Harnessing the Collective Genius of People to Create Results They Desire (1996)

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA
                         December, 1996

          (Source: Review of International Co-operation
                    Vol.89, No.4/1996, pp.53-58)

          Harnessing the Collective Genius  of People to Create
                    the Results They Truly Desire

                         by Zahid Qureshi*

Groucho Marx used to say: "Before I speak I have something to
say." I also have something to say, and it's about the ICA
Statement on the Co-operative Identity.

The Statement defines co-operatives, identifies the movements 
key values and lists a set of revised principles intended to
guide co-operative organizations in the 21st century.

You are all familiar with the statement, so I need not explain
a conclusion I have reached - which is that the Statement deals
with the elected side of co-operative organizations: the
matters of open membership, democratic control, economic
participation, etc. In short, how co-operatives are governed.
It does not deal explicitly with how co-operatives are or need
to or should be managed. Sure, it has values and principles to
guide managers. But it dwells entirely on the role and, if you
will, rights of members - perhaps assuming that an organization
jointly owned and democratically controlled would have its values
rub off on "the way it is managed internally".

To digress for a moment, this friend of mine in Canada has a
habit of saying: "But the real reality is..." I am often tempted
to correct him: "The reality is nothing if it isn't real."
But, more and more, I think he has a point. Reality is often as
one perceives it. It can be different from different
perspectives. And then there's the real reality.

The real reality is that in more and more co-operative
organizations, especially the large and successful ones, it is
the employees more than members that give the co-operative its
identity and produce its results.

I have been involved in the co-operative movement for some 30
years - as an employee more than as a member. So I have a natural
bias towards pegging co-operative organizations' success in the
21st century more on how they are managed than how they are

The real reality in many large co-operative organizations is that
a great majority of the hundreds or even thousands of employees
has no affinity to the movement except as a source of employment.

How the employees are managed has an enormous bearing on their
organization's identity.

Having said what I had to say, I can now speak. But let me first
acknowledge - before you correct me - that I do know about the
Resolution on Co-operative Democracy adopted by the Manchester
Conference, which recommends further study in five areas. Three
of these are: innovation of organizational structure, the
relationship between members and management, and expanding the
relationship with employee participation. My speech, if I ever
begin it, will contribute, I hope, to this further study.

Which brings me to the title of my speech:  Harnessing the
Collective Genius of People to Create the Results They Truly
Desire. It is a long title, but the shortest I could think of to
describe the central concept of The Art and Practice of The
Learning Organization, a best-selling book by Peter Senge of MIT.

The old days when a Henry Ford learned for the organization are
gone. In an increasingly dynamic, interdependent and
unpredictable world, it is simply no longer possible for anyone
to `figure it all out at the top.' As one chief executive says,
"The person who figures out how to harness the collective genius
of the people in his or her organization is going to blow the
competition away."

The rest of my speech will address four main questions:

1.   What is a learning organization?
2.   What kind of leadership does it require?
3.   How should leaders influence people?
4.   What new leadership skills are needed?

What is a Learning Organization?
Human beings are designed for learning, Mr Senge says. "Children
come fully equipped with an insatiable drive to explore and
experiment. Unfortunately, the primary institutions of our
society are oriented predominantly toward controlling rather than
learning, rewarding individuals for performing for others rather
than for cultivating their natural curiosity and impulse to

In 1991, Fortune Magazine stated: "The most successful
corporation of the 1990s will be something called a learning
organization."  Mr Senge describes the learning organization as
a place "where people continually expand their capacity to create
the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns
of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set
free, and where people learn how to learn together." Since
Fortune's prediction, a growing number of companies have
implemented learning organization initiatives with positive
impact on organizational performance, individual and group
productivity, and overall creativity, effectiveness and sense of

These corporations are focusing on generative learning, which is
about creating, as well as adaptive learning, which is about

Generative learning, unlike adaptive learning requires new ways
of looking at the world, whether in understanding customers or
in understanding how to better manage a business.  As one
car-maker's executive says, "You could never produce the Mazda
Miata solely from market research. It required a leap of
imagination to see what the consumer might want."

What Kind of Leadership?
Our traditional view of leaders - as special people who set the
direction, make the key decisions, and energize the troops - is
deeply rooted in an individualistic and non-systemic worldview.
Especially in the West, leaders are heroes - great men (and
occasionally women) who rise to the fore in times of crisis.

So long as such myths prevail, they reinforce a focus on
short-term events and charismatic heroes rather than on systemic
forces and collective learning. Leadership in a learning
organization starts with the principle of creative tension.
Creative tension comes from seeing clearly where we want to be,
our "vision," and telling the truth about where we are, our
"current reality."  The gap between the two generates a natural

Without vision there is no creative tension. Creative tension
cannot be generated from current reality alone. All the analysis
in the world will never generate a vision. Many who are otherwise
qualified to lead fail to do so because they try to substitute
analysis for vision. They believe that, if only people understood
current reality, they would surely feel the motivation to change.

They are then disappointed to discover that people resist the
personal and organizational changes that must be made to alter
reality. What they never grasp is that the natural energy for
changing reality comes from holding a picture of what might be
- a picture that is more important to people than what is.

But creative tension cannot be generated from vision alone; an
accurate picture of current reality is just as important as a
compelling picture of a desired future.

How should leaders influence people? Specifically, leaders can
influence people to view reality at three distinct levels:
events, patterns of behaviour and systemic structure.

The key question becomes where do leaders predominantly focus
their own and their organization's attention? Contemporary
society focuses predominantly on events. The media reinforces
this perspective, with almost exclusive attention to short-term,
dramatic events. This focus leads naturally to explaining what
happens in terms of those events: "The Dow Jones average went up
16 points because high fourth-quarter profits were announced

Pattern-of-behaviour explanations are rarer, in contemporary
culture, than event explanations, but they do occur. "Trend
analysis" is an example of seeing patterns of behaviour. A good
editorial that interprets a set of current values in the context
of a long-term historical changes is another example.

Systemic, structural explanations go even further by addressing
the question, "What causes the patterns of behaviour?"

By and large, leaders of our current institutions focus their
attention on events and patterns of behaviour, and, under the
influence, their organizations do likewise. That is why
contemporary organizations are predominantly reactive, or at best
responsive - rarely generative.

New Leadership Skills Needed?
New leadership roles require new leadership skills. Three
critical areas of skills (disciplines) are: building shared
vision, surfacing and challenging mental models, and engaging in
systems thinking.

Building shared vision
How do individual visions come together to create shared vision?
A useful metaphor is the hologram, the three-dimensional image
created by interacting light sources. If you cut a photograph in
half, each half shows only a part of the whole image. But if you
divide a hologram, each part, no matter how small, shows the
whole image intact. Likewise, when a group of people come to
share a vision for an organization, each person sees an
individual picture of the organization at its best. Each shares
responsibility for the whole, not just for one piece. But the
component pieces of the hologram are not identical. Each
represents the whole image from a different point of view.

When more people come to share a vision, the vision becomes more
real in the sense of a mental reality that people can truly
imagine achieving. They now have partners, co-creators;
the vision no longer rests on their shoulders alone. Early on,
when they are nurturing an individual vision, people may say it
is "my vision." But, as the shared vision develops, it becomes
both "my vision" and "our vision."

Surfacing and testing mental models
Many of the best ideas in organizations never get put into
practice. One reason is that new insights and initiatives often
conflict with established mental models. The leadership task of
challenging assumptions without invoking defensiveness requires
reflection and inquiry skills possessed by few leaders in
traditional controlling organizations.

Most managers are skilled at articulating their views and
presenting them persuasively. While important, advocacy skills
can become counterproductive as managers rise in responsibility
and confront increasingly complex issues that require
collaborative learning among different, equally knowledgeable
people. Leaders in learning organizations need to have both
inquiry and advocacy skills.

Systems thinking
We all know that leaders should help their people see the big
picture. But the actual skills whereby leaders are supposed to
achieve this are not well understood.

Experience shows that successful leaders often are "systems
thinkers" to a considerable extent. They focus less on day-to-day
events and more on underlying trends and forces of change. But
they do this almost completely intuitively. The consequence is
that they are often unable to explain their intuitions to others
and feel frustrated that others cannot see the world the way they

One of the most significant developments in management science
today is the gradual coalescence of managerial systems thinking
as a field of study and practice. This field suggests some key
skills for future leaders:

Seeing interrelationships, not things, and processes, not
Most of us have been conditioned throughout our lives to focus
on things and see the world in static images. This leads us to
linear explanations of systemic phenomena.

Moving beyond blame
We tend to blame each other or outside circumstances for our
problems. But it is poorly designed systems, not incompetent or
unmotivated individuals, that cause most organizational
problems. Systems thinking shows us that there is no outside -
that you and the cause of your problems are part of a single

Distinguishing detail complexity from dynamic complexity
Some types of complexity are more important strategically than
others. Detail complexity arises when there are many variables.
Dynamic complexity arises when cause and effect are distant in
time and space, and when the consequences over time of
interventions are subtle and not obvious to many participants in
the system. The leverage in most management situations lies in
understanding dynamic complexity, not detail complexity.

Focusing on areas of high leverage
Systems thinking shows that small, well-focused actions can
produce significant, enduring improvements, if they are in the
right place.

Avoiding symptomatic solutions
The pressures to intervene in management systems that are going
awry can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, given the linear
thinking that predominates in most organizations, interventions
usually focus on symptomatic fixes, not underlying causes. This
results in only temporary relief, and it tends to create still
more pressures later on for further, low-leverage intervention.=20
If leaders acquiesce to these pressures, they can be sucked into
an endless spiral of increasing intervention. Sometimes the most
difficult leadership acts are to refrain from intervening
through popular quick fixes and to keep the pressure on everyone
to identify more enduring solutions.

The Great Leader
Most top executives are not qualified for the task of developing
culture. Learning organizations represent a potentially
significant evolution of organizational culture. So it
should come as no surprise that such organizations will remain
a distant vision until the leadership capabilities they demand
are developed. Then they will realize an age-old vision
of leadership.

In the words of Lao Tsu:

`The wicked leader is he whom the people despise
 The good leader is he whom the people revere
 The great leader is he who enables people to say, "We did it ourselves."

The co-operative identity and values lend themselves readily to
this vision of leadership and to the concept of collective

In the global scheme of things in the 21st century, co-operative
organizations will become increasingly relevant and successful
- if they realize this age-old vision of leadership and, as
learning organizations, can harness the collective genius of
staff as well as members to create the results they truly desire.

And that is the test of the real reality.