How to Accelerate Team Learning

A team’s ability to learn quickly is at the heart of adapting to constant changes. In fact, it seems that constant learning is the only key to agility as a team and organization.

Jack Welch famously said,

“An organizations ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the greatest competitive advantage.”

On this blog, we have visually explored various facets of creating a learning organization. It all starts from understanding why organizations don’t learn. Peter Senge’s seminal work on creating a learning organizations outlines learning disabilities that plague organizations. To overcome these disabilities, we explored disciplines of a learning organization and the role of reflection in how we learn.

Along the same lines, I read Elizabeth Doty’s post titled “How to Accelerate Learning on Your Team” at Strategy+Business blog with great interest. It adds on to the ideas we have explored further and provides fresh perspective on how to catalyze learning within teams.

I encourage you to read the full post and here are my visual notes from the same article.

P.S: I wrote a post in 2011 that outlined 10 actions for leaders to create learning organizations and further outlined Three Rituals For Constant Alignment And Learning that just aligns with some of the ideas suggested in this post. Do check them out.

Peter Senge: How to Overcome Learning Disabilities in Organizations

As an organization grows, managing the flow demands work items to move from one team/department to another. In quest to make these teams accountable, very specific KPI’s are established and that breeds non-systemic thinking. People look at meeting their own numbers and push the work to next stage and often, what happens is that while people win (in short term), the system fails. Every team meets the KPI numbers and yet, customers remain disgruntled.

Peter Senge, in his book “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of Learning Organization” outlines 7 organizational learning disabilities. He says,

“It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and, most importantly, the way we have all been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities. These disabilities operate despite the best effort of bright, committed people. Often the harder they try to solve problems, the worse the results. What learning does occur takes place despite these learning disabilities – for they pervade all organizations to some degree.”

It then becomes very crucial that we identify clearly these learning disabilities. Here is a sketch note summary of these 7 learning disabilities.

Critical question then is: How to we overcome these learning disabilities and truly create an organization that learns better? Peter Senge answers that question through his 5 disciplines of learning organizations that I have written about in the past. Here is a sketchnote summary of five disciplines:

More on Creating Learning Organization at QAspire:

When Does Real Learning Happen?

Learning, the real learning, happens…

  • When you are intentional about learning
  • When you are driven by an intrinsic need to advance and not only by external triggers and rewards.
  • When you ask more questions to get to the WHY of things (and then to what and how)
  • When you carry an open frame of mind that is receptive
  • When you look for process and patterns even in discrete situations
  • And when you use your understanding to connect the dots and look at a larger picture
  • When you enjoy the process of learning without getting too anxious about the results and goals.
  • When you are self-aware (of your own beliefs, thoughts, values and perceptions)
  • When you experience, execute, iterate and test your hypothesis
  • When you reflect deeply on your experiences
  • And when you share your lessons (and process) with others generously so that they can learn (and also contribute)
  • When you surround yourself with passionate learners, mentors and coaches (and be a part of a learning community)
  • And engage others (community) meaningfully in collaborative problem solving
  • When you are able to collect, synthesize and process information from varied sources
  • When you solve interesting problems
  • And be able to create a map on the go (rather than relying on tried and tested methods)
  • When you overcome the fear of making mistakes
  • When you think critically
  • When you execute in short bursts, fail small and realign your approaches
  • When you Unlearn (let go of the old ways of thinking and doing)
  • When you apply lessons in line with unique needs of the context
  • When you synthesize your lessons and apply meta-lessons in across disciplines
  • When you are generous enough to share what you know, teach, coach and mentor others
  • When you are comfortable with inherently ambiguous nature of learning (and ability to hold two contrasting thoughts without being judgmental)
  • When you are comfortable also with the emergent nature of learning
  • When you don’t allow your learning to crystallize but keep it fluid and evolving.
  • When you truly start believing that self-directed and self-initiated learning is the best way to learn (for a lifetime).

Disciplines of a Learning Organization: Peter Senge

If there is one book that has influenced my business thinking the most, it is Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of Learning Organization” and I have referred to it many times over past years on this blog. Written in 1990, the insights contained in this book are even more relevant today when the rate of change has only accelerated – probably a reason why HBR identified this book as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years.

A couple weeks ago, I posted a sketch note on Why Organizations Don’t Learn? based on an HBR article by the same title and someone ended up asking me,

“How do organization’s learn?”

This question immediately reminded me of five disciplines of learning organizations that Peter Senge outlines in this book.  They are:

  • Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.
  • Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.
  • Building shared vision – a practice of unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.
  • Team learning starts with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together.
  • Systems thinking – The Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four.

Source: Wikipedia

In the book, Peter Senge offers a wonderful analogy to introduce systems thinking:

A cloud masses, the sky darkens, leaves twist upward, and we know that it will rain. We also know that after the storm, the runoff will feed into groundwater miles away, and the sky will grow clear by tomorrow. All of these events are distant in time and space, if they’re all connected within the same pattern. Each has an influence on the rest, and influence that is usually hidden from view. You can only understand the system of rainstorm by contemplating the whole not any part of the pattern.

Businesses and other human endeavors are also systems. They, too, are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other. Since we are part of that lacework ourselves, it’s doubly hard to see the whole pattern of change. Instead we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get resolved.

While the book is a must-read if you want to gather better understanding and context behind these disciplines, here is a short summary of five disciplines of a learning organization in form of a sketch note. 

Hopefully, this will help others in acknowledging the foundation of what it takes to create a learning organization.

Related Posts at QAspire Blog:

Why Organizations Don’t Learn? #Sketchnote

Organizations that don’t learn constantly, adapt continuously and execute relentlessly are more likely to be disrupted by constant change and competition.

Peter Senge, in his book defined a learning organization as:

“where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

We have to go beyond formal learning methods if we have to truly build learning organizations in a rapidly changing world. A learning organization is not possible without learning individuals and individuals learn the most with each other in a network and  and through their work in an culture that promotes informal learning.

I emphasized culture because it can be one of the biggest bottlenecks in how organizations learn and apply what they learn to create meaningful results. It doesn’t matter how much you invest in formal learning, tools and methods, if you do not have a culture where people are encouraged to share without any fear, learning may not come to the fore.

Why do companies struggle to become and remain learning organizations? In November 2015 issue of HBR, I came across an article by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats titled “Why Organizations Don’t Learn” where they outline the cultural and individual biases that don’t allow organizations to learn. They also provide useful tips to overcome those biases.

Here is a sketch note I created to distill key biases that prevent organizations from learning. To know what you can do to overcome these biases, I recommend you read the full article at HBR. 

Related Posts at QAspire Blog:

Leadership, Learning and Personal Knowledge Mastery

One of the crucial leadership skills for today and future is ability to learn constantly from various high quality sources, synthesizing information and collaborating with a community to get a better grasp of the constantly changing reality.

Leaders also need this vital knowledge to scan the horizon and trends to make better decisions.

In this context, I read the HBR article titled “The Best Leaders are Constant Learners” by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche. I have been following Harold Jarche’s work through Twitter and his blog and this post provided a very clear view of the Personal Knowledge Mastery model. In the post, they say,

leaders must scan the world for signals of change, and be able to react instantaneously. We live in a world that increasingly requires what psychologist Howard Gardner calls searchlight intelligence. That is, the ability to connect the dots between people and ideas, where others see no possible connection. An informed perspective is more important than ever in order to anticipate what comes next and succeed in emerging futures.

Here is the sketch note I created based on this post.

Bonus: 

Learning in a Connected Age: Leveraging Social Media

Learning in a Connected Age

Before language evolved, we used symbols and expressions. They evolved to form words and hence sentences. Language allowed us to create stories and human beings learned through stories shared in a social context. Learning was social in nature.

Then, literature evolved and allowed many people to learn from the same sources. In this world, the more knowledge you possessed, the more powerful you were. Learning was imparted by one to many and progression of our knowledge was linear – one level after the other.

Then a revolution happened and all literature went online – Wikipedia democratized information and knowledge is now available in form of eBooks, Blogs, Online Communities, Social Media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Online Video resources and now MOOCS (Massively Open Online Courses).

We moved from industrial age to knowledge economy and now into a creative one. In this economy, just having (and hoarding) knowledge is not powerful, what you do with that knowledge is!

Internet is a great equalizer – we all have access to a network that is open and connected. Open means we have access to all fundamental knowledge, resources, technology, online courses etc. Connected means we are able to form groups and communities, exchange knowledge, compile and synthesize ideas, source solutions of our problems through a community, provide solutions to a community, take the ideas forward and collaborate with global community.

In an open and connected world, learning is imparted by many to many. Progression of knowledge is non-linear, rapid and broad.

Social and informal learning can (and should) complement the classroom learning. That is because a classroom imparts knowledge that is explicit. Social and informal learning impacts knowledge that is implicit/tacit – something that no syllabus can cover or teach.

“When data is ubiquitously accessible, facts are increasingly less important than the ability to place these facts in a context and deliver them with an emotional impact” – Dan Pink, The Whole New Mind

Why do we take all the pain to learn on our own when we are paying so much to the university?

Because we live in a fast paced world which is constantly changing. Because we compete globally. Because learning is never static. Because in this world, continuous and self-directed learning is the only sustainable competitive advantage we all have.

You have an opportunity to accelerate your learning process, take more chances, connect meaningfully, take your career to the next level and make a greater difference. Learning starts with an intention and the focus is on YOU.

We have come a full cycle and learning is social again.

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Over to you! How has social media platforms contributed to your learning? What techniques or tools do you employ to leverage social media as a learning platform – for yourself or for your organization?

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Note: This post is based on a talk I recently delivered at Nirma University, Institute of Law on their annual event “Confluence 2013”. My talk was well received and students asked a lot of questions during the panel discussion on how they can leverage social media for learning.

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Creating a Learning Organization: 10 Actions For a Leader

Jack Welch said,

“An organizations ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the greatest competitive advantage.”

Continuous learning and its respective implementation to generate desired business outcomes is at the core of successful organizations.

Peter Senge defined a learning organization as the one “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Here are top 10 actions for a leader to create a culture of continuous learning for individuals, teams and hence an organization:

  • Drive people to learn by doing. People learn the most when they implement their knowledge to generate meaningful business results.
  • Realize that training is just a tool to impart knowledge. Learning is also about sharing lessons, telling stories, doing, making mistakes and improving constantly.
  • Align middle managers to create a learning culture, because they are the ones who drive learning, not just the HR team.
  • Incorporate learning into your processes. Establish rituals like periodic review meetings and retrospectives to track what went well / what could have gone well.
  • Expose your teams to diverse learning resources like books, social media, online videos, working with cross cultural teams/geographies and so on.
  • Use technology to accelerate learning and ensure accessibility of knowledge. Great thing is a lot of useful tools like blogs, wikis and forums are free.
  • Involve people in important change initiatives to ensure that they learn about managing change (one of the most important learning) and working with diverse set of people.
  • Promote the abilities of people to generate alternative ideas and open up to different view points. (Related reading: On Leadership, Opening Up and Being Prepared)
  • Move beyond metrics to realize that learning is a long term thing which cannot be measured in numbers. Learning is tacit and visible only through results delivered by team.
  • Allow people to make mistakes (and learn from them). People never experiment if they have to pay a price for trying new things out.

Critical Question: What methods have worked for you in ensuring that your team/organization learns constantly, and applies that learning for positive impact on organization/customers?

Join in the conversation.

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5 Key Lessons From Learning Organizations

Problems, challenges and inefficiencies (in one way or the other) are a part of any organization. How organizations deal with them makes all the difference.

In my career so far, I have (broadly) seen two kinds of organizations.

First are the ones who know the problem areas, but are not willing to invest in having the necessary structure to prevent them in future. So, they try to correct it instead. They create teams and structures where people are driven (and sometimes forced) to work harder when problems occur. Same challenges show up in each project. It is almost like knowing the problem but not doing anything about it. Processes (and improvement) are seen as costs.

The end result? Dissatisfied customers, unhappy team members, disengaged middle management and difficulties in scaling the business.

The second type of organizations are what we call “learning organizations”. Even they face similar challenges and problems, but only once. When problems occur, they first correct it but then, give a careful thought to how it can be prevented. They create focus groups on process improvements, document the lessons, relentlessly train teams and incorporate preventive measures in their processes. They realize that it is perfectly normal to have problems, but not  to have same problems again and again. They treat processes and improvement as an investment in future.

A few key takeaways from these observations:

  • Problems are a part of business. Growth depends on whether you face same problems every time, or the new ones.
  • Setting up processes and sponsoring improvement teams may look costly initially, but it actually saves money – by having mature processes and improving on people’s ability to deliver value to customers.
  • Improvement may not always be expensive. You can form small focus group from your current team and improve in small iterations. Once you see significant results, you can invest more.
  • The earlier (in life of your business) you think about processes and improvement, the better (and inexpensive). Problems multiply in scale when not addressed.
  • It is important to realize that it is virtually impossible to develop a process/approach that will foresee all possible issues organization will face. This is true for all businesses large and small.

Stay with me, as I explore other aspects of a “learning organization” in days to come. Peter Senge has done some amazing work on organization development and systems thinking.

What about you? Have you seen such organizations? What are your lessons? Come forward, join in the conversation and express yourself.

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Acknowledgements:

The Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ Blog Picks of the Week – 2010 Rewind Edition includes my posts. Thanks Chris!

QAspire Blog was featured in Management Improvement Carnival Blog Review by Wally Bock at Three Star Leadership Blog. Check out some fantastic blogs at Curious Cat Annual Management Improvement Carnival 2010 hosted by John Hunter.

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Have a great start into the week!