The genius of the reciprocating engine lies in the cyclical action of the piston and cylinder. Each downward stroke exerts force on the piston rod while the upward motion draws fuel into the cylinder for the next cycle. The genius of learning organizations is in creating an engine of accelerating change. The downward stroke, if you like, is the delivery of value to customers, while at the same time the upward motion sucks information and intelligence from customers into the organization – to be digested by it immediately in the next cycle.
The point is simple: The key to high performance is creating learning loops that energize the creative process. The best learning loops are like brains, taking in data, communicating it to neighboring neurons, responding to pressures, and above all continuously learning and adapting. While the notion is simple, it is difficult to pull off – especially in an organization where turf wars or political jealousies may cause managers to hoard information rather than share it quickly. This can pose the greatest challenge for an organization – but it is also one of the most rewarding things that a leader can do.
Just as we are always becoming leaders, we are always in the midst of change. As a leader, your challenge is to make everyone in the organization a part of this dynamic to accelerate the pace of change. Sometimes it requires burning the bridges – tearing down a symbolic vestige of the old organization. Sometimes, as at Intel, it means telling people they have to join a new team, invent a new job, or leave. Often it means getting people to talk about issues they may initially not want to talk about.
Above all, accelerating the pace of change requires managing yourself differently. It means becoming increasingly aware of your own strengths and weaknesses – and learning the painful truth that you need to act in new ways in order to inspire others to do the same.