Learning is the third Driver. As technologies change, as legislation creates new rules, as globalisation introduces new cultures and ways of thinking – so a premium is put on managers who are able to learn new responses, and to organisations that can adapt. They will need a rational openness, a wish to seek first to understand before trying to have one’s own way. Learning leaders will be looking for change, eager to develop new skills and to create new networks.
Mergers and Acquisitions will focus on outcomes, on their inherent logic, and on achieved benefits rather than macho posturing. How they are managed will mark companies as ones that have built learning into their psyche. One company that did carry out M&A with care and objective attention was Cisco. Their comments, their focus on key issues and their culture are listed in the Cisco case study.
The Cisco approach can be summarised and generalised as in Figure 5 – its essence is to confront the main fears up front. In particular those fears associated with personal inadequacy, with fitness to lead, with doubts as to roles and expectations. This is done from the outset. The “chairman” of the taskforce outlines the chosen purpose and explains the culture. This is dealt with best in terms of “the way we do things here.” A competent Project Chairman will explain:
- the purpose of the project / taskforce;
- the limited objectives and key result areas;
- the individual member roles, and their fitness for purpose;
- the timescales, milestones;
- their reporting lines; and also:
- how team members should act, debate, relate to each other;
- the scope of the taskforce, its limits of authority and its degree of confidentiality;and then finally:
- how the team will encourage feedback, how it will regularly review, and how, if justified, it will be prepared to pull out;
- the means whereby it will measure, monitor and record progress towards achieving the limited objective.
What is relevant for an M&A taskforce is no less relevant for all taskforces, team, and boards of directors.
Time and again, meetings are hamstrung by unspoken fears, tongue–tied by undiscussables, unable to debate openly. It is all too easy to constrain debate by never overtly legitimising it, by not establishing the ground rules.
Once this has been done, learning becomes easy, part of the routine. We already know now that, as one of the major drivers, learning is exciting, stimulating and rewarding. It is part of the best leadership experiences – working, learning and achieving great things with a team of friends.
Figure 5–The Learning Cycle
The point of all this is that the process of learning, one of the main drivers, and itself so enjoyable and rewarding, can also become dangerously threatening. We must repeatedly check our mental set, and that of our team, to remain open to well–meant criticism, to proper checks and balances. We must do this consciously, because the daily pressure to succeed, to win, inevitably creates a momentum to be right, to be proved correct, to act rather than reflect, to be prepared to pull back and to reconsider. It is all too easy to go into denial, to blame others, anything rather than stand back and take a fresh look at reality. For those who are themselves driven, in particular the Alpha Male systemic characters we will describe later, sticking to a course of action, following the rule book, can become more than an obstruction to learning; it can become a shield to hide behind.
Field Marshal Haig’s character could certainly be said to fit the behaviour pattern discussed earlier. Beset by the huge anxieties associated with command, already covering up for his own inadequacies as a soldier, (possibly also for his sexuality as well), he found a shield in the rigid structure of army life, and in solitariness.(This chapter then dwells on Haig and other leaders)
There is one thing more to be said about Haig, and it centres us on learning. The normal pattern and first four stages of learning theory are summarised opposite and in Figure 6:
Stage 1: Starting Out – contemplation of issues, disorder
- concern at threat, problems, challenges
- welcoming change
Stage 2: Experimentation – research, trial and error
- some achievement
- some failure, further disorder
Stage 3: Breakthrough – rapid learning, innovation
- breaking the old rule book
- high rate of achievement
- winning streak
Stage 4: Consolidation – creating the productive machine
- harvesting the rewards, creating order
- creating the new rule book, comfort zone
Figure 6: Learning Theory and Field Marshal Haig
As already discussed, we find comfort in the security of being right. We look for the support and justification that this gives us. We want to have rules to live by, clubs to join, organisations to belong to, because that seems to reinforce our identity. At the same time, and most importantly, it allows us to feel wanted, and also it allows us to stop worrying about the other ambiguities of life. From dress code to skill training, to understanding and obeying the rules of how we do things, all allow us to replace uncertainty with a conforming certainty.
We also gain the considerable reward of completely joined–up thinking. It is profoundly reassuring to find out, to understand and to know how things work. Once taken on board, the rulebook, the hard–won skills, are very difficult to put down.
This is entirely natural and, for most of us, most of the time, it is invaluable. Without it much of day–to–day social intercourse would be rendered chaotic.
Unfortunately, however, conformity or obedience can have a dangerously counter–productive effect. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we use the rulebook to hide behind. In Stage 5 we lose the plot.
Stage 5: Losing the Plot – working to rule
- championing tradition and orderliness
- covering up, turning a blind eye to change
- obsessive and unquestioning obedience
In the case of Haig, the question is, why did he and his staff not learn from the experience of trench warfare? Their own lifetime of conformity to a rigid and traditional army environment will have conditioned them– "theirs not to reason why". In part they may subconsciously have welcomed rigid rules and procedures as a shield to hide their own fears and doubts. There is one thing more however – the impact of the rulebook.
The procedure for battle had been already laid down in detail in the 1908 Field Service Regulations (FSR), and the officers and men had been trained to fight according to its rules. Like a losing boxer falling back on pure stubbornness and determination, and repeatedly taking blows from a faster and cleverer opponent, the generals – or, as Alan Clarke describes them, "the Donkeys" – just kept on trying the same thing harder. There was no encouragement for open debate at Haig’s meetings or dinner table. What conversations there were, were gruff, impenetrable, and entirely one–sided – the Field Marshall usually dined alone. There was no scope for informed discussion. Expert outsiders were unwelcome. There may well too have been the final danger of the rulebook – the refusal, especially by the author(s), to contemplate the thought that they may have been wrong. For it was Haig, then a colonel, who had written the 1908 Field Services Regulations Handbook in the first place!
Haig and the First World War generals provide a memorable and extreme example of learning theory. But they are not alone. The most common challenge to the boardroom or the executive meeting, is the extent to which they become so established that there is no scope for internal debate and self questioning. Instead of open enquiry, there is almost a fear of challenge, members collaborate to conform. They take it in turn to speak, they sit in the same seats at the board table, they defer almost theatrically to the Chairman. Such exchanges there are have a suffocating tone of seriousness andformality. Obedience to the meeting’s content and code becomes the rule.