Planning Commission member Arun Maira writes in his book Redesigning The Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions: “If institutions are the vehicles in which we are travelling, then we must ‘redesign the aircraft while we are flying it’. This is a difficult, even dangerous, exercise and so there is resistance to institutional reform."

Maira takes up issues like fixed mindsets that get in the way of reform and adopts new metaphors for organizations that should allow individuals the freedom to innovate, like a jazz combo. In the chapter titled “Redesigning The Aeroplane While Flying", he explains the different aspects of how we learn and apply knowledge to manage change. Edited excerpts:

Change-makers have to lead organizations and, at the same time, they have to themselves learn new concepts and skills of leading.

We can break this challenge along two dimensions. The first is who is learning? As mentioned already, the leader herself has to learn. But the leader has to also enable a group or an organization to learn. The need for new learning may even extend beyond a single organization to several organizations that have to interact. It could also extend to a larger community, as in the case of the leader who wishes to improve the way a city functions.

The other dimension is what the nature of learning should be. For our purposes we can distinguish four levels of learning. The first, the Know-What level, is the level at which new information and new procedural routines are learned. Most so-called ‘knowledge management’ systems that are designed to store and provide access to information to those who may need it lead to learning at this level. Many training programmes that teach new procedures, such as procedures for using a computer effectively, also focus on learning at this level.

Redesigning The Aeroplane While Flying— Reforming Institutions: By Arun Maira
Redesigning The Aeroplane While Flying— Reforming Institutions: By Arun Maira

The third and still higher level, the Know-Why level, is knowledge of the theory of the subject: which is an understanding of the reason why things happen. Nowadays, everyone acknowledges the role science has played in the development of new technologies. Science explains the ‘why’, from which flows technology that provides the ‘how’ to make things happen. Thus, an understanding of the ‘why’ enables the crafting of more effective processes. Clearly there is great leverage in understanding ‘why’, even though practical managers are often uncomfortable with discussing concepts and theories. They want to move from ‘theoretical’ speculation to ‘practical’ stuff. They seem to forget that there is nothing as practical as a good theory because of what it can enable a manager to do!

Our ingrained mental models or theories become hindrances when we want to achieve a result that we are unable to obtain with the approaches we are used to. And overcoming these hindrances is very difficult. First, since mental models by their very definition are tacit and not explicit—in other words they are in the back of our heads where we cannot see them and not in front of our eyes where we can examine them—they are extremely slippery to handle. And, second, since they have worked for us so far, it becomes very difficult to perceive them as obstacles. Why give up something which has proven its worth over and over again?

Only the strongest type of inner motivation can catalyse us into letting go of ingrained theory and finding new theories. It is only when we realise that our mental models are preventing us from obtaining something that we dearly care about can we abandon them. If the ‘want’ is not stronger than the discomfort of ‘letting go’, we will not make room in our minds for learning a new theory to replace the old. Therefore, the greatest leverage for new learning is in recognizing the deepest wants that are not fulfilled, and accepting that the theory and approach currently in use cannot fulfil this want.

Therefore, the fourth and the highest is the level of Know-Want. But what has wanting and caring for something got to do with learning, some may ask? Surely learning is about cognition and rationalization. However, as Howard Gardner has explained in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences, human beings operate with multiple intelligences, including logical, bodily and interpersonal intelligences. In fact, techniques of working with ‘emotional intelligence’ are now creeping into mainstream management since Daniel Goleman wrote his bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, in 1995.

This must happen. Because most of the processes we use in life are not technological processes derived from the physical sciences. They are also social and emotional processes. For example, the process for interacting with other people is something we use all the time. It is based on some mental model, or theory, at the back of our heads, of why some behaviours are more appropriate than others. Similarly, we use many management and leadership processes in our lives and these are all based on some underlying mental models. People who use different approaches to management generally have different mental models or theories of effectiveness. These models or theories, while often not articulated, are well ingrained. And when people are successful in what they do, they have no need to question their underlying mental models.

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