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How to Create a Positive Learning Culture

No one has all the answers--and that's actually a good thing. Here's how you should approach creating a better learning environment.
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Face it: You don’t know everything.  So at the individual level, you should make a lifelong commitment to exploring new horizons. At the company level, establishing good learning practices turns out to be a much greater challenge. Here are three suggestions for creating  a genuine learning culture at work.

1. Make learning a daily habit.

As with sports, unless you practice a lot you will not get better. True learning organizations rewards new patterns of thinking and reinforce the underlying skill sets.  Unfortunately, such learning organizations are not the norm. One problem is that many organizations make learning an optional activity, one from which the senior team is far too often exempt.  Another is that they may not know how to learn best.

Since “learning from example” is contagious, the behavior of the boss becomes critical.  Leaders should be the focal point as well as champions for learning.  They are best positioned to shine a bright spotlight on success as well as failure, and see to it that mistakes become sources of new learning.  To learn well, you must critically examine both the process and outcomes of the decision and ensure that others do so as well.

2. Don’t be defensive –  confront failings honestly.

A key imperative for learning from experience is the willingness to look squarely at one’s own performance in a transparent and non-defensive manner.  The US Army institutionalized the practice of After Action Review to immediately learn from what went well and what did not work in a mission.  Avoid finger pointing when things go bad and instead try to diagnose the situation for new insights.

After Action Review is a structured process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better the next time.  So, it should involve the main participants as well as those responsible for the overall mission. The frank discussions should take place without regard of rank or fear of retaliation.  Today’s asymmetric warfare entails high uncertainty and rapid change, with less room for traditional planning. What leaders know is less important than how well they can challenge, learn and adapt. In such environments, fast and furious learning trumps rigid protocol.

3. Allow mistakes and celebrate them at times.

Mistakes are valuable sources of learning, and leaders should intentionally allow mistakes in select situations to challenge deeply held assumptions.  If your organization gives performance awards at key meetings, make sure to celebrate a few cases where the results were disappointing but the process followed was sound.  A good decision process can still suffer from bad outcome (due to bad luck), just as  a really lousy decision process will occasionally produce a good outome (thanks to dumb luck).

Advertising genius David Ogilvy was especially keen on challenging key assumptions and thinking outside of the box.  At times, he would run ads he did not believe would work, just to test his theories about advertising.  He continually challenged conventional wisdom, including his own, recognizing the fast pace of change surrounding him.  This mindset of learning and critical inquiry allowed Ogilvy to build a global media empire. 

 Quick tips for creating an environment that rewards inquiry and learning:

1. Conduct pre-decision and after-action debriefs to extract insights.

2. Build the necessary discipline to look at failure as well as success.

3. Internalize mistakes and lessons learned, and then applying them broadly.

4. Stop initiatives that are not producing as expected; know when to pull the plug.

5. Conduct annual learning audits where cherished beliefs can be challenged.

This article was co-authored with Franck Schuurmans and is the last in a series of six examining the key components of strategic aptitude: anticipatingthinking critically, interpretingdeciding, aligning, and learning. For an overview of all six skills see 6 Habits of Strategic Thinkers.

Last updated: Jun 26, 2012

PAUL SCHOEMAKER | Research Director, Wharton School

Paul J. H. Schoemaker is the founder and chairman of Decision Strategies International. A speaker, professor, and entrepreneur, Schoemaker is research director at the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at Wharton, where he teaches strategic decision making. His latest book is Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future.




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