it’s not as easy to fall back into old patterns. If you want to break old patterns, then you need to create a safe container: in other words, a safe environment for learning, which means that I will be more authentic and won’t have to attach myself to a title. For me, nature has been a quick way to create that safe container. Most Swedes have a relationship with nature that enables them to start to feel good at once. Then the learning becomes completely different; it is much quicker to come up with the questions with which you need to work.

Do you mean that there is a readiness and an openness now?

Göran: Yes, and that means we have to obtain intellectual acceptance inside the organization. “It would be just wonderful if you had something that could help us in this situation.” I like the EDGE – Leading complex change program because it has a significantly higher degree of integration processes. I think that is a must. The earlier we start working with change and adapt to new conditions, the better we will perform.

We’ve touched on the learning environment before: that it is important WHERE you do things. How does that affect things?

Göran: I usually use the term “supporting infrastructure”, which is simply based on how the environment consciously and subconsciously affects us. Design, everything that human hands have created, has an effect. I think that we have been very good at achieving this. You have taken people to different places, on study trips and so on.

Who fits into these programs? Which actors are important in learning and what roles they play?

Göran: One criticism I have is that some topmanagement programs can easily become monocultures. Take this example from the course on Lidingö (Society for Organizational Learning). We had a big tent, we had beautifully arranged autumn leaves on the dining room table and a large fire in the middle. It was a very good environment. Then we had a flutist play and everyone became silent and sat down. There stood the Indian Chief Oren Lyons and we all sat there mesmerized; it was a very special atmosphere. Then this small child started to cry and several participants became irritated. But Oren said: “Oh, I am blessed.” There is a long pause. “I am so glad that we have participants from the younger generations here. It is a privilege to have the children here with us, for it is actually for them we do most things”. What an eye-opener!

It is very important that the programs do not become monocultures. What we talked about earlier – diversity – the many perspectives must be welcomed. I think that segregated structures of society, segregated businesses, and a patriarchal environment do not belong to the future. The environment and the participants are connected; and, we must find ways to involve other groups of people, instead of just keeping to ourselves.

So the answer is that many more people are suited to these programs than we might imagine?

Göran: Yes, and the increasing complexity will require substantially more work in the design of the program. You should see this as an opportunity.

What is the role of various actors in the learning process?

Göran: I believe in inviting in reality: inviting representatives from different perspectives and creating a real space in the design. For example, inviting a young person, between 16-18 years old, who may have exciting ideas that belong to the future. People might think this is just precious.

But you have to frame it so that people listen to this youth as though it were Anders Borg, Minister of Finance, who was standing up there. It requires more of us in our design work, to be able to help the participants seize the opportunity that is being given to them.

What happens to the program manager role?

Göran: It becomes even more important to be innovative in that role, especially when it comes to finding those other knowledge sources, that provide new perspectives. That’s what I think we are extremely adept at doing in the Tällberg Forum. There is an incredible range of art, intellectual links, and processes. The voice from the developing world may almost have more space and power than Professor This or That. Participants normally would have easier access to the professor’s voice than to the person who works with entrepreneurship in Zimbabwe. So then, you have to highlight and reinforce the other voice in a way, so that people become keen and open up.

The design is really important. We are strong today; however, we could be even more exciting and innovative.

What then is the effect of a program? For the individual and also for the organization?

Göran: You can release the creativity and energy and get more secure individuals who actually make contact with their full potential because they have gone to a program and if they choose to remain and forge ahead, that’s fine. But, it is also good if they say “Okay, I’ll take a settlement plan, and make sure they get the best out of me during these two years that I have left.”

I prefer a person who really stands out in the crowd and does things for the organization’s best interests. The effect is to become better at the thing one already does. This is a basic requirement, but its real potential is for one’s ability to become more innovative, creative, and energized. These are the people who come to work with a real spark in their eyes.

Göran: It’s desirable to have groups of five from each organization. Then islands start to support each other. I often use the word enzyme: the enzymes are also affected by the process. If one can make a commitment to finding a business model that is attractive for both the course provider and the client, then the probability is greater that there will be an effect that the organization / customer wants.

What do you think about the future of learning?

Göran: The institutions we have today are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that we actually face. I think that climate and environmental issues along with the world’s financial restructuring and stronger emerging markets will affect so much. Structures will be reviewed and redesigned; it is part of evolution. Sustainability in a business context is long-term survival. For me, sustainability is the same as adaptation and resilience.

Sustainability easily becomes an add-word; i e, a word that you can add to anything. But, what’s really at stake is that we have been blown off course. We’ve lost the foundation of evolution – all of the organisms’ ability to adapt to new realities.

If we don’t learn, someone else will. When learning is “key”, it’s really hard for those who strive to maintain systems. There must be a balance between controller and innovator. More and more people are beginning to understand on an intellectual level that, “Oops! Now we’re in the real deep shit.” For example, the Copenhagen meeting that we all are awaiting. How do we agree? We have common global problems such as climate change, yet no institutional framework to handle them.

From big to small, this affects us all; therefore, it will also require certain components in the programs. To integrate sustainability becomes a basic requirement. There are two driving forces: regulatory requirements and market demands. You can either adapt and do exactly what you need to or you can surpass the requirements and go forward.

Can you see that this has implications for teaching and learning?

Göran. Yes. We are entering a new territory, where we begin to seek knowledge in other areas and become open to the many perspectives and creativity. I’ve been thinking about going to HHS and seeing if we could do something about that in some way. We need a trusted institution with a traditional position to deal with what is new.

You mean that Stockholm Shool of Economics has many ears, while shouldering the large responsibility of dealing with both the old and new at the same time?

Göran: Absolutely. We need to lovingly embrace our conventions. There is value in a position that allows those who are most vulnerable and afraid of change to actually start looking at it in another way. This is where I think these kind of programs could play a role.

I’ve been playing with the idea of designing a program that takes people on this trip that we’ve talked about: formulating a program that actually works to visualize the traditional ways of organizing and leading.

By default, it is how we think and how businesses are organized, how we seek knowledge, and how we lead. You shift the focus and try to look at the new. Then we can, in fact, also understand that there are two paradigms.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Göran: What I absolutely want to stress is that sustainability is the same as adaptation and that, in turn, is the same as learning. It is so amazingly exciting, but it can sometimes be painful. “It worked so well before and we made money, and then the rug was pulled out from under us.”

Around 1990 when I had worked as a strategy consultant for a couple of years, I began looking for other ways of thinking. Back then we were so linear in terms of strategy and processes, that my own understanding was that people are afraid of change. So, I started thinking about the question: Is there a place in the world where there are people or cultures that do not fear but, in fact, embrace change and see it as a way of life? I found the North American Indians’ teaching wheel: the Medicine Wheel, which is based on the notion that everything goes in cycles and the importance of one´s intentions. Things are constantly changing, and it is all about having a dynamic balance. Dynamic balance is the movement that creates balance.

Could you explain that?..

Göran: Riding a bike is a good example.

Göran: When I think back to our conversation – what is it that I would like individuals who have gone through a program to take with them? It is to experience the dynamic balance in a positive way.

Göran: When I meet with participants and clients, people automatically say that they are prone to change; they have learned that it must be said. And we see the fear in their eyes. I think that all of us has some experiences from changing personal habits so we know it is hard. And most of us know that what´s needed is profound change. And then I say: “Let us take away the concept of change; why not say development instead? And I draw up this development cycle, and we can take

You have said that this is about wisdom: to go back to the knowledge that develops over time. All this is about being able to peel away. In this way, it’s a bit safe for us to think that the arrows always point upward: to somehow find our way back to the origin.




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