CornerStone Consulting AssociatesOrganizational Learning Articles

The Fourth Piece Of The Puzzle
by John Dicus

There's an old story about a farmer who refused to buy a new book on farming techniques from a travelling salesman. When asked why he wasn't interested, the farmer replied ”I'm not farming now half as good as I know how to.” The farmer was using less than half of the information already available to him. He certainly didn't feel the need for more. In a very real sense, he had more answers than he did questions.

Within any body of knowledge, whether it be a book or the contents of our conscious mind, there are always ideas we can relate to and many we cannot. When we relate to ideas, we connect them to our own experiences such that they become real and meaningful to us -- we know how to act upon them. Ideas we can't relate to leave us cold and unsure how to act. Making use of new ideas requires experimentation.

But experimentation could easily result in failure to achieve desired goals, or worse yet could produce unintended consequences having negative effects on ourselves and our business. This poses a dilemma and potential risk to individuals feeling pressure to make improvements. This poses added risk to those viewed as leaders because organizational cultures expect leaders to have answers and know what to do next. The business could hit a setback as people attempt to learn whether there is any value in the ideas they cannot yet relate to. To maintain a prudent level of safety, the line drawn between what we are ready to try and what we aren't is almost always drawn well over in conservative territory.

I'd like to introduce a learning concept called the ”fourth piece of the puzzle.” Suppose we have three pieces of a four-piece picture puzzle. The pieces in hand could go together a few different ways, yet the only way to see the full picture is to put the puzzle together. But we are missing the last piece -- the fourth piece.

The first piece of the puzzle represents the ideas we can relate to and are willing to use. Understanding and using these ideas -- the first piece -- makes it possible to fit the second piece. The second piece of the puzzle represents our actions resulting from the ideas represented, or contained, in the first piece. When joined together, the first and second puzzle pieces present a clearer picture of reality by mutually explaining, or giving deeper meaning to, each another. They form the beginning of a system of beliefs and practices.

Ideas that we can't relate to are represented by the third puzzle piece. The value and application of these untried ideas are in question -- it is not clear how they fit. This third puzzle piece looks like it could go a number of different ways, but you begin to wonder whether or not it belongs to the puzzle at all.

The fourth piece of the puzzle represents future actions resulting from the new ideas contained in the third piece. If we could only gain some experience with the ideas represented by the third puzzle piece, then we could begin to see what the fourth piece looks like and figure out how the third and the fourth pieces might fit together with the first two.

New experiences are required to form a system of beliefs and practices with respect to the third and fourth puzzle pieces. New experiences are required to incorporate them into the larger system that is represented by the entire puzzle. Only then can we see the complete picture.

The wise business practitioner does not willingly place a business enterprise in jeopardy for the sake of ”fourth piece” learning. The new book that the farmer refused to buy might have had good information in it. Or it might have added to the confusion by introducing even more ideas that the farmer couldn't understand nor was willing to risk trying.

Until new experiences bring relevancy, knowledge, wisdom, and insight, a large portion of what we already know sits waiting, like a book that we can't comprehend. Then, like our farmer, why would we feel the need for even more theory that we can't relate to? Until new experiences bring meaning to our unused ideas, they will not be tested nor placed into practice.

We ask an important question -- What can happen during Whole-System Experiential Learning that can only happen during Whole-System Experiential Learning?

It provides a safe place to test the accumulation of untried ideas. A place where we can experience how the ideas might be applied, combined, refined, and implemented. A place where it is safe to experiment without jeopardizing business operations and credibility.

Safety does not imply an environment without risk, rather one in which unnecessary risk does not place current business performance and stability at stake. Risks must be taken as we seek answers to the pressing questions, and this is possible in an environment designed to promote learning and growth.

Whole-System Experiential Learning gives meaning to unused ideas, making it possible to reject some outright and to implement others. We will begin to seek additional new ideas because we will have more questions than answers. Compelling questions bring a thirst for new ideas. They open doors of greater opportunity for testing and reflection.

The picture formed as all four pieces of our puzzle fit together provides us with a clearer understanding of where we are, where we want to go, and how to get there. This stage of learning and insight is far more hopeful a situation than the one the farmer found himself in -- having more answers than he did questions of his own. Our own questions -- not necessarily those of others -- drive us to seek new answers.

Whole-System Experiential Learning teaches us how to create a safe place to test new ideas within our own organizational environments. We'll learn how to build the competency required to experiment while at the same time successfully operating the business. We'll learn how to build acceptance of continuous learning behaviors so they become inherent in the organization's culture. Accelerated learning environments can be established ”on-the-job” creating an eagerness to seek new ideas and to make application -- establishing and maintaining competitive edge.

© CCA 1998

| Meet Us | Poetry of Change | Articles | On-Line Conversation | | Home | Overview | Workshops | Action Learning | Open Space | Services | Points of Interest |

CornerStone Consulting Associates
Bringing Systems to Life
2761 Stiegler Road - Valley City OH 44280 - US

fax: 330-725-2729