Creating a Learning Organization: It’s What You Do

By Shigé Clark, Facilitator – You’re probably familiar with the concept of a “learning organization,” but how often do we actually see it lived out? In my years in the Army, I saw leader after leader pay lip service to what they knew in theory to be good leadership practices — making sure everyone on their staff had a voice, allowing team members to make and learn from mistakes, and recognizing failure as an inevitable part of risk taking and growth. But guess what happened when the chips were down and those beliefs were put to the test? The same leaders silenced voices of disagreement and swiftly penalized even well-intentioned mistakes. Team members quickly learned to keep their mouths shut and tell the boss whatever he/she wanted to hear. Problems went unreported and unaddressed. Creativity and initiative stagnated under fear of punishment. We call this an anxiety culture. Time and again, companies eroded from beneath while everyone put up a positive front to please the commander, hoping for a transfer before the whole thing came crashing down.

A Learning Organization has a Collaborative Work Culture

learning organizationHow do we create the open, collaborative work culture we know will bring the best out of our team? A psychologically safe environment, the type where people can learn and grow together without fear strangling innovation and productivity, is easy to laud and harder to implement. In a workshop last month, one of the managers asked, “How do I show people that they really are safe to bring up problems and disagree with me for the sake of the company’s good?” In response, I told him a story.

Our battalion (an organization of over 400 personnel) had just gone through a change of leadership. The unit culture under the old battalion commander was a severe anxiety culture: one of extreme micro-managing, no tolerance or understanding for anything other than the prescribed outcome, and resultant yes-men. Managers hid major problems, fudged the numbers in presentations so that they always read positively, and neglected vital, basic tasks because they were not free to tell the commander when he was putting too much on their plates.

When the new commander arrived, he gave the same spiel as all those before him. His battalion would be a learning organization where every voice was heard, innovation was rewarded, and issues could be freely discussed. Collectively, we rolled our eyes. We would believe it when we saw it.

The point where everything changed came during one of our first planning sessions for a mission. The commander asked the group if there were any questions or concerns. I was a junior officer at this point, one of the lower-level people in the room, but—true to my nature—I was the one to take the risk to raise my hand. I can’t recall what issue I brought up, but I do remember that the operations officer (my supervisor) felt that it reflected badly on him and immediately became defensive. He stood up and cut me off, explaining why the issue wasn’t really an issue and why I was wrong to raise it. Here we go, I thought, clamming up, I shouldn’t have said anything.

That is when the battalion commander cut in. He gently—but firmly—reminded the group that this was a learning organization. He said that we were a team and if someone in that team saw an issue, it was important and beneficial to address it. He reiterated that whether the issue was as small and easily rectified as one person’s misunderstanding or as large and difficult as a broken company system, it was important to allow and address it without denigration. Only then could we move forward stronger as a team. 

Culture Can Quickly Shift in a Learning Organization

That interaction changed the entire environment of our organization. The speed of the cultural shift was almost miraculous and unbelievable. The staff close to the commander immediately became more open, cooperative, communicative, and creative. That culture quickly began to trickle down to the lower echelons of the organization. Since I was both a staff officer and a platoon leader, directly in charge of 38 medics, I got to watch the culture change at the ground-level. 

By sticking up for one of the “lesser” voices in the room—and one that was raising a problem, no less—our commander confirmed in practice what he had only expressed in theory. Here’s the secret: 

Your team will not act on what they’ve heard you say, but on what they’ve seen you do.

Verbalization is a theory yet to be proven. Action is fact. Ask yourself, am I truly promoting a learning organization culture? Am I publicly, demonstrably practicing what I preach? Do my actions back up what I tell myself is important to me? Would my team say the same? 

Have I asked them?

Read more about culture change: How to Shape a Work Culture