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Being aware of ‘organisational defences’

Every entity, whether a single-handed GP practice, a local authority directorate, or a large corporate or NHS Trust, has its own culture – its own way of doing things. This is of course necessary and completely healthy.


One of the ways in which entities establish this culture is through organisational learning, which includes the training, policies and established practices that are implemented consistently throughout the organisation. This approach ensures that everyone is pulling in the same direction, working to the same objectives and delivering a coherent service.


While this is exactly how things should be, we should be aware that, without conscious effort, such organisational learning can lead to problems such as ‘group think’ and ‘organisational defences’, which impact on the entity’s ability to respond to challenges and complexity.


Group think is where we, often subconsciously, establish a consensus amongst ourselves without critical or curious thinking, and fail to recognise there may be more viable alternatives. Often the driver towards group-thinking is a desire to maintain group dynamics, with each individual collectively adopting the dominant opinions of the group, often at the expense of our own views.


The concept of organisational defences on the other hand is slightly more complex. Through organisational learning, we develop our ways of doing things, or ‘how we do things here’. For the most part these work fine and get us through common business-as-usual activities. Because we’ve been taught these approaches and we’ve learned through structural and social experiences, such as training and socialisation into the organisation, we have confidence and faith that these are the correct and sufficient responses to delivering the services we’re responsible for.


This ‘single-loop learning’ approach, where we learn how to do things and then accept them as fact, can become unstuck when we individually or collectively find ourselves faced with unusual or complex challenges, which tend to be quite common in most organisations. Organisational learning alone lacks the flexibility or diversity of thought to respond to such uncertainty. When we become stuck relying on our usual responses, despite unusual situations, we can be said to be experiencing ‘organisational defences’. Often, organisational defensive situations tend to lack critical, curious and objective thought, which can lead to problems multiplying or change projects failing, for example.


One potential response to organisational defences is what’s known as a ‘learning organisation’, as opposed to organisational learning. The latter tends to be top-down applications of training and development activities and cultures, so that resources, including people, are utilised in the most effective way possible, towards an established goal. On the other hand, ‘learning organisations’ create the environment for social networks within and across the organisation. These social networks are necessary to encourage and facilitate the social interaction, challenge and diversity of thought needed for ‘emergent’ thinking and behaviour.


Learning organisations create the environment for what’s known as ‘double-loop learning’, which doesn’t take the established ways of doing things for granted, but instead continually questions and challenges them, through discourse and social interaction, to ensure they are the most appropriate responses for the situations and complexities faced.


Crucially, it’s not an either/or between organisational learning and a learning organisation. Both are essential for entities to be successful, but if organisations and teams are to move beyond the business-as-usual and begin to thrive, they need to develop cultures of learning that move beyond simply taking things for granted and support and encourage everyone across the organisation to critically and curiously stress-test established practices to ensure they are truly fit for purpose.

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