Omega Learning

Last week, I got a chance to do something I've always wanted to do: a proper OODA loop workshop for a large organization. While I've done talks on the topic before, and informal tutorials for individuals and small groups, this was the first time I've ever tried to "teach" it via a talk and facilitation of exercises. It was an interesting experience and got me thinking about the obvious next-step problem: installing any kind of new management capability in an organization.

That in turn got me thinking about the dystopian deficiencies of capability maturity models (CMMs) which purport to describe/prescribe how organizations acquire new management capabilities. Generally, when an organization attempts to systematically acquire a new management capability at scale -- Lean Six Sigma, Lean Startup, Agile/Scrum, analytics, AI, sustainable/green operations, diversity/non-discrimination, resistance to sexual harrassment (yes, these are all capabilities) -- the resulting evolutionary path is generally better described by the parody Capability Immaturity Model (CIM). The stages of the CIM are: negligent, obstructive, contemptuous, and undermining, cleverly numbered 0 to -3.

Can we do better? Yes. Through a model I have mystically dubbed Omega Learning.

Omega Learning

1/ In principle, capability maturity models (CMMs) are to organizations what learning curves are to individuals, a description and prescription of the path to mastery of a well-defined capability that can be exercised by an organization at a systemic level.

2/ In practice, they are sadly more often a recipe for creating a new layer of bureaucracy in the organization, and a whole new class of face-saving sinecures for failing or plateaued mid-career types to safely retreat to.

3/ Systematic individual learning, especially of ground-level skills, clearly works. We all know examples of people who went from fumbling beginner to mind-like-water mastery of a skill, with or without a good teacher.

4/ Systematic organizational learning of management skills clearly doesn't. Anybody who has ever worked for a large organization that has experienced a flavor-of-the-month turning into a cancer-of-the-decade knows this in their gut.

5/ In the best case, you get minor overhead reporting annoyance and a lot of good cartoons. In the worst case you get an extended hell that can last years or even decades, as a parasitic parallel "competency" organization takes root in the host organization, draining vitality and energy.

6/ If individuals learned sports the way organizations "learn" management capabilities, the Olympics would be a large conference of training seminars featuring lots of glossy training material, motivational parables, participation trophies, and posters. Instead of being a showcase of exceptional talent and skill,

7/ The original  CMM, iirc, was developed by the US government to govern software development capabilities in a codified way, and featured stages with labels: initial, repeatable, defined, capable, efficient.

8/ There are others, such as the analytics capability maturity model. But the general spirit of all the ones I've seen is similar to the original. I get an attack of severe depression when I see one these days.

9/ All of them strike me as starting out okay in the lower levels of the conceptualization of learning, but ending at what can only be considered a bureaucrat's wishful dream: a utopia of systematicity where the rules and processes governing the capability reach a state of perfection, rather than the capability itself.

10/ Invariably, the focus is on explicit, legible, and codified practice of the capability under conditions where measurement of "excellence" is an institutionalized part of the definition of the capability. The ISO 9000 certification becomes the definition of quality rather than a measure of it.

11/ Unlike learning curve models for individuals (such as shu-ha-ri), which typically leave systems/process fixation behind at some point and offer some sort of mind-like-water martial-arts-mastery metaphor for the advanced levels, organizational CMMs seem to take gleeful pride in positing a mature bureaucracy as the goal state of any capability acquisition.

12/ This, sadly, makes sense. Why sell a faddish capability if the goal isn't to install a recurring, institutionalized demand for associated overhead activities? The agenda behind a CMM is often to turn a flavor-of-the-month fad into a cancer-of-the-decade captive market for ever-expanding training products and services.

13/ Can we do better? There's no reason it should't be possible. After all, technical skills are taught at individual levels and deployed at scale in organized ways. Yet the model fails when it comes to management skills.

14/ Kids learn arithmetic individually, and basic arithmetic skill exists as a scaled capability in most organizations. Organizations can mostly do basic math. Some firms, like accounting firms, exist to do math.

15/ Management capabilities seem to work differently (when they work at all). I suspect this is partly because the behaviors revolve around people influencing people. Ie management capabilities are social capabilities.

16/ This creates two perverse incentives. First, as I already noted, a significant part of the problem is the moral hazard faced by trainers and consultants with an interest in creating a recurring/expanding revenue stream. The learning may plateau, but there's no reason the earning should.

17/ Second, since management capabilities are social capabilities, there is no limit to arbitrary refinement. An arithmetic problem goes away once it is a solved. A management game can go on as long as people want to play, and nobody with power calls bullshit on it.

18/ But I suspect another significant part of the problem is that higher levels of tacit functional capability in organizations are invisible by definition. For an industrial imagination, an organization is a set of explicit and legible systems and processes. If you transcend those, what even are you talking about?

19/ When an individual learner gets past rigid rule following and mindless formulaic execution of rote routines, and achieves some sort of fluid mastery, they don't physically vanish from view. Mr Miyagi and Daniel San both remain visible.

20/ Organizations though, at the higher levels of capability acquisition, do start to become invisible. The capability becomes an intangible, tacit part of culture and organizational personality. This is not a common outcome.

21/ The common outcome is that the original reason for attempting to acquire the capability is institutionally forgotten, and the deployment ends up becoming an end in itself, often spawning an entire parallel staff hierarchy organization devoted to its ceremonial theatrics.

22/ Often what something like lean six sigma is best for is creating lean six sigma bureaucracies. Improving quality is a distant second priority if it is pursued at all. I'm not picking on LSS in particular (though it's one I've personally suffered). All codified capability models seem to end up like this.

23/ In a company practicing a codified capability model, there is usually an arrested development end state. You can walk around and point to embodied bits of evidence of the idea being practiced in a tired ritual form.

24/ There is a formal vocabulary, grammar and syntax to behavior visible in how meetings are conducted. There are rituals and ceremonies around the workflows, titles for people, and so on. But none of it seems to have much to do with organizational success.

25/ Codified capability models all fall prey to an ennervating, ceremonial, bureaucratism more often than they deliver wins based on a high level of the promised capability. The ethics-centric ones (sustainability, discrimination, sexual harassment) are particularly vulnerable, because the underlying real capabilities are particularly hard to acquire, but particularly easy to bureaucratize.

26/ By contrast, in a company where everybody has actually learned a management capability for real, it's just part of the positive internal reality distortion field. A way of being. You can sense the difference in energy and effectiveness having the capability has made, but not point to where it comes from.

27/ The cartoon above is my attempt at modeling this success case. I have decided to mystically name my model Omega Learning. The 6 structured stages, numbered 0-5, are: bewilderment, skepticism, roboticsm, imagination, boldness, and serendipity.

28/ Above those, there is an unstructured Stage 6 I label artistry. And above that is unstructured evolution to an asymptotic enlightenment state I call Omega (Ω).

29/ Omega Learning is a sort of universal capability maturity meta-model that tries to account for the perverse dynamics that cause naive CMMs to crash and burn via bureaucratism, even when the underlying capability is a good one, and potentially worth acquiring at scale.

30/ In the bewilderment stage (often skipped by employees who are a veteran of too many flavors-of-the-month turned cancers-of-decade) there is honest incomprehension of whatever capability acquisition is being attempted. You could also call it the WTF stage.

31/ In the skepticism stage, the basic idea is broadly grasped and dismissed as unworkable, and cynicism kicks in. If compliance is required, often it is phone-it-in minimum viable compliance. You ask for 15 pieces of flair, and you get exactly 15 pieces.

32/ Stage 0 and Stage 1 -- bewilderment and skepticism -- constitute the red, underwater levels in the picture above. Faddish, made-up capabilities stall at cynicism. They lack the depth to evolve further. If there's more to the idea, these stages constitute an unconscious incompetence stage.

33/ For capabilities with some genuine individual skill acquisition potential at the core, the next stage is roboticism: where some people dimly recognize that there's more there, and attempt to acquire the capability through uncomprehending robotic/formulaic following of instructions. "Paint the fence", "wax on/wax off".

34/ At some point though, there's an aha! moment and roboticism turns into conscious, autonomous learning, marked by a clumsy but imaginative enthusiasm. This is where you get a lot of extreme evangelism and misguided energy creating momentum behind ephemeral bureaucratic expressions of the capability.

35/ Those who can will eventually do, but those who can't (but can appreciate the possibility) get busy with study groups, communities of practice, committees, knowledge repositories, contests based on proxies for the actual action -- all the familiar paraphernalia attractive to those who want to administrate the capability rather than practice it.

36/ These 2 stages (2 and 3, yellow) are the shu of the shu-ha-ri model, or the conscious incompetence stage. The significance of the capability has been recognized, and a cargo-cult of practice has begun, but it has not actually been acquired yet. The future bureaucrats and future practitioners have been sorted.

37/ This is the crucial, and most dangerous stage. Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy describes what happens next. If those with the ability to acquire the actual capability are dominant, the company will continue on the journey. This happens perhaps 10% of the time.

38/ If those who have the imagination to see the potential of the capability, but not the potential to acquire it, are dominant, the company will get sidetracked into building a bureaucracy that is "about" the capability. A cargo cult devoted to practicing the easy peripheral behaviors and studiously ignoring the hard core behaviors. This is 90% of the stories.

39/ At this point let me share an Arthur C. Clarke quote that inspired this model:

...debacles fall into two classes, which I will call failures of nerve and failures of imagination. The failure of nerve seems to be the more common...

40/ Organizations with the nerve to continue on the real capability acquisition journey will see bold individuals within them gradually start to master the initially robotic capabilities, and getting bolder and bolder in their practice. They will also acquire a natural following among peers.

41/ They start to break the codified rules, test the boundaries, reformulate ideas for themselves, merge the new knowledge with their existing knowledge, etc. The boundaries of the definition of the capability begin to break down. It's now generalized fodder for growth and mission effectiveness.

42/ If a capability bureaucracy and priesthood has started to take root around the emerging activity, the bold ones get very good at doing end runs around it to actually get things done using the capability. Using the capability to win, rather than being seen to practice it, becomes the focus.

43/ To those failing to acquire the capability, this behavior looks increasingly risky,  with "maverick", and "out-of-control" types running amok destabilizing things. But for those acquiring it, this is actually growing confidence and mastery. This is stage 4, boldness.

44/ As the successes start to mount -- and they will if the capability has any real depth -- the best practitioners start to get unreasonably lucky. They start to both enjoy serendipity themselves, and catalyze it wherever they go. This is Stage 5, serendipity. An internal disruption cabal has gained critical mass.

45/ Boldness and serendipity together constitute the ha stage of the shu-ha-ri model: conscious competence. The doers dominate the bureaucrats. The capability is actually generating returns. And most importantly, the codified learning scaffolding required at the earlier stages starts to fall away, and with it, the existential justification for a capability bureaucracy.

46/ If this continues, then the scaffolding of codification is deliberately dismantled. The training wheels come off. Coaches and consultants specializing in the codified stages, and perhaps necessary in Stages 0-3,  are let go (and if they aren't shysters, are glad and proud to let go, like regular teachers seeing students graduate). Perpetuation of the capability now happens through informal mentorship and apprenticeship.

47/ As the codified elements begin to fall away, so does explicit structure. The capability starts to seep into the invisible, implicit, tacit part of the organization's capability and culture. I've illustrated this via the colorful volcano spray "Artistry" stage at the very top.

48/ The mark of artistry is that structure has receded into the background to the extent it is necessary, serendipity has been turned into an operating condition via an earned confidence, and behaviors proceed on the basis of assumed effectiveness.

49/ We are now in the ri part of shu-ha-ri: unconscious competence. The capability has actually been acquired and can recede into the background, dissolve into the water. Turn into the ineffable sense of energizing cult-like internal reality we often call kool-aid.

50/ Beyond this, there are no rules, no structured progression. No anxious striving for "excellence" at the capability. No explicit awards and recognition for practice of the capability, as distinct from the rewards of the effectiveness.

51/ There is only increasingly mindful and appropriate practice of the capability. A confident, surplus-rich slacking and slouching, without visible strain or exertion for  procedural "excellence", towards the omega point.

52/ At this point, the capability is also not distinguishable and separable from other contributing factors to overall success. The functional capability boundaries that exist in the structured part of the organization don't exist in the implicit part. It's all part of the ineffable "winning culture." Unconscious competence is just one commingled ocean of raw capability.

53/ This requires some serious organizational enlightenment to handle. A winning culture is an emergent thing. Its effect is increased winning. Attempts to attribute the increased winning to any particular factor will fail. A meaningful installed capability is just a part of the generalized ability to win.

54/ This omega learning view of successful capability acquisition is unfortunately one that nobody has an economic incentive to champion. It resists attempts to claim credit for successes by claiming ownership of capabilities. It counterprograms bureaucratism. It puts the unique selling propositions of entire cottage industries of training and development at risk.

55/ Worse, since a great deal of winning culture comes from sources other than codified capability acquisition succeeding -- such as founder effects and path dependence -- it casts suspicion on all systematic capability acquisition efforts.

56/ But the good news is: as the perverse incentives go away, the only reason to try and gain a capability becomes actually wanting to acquire it to increase the winning, with indifference to incentives, attribution, and claims on success.

57/ Omega learning is obviously not itself a teachable capability. You can only assess when an organization is in an omega learning condition, and try to shield existing learning efforts from the pernicious effects of bureaucratic CMMism.

58/ Beyond that, it's all down to the individuals willing to make every specific journeys for their organizations. Ultimately, whether we are talking about individuals or organizations, the main enabling condition is simply wanting to learn.

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