Learning from Differences
Differences are the only sources of learning we have. Now, that’s a bold statement! Think about it. Can you think of something you’ve learned that didn’t come from something different? Some people think that I’m rather brilliant; however, if you put me in a room full of clones of me, there is nothing I can learn from any of them. I already know everything they know. I could learn from you though, simply because you are different from me in thoughts, beliefs, life experience, etc. If you can come up with something other than differences that we might learn from, please share in the “Comments” areas below!
For the moment, let’s go with the notion that differences really are the only source of learning we have. When used for learning, differences become the precursor of synergy, wherein the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; creativity, where something new is brought into the world; and the new productivity that can come from both synergy and creativity. Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline wrote of “The Learning Organization” which became a popular goal that has only rarely been achieved. Why has such a worthy goal been so difficult to accomplish? Too often, however, differences are used too finitely to determine who wins and who loses. Without thinking too much, who wins if it’s more vs. less, top vs. bottom, or fast vs. slow? Who traditionally wins if we focus on white vs. black or male vs. female?
When stuck in a win/lose mode, differences are the source of wasteful power struggles or creativity-deadening conformity aimed at avoiding power struggles. Too often, organizations overvalue conformity—those with critical information or new or differing ideas are warned not to “rock-the-boat” making sound and current data a rare commodity. The Bay of Pigs and Challenger disasters are but two highly dramatic examples of this phenomenon. New, differing, and needed ideas are too often stifled by our need to be safe within finite organizational cultures.
The ability to learn from differences is a critical use-of-self and use-of-group skill for leaders and other change agents. It will support them in maintaining the systemic, non-judgmental perspective necessary to use the differences within their systems for the learning and synergy needed to collaboratively invent an effective change process. Given our socialized propensity toward operating from the finite perspective, this is more easily said than done. The infinite perspective helps as it allows change managers the support of strong and long-lasting partnerships and teams. Such support is doubly critical when the stress of change has moves us swiftly back to the traditional, conformity-oriented way of operating. With support a speedy return to learning from differences can then be provided as needed.
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