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From Calendar Soup to Counterfeit Learning

Calendar Soup refers to a couple of earlier posts on substituting a superficial imitation of personal learning for the real thing (August 29 and September 4).

A more serious metaphor for the organizational and social costs of “imitation learning” is counterfeiting: the production and use of currency that lacks real value. Counterfeiting is attractive to miscreants because it costs less to manufacture fake money than to earn the real thing. Of course, this depends on using the fake stuff unrecognized–in exchange for currency or goods with real value.

One of many reasons that counterfeiting is illegal–as is even the possession of counterfeit money– is that Gresham’s Law applies. This law is sometimes abbreviated to: “The bad drives out the good.” Because counterfeit money costs less to acquire but can be exchanged for the same return as the real thing, people will naturally hold onto (or “hoard”) their good money in favor of using the bad stuff. Over time, only the fake money is in circulation. Those with the real thing–under these conditions–can only lose if they use their stock of real cash in the marketplace, if they have access to the other kind and its use is not constrained in some way.

When leaders in an organizational setting pursue some kind of important learning that promises to move the business forward, they have a choice about how deeply to engage in the new thinking. Think lean/six sigma, change execution management, customer focus, design thinking, any performance improvement methodology, etc. It’s feasible to go to the four-hour executive briefing and, as a result, to think “you’ve got it.” As any Black Belt (for example) knows, that’s not really possible.

Over time such executives can begin to believe that they have adopted lean thinking, or customer relationship management, or the learning organization–when all they have done is encounter the topics and dip a toe or two into the water. There’s nothing wrong with the four-hour executive briefing nor with the need to start small when tackling deep learning. The problem arises when this is taken–either by the executives themselves or by their constituents–as full understanding.

When this happens, the organization pays the price in two ways: first, in underutilization of the new thinking. The senior level can endorse the new way, but if the required shift in thinking is transformational enough endorsement is insufficient. If the new thinking is different enough, then everyone–including the executives–must take it on. The learning can’t simply be delegated to others. Just hiring a lean engineer or a six sigma Black Belt doesn’t change the organization, as many have found.

The second price to be paid–an even larger one in the long run–is that the bad drives out the good. If the executives feel–on the basis of their executive briefing–that they have been there and done that with a new way of thinking or deep learning, then the door to getting deeper into it begins to close for the organization. “We tried six sigma [for example] and it didn’t work” will be the claim, and opportunities to embed the thinking behind six sigma into the DNA of executives and others are now exhausted, at least for awhile.

In terms of organizational learning, Gresham’s Law might be rephrased in a number of ways:

The superficial drives out the deep.

The briefing drives out the real learning.

The imitation drives out the real thing.

Perhaps you can suggest others. Interestingly, Gresham did not originate his eponymous law. It goes back at least to Aristophanes, who in The Frogs made mention of the bad driving out the good in stark terms related directly to leadership:

So with men we know for upright, blameless lives and noble names.

These we spurn for men of brass…

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