The Executive Learning Trap

In 2004 a colleague helped me try to create a learning organisation. My colleague had studied learning organisations for his MBA thesis. I have never forgotten his counsel…

“The single most important factor to the success of a learning organisation is management’s attitude to failure”.

Failure and its relationship to learning as individuals and organisations is well established with popular books like “Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed providing an accessible Gladwell style summary* of the subject.

The unspoken assumption is that Executive’s do not understand the relationship between failure and learning. That organisation fail to learn because executive do not understand the importance of “safe to fail” experiments and as a result do not create environments that allow them.

Over the years I have worked with a number of senior managers and executives who do get it… Who are supportive, but still the learning and the failing fail to happen.

So I am going to operate using a new set of hypotheses to see if I can create the elusive organisation learning:

  1. Most executives are unconsciously competent learners.
  2. Most executives do not have a theory of learning and coaching.

Expanding on this:

  1. Most executives are excellent learners. Quite often they have an experiential learning style where they construct safe to fail experiments to find solutions to problems they have not encountered before. This experiential learning style means that they often use strategies that they have not studied but rather developed using their own knowledge and experience. An anthropologist may use a concept from anthropology to solve a problem in organisational design. In effect, they have exapted a concept from their own field of study rather than adopt a standard Harvard Business Review approach. This makes it hard for them to communicate their approaches to their organisation as they do not have material for them to refer to.
  2. Although executives are unconsciously competent at learning by creating safe to fail experiments to learn, they do not have a theory or model that they can use to communicate to their organisation. Although they know how to learn themselves, they do not know how to coach their organisations to learn, and more importantly they do not know how to coach their organisations to manage the risk around learning and ensure that all experiments are safe to fail.

The implication of this shift is that we should not encourage executives to create environments that promote learning by tolerating failure. Instead we should coach executives so that they transition back to conscious competence by building a theory of learning that they can use to coach their organisations.

Its a hypothesis as I need to try a new approach. I’d love to hear from anyone who is ahead of me in this journey.

* Check out Dave Snowden’s Lean Agile Scotland keynote covering Pseudo Science et al.

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About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

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