The Opportunity of Opportunities (…or why we call ourselves Fourth Quadrant Partners)

Entrepreneurs are in the opportunity business. They like nothing more than to find a problem no one else has been able to solve and to create a business by being the first one to solve it. They are usually not satisfied to solve a run-of-the-mill problem. They are looking for real opportunities to create a breakthrough…the next “killer app.” Where other people might see the status quo as an immovable object, they see it as a platform. From that perch, instead of seeing a hundred reasons why something won’t work, all they see are opportunities to make something different happen.

People aiming to create social change can benefit from more of this kind of entrepreneurial vision. Emergent Learning is, by definition, very opportunistic, in the sense that it asks you to very deliberately use your calendar and your to-do list to create opportunities to try something new. In that sense, Emergent Learning is entrepreneurial. It helps “social entrepreneurs” think outside of their current assumptions about what’s possible.

In Emergent Learning, one of the first questions we ask is this: What one challenge or problem, if you were able to tackle it to the ground, would make the biggest contribution to achieving your goals this year? And the next question we ask is this: What are the opportunities in your calendar where you could try out new solutions?

One of our big critiques of so many designed “learning” activities is that they have no connection to opportunities. They are out-of-step with what’s on people’s plates. In the world of Emergent Learning, no opportunities = no learning.

The research of Saras Sarasvathy about what makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial points to four basic principles of entrepreneurship, which were described in Just Start (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). In our own words, they are:

  1. Start with the means at hand. Don’t wait until the conditions are right (because they will never be right.)
  2. Calculate the acceptable loss. What will it take to play the game and how can risk be syndicated?
  3. Bring others along. Get good at sharing the goal in a way that moves people to support it.
  4. Build on what you find. Embrace everything that happens as another doorway to success. And look for abundant and rapid feedback to inform your next step as the work unfolds.

In Emergent Learning, the real opportunity of opportunities is that they start with the means at hand – stuff in your calendar that is going to happen anyhow, and create “affordable loss” opportunities to test ideas incrementally in rapid cycle practice fields that involve important partners and stakeholders.

Unlike entrepreneurs, large organizations have a pernicious tendency to teach people to think that a problem can’t be solved until the conditions are right; to look outside of themselves for solutions to complex problems– to shift the burden to a hero (“expert”) to come in and propose what are often big, often unnecessarily bureaucratic solutions.

What we have found is that if a group of people can begin to see that it might actually be possible to solve a big, “unsolvable” problem and they band together around a compelling goal, then, like the entrepreneur, they may suddenly find themselves standing on a platform and all they see from that point forward is opportunities to make that happen.

So why are we called Fourth Quadrant Partners? If you look at an Emergent Learning Table, you will see that the name of the fourth quadrant is “Opportunities.” That’s where good ideas get tested out… “where learning turns into results.”

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How do huge institutions learn how to learn from failure?

Great question! I have been working with the World Bank since last October on this question. I gave a presentation on “Lessons (Not Yet) Learned” to a not-so-eager World Bank audience on the topic back then. You can watch the talk at:

That month, the new president of the Bank, Jim Yong Kim, made a call for the international development community to get better at learning from failure:

“Historically, development institutions have been reluctant to acknowledge failures, much less analyze them publicly. How can we avoid repeating past mistakes, if we don’t talk about those mistakes openly? I want the World Bank Group to set an example for the development community.”  — Jim Yong Kim, 10/9/12, World Knowledge Forum, Seoul, Korea

Following that, I moderated an internationally webcast session for President Kim on the topic in December. I have worked on several events since then, including an EL Table “deep dive” conversation to dig into one of several common cause of project failures and identify solutions on-the-ground and for the institution.

This month, an internal World Bank Community of Practice on “Knowledge Hubs” is hosting a month-long conversation on the subject. They asked me to contribute a blog about what it takes for huge institutions to learn from failure. I share that posting here with their approval and encouragement:

This may seem like a controversial example, but I thought it would be a useful conversation-starter to share a story from my first-hand research on an organization that has been through the kind of transformation that some large international development institutions hope to make.

I once befriended a Lt Colonel in the US Army. He was a smart guy. He had grown up in the Army and seen it transform from a “yes sir, how high sir” institution to one that, by and large, valued the humility it takes to learn from failure. One impetus for this shift was the Vietnam War and the Army’s eagerness not to have to learn that lesson ever again.

What I learned from my friend was quite remarkable. He was a cavalry officer. One of his favorite sayings was this: “If you give me a soldier who comes to me with a stellar record, but keeps riding the same horse he came in on, I’m going to see that his career goes nowhere. But if you give me a young soldier who is completely green but is willing to learn from his mistakes and I see the learning curve going upwards, I’m going to make sure he gets promoted.”

That sentiment was not unique to my friend. While there are still lots of places in that huge institution where “no news is good news,” the cultural norm has changed to one where talking about failure is not a career-ender. But it’s not just a soldier’s willingness to talk about failure that earns him or her credit – it’s his or her ability to learn from that failure that earns points. The Army’s After Action Review process, which got started back in the 1980’s, trained soldiers to be able to say, with humility, “Here is what I did today that I think was successful and here’s why. Here is what I did today that I think was a failure and here is what I learned from it and what I’m going to do differently tomorrow.”

We conducted research on the evolution of the After Action Review (see “Learning in the Thick of it,” Harvard Business Review, July/Aug 2005), the primary tool the US Army uses to learn from experience (both failures and successes). We sat down with three 20-year-old soldiers and asked them, “What if the Army told you to stop doing After Action Reviews?” Their response was immediate: “That would be the stupidest decision the Army ever made.”

How did this huge institution transform? It did not take place over night. And as we all know, like with any large institution, it is not a uniform success. Importantly, it has also taken the retirement of generations of leaders to transform as an institution.

The transformation took hold because units of soldiers on the ground started to perform to a standard that was head and shoulders above their peers, not because senior leaders suddenly changed their own behavior.

In a sense, what made the transformation possible was the message that came from leaders that “we need to change and you need to help us do it.” Even if those in command at the time didn’t really understand what they were asking for, they knew well enough to ask for it.

On the other end of the command chain, those soldiers in the field knew they needed to change, for the sake of the soldiers to their left and right. Lives were at stake, and they could not afford to take the stance that “I’ll do it when I see my boss doing it.”

So that’s my very simple answer to a very big question: Huge institutions don’t as a rule transform because they get driven from the top down or because senior leaders suddenly, magically, change their behavior. They transform because brave people inside of the institution see that they could do better and that they must do better, and are willing to take a risk to experiment with something different. And the people they report to are willing to let them try something new, even if they don’t quite understand what new looks like.

We would be very interested in hearing from others who have seen similar kinds of transformations in other large institutions.

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Reaching for an Inflection Point

Human beings are incredibly smart and resourceful.

Every single day, we use language to construct sentences we’ve never uttered before.

Many of us drive heavy machinery at 60 miles per hour for years in rivers of other human beings in heavy machinery, without accident.

We are capable of mastering golf and chess and dancing.

We navigate from place to place; we master cooking; we build careers.

We learn how to raise our children a day at a time.

We do it by experimenting over and over until we have a deep understanding of the lay of the land (the road, the golf course) and the tools of the trade (the kitchen, the chess pieces) and how to use them in every conceivable situation. We learn some of these things from the pros, but we also learn new solutions by these experiments – things we never before imagined or were taught.

The field of Emergent Learning sprouted from an observation made by Marilyn Darling many years ago: While we each have a remarkable capacity to learn as individuals, when we try to learn together, the quality is often radically different. Especially when people are working with different agendas, different personal histories and different information, she observed that the result is sometimes not much better than what her cat learns: “I got burned on the stove, so I’m never going back into the kitchen.”

But we do sometimes break through. Maybe it’s a courageous leader who is willing to name what the Emperor is wearing. Maybe the pain of “learning the same lesson over and over” reaches a threshold, or something else just makes the stars align, but people sometimes experience an inflection point where the horizon opens up and they feel free to voice new questions and contrary ideas. A few fortunate groups find ways to sustain that new level of learning. The feeling that comes with that sea change is exhilarating.

The field of Emergent Learning has evolved out of a very simple but infinitely challenging question: What does it take to create those inflection points – where the quality of what we are capable of learning together around the things that really matter to us matches the quality of mastery we are able to reach as individuals? What does it take to sustain learning at that level? Emergent Learning is about what it takes to learn from our work, in the course of doing it; about what it takes to create a heartbeat of insight that increases our capacity to produce the results we aspire to in often very complex and changeable environments.

In Inflection Point, we want to explore what creates these qualitative shifts in what’s possible. We will share what we have learned in our work and research and new questions that are emerging. We invite those of you who have experienced an inflection point to share your stories.

Please join us.

Heidi, Jillaine, Marilyn

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