What does it mean to be a “learning organization”? A lot has been written about this – with varying levels of insight.
Recently I was inspired by the executive team of a high-tech company that I work with. This team was determined to strengthen the learning capabilities of their organization, and they were taking concrete steps to speed up the learning and deepen the learning – for themselves and their teams. This team was serious.
This drive for change was initiated by a real business challenge. The company had recently lost two large sales that had seemed promising. The sales team had worked for more than a year to lock in the new contracts and had received much encouraging feedback from the prospective customers along the way. And then – two painful losses in rapid succession. It would be easy in such a situation to become despondent or to focus on attributing blame. Instead, this team invited me to work with them to address three important questions:
1: What must we learn from these (painful) experiences?
2: How might we have gained this learning faster and at lower expense?
3: What must we do to ensure that in the future, we gain this kind of learning faster and less expensively?
We worked through a “5 x Why” analysis for the losses, moving down, level by level, from proximate to ultimate causes. For each level of the analysis, the team harvested insight and learning. And for each level they identified appropriate adjustments to strengthen the organization and its processes. But the impressive and inspiring part was the next step. The team asked: “How could we have gained this insight in an easier way?” and “How can we ensure that we do gather this kind of insight faster and more smoothly in the future – systematically?” In other words: “How do we accelerate and institutionalize learning in our organization?” These questions stimulated the team and helped them generate a rich set of actions. We filled several white boards with insights and actions.
The global economy is suffering from a marked slowdown in productivity growth. If more leadership teams asked these kinds of questions when they encounter setbacks, much of the productivity challenge would be solved. I commend the courageous executive team that turned painful experiences into valuable learning opportunities.