How can leaders foster an organisational learning culture?

The first step to creating a learning culture in an organisation is to acknowledge that learning is a necessity. No amount of talent or genius will be fit for future if it isn’t continuously growing and improving. 
 
This also means that being the smartest in the room is counterproductive, no matter how good it feels. 
 

Why should your organisation have a learning culture?

Blogposts are quick to list great benefits of a learning organisation:
  • “Efficiency gains
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased profit
  • Decreased employee turnover, as employee satisfaction levels rise and loyalty and commitment is increased
  • Raising the bar by creating a continuous improvement mindset, shared ownership for projects and shared accountability for results
  • Developing leaders at all levels, which helps with succession planning
  • Creating a culture of inquiry, adaptive capacity, and knowledge sharing (vs. knowledge hoarding)
  • Enhanced ability for individuals and teams to embrace and adapt to change.”
 
But also scientists argue that to stay relevant you need to be able to learn faster than your competitors and that “organisational learning should lead to superior outcomes, such as superior new product success, customer retention, superior growth, and/or profitability”.
 
Another article describes that a learning orientation “best accounts for enhanced performance” in the non-profit organisation studied.
 
Investigation of a logistics service provider showed that “organisational learning has a positive influence on relationship orientation as well as on the improvement of logistics service effectiveness and firm performance”.
 
And for 135 firms from different industries it was shown that learning orientation has – among other things – “an important affect on innovation performance”.
 
Taking learning breaks at work even helps to reduce stress: Taking a break from your routine tasks and learning about something that sparks your interest can replenish your drained psychological resources.
 
“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” – Peter Senge
 
So how can you create a learning organisation? There are many strategies proposed, first and foremost by Peter Senge who coined the term “learning organisation”.
Here I share the ones that I know have worked for me and the teams I experienced.

The right mindset to become a learning organisation.

That would be a growth mindset. The more often you can adopt this state of mind, the better. A growth mindset is the belief that through effort and learning we can get better. As opposed to a fixed mindset, where you belief that you either have talent or you don’t and that effort is a sign of not being good enough. 
 
You can learn more about the two mindsets from the researcher who discovered them: Carol Dweck in her TED talk.
In her research Dweck shows countless examples that perfectly illustrate the momentum a growth mindset creates in students, adults and organisations.
 
Strategy #1 to become a learning organisation: 
Foster a growth mindset – in yourself, your leaders and your employees.
 

Ask more questions instead of giving advice.

It’ll take a bit more time to solve issues in some cases, but the learning effect is tremendous. Say someone comes to you with a problem. Now instead of trying to fix it or giving advice, ask questions that help them think through the issue. Questions – if used wisely – redirect the focus from the problem to the opportunities.
 
When it’s about solving a certain problem or improving a process at work, the Lean Coaching Kata is a simple but effective framework. Help your employee or team to explore:
 
  1. what the current situation looks like,
  2. where they need to get to,
  3. what is causing the gap and
  4. with which small action they’d like to start.
 
And yes, the order of the questions matter. Always spend sufficient time understanding the problem before moving into solution mode.*
 
* I should add: When it comes to “people problems” I don’t recommend this deficit-oriented approach. In cases of personal development, relationships and collaboration this type of asking questions easily leads to blaming and shaming.
 
Strategy #2 to become a learning organisation: 
Ask more & better questions.
 

Allow for – and learn from – mistakes.

Learning is always a mix of getting information, processing and applying it. This is testing, trial and error. And hardly ever will you get everything right from the start. 
 
The thing is, we need to feel safe enough to be so daring and step out of our comfort zones. If we fear to be punished instead of supported when we get it wrong, we won’t try new things and won’t learn anything. We’ll stay on the safe side with the things you already know.
 
This means expecting mistakes and encouraging trial is important. But you should also help them team reflect. What went well? Where did they struggle? What have they learned? And what are they going to differently next time?
 
Strategy #3 to become a learning organisation: 
Use constant reflection and allow for mistakes.

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