What's Your Engine for Success?

December 2001 was a time of great turmoil in the world and in my life. The world was still reeling from the events of 9/11 and its consequences. I had just learned that the nonprofit training and consulting business I ran was about to lose the majority of its funding literally overnight. I was faced with the question of whether to stay and rebuild the organization or go out on my own.

The time seemed right to attend my first Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) course.  As someone who’d been in the learning business for years, the idea of working to create “learning organizations” seemed appealing. And I resonated with the premise that learning organizations emerged through the conscious practice of a set of interrelated disciplines that had both individual and collective aspects. 

The course impacted my life on many levels. One vivid and enduring lesson relates to the powerful impact of wider systemic forces on one’s own success or failure.

During the program, we were asked to share the story of a successful change process we’d been part of, and then reflect on what growth forces were at work. Then we were asked to share the story of a change process that didn’t produce the results we wanted, and then reflect on what limiting forces may have been at play.

A light bulb went off in my head: I was no more singlehandedly responsible for the successes I’d experienced than I was for the changes that didn’t take! But I was responsible, as a leader, for being aware of the growth forces and capitalizing on those as well as identifying limiting forces that might come into play.

For years after the program, I struggled with a simple way to convey that realization to others. I taught systems thinking in leadership programs with a passion that overlooked the glazed look in the eyes of many participants. I taught complex concepts that could enable people to understand and influence the systems they were a part of, with limited impact.

My aim was to find a way of introducing these ideas, often called systems thinking, that was simple, practical and immediately applicable.

Recently, my colleague, Richard Karash, shared such a tool.  It’s called the Engine for Success. The main premise is that everyone who produces positive results over time has an Engine for Success but we rarely know what it is.  A premise of systems thinking is that sustainable growth is self-energizing. In other words, momentum builds from the interaction of the various components of the system rather than some external energizer. It’s the difference between pushing a boulder up a hill and pushing it over the edge of a hill and watching momentum build as it rolls downward.

If we know what those components are, we can deliberately strengthen them, as well as minimize the effects of the limiting forces (which will come, inevitably, since nothing grows forever.)

My successful change story had those self-energizing elements and built momentum on its own. My unsuccessful change story required external energy to keep things moving along. Once that external energy was withdrawn, the change just fizzled.


Here’s a basic Engine for Success:

At the heart of any self energizing system, something changes or accumulates, which causes something else to change, which drives even further change in the first thing.

Richard and I recently facilitated a webinar on this. Participants came up with some great examples.  You can view the webinar by clicking on this link.

Here are a couple of their examples:

What’s your Engine for Success? What’s different about this kind of thinking and how might it help you be even more successful?


If you like these ideas, please consider attending our upcoming course, Applied Organizational Learning for Business Results. It’s offered by SoL North America. Richard and I delivered the course with Peter Senge on its first offering and we’ll be offering it again this December in Ashland, Massachusetts.

Here’s a brief description of the course:

“Applied Organizational Learning for Business Results is designed to help participants acquire the tools and methods necessary to build learning organizations and address their most pressing business challenges. The program is designed with you, the participant, in mind. Your own projects and goals are used to shape the practice segments of the workshop, applying the tools and methods of organizational learning to your unique organizational and personal context.  

This course conveys the essence of SoL NA’s mission by teaching new perspectives for individual and collective learning. It is not a typical management training course. While it introduces participants to new tools and methods, that is not the program's primary focus. It is based instead on a simple premise: that there is no better way to master the art of the learning organization than to create one in practice. The program endeavors to do so - insofar as that is possible - in three days; and invites participants to think about their own aspirations both in and out of the workplace. 

After attending the course and experiencing a sense of community with others, participants will have a deeper understanding of the core competencies required to build thriving learning organizations. Participants will have an enhanced ability to think systemically and to clarify personal and professional goals while applying them towards a shared vision that can set an organization on a path of learning and transformation.”

 If you’re interested in more information, check out the program information or contact me.