Reinventing the wheel in a U-shape

Reinventing the wheel has a notoriously bad connotation, at least in my mother tongue. It stands for a useless waste of energy and money. For doing something that has already been done, finding out what has already been found out.

Best practices are the prescribed remedy against reinventing wheels since the 80-ies. Every development organization – governmental or non-governmental – has at some stage tried to identify its “best practices”. Not always very successfully. Joint efforts with the communication department were doomed even before they started.  But also among the operational staff and policy makers the debate would normally focus on which practices were “best” and not on what we can learn from them. I remember in 1998 trying to introduce the alternative concept of “interesting practices” in one organization I worked for. Simply to be able to move ahead a process that was stuck in a debate about what was “best”.  Without success however, they insisted they only wanted to learn from the best.  Best practices are still very popular. Recently in a blog on best practices for knowledge management,  Suarez expressed the hope they would soon transform into “good practices”, to become “common practices” and hopefully disappear altogether.

But knowledge practitioners have become increasingly aware that the learning is not in the practice itself but in the process. Nancy Dixon wrote about an exiting process in her article of 2004 entitled: Does your organization have an asking problem? She emphasizes the process of promoting dialogue and asking questions instead of the storage of solutions or best practices.  While the learning process she designed and describes in the article is labor intensive (and therefore costly), Dixon insists that such elaborate process is much more efficient than building and maintaining a costly database with good practices.

Theory U (2009) of  Otto Scharmer could be an explanation of what happens when we identify and discuss “good practices”.  Theory U is a model that identifies different phases in a dialogue and learning process.   In three steps you go down in the “U”. During these steps you let go of the past. That allows you to connect (presencing) and continue to go up the other leg of the  “U” and co-create and co-evolve.

Getting down the first leg is difficult. When reading or listening to someone elses experience we start what Scharmer calls “downloading”.  Even if we are not defensive, we tend to look at something new by trying to connect it to our own experience, to patterns we know. Nothing wrong with that, but learning requires we move on and let go of our existing patterns, suspend judgement and look at what we see with new eyes. That allows you to see the things that do not fit your existing patterns and connect emotionally with the experience.

Sharmer insists learning is a process involving emotions.  As he puts it:  “at the bottom of the U our current self and our best future Self—meet and begin to listen and resonate with each other”.   Let’s look at that again: “my current self and my best future self listening to each other” – to my current rationalist self  that sounds pretty odd.   But it does resonate with my experience that the most productive learning experience involved emotions, painful sometimes.   Actually, that thought is a perfect example of “downloading”.   So,  as a next step on my way down in the U of Theory U,  I will have to suspend my judgement, try to see things with fresh eyes (or did he mean a fresh I?).

Anyway, meanwhile I guess I will continue to do some reinventing on this blog.


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