On Lifelong Learning and Failure

‘To keep up with developments in their field, people must become lifelong learners, and success will belong to those who can master new skills and envision novel possibilities. Employees must absorb, and sometimes create, new knowledge while executing. Because this process typically happens among individuals working together, collective learning — that is, learning in and by smaller groups — is regarded as the primary vehicle for organizational learning.’ Amy Edmondson

Whilst on holiday I re-read Amy Edmondson’s Teaming (‘How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy’) which I reference in a few places in my own book. Amy’s book is a rich source of insight on teaming dynamics and organisational learning. She adeptly makes the case for how teams are an organisation’s best change agents but also differentiates nicely between the more traditional orientation in business towards organising to execute, and the need to increasingly orientate towards organising to learn. The team is the unit of delivery, but it’s also the key to learning and transformation. We learn better when we learn together.

Organising to execute, she says, is about a focus on ensuring control, efficiency, managing repeatable tasks, minimising variance and rewarding conformity. Qualities that work well in stable environments with well understood contexts that change slowly but ones that work less well in rapidly changing circumstances characterised by greater uncertainty. Qualities that can bring operational cost savings and improved productivity and process efficiency but which can also act as a brake on cross-discipline collaboration and learning, and even be characterised by a fundamental distrust of the worker. Qualities that can lead to failure in complex adaptive environments.

The difference between this and organising to learn is reflected in the broadest possible set of approaches, functions and processes right across the organisation. From the type of people we look for (experimenters and problem solvers rather than conformers and rule followers), to how we train them (learning by doing rather than always learning before doing), to how we combine knowledge (integrated, not separate or siloed knowledge), empower staff (to experiment and improvise), treat variance (use it to improve rather than drive it out), and measure performance (more ‘what did we learn?’, less ‘was it done in the right way?’).

The point is that lifelong learning is something that we should pursue not only as individuals, but is also something which is critical at a team and an organisational level. We hear a lot these days about ‘failing fast’, ‘fail happy’, ‘embracing failure’. This is not that helpful. Failure in isolation is a redundant standard. Far better to talk about learning, and how we can support continuous improvement from understanding, reflecting on and responding to both successes and failures. As Amy says:

‘When facing an uncertain path forward, trying something that fails, then figuring out what works instead, is the very essence of good performance. Great performance, however, is trying something that fails, figuring out what works instead, and telling your colleagues all about it — about both the success and the failure.’

Amen to that.

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Originally published at Building The Agile Business.