Building Learning into a Developing Organization (Part 4, Leadership for Entrepreneurs)
The function of learning is how an organization realizes the benefit of group work, the value of new insight and expertise, and the efficiency of new ways to distribute, perform, and combine tasks. Learning allows the group to explore new, better ways to do the work.
Entrepreneurs often resist this function because they have been doing the work by themselves. This is where the statement about relationships, the desire for members of the group to “Do It My Way.” We talked about this in Part 2 of the series.
The other functions build towards learning as a distributed function. Vision provides clarity about what the final product should accomplish in the world and connects individuals to this outcome through emotional and logical explanations. Relationships allow members to exchange the things that they need to complete tasks, and to do so in a way that is emotionally supportive and productive.
In an environment with strong vision and relationships, members of the group are able to see their role within the larger group context. They are able to perform their work without conflict or counteraction. With these pieces in place, these members can bring their best selves to work. They can contribute fully, and the organization sees the results of these complete contributions.
Learning occurs on a spectrum. At one end are innovative new ways to do business: incorporating new technology or processes, changing the order of tasks, and so on. These are generally one-off, significant improvements that we think of when we hear “learning organization”. But there are also smaller, more repetitive learning moments. These are the degree to which members of the group resolve specific issues for customers or within the process. The flexibility allowed of individual employees to resolve these issues at the level of performance (as compared to higher up in management) can produce dramatic increases in productivity, efficiency, and customer experience. When we build learning organizations via the functions, we have to consider the entire spectrum of learning moments which is bookended by these two very different performances.
Tactics to Lessen Discomfort
Learning is psychologically difficult. The pressure to try something new – more effective, more efficient, more quickly – is easily overcome by our innate avoidance of discomfort and risk. This means that, as entrepreneurs, we must give people space to make mistakes. We can feel highly frustrated when errors happen, but they are signs of possible improvement. If we punish learning, rather than guide it towards productive outcomes, people will stagnate.
Feedback is distinct from punishment, and we must build systems that provide feedback. This is not limited to the occasional one-on-one performance discussion, but rather the interchange relationships that convey quality determinations throughout the organization. Often, the only members of the group who see the impact of quality on the customer are those at the end of the process. This information must convey to those earlier in the process so that they can see the consequences of their experimentations. Think of the employee who is uncomfortable pointing out that something was done incorrectly because of emotion relationships and a lack of recognized and accepted feedback interchanges. This moment of learning is wasted.
This feedback might occur through one-off conversations, but relationships are more efficient and effective than direct interventions by us as leaders. Our understanding and capability to build relationships is critical in this regard. When we turn this process of transferring feedback into an ongoing relationship, it occurs without taking more of our time.
Once a productive experiment has been identified through these interchanges, we must take steps to avoid losing the process improvement. This means recognizing the improvement, formalizing it in relationships, and ensuring it continues until it becomes habitual. Existing relationships have momentum which often causes changes to be discarded in the name of "the way we have always done things." We must act on relationships to formalize and stabilize positive change.
When we guide the members of the group towards these productive, ongoing ways of performing work - relationships - we make it easier to form similar relationships in the future. Over time, this adds up to an organizational culture where learning is valued and used to the group's benefit. This creates an environment of excellence and business success.
A Moment of Theory
As we consider the organization, there are two things to remember:
Organizational culture is the sum of all relationships, emotion and interchange.
We cannot affect all relationships.
The implication of these two points is that we must target relationships that will have the greatest impact on learning in our specific organization and moment. What works for one organization will not necessarily work for ours. Rather, we have to guide the functions in the way that seems most appropriate for our specific goals. Where do we want learning to occur? What kind of learning should it be? How should it take place between members? And so on.
This is particularly true in organizations that are onboarding new employees, either for the first time or in significant numbers. As an entrepreneur, your organization is developing. Interactions have not become practiced to the point of relationships, and therefore organizational culture is malleable. This time is an especially important one for organizational success, as the patterns of behavior that form now will determine – limit, often – organizational success later on. This is a fundamentally different role than entrepreneurship, and you must act with deliberation to support, rather than hinder, learning within the members of the group.
Leadership theory often describes this function as the concept of psychological safety or a learning culture. Both are important descriptions of aspects of the distributed function of learning, but both fall short of describing the source and implications of the function of learning and therefore miss important leadership actions that support the function. When we think of learning in the organization, we must remember that it is the final function supported by a foundation of the other two. It does not occur because of individual interactions, but rather because the discomfort of change is lessened through the complete set of functions.