Organizational Learning

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers

Fans of James Bond movies might recall a scene that goes something like this:

We are looking at an unidentified room. Two people we’ve never seen before are standing in front of a desk. We might be able to see the back of the head of the man who sits behind that desk. A voice rings out:

“You have failed SPECTRE. Number 3, why did you not kill 007 as ordered?”

Number 3 stammers out some response and the voice turns its attention on the other person.

“Number 5, you have also failed SPECTRE…”

Eventually, Number 3 is told everything is forgiven and he can leave. Of course, this is SPECTRE. As soon as he walks out of the room he’s dropped into a tank of piranhas, or the bottom of the elevator turns out to be a trap door and Number 3 learns that Maxwell Elevators really are good to the last drop, or he dies in some other Rube Goldbergesque manner.

SPECTRE, as all Bond fans know, is the villainous organization headed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the evil genius who spends most of his time trying unsuccessfully to kill 007. Given his track record, as evil geniuses go, he frequently seems more like Wile E. Coyote.

Blofeld’s problem, of course, is that every time one of his agents makes a mistake that agent dies. Those whom James Bond doesn’t kill are terminated by Blofeld himself. This makes it extremely difficult to conduct any form of on-the-job learning. When every mistake is fatal, the lessons tend to come a little too late to do much good. As learning organizations go, SPECTRE has issues.

Although the consequences are generally not so flashy, businesses do face some similar problems. Granted, most business mistakes don’t make for a good action movie, and dropping people in piranha tanks is generally frowned upon. However, there is still the very real problem of figuring out how to enable people to learn from their mistakes without those mistakes harming the business. James Bond, after all, at least gets a script.

Part of the challenge is that even when leaders are well-trained and highly skilled, there is a big difference between what one learns in most management training classes and the actual experience of leading a team, department, division, or company. That doesn’t mean that the training is useless, but it does mean that the training needs to be appropriate.

In sports, for example, athletes drill constantly: they practice the fundamental skills of their sport until they can execute those skills without thought. Doing that, however, is not enough to make an athlete a successful competitor. Such training is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

As a soccer-playing friend once commented to me, there’s a big difference between the drill and the game. The drill is controlled and predictable; the game is not. The game is confusing and chaotic, and in the moment of truth all those carefully drilled skills simply vanish away. The problem is that chaos is overwhelming: it takes getting used to in order to navigate it. The Japanese term, “randori,” used to describe Judo competition, means “seizing chaos.”

Athletes practice getting used to chaos by moving past drills and practicing in various free play scenarios: mock games, spring training, practice randori, etc. These experiences enable the athlete to experience the chaos in small doses and hence become increasingly comfortable with it. They learn which skills to execute when. The day of the actual tournament, they are ready. When they do make mistakes, they have something to fall back on to help them recover quickly, as opposed to something to fall into and get eaten.

Businesses are in a fundamentally similar position: while there are some obvious differences in the details between learning the skills of a sport and learning sales or management or computer programming, the fundamental process is the same. Since organizational performance is ongoing instead of being organized into discrete chunks such as tournaments, organizational learning needs to be ongoing as well. Optimally, organizational learning should also be an enjoyable experience, not just because that makes people happy but because people learn best when they are enjoying themselves. The methods and approaches to organizational learning should also serve to simplify other issues, such as orientation, accreditation, and organizational change. The lessons of sports and games will serve us well in understanding how to make organizational learning effective.

To begin with, though, we need to understand what learning is and how it works.

Riveting! Yes, I called a leadership book riveting. I couldn’t wait to finish one chapter so I could begin reading the next. The book’s combination of pop culture references, personal stories, and thought providing insights to illustrate world class leadership principles makes it a must read for business professionals at all management levels.

Eric Bloom
Manager Mechanics, LLC
Nationally Syndicated Columnist and Author

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” is due out from Springer in late 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or

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