5 min read

I once had the dumbest dog in the world–or so it seemed at the time. It happened to be a Dalmatian and it happened to be a she, though far be it from me to besmirch the honor of either the breed or the gender because of this cerebrally challenged beast.

How dumb was my dog? It repeatedly tried to run itself through a screened window of our back patio, cutting its snout and destroying the screen. What made this dog particularly doltish was not that it made mistakes–we all make mistakes–but that it never learned. Which brings me to the point of this post: “How can organizations learn and thereby avoid the all-too-common pattern of organizational imbecility?” Like that Dalmatian, too many organizations repeat the same patterns in spite of the undesired consequences these patterns produce.

The alternative to organizational stupidity is the smart organization. This may seem obvious but the evidence shows that smart organizations are rare. So, what exactly is organizational stupidity? And what does it take to build a smart organization? For one thing, it takes the alignment of the soft side of organizational life with the hard side.

The soft side of an organization has to do with the beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, values, and perspectives of the people who make up the organization. The hard side has to do with the policies, structures, rules, and regulations of the organization. An organization is smart when its soft side and hard side combine in such a way that its continued relevance is guaranteed.

This kind of organization is rare because most organizations dedicate the major part of their time learning how to be stupid. An organization is like an organism–it has its own defense mechanisms. Whenever a “foreign” entity tries to enter its body and change it, its natural instinct is to kill that foreign entity. Most organizations dedicate the major part of their energies perfecting their skills at destroying that which could change them.

New ideas are always a threat to the status quo and the status quo never relinquishes its life without a fight. Becoming a smart organization, therefore, cannot happen “naturally.” It takes willpower and determination.

Those who have that determination are not content with merely accumulating facts; they are interested in building new knowledge. This new learning is not dependent on the knowledge of any one leader, but belongs to the organization itself.

One benefit of a smart organization is that if–by some catastrophe–the top leadership would vanish, the organization could survive. This is because its learning has been sown into the fabric of the organization.

Becoming a smart organization is not about learning to do what you already do in a more effective and efficient way. It’s about adapting to a constantly changing world. It’s about learning something new. It’s about looking at what’s happening outside your organization to detect the trends that may have an impact on your survival.1 Smart organizations, therefore, don’t just learn more; they learn better.

Becoming a smart organization involves three processes that must be in place simultaneously and continuously:

  1. sharing the learning of individuals with the organization as a whole,
  2. gaining buy-in for the new knowledge from the top leadership team, and
  3. inserting the new knowledge into the regular routines, policies, and culture of the organization.

The second point is crucial because it may even be the CEO or President who turns out to be the main obstacle to organizational learning. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not blaming CEOs or Presidents. If you are the CEO, you may simply feel too tired or preoccupied to mess with newfangled ideas that have no bearing on this quarter’s bottom line. I completely understand that. Yet, without the commitment of the top leadership to the exploration of new ideas, the organization is destined to become insensitive to its environment and eventually to a state of perpetual duncery.

Perhaps we need a “no idea left behind” policy. Well, maybe not to that extent but at least a policy that says all ideas must be heard, even if they challenge the very foundations of organizational sanity. Sometimes great ideas seem insane when they are first spoken. This is why the top leadership must be committed to listening to the voices of innovation.

Once those in authority accept the new knowledge, the organization can then embed it into the policies, structures, values, and culture of the organization. New routines are then established based on the new knowledge, the organization can then be said to have learned. This does not, however, mean that it has become a smart organization.

For the organization to be smart, it must make sure that the process itself of continuous learning also becomes embedded into its routines. That’s a bit of a conundrum isn’t it? Smart organizations make renovation and adaptation the routine. If that doesn’t happen then the new knowledge will soon become the old tradition that stifles new learning and turns the organization back into a dumb organization.


1See my presentation on Foundations for Strategic Foresight for some ideas on how to do this.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.


Photo: Dumb Graffiti Kid Ladinuel by Zen Sutherland, April 3, 2007. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.