Organisational Learning and Mindfulness – An Introduction

In earlier posts we have concluded that organisations are complex, adaptive and situated in an environment with which they interact. In addition, organisations consist of human beings. Each of us has a unique set of goals (intent) and a unique way of perceiving the world – and therefore a unique way of responding to situations. This is what makes it so difficult to precisely predict the outcome of any change we introduce in organisations.

We have considered the need to adopt a mindset that is appropriate to the environment. It wouldn’t do to apply a machine metaphor when considering a complex system and it wouldn’t do to apply an organicist metaphor when considering systems that involves human beings. The mindset appropriate for organisations is ‘contextual’ which means we must treat every situation within its organisational and human context. Since no two organisational contexts are identical, any habitual responses would be less than ideal.

This led us to consider being in the learning mode as the most appropriate way to deal with this unpredictability. We start with a fallible position and test and refine it as we go. Organisational learning helps us refine our conceptual framework and thereby improve our understanding of the organisational context. This improved understanding in turn allows us to operate more effectively. In other words, learning allows us to improve the explanatory power of our theory about how our organisation works. We have also looked at need to apply three types of learning (single-, double– and triple-) as appropriate for the situation.

But though we know what these forms of learning are, we haven’t looked at what we need to do to ‘operate in the learning mode’. Let’s consider double-loop learning. We know that we have biases that influence our behaviour and decisions. We know that these biases are often unconscious. If someone asked us how we behave, we would say we behave in a certain way – our espoused theory. But when some observes our behaviour, they may find us acting very differently, i.e. our theory in action may be quite different from our espoused theory. This incongruence can persist even after someone brings it to our attention. We may even resist acknowledging this evidence.

Triple-loop learning isn’t any easier. Relationships between individuals in a group can prevent some members from expressing themselves openly. Even when these people are able to express themselves, the rest of the group often ignores what they say. The group may actively resist receiving input from these people. If these people insist on expressing themselves, they might find themselves taken to task or even expelled from the group. The dominant members of the group might strongly defend their actions or sometimes refuse to acknowledge they suppressed open expression. We know that this behaviour is not optimal because it limits the diversity of thinking that is necessary for the survival of the group.

What then do we need to do to be able to engage in double-loop learning? How does a group open itself up to dissenting members, i.e. how does it go about engaging in triple-loop learning? Information about how to do this is very limited. Indeed it is quite possible that a single approach doesn’t exist. I think the practice of mindfulness is a good candidate.

Much of the conversation about mindfulness is focused on benefits from practicing it, such as reduced anxiety, better relationships, and improved organisational outcomes. This is an instrumental perspective, which is another way of saying that it really doesn’t matter how it works as long as it does. One of the problems of this view is that it is difficult to establish a link between what one does by way of practicing mindfulness and actually receiving the benefits of the practice. As an analogy, consider the case of a doctor telling their patient to take one blue pill a day for a week followed by two red pills twice a day for two weeks. Now consider another doctor who tells the patient they have a bacterial infection that needs an antibiotic followed by a probiotic supplement and then gives them the same instructions. The better informed patient in the second scenario is at the very least better positioned to make decisions about taking the medication.

Conversations about how mindfulness might work (the explanatory perspective) aren’t common, and sometimes appear to border on the mystical. An understanding of how mindfulness might work could help us apply the practice more effectively.

Before we can consider how mindfulness might help improve our ability to learn, it may be useful to first take a closer look at how we respond to situations and how mindfulness can change this. Next week we will take a closer look at Relational Frame Theory (RFT) a theoretical framework that might lead us to a better understanding of mindfulness.


If you are interested in learning more about organisational alignment, how misalignment can arise and what you can do about it join the community. Along the way, I’ll share some tools and frameworks that might help you improve alignment in your organisation.