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The Delusion of Learning From Experience

18 September, 2015 - 17:47

Most learning for individuals, organizational units, and overall organizations comes from reflection on the experienced effects that are the result of certain actions. For example, a common lesson learned within organizations is “When I deliver requested results on time and within budget, my project continues being funded.” Or at the subunit level, “When our sales unit aggressively pursues new customers, sales grow for the company.” And at the organizational level, “When our organization hits its earnings per share goal, our stock price rises.”

However, what happens when there is not a direct effect of our actions on organizational outcomes? Many individuals recognize that they can do their best, but the project gets canceled for other reasons. And some sales units pursue customers aggressively and sales still fall. And some organizations hit their earnings guidance, but the stock price still continues to fall. When learning from direct experience doesn’t work, Senge suggests that we need to think more systemically about cause and effect. He states, “Herein lies the core learning dilemma that confronts organizations: We learn best from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions.” 1