We ran a session for a large financial services firm this week focused on “The Discipline of Learning.” Yes, adults who have gone through 16+ years of school, developed expertise in a job, and now maintain that expertise in a continuously and rapidly changing business environment, still need to be reminded to learn. Why? You would think, by this point, learning would be like breathing.
For most people learning is more like eating than breathing. When you get busy, you skip it. You can function on just the minimum and you can even exist for a pretty long time without it (though you might get a little “hangry”). At the other extreme, a memorable meal means considerable time or effort planning, preparing, going to a special place; stopping everything else.
People and organizations do much better when learning is more like breathing: an enormously complex process that enables us to do everything else, but that just happens automatically.
Since Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline was published 25 years ago, the concepts of the learning organization and its specific practices have become accepted wisdom in the business world. “Practice,” “experimentation”, and “reflection” are familiar terms, But people still don’t find the time to make those things happen. And often when they do, it’s in isolation, not essential to achieving specific results or solving problems. You may know that you should be continuously, deliberately learning, but without seeing a consistent direct connection to results, it doesn’t seem worth the effort.
Yet, improving learning doesn’t always require a lot of effort. A good first step comes from recognizing what’s already happening and just doing more of it, that is, from practicing a little positive deviance.
During this week’s session, we shared amongst the group a few examples of what their high performing colleagues were already doing; their own tactics for learning. Many of these were very simple, but that’s the point. For example:
One 35-year veteran of risk management had regular meetings with her global directs in which they discussed how they were addressing existing issues and the progress they were making. The final agenda item was for each direct to share anything new happening in their region – but they rarely got to the end of the agenda.
After one too many times when an issue in one region became an issue in all regions, she recognized that last agenda item as a critical learning opportunity. By hearing about issues in other regions early, people got the chance to question, prepare, experiment and practice before the issue hit them. So she moved that item to first on the agenda.
The change in order was hardly noticed, but it emphasized the need to learn and created the process to make learning happen. And her directs could then model that practice with their own teams.
By sharing examples like this one, no matter how simple, and connecting them to the more daunting “learning organization” terms like “horizontality”, “experimentation”, and “learning from failure”, people start to recognize that encouraging learning doesn’t have to mean stopping everything else. Continually recognizing and replicating these practices shifts learning from “eating” to “breathing.”
It’s likely there are people in your organization who are good at learning. Here are some questions to ask them in order to surface the examples. Then you can use those examples to show people that, just like breathing, your organization is learning without thinking about it. But thinking about learning, even a little bit, can make your organization more productive and more creative.
- How do you engage in “horizontal” conversations with peers in different parts of the organization?
- Can you describe an “experiment” you’ve run primarily as a learning opportunity?
- What do you do to get early indicators of success and failure?
- Can you describe an experience in which you’ve used a failure as a learning opportunity?
- How do you get your team to share what they are learning (within and outside the team)?