Why Don’t We Learn?

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts”
– John Wooden

Learning is the lifeblood of sustainable change. Continuous learning begets continuous improvement. The day we stop learning is the day we stop improving. We become complacent. We accept our world as it is. We lose that twinkle in our eyes and the sense of wonder in our minds. Everything is enveloped with mundane shades of grey. According to Einstein, it’s the day we start dying.

What’s true for individuals is true for organizations. Peter Senge popularized “The Learning Organization” in his 1990 book, “The Fifth Discipline”. He defines a learning organization as “an organization where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”

What stands in the way of learning organizations are learning disabilities. Senge notes that “Learning disabilities are tragic in children, but they are fatal in organizations. Because of them, few corporations live even half as long as a person – most die before they reach the age of forty.”

Agile ways of working build a cadence of continuous learning into its practices rooted in Deming’s PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle for continuous improvement. In Scrum or Kanban, team learning is the focus of what would arguably be the most important Agile ceremony – the Retrospective. Learning opportunities abound for Agile teams. The question is “Do Agile teams want to learn?”. And if they do want to learn, the next question is “Do organizations allow for learning?”

Here’s a list of learning disabilities presented as obstacles and excuses I’ve encountered. Do any have a familiar ring to them for you?

Team Learning Obstacles

  • Learned helplessness. People become so used to being told what to do and how to do it that they become lost when they’re given the freedom to figure it out themselves. Typical excuses include:

-“Why fix something that ain’t broke”
-“We’ve always done it this way”
-“We have the secret sauce”

  • No time. We always seem to make time for what’s important. If we don’t set aside time for learning, what does that say about its importance? Typical excuses include:

-“We’re 100% allocated against the project work to be done”
-“We’re paid to execute, not learn”
-“I have to learn on my own time”

  • Know it all (KIA). People who are proficient at something or have been around for a while believe they know it all or have seen it all. They are done with learning. Furthermore, they become a crutch to those who don’t know as much. And never will because of their dependence on the KIA. Typical excuses include:

-“I’ve done this before”
-“I don’t need to know the details – Julie has it covered”
-“I’m already certified”

  • The needs of the one. Team learning requires focusing on where the team’s gaps are. Employee personal development plans focus on the individual and where their gaps are. Prevailing organizational processes and structures were built to support the latter. Typical excuses include:

-“My manager is assessing me on my personal development plan”
-“The team’s training needs don’t align with my personal training needs”
-“I won’t be on this team forever so I need to take care of myself for what’s next”

  • Zombie Agile. Also parodied as Fake Agile where people go through the motions of practicing Agile without developing or fully appreciating the value of an Agile mindset. Daily standups focus on rote status and fail to coordinate work. Retrospectives are cold, soulless exercises in futility. Any learning opportunities are wasted. Typical excuses include:

-“All these Scrum meetings are taking away time needed to get real work done”
-“I don’t see the point of these retrospectives; can we drop them?”
-“The business isn’t showing up for our sprint reviews – we’ve stopped inviting them”

Organization Learning Obstacles

  • Success. If a business is happy and making money hand over fist, what’s the case for change or improvement? There is none. Just keep doing more of the same. Typical excuses include:

-“Why fix something that ain’t broke”
-“We’ve always done it this way”
-“We have the secret sauce”

  • Bias for delivery. Today’s achievement-oriented organizations have a productivity first mentality. A focus on maximizing output leaves little to no room for reflection or learning. Shades of Theory X thinking would have us believe that if people aren’t actively delivering against a Gantt chart line item, then they’re inefficient and falling behind plan. Typical excuses include:

-“You’ll have 3 weeks to ramp-up before we track you in the project plan”
-“We have buffer in the plan but it’s project management contingency to mitigate delivery risks”
-“It’s all-hands on deck so we’ll need you to postpone your course until after we deliver”

  • Funding. In most organizations, training budgets are discretionary. It’s the first budget line item to get cut when businesses struggle. Furthermore, any training dollars that do exist are administered centrally and top-down. In some organizations, the funding isn’t even at the discretion of line managers but rather consolidated within HR. Typical excuses include:

-“Our training budget has been cut”
-“We need to get approval from HR for any training”
-“The teams aren’t mature enough to manage their own training budgets”

  • Failure to convert. I know of one organization where they were proud of the fact that every employee was entitled to a minimum of 10 training days per year. Every manager’s objective was to ensure that every one of their employees took 10 days of training each year. It was great for the employees. A fringe benefit of being an employee rather than a contractor. As I look back, I realize that there was very little emphasis on converting the knowledge attained to actionable insights that could benefit the employee’s job or the team and department at large. As long as we achieved the target number of training days per employee, all was good. Typical consequences include:

-“I’ve got to take a course, any course to use up my training days”
-“The course you took sounds great but how does it help us?”
-“Why do we keep making the same mistakes?”

  • Double standards. In many organizations, IT teams are a mix of long-term employees and short-term contractors. The contractors provide flex capacity to address specific gaps in technical skills or employee headcount limits. The contractors are hired specifically for a set of technical skills and experience that they already possess. Most organizations would bristle at the thought of training contractors. Yet Agile teams need to continuously learn as a team – both technical and non-technical skills. This becomes difficult if not impossible to do when the Agile teams are made up of both employees and contractors. Typical excuses include:

-“We don’t pay contractors to learn”
-“HR policies restrict training budgets to employees only”
-“Joe already has previous experience working on Agile teams so he doesn’t need to go on the team’s Agile training”

Peter Senge advocates five learning disciplines to mitigate learning disabilities and stimulate learning organizations:

  1. Personal Mastery. Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs. Personal mastery is about personal growth and learning. It goes beyond competence and skills. It means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to reactive viewpoint.
  2. Mental Models. Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Managing our mental models – surfacing, testing and improving our internal pictures of how the world works – can help build learning organizations.
  3. Shared Vision. When people truly share a vision they are connected, bound together by a common aspiration. Shared visions derive their power from a common caring. Shared vision provides the focus and energy for learning organizations.
  4. Team Learning. The process of aligning and developing the capability of a team to create the results its members truly desire. Teams that learn together become a microcosm for learning throughout the organization.
  5. Systems Thinking. Is about seeing wholes rather than parts. Seeing interrelationships rather than things in isolation. It is the cornerstone of how learning organizations think about their world.

Human beings are learners by nature. We can’t help but learn. We can’t turn it off but it can be muted individually, within teams and organizationally. Wouldn’t it be great if like a car radio we could simply press a button to unmute and let the beautiful learning surround us?

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