The missing core value: sharing what we learn

Matt Frost
Jun 20, 2017 · 6 min read

Many organizations take time to codify a set of aspirational core values. It’s a valuable exercise, especially for growing companies — with new faces joining the payroll left and right, a common foundation that says “Welcome! This is how we get things done around here” sets clear expectations for how to work together and accelerates a new hire’s ramp. For Facebook, it’s be bold and move fast. For Amazon, it’s bias for action and dive deep. For Medallia, it’s push for great and put team first.

Explicit core values are great, but I’ve recently thought that we’re missing a key value altogether. In my unscientific look at the values of Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work, I couldn’t find it either (at least not as front and center as a value like ‘transparency’). Personally, I believe that companies fail to reach their full potential for a variety of reasons — the market shifts, the executive team fails to align — but ultimately, failure results from the inability to learn and improve faster than your competitors. The problem isn’t that individual workers fail to learn, though, it’s that companies do. At the individual level, learning happens every minute of every day. But unfortunately, that learning gets stuck — in a fleeting thought, in a hallway conversation, and in a chat with friends at the dinner table.

Right now within your organization, helpful learning is cemented in individual worker’s heads. That learning is unknown to the broader organization, stuck in one individual’s brain and unlikely to be surfaced again. In a world eaten by software, accelerating Fortune 500 turnover, and declining average worker tenure, I think we need to add a new core value to the shortlist. If you want your company to reach its full potential, you need to unlock hidden learning — adopt behaviors, processes, and tools that turn tacit knowledge that benefits one individual into codified, explicit knowledge that benefits the entire organization.

Finding a way to share daily learnings — within your team, department, and across the organization — and move tacit individual knowledge to explicit organizational knowledge will differentiate the companies who thrive in the 21st century from those who don’t.

If you assume it’s an important value, then where do we start — how do we get learnings out of an individual worker’s head and into the world, so that teams and the company as a whole prosper? How do we move ‘sharing what you learn’ to the top of a company’s core values? Keep reading for a few suggestions, and if you have your own ideas, share below!

1 // Recognize and share mistakes publicly

It sounds good to say “we celebrate mistakes” — but few of us do so naturally. Personal mistakes threaten our sense of self — supported by research on how our brains react at work. Leadership role modeling, though, is one way to counteract our human tendencies — to set the tone for the full organization, find venues for your senior leaders to share their own mistakes and reflect on what they’ve learned in the process. I still remember when our CFO, at a Friday company chat, shared that he forgot to discuss the latest financials with the CEO before the numbers went to the Board. I bet that CFO never makes that mistake again, and I bet those in the audience now think twice about who gets what information, when.

2 // Facilitate structured debriefs

Lost a big deal? Missed a key product deliverable? Customer retention declined two quarters in a row? Good — that’s part of the game. Schedule a debrief, enlist a less biased facilitator (someone not on the project team), and start to brainstorm and document what went well, what didn’t, what you’ve learned, and what you’d do differently next time. Remember to dissect the process rather than blame individuals — a debrief can get ugly if you don’t foster psychological safety, and if you work in an environment that views failures as individuals to scrutinize rather than opportunities to get better. To learn more about how to debrief effectively, check out post-mortem and retrospective approaches from Atlassian and Etsy.

3 // Design experiments

Some of us haven’t intentionally designed an experiment since 10th grade Chemistry class. When trying something new — tweaking a website to increase conversion rates, selling to a new industry, or building a new onboarding program for Engineers — articulate a problem statement, develop a hypothesis, design an experiment, gather data, reflect on learnings, and start the process again. Whether it’s the lean startup, design thinking, or your favorite tactics from each, following an experimentation method will help you increase learning speed and move closer to target results. Structure, by way of experimentation method, also helps you share learnings with a broader audience — it’s much easier to convince an executive team of your recommended path when they trust you’ve gone through a sound, methodical process and can compare results to other trials. A few organizations have taken the same, structured approach to experimentation across the entire organization — for example, GE uses their FastWorks technique and Intuit follows Design for Delight.

4 // Build problem solving into your team huddles

In the rhythm of your daily or weekly team standups, set aside time for sharing, learning, and reflection — make the ‘the smartest person in the room is the room’ a real thing. Ask — who faced a tough problem this week? How’d they solve it? Who tried something that failed miserably? Succeeded?

Bain & Company’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) system is one source of inspiration for how to build team-level learning into the rhythm of your work. The huddle, NPS concepts, and overall emphasis on rapid learning from customers’ issues can be adopted and tweaked, regardless of your specific team’s objectives (e.g, Recruiting, Sales Development, Growth Marketing). Set aside a protected slot in your daily or weekly meetings to collaborate with each other on real issues team members’ face, or share insights and takeaways from problems that were recently resolved.

5 // Make it everyone’s job to capture and share on-the-job learnings

Instead of growing the L&D team or asking someone to build training content outside of the all-too-critical day-to-day context of a functional team (e.g., Sales, Engineering, Marketing), ask all of your workers to capture and codify their learnings. It’s tough to change behavior in one fell swoop, so assign a few workers as ‘team historians’ — ask specific individuals to take ownership over codifying individual and team learnings for the benefit of the department and organization. Interested in figuring out who might have the hidden skillset? Use social network analysis to identify who’s well connected across individuals and teams. And once your team historians capture the learnings, figure out how best to share them.

6 // Adopt a company-wide collaboration platform

Workplace by Facebook, Jive, Yammer, Confluence, Chatter, Slack — it probably doesn’t matter which tool you pick, but you need something. Find, implement, and evolve a technology platform that the entire organization can use to raise and discuss unique problems as they arise (exception handling — the problems the training manual doesn’t address). As you get this collaboration platform up and running, think through how to, and who should, manage it over time — these platforms run the risk of becoming stale if you don’t build the tool into your team workflows and track trends as participation grows.

7 // Simplify your organizational structure

An org design fundamental that we too often forget — take a hard look at how many levels exist between your frontline workers and CEO. Organizational hierarchy severely limits learning speed, so only add layers when you absolutely must. As they grow, companies often add new levels and reporting structures without thinking about the costs — remember that each additional layer adds complexity, inhibiting communication flows and as a result, learning.

To increase survival odds, organizations must champion individual and group behaviors that deliberately accelerate learning. A critical step is to find ways to turn tacit, individual knowledge into explicit knowledge that’s useful to other individuals and teams across the broader organization. Capturing and sharing learnings must move from a job-to-be-done by L&D to a shared core value — a mindset and behavior that’s critical for any high-performing organization.

Which of the norms listed above are common within your organization? Where do you have room to improve?

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