3 Essential Elements of a Learning Organization

Do you know someone who has had many experiences that should have taught them something (humility, money management, stop dating losers, etc.) but they haven’t learned it?  Easy, right?  We can all point to people who haven’t learned from their experiences.  Now what if I asked you, “What changes have you made in the last three months based on your experiences?”  Does it take you a little longer to answer that one?

While reading the book Deep Dive by Rich Horwath, I was struck by a simple truth he asserted: experience is only useful if we learn from it.   How many people and organizations have had loads of possible learning experiences but have failed to reap the full benefit from those experiences? 

The value of our experiences depends on what we decide to do with it.  Unfortunately, we often don’t do anything productive with our experiences. Most organizations have not established a system or procedure to analyse, learn from, and leverage these fleeting learning moments.

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The most successful individuals and organizations are the ones that learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others.  Systematic learning is the only path to continual improvement and higher performance.

Here are three essential elements that will assist you to create a learning organization, benefit from your experiences, and become your best, both individually and as an organization.

1) Create A Culture That Values, Not Punishes, Mistakes

An HBR article entitled Building a Learning Organization cited a study that concluded this: “the knowledge gained from failures [is] often instrumental in achieving subsequent successes… In the simplest terms, failure is the ultimate teacher.”

So why, then, don’t individuals and companies learn from their mistakes?  Probably because, for the most part, we work for people who punish mistakes.  Most business leaders and managers unconsciously foster a culture of blame.  Punishment comes in many forms, but the most common, seemingly innocuous, form of punishment is when a manager shows frustration at an employee for making a mistake.  “That’s it?” you may ask.  “Who doesn’t show frustration when someone makes a mistake?” 

Answer:  good leaders.  Words, tone, or body language that convey frustration when a mistake is discovered completely change the nature of the situation from a potential learning moment to a moment of shame and embarrassment.  Feelings of anger and shame trigger the fight or flight response within the employee being blamed.  This response essentially shuts down our prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain we need to learn and think creatively.  The only thing shaming people teaches them to do is to become better at hiding their mistakes.

Leadership is hard.  It means controlling your emotions for the greater good.  Enabling employees to learn from their mistakes is a greater good than the satisfaction you may feel by venting your anger and making sure the employee knows you are frustrated with them.

Business leaders must create a culture where people believe that mistakes can be worth their weight in gold if they learn from them.  Often, the bigger the mistake, the greater the potential value from learning from it. 

Business leaders must create a culture where people believe that mistakes can be worth their weight in gold if they learn from them. Click To Tweet

According to company lore, a young manager made a $10 million-dollar mistake in the early years of IBM’s history.  IBM’s legendary founder, Thomas Watson Sr., summoned the young manager to his office.  When Watson asked what happened, the manager highlighted the mistakes he made and what he could have done differently.  The young manager ended his confession by saying “I guess you want my resignation.” Watson replied, “You can’t be serious. We just spent $10 million educating you.”

2) Conduct Regular Lessons Learned Debriefs

I once worked for a construction company that was constantly flying by the seat of it’s pants—submitting proposals for, and winning, projects that we weren’t prepared to take on.  The senior project manager would always end up having to deal with the fallout of poor planning.  Sometime during a crisis, the embattled senior project manager would tell the executive team “We can’t let this happen again.  At the end of this project we need to do a thorough debrief and review lessons learned so we get it right the next time.”  The executives would nod their heads in hearty agreement.  Unfortunately, the debriefs never happened.  There was never any time to debrief after the project because the senior project manager usually had to be whisked away to save another project from disaster. 

This company could have been great.  It had all the right ingredients: good people, plenty of capital, and a lot of production capacity.  But it remained a mediocre company because it was too busy chasing the next dollar to take the time to figure out how to become better. 

Sound familiar?

Conducting regular lessons learned debriefs is perhaps the easiest way to become a learning organization.  If companies can’t muster the organizational will to conduct a lessons learned debrief at the end of every project, at the very least they can block off four times a year to review and analyze the lessons learned from the most important project of that quarter. 

Lessons learned debriefs don’t have to be difficult or complicated.  They can simply include the following activities:

  • Document mistakes and learnings.  Identify what went well and why, and how things could have been done better.  Philosopher George Santayana aptly pointed out “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 
  • Incorporate lessons.  Telling people to do things differently isn’t as effective as changing systems and procedures so it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make the same mistake again.  For example, manufacturers child-proof medicine bottles and lighters, make USB and ethernet cables so they plug in only one way, and your car makes annoying beeping noises when your seat belt isn’t fastened.
  • Share lessons.  A common problem with lessons learned is that the learning remains within a particular silo of an organization.  One part of the organization could gain insights from the challenges and lessens learned in other parts.  Sharing is essential in a true learning organization. For people to be comfortable sharing lessons learned, they must belong to an organization that values, not punishes, mistakes.  Otherwise, nobody would submit themselves to the potential ridicule. 

In addition to a great organizational practice, documenting and sharing lessons learned is a fantastic career development activity for ‘up and commers’ to include in their personal development plan.

3) Make Talent Development a Top Strategic Priority

Business leaders who think that being committed to talent development means increasing the training budget by 20% are stuck in the 1980s.  Training is not development.  Training teaches people the skills to be successful in their current role.  Development is about carefully selecting specific experiences that will prepare people to be successful in future roles.  The best development activities typically don’t cost much money, but they do cost time.

Making talent development a top strategic priority means

  1. writing the words “talent development” on a very short list of the organization’s most important priorities, and
  2. carving out time in the corporate calendar to hold regular People Strategy Meetings to discuss the development plans of key individuals.

Making talent development a top strategic priority is critical to becoming a learning organization because organizations are made up of individuals.  If business leaders want their organization to learn and grow, they need to create a framework where individuals can learn and grow.

Making talent development a top strategic priority creates a growth mindset culture.  It creates positive tension between where we are and where we want to be.

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Talent development is all about selecting specific actives that take people out of their comfort zone in a safe way and builds them up, preparing them for greater responsibility.  Strategy expert Rich Horwath describes these type of development activities as “active experience.”

“Active experience involves continually taking on challenges that are just outside your competence or current ability level.  Active experience means monitoring your progress and generating insight as to how to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.” – Rich Horwath

This approach is not to be confused with the type of “sink or swim” situations many employers throw unsuspecting employees into.  I know many HR departments in ‘fly by the seat of their pants’ companies that try to “sell” prospective employees on the “great development opportunities” they will receive if they join their company.  These HR professionals may convince themselves they are not selling a lie, but haphazardly throwing people into difficult situations is pretty much the opposite of effective people development.

Make The Decision Now

Becoming a learning organization is a critical step to becoming an exceptional organization.  Make the commitment to become exceptional, both individually and as an organization, by valuing mistakes, conducting regular lessons learned debriefs, and making talent development a top strategic priority.

About Michael Timms

I help organizations develop leaders at all levels through succession planning and management training. I’m the author of Succession Planning That Works, the ultimate succession planning guidebook & toolkit, and I speak about how to develop leaders and engage employees for higher performance.

2 Comments

  1. Dick Scott on May 23, 2018 at 5:19 am

    May 23, 2018
    Michael, I particularly liked the section of this article that talked about “Create A Culture That Values, Not Punishes, Mistakes”.

    I’m sharing all of your articles with my staff because I believe if everyone knows how I try and operate they too will create an atmosphere of valuing employees rather than beating them down.

    Thanks, Dick

  2. Michael Timms on May 23, 2018 at 9:37 am

    Thanks Dick for your comments. Glad you enjoyed this article.

    You know, creating a culture that values, not punishes, mistakes is perhaps the hardest of the three elements of a learning organization I suggested. The other two elements are new practices the organization would likely need to adopt. But creating a culture that values, not punishes, mistakes is essentially trying to do the complete opposite of what we have been conditioned to do all our lives.

    Good on you Dick if you’re already incorporated that habit.

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