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How to create a learning organisation

Aspirationally it’s a great sentiment. Tragically it’s a sentiment that often forever remains an aspiration, despite numerous attempts at change being made.

The Oliver Hazard Perry on the water. Jan Forest.

Hollow words

“We want to create a learning organisation.”


These words are commonly uttered by business leaders around the world. Aspirationally it’s a great sentiment. Tragically it’s a sentiment that often forever remains an aspiration, despite numerous attempts at change being made. 


And with each successive attempt at change, the creation and maintenance of momentum becomes increasingly difficult; while simultaneously enthusiasm slowly wanes. No momentum and ever reducing enthusiasm, the forces maintaining the organisational status quo.

Why bother?

Why bother to create a learning organisation? Why try to change anything at all? Your margins are good, you have a normal rate of people attrition, the annual engagement survey indicates people are moderately happy…


Since the early 1800s the social, economic and technical pace of change has increased exponentially. Anyone naïve enough to think their organisation is immune to change and is built on solid foundations, instead of shifting sands, needs a reality check.


Nothing is certain. And no one can predict the future. It is everyone’s responsibility to create organisations that can respond to change rather than be sunk by it. 


Creating a learning organisation is a fundamental step in being able to respond meaningfully to change. But it’s far from easy.


The work

Creating a learning organisation quickly becomes rhetoric when the sentiment isn’t followed by meaningful action that not only inspires but enables.


It’s a phrase that elicits scepticism and ultimately cynicism for those around long enough to remember the other attempts. Much like its counterpart change agent sentiment, becoming a customer-centric organisation.


Without the appropriate guiding principles, it is simply too easy for efforts at creating a learning organisation to be deprioritised and forever side-lined in favour of the work getting done.


This cartoon sums up the work mentality pretty neatly.

Guiding principles

Creating and sustaining any meaningful change is hard. Really hard. But aren’t most things that are worthwhile? Failure is easy. Success is not. 


To have a greater chance of creating a learning organisation or achieving any change, you can use this simple mnemonic device: D. D. D. 


Desire. Deliberate. Discipline. The presence and continued application of the principles will hopefully guide an organisation to achieving the illusive change they seek. The absence of any one of the three will make things infinitely more difficult. 


It may sound obvious but without the desire (the intrinsic motivation) to create a learning organisation there is generally only going to be one outcome. 


Desire is not the same as feeling pressure to do something. Like looking over the garden fence at the greener grass and suddenly feeling the need to pay attention to your lawn. 


Desire creates focus, inspires action, and encourages us to pick ourselves up each time we fall. 


The absence of desire, of true intrinsic motivation, means that instead of the ship leaving the harbour, hoisting the mainsail and sailing purposefully toward the horizon; it leaves the harbour, listlessly floats on the current, strikes a reef and sinks.


What role does desire play in the context of creating a learning organisation?

  • Consider what is motivating this initiative. Is the motivation intrinsic or extrinsic?
  • Is the desire for this change likely to be short-lived or are you in it for the long haul?
  • What does good look like at various points on the journey? Remembering that just as a ship will always sail toward the horizon and never reach it, so your ship will always be sailing toward the horizon of becoming a learning organisation. With change like this, the destination, as with the accomplishment of mastery, is always out of reach. In this case, the journey is an end in itself


Deliberate practice is a term mostly attributed to K Anders Ericsson. I came across it when reading Grit.


The fundamental principle of deliberate practice is that the engagement in practice is both conscious & intentional and pushes you beyond your comfort zone. The outcome it is intended to achieve is targeted improvement.


Applied in the context of creating a learning organisation this means:

  • Baselining where the org is at and continually measuring progress
  • Activities undertaken to create a learning organisation are not picked out of a hat. They are consciously thought through and crafted based on the impact they may have. And implemented with the intent to deliver an outcome. Too often these things become a box checking exercise with little thought or purposeful action given to delivering the desired outcome
  • Challenging everyone from the leadership down – shifting them out of their comfort zone. Generating momentum and enthusiasm to counter organisational inertia


My brothers and I are all cyclists. But don’t hold that against us. 


A few years ago my brother, Guy, spent a year in Australia with me. We cycled a lot. But he always out-paced me on the sprints and rode away from me at a high cadence on the climbs. I asked him what he did that I didn’t do; if he had any advice for my improvement. His response has stayed with me ever since.

Always be disciplined because motivation comes and goes and isn't reliable.

Discipline is reliable.

As with any change, there will be ebbs and flows of desire and plenty of impediments to overcome. A lack of discipline will only make failure more likely, as the focus on the work inevitably side-lines change efforts. 

What discipline means when creating a learning organisation:

  • Not only creating the space for change. But when shit gets real, that space isn’t seen as a luxury but a necessity
  • Facing the hard truths and pushing through them – it won’t be easy. Initially you’ll probably fail more times than you succeed. But if change is something you truly want and believe in, discipline will get you through the tough times
  • Holding yourself and others accountable for enabling the change
  • Ultimately, the presence of discipline means things get done and momentum is maintained regardless of the external factors that would otherwise force the ship off course.


Desire is the motivation to succeed. It keeps at least one eye on the horizon.


Being deliberate is the conscious and intentional actions you take to get you closer to success. 


Discipline is your own firm hand at the helm of the ship. Keeping you on course and maintaining your momentum in spite of the storms you encounter.


Next time you think about change, either your own, within your team or your entire org; give some thought to the principles of desire, deliberate and discipline and see if they are being applied to your ship. And if they aren’t it might be worth doing so.

Tom Hacon

Tom Hacon

Tom likes product. He also likes getting things done. The combination seems to work. He enjoys reading. A lot. He also enjoys writing.

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