Polemics: why organizations don’t learn (HBR)

There’s a really great article in November 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review, written by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats. It deals with continuous learn and improvement process in organizations, which nowadays is seen as a must for enterprises to compete.

Authors see the reason of organization’s stagnation and inability to evolve in four obsessions (as they call it): success, taking action, fitting in and relying on experts. The article describes the challenges people have to face when becoming obsessed with success, immediate action, need of fitting in and trust in experts. For each obsession there’s a bunch of suggestions how to overcome their negative impact.

I’d like to discuss some of those ideas in details, and ask one general question about the appliance of those employee-oriented thoughts to the whole organizational organism.

The Obsessions

I totally agree that those four obsessions are a huge impediments in learning process. Although, some of suggested tactics of overcoming them raises questions.

Bias toward success

This obsession is definitely applicable to vast majority of enterprises, but I’m afraid that the solution, as suggested by the Authors, could work only for a few. As considering potential when hiring and destigmatizing failure are no brainers (although the latter is a great challenge), embracing and teaching a growth mindset could be hard to conduct successfully in organizations we know. Let’s imagine a picture of a line manager in a big banking corporation telling team member “I believe you can expand your talents if you apply yourself”. That’s obviously a corporate gibberish, and in best case will be given a shrug. That’s because the problem lies in organizational culture. Encouraging people to expand their talents in a goal-oriented, highly structured enterprise where they do what they are told will not work, and actually most of large companies we know are just like that. The solution here is a culture shift, that empower people to search for the best version of themselves all the time. If organization is nurtured by this kind of culture, there will be no issues with bias toward success. But if it’s not, that kind of coaching will do no good.

Bias toward action

I couldn’t agree more with a thought, that organizations suffer from thoughtless actions and gradual quality decline caused by too much of unproductive doings. I also agree on the solution: it’s equally simple and effective. What i feel should be rethinked is the example of a goalkeeper based on M. Bar-Eli’s study about action bias. I see this study as absolutely theoretical. In a real-life football world, the strategy of not making a move would make a goalkeeper totally ineffective. It’s a matter of psychology and scouting — a shooter who knows, that goalie will stand still for 60% chance has definitely easier task. But what it brings to the discussion? I don’t think staying still is a solution, and nor do the authors. It’s rather not to move without much sense, than to stand in one place, without much sense either.

Bias toward fitting in

Similar as with the cult of success problem discussed earlier, I agree people struggle with self-development and learning also because they try to even with majority. But once again, the proposed solution is imperfect and sometimes ridiculed among corporations employees. Cultivating strengths and workforce engagement are only phrases in some organizations. Authors use an example of a global consulting company that had to address a problem: “employees tended to view their jobs as money-for-labor contracts and often would do the bare minimum instead of seeking to create win-win outcomes for themselves and the firm.”. How one can deal with this viewpoint, when actually it is correct? What about most of big companies, where employees up to middle management are called “resources” and expected to do their job effectively, nothing more or less? It’s again a matter of organizational culture, that encourage people to raise. Or it doesn’t. If employees feel they’re expected to differ and be themselves in biggest extent possible, there’s no worry about the fitting in bias. But if they don’t, there’s no chance that feedback, talks and engaging will do the job.

Learning, individual and Organization

Most of my doubts concerns organizational culture. That’s because I feel its impact on organizations ability to learn wasn’t stressed in the article as bluntly as it should be. Organization won’t evolve, learn and change, if they’re not built upon these values — truly and genuinely, not reactionary.

Furthermore, I’m not sure whether the four obsessions, that obviously are true for individuals, still nails the problem of the whole organization’s learning. As I mentioned before, most of these problems are to be solved on organizational level, not individual coaching, giving feedback and encouraging employees. And when we look at the organizational level, we come to a whole new discussion — the one about culture formation and development.