Culture – Adaptability: Organizational Learning

by Ron Potter

Organizational learning requires much more than a procedure, a checklist, or even a department.  Organizational learning needs to be deeply embedded in the organization.  It must be a deeply held belief, part of everyday processes, and highly rewarded.

Reward Failure

Does your boss (or you as a boss) look for and reward those moments when learning takes place?  People learn more from failures then they do from success.  Let those two concepts sink in for a minute.  We reward learning.  Learning is the greatest from failure.  Therefore (if I still remember my algebra) we reward failure!

How many organizations will survive is they reward failure?  Not many, you might say.  But if you remember our last blog, if we don’t change we die.  You must figure out how to fail successfully to change and grow.

I remember one CEO in particular that seemed to have a good knack for successful failure.  At his leadership meetings, his direct reports began to understand that if they brought an idea forward on how to do something differently, he would “reward” them with great attention and questions.  For a moment they would get the center ring.  When someone proposed a new idea, he would ask all of the “mission” questions from the first quadrant of the Culture Survey to make sure they were headed in the right direction.  If so, he would grant permission to go ahead but with frequent updates, progress reports, and budget projections.

Noticed that he didn’t just turn them loose with no guide rails.  The idea needed to further the mission, and he also set parameters in place that would assure quick small failures before things got too out of hand if the idea didn’t work.

But the ideas were rewarded, and the person who brought the idea forward was rewarded with a “job well done” and went on to the next topic with a nice grin on their face.

Innovation and Creativity are not the same

I hear many top executives proclaim that they want more creativity from their people.  However, when people propose true, pie-in-the-sky, out-of-the-blue creative ideas are brought forward, they are often shot down for all the standard reasons.

Innovations are usually small, easily executable, quick ideas that help the organization change and adapt rapidly to a changing marketplace.  Innovation often falls in the category of rewarding failure.  Top executives love innovation (or at least they should).  It doesn’t have the risk of creativity, and it’s easier to make sure it fits with the guard rails described above.  Even if they call for creativity, corporate leaders are asking for innovation.  Respond accordingly.

Generational Differences

One final note is probably worth mentioning.  I grew up in the older generation.  Our generation that would ask “Why am I taking calculus?  Will I ever need it?”  The only answer I ever received was “You’ll better understand how things work.”

The younger generation grew up with electronics and access to more information than we’ll ever use or need.  They don’t need calculus; they Google it.  (Interesting how Google has now become a verb.)  Learning to them is very different from the learning process we went through.

How do we develop a culture of organizational learning in today’s environment?  My answer to that question is to ask.

  • Ask your employees about what they need to learn.
  • Ask them what they want to learn.
  • Ask them how they learn.
  • Ask what you can do to help them learn.

How do we learn?  Ask, don’t tell!

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