The Power of a Milking Stool


I mentioned in a blog a few days ago that I participated in a workshop on Learning and Leadership for Sustainability, sponsored by Society of Organizational Learning and led by Peter Senge. I was part of the resource team and offered a short discussion of the concept of sustainability developed in my book. Other than that I was just like all the rest of the attendees. Now some 10 days later I have had time to reflect and gather my thoughts. I took home many lessons, but one in particular stands out as reinforcing something I already had come to believe. The key to creating sustainability is learning.

If we are to get ourselves out of the deep hole we have created, we must change the way we behave at a deep cultural level. This kind of change is the essence of learning. It is not about more knowledge; it is about changing behavior so that the actions we take produce the results we want without dangerous unintended consequences. Pretty straightforward but not easy to do. Senge’s model of building learning competence rests on three legs, just like the image of the antique milking stool, above. It takes aspiration, reflective conversations, and an understanding of complexity. I have posted quite a few entries about complexity, but little on the other two factors. Without aspiration—a vision of what a flourishing world would look like—most actors would be content to treat only the symptoms of today’s problems. Exactly the process that has permitted the deeper causes of these symptoms to remain unaddressed for perhaps a few centuries.

The third factor, reflective conversations, are essential to revealing the presuppositions, mental models, filters, or whatever one calls the cognitive structure that turns our sensory perceptions into the story we tell to explain what we are doing and why. Reflection is somewhat of a lost competence in today’s very busy, noisy, hectic world. New technology protects us from that world and does its best not to cause any breakdowns in the flow of daily life. We have to go back to “leadership and learning school” to learn to value breakdowns and to use the silence to probe our selves. I am quite conscious of the need for reflection. Much of my book is aimed at designing tools and processes that initiate reflective opportunities. A few days, however, with a master like Senge makes me realize the power of reflection and restores my ability to step out of the hurly-burly commotion of my ordinary life.