Learn to Learn (as on organization)

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There are a lot of ways to learn as an individual. Trial and error, reading, watching, hearing, etc. As an organization, though, learning doesn’t always happen in a coordinated fashion. Sure, some employees learn on their own, but if their new insights aren’t being shared with everyone, the organization as a whole is missing out on a big opportunity. Having a culture that learns will create more growth, faster adjustments as things change and ultimately increase performance over time. A select few strategies to encourage organizational learning;

  • It starts at the top. If managers, leaders and other executives don’t embrace organizational learning as a value, the organization will fail to learn. It is the job of the leadership team to encourage employees to find new ways of seeing things and challenge any status quo that exists. By definition, then, the leadership team needs to accept that they won’t always have the answers and must remain open to ideas coming from the employees. Any utterance of the phrase, “because that’s how it’s always been done” indicates a new process is (probably) necessary.
  • Encourage everyone to think out loud. Listen intently to how someone connects dots to understand if they are missing something, or if you are missing something. Put all assumptions on the table.
  • Have a shared place for institutional knowledge to live and be edited. (some free or cheap options are Google docs, basic OneDrive, basic Dropbox, Notion or good old fashioned binders). This allows new employees to get a sense of what used to be true and what is currently true. The evolution of knowledge adds a layer of context that makes information stick better long term.
  • When new information is learned, new processes are discovered, or changes are made, share them outside their functional area so everyone can see. Note those changes in the shared place with a description of why the new knowledge is preferable to the old. A robust note taking system reinforces learning and increases the utility of new knowledge. Having an internal company newsletter that goes out once a month to highlight changes being made can be an excellent way to share information as well (so long as everyone is reading it).
  • Encourage everyone to think about how to improve their jobs. The ones with their hands on the work will have the most ideas about improving the work. Giving people on your team 1-2 hours a week (or month) to specifically “work on the work” instead of in the work, will have long term positive effects.
  • Spend time reflecting on what was learned during a recent project. Whether it went well or went poorly, reflecting honestly shines a bright light on where improvements can be made. Things like why a particular event happened, how to avoid certain mistakes, or identifying what momentum can be carried forward.

Being able to learn as an entire group of people will set your business apart in the industry you are in. CPA firms are be a good example here. The US tax code changes in slight ways every 1-3 years. The result is that CPAs have to learn the new rules and figure out how to comply. Being better equipped to make those changes quickly and reliably will set a CPA firm apart from the other firms that can’t keep up. The firms that share what each individual CPA is learning with everyone will perform the best still. Lean to Learn.

Perspective Exercise

The first time we are exposed to any problem, we often subconsciously add our own constraints to it. We see the world through the lens of our own experience and knowledge, make assumptions, and do the best we can to arrive at a conclusion. To demonstrate what I mean, let’s look at the nine dot exercise. The image below shows nine dots, laid out in a 3×3 grid. The objective is to connect all dots using only four straight lines. However, those lines need to be drawn without lifting your pen (or thumb) from the paper. Give it a shot.

Image 1

What most people do here is artificially constrain themselves to only using the box defined by the dots. That constraint makes the task impossible; the only way to solve the puzzle is to “think outside the box” and extend the lines beyond the box.

Image 2

The point here is that when we automatically add constraints onto ourselves, we limit our ability to be creative.

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