Creating a Learning Culture

Elyse PlattMon, 10/21/2019 - 13:31
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“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer, Social Philosopher & Author

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When we think about “being agile,” we think about a mindset, not the practices. It is a spirit of continuous learning, innovation, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement/morale. A learning culture fosters experimentation, learning, sharing knowledge or lessons in pursuit of a common goal. Employees genuinely want to contribute to their organization by learning from mistakes (rather than fearing failure or judgment) and seeking new challenges that will ultimately grow the capabilities and deliverables of the organization.

Research shows that the benefits of a learning culture include enhanced creativity and innovation, educated risk-taking, improved employee engagement and job satisfaction, improved productivity, decreased burnout, and development of new skills. Even if you are not “doing agile,” you have an opportunity to “be agile” and shift the mindset to improve business results.

How do we create a learning culture, especially in an agile environment?

  1. I recently told my development teams to try Hypothesis Driven Development. This encourages validating ideas and learning rather than focusing on releasing a set of requirements. It allows for more flexibility in how work items are accomplished and how customer requirements are met.
  2. Create safety and allow vulnerability.
    1. For increased safety, maintain your say-do ratio (that is, ensure your actions and words align). Be aware of body language; eye contact and leaning in and asking questions show that you care and help generate bonds. Also, surviving failures builds trust; this requires experimenting, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and accepting that “failure” can be something praiseworthy, if you are dedicated to exploring and finding the best solution with your team.
    2. Vulnerability is about creating authentic connections and admitting we share the quality of having a weakness (even Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite); it’s time to set aside insecurities and work together toward a common goal.        
      1. Activity: In pairs, ask two sets of questions: (A) who is your favorite actor? Tell me something about your dog/cat/fish/bird/etc. (B) If you had a crystal ball, what would you ask about your future? What is something you’ve been dreaming of doing and haven’t done yet and why? -- Participants should feel uncomfortable with question (B); they will also feel as though they made a real connection.
    3. Try the “yes” culture by using “yes, and…” which is acknowledging and validating a different perspective while also adding in your perspective. Remove those negating terms “but,” “however,” and “although” from your interactions. Start from an open-minded place and be part of the solution for improved engagement and team morale.
  3. Create a sense of community, not competition.
    1. Communities (e.g. physical neighborhoods, religious organizations, or hobby groups) bring a sense of belonging and purpose. People are driven to maintain and improve their community, if treated as an equal and valued member.
      1. Activity: Marshmallow Challenge -- Research states that kindergarteners tend to do better than college students on this activity because they experiment, take risks, collaborate, and don’t overanalyze. It’s all about our interactions and how we nurture partnerships in the workplace.
    2. Define your mission and purpose. This is not the company mission statement; this is a team charter level statement of why the team exists. If teams know what they are rallying behind, they can better align their efforts to the goal.

In Scrum, we talk about empiricism which asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is known which seems to line up with a learning culture. You gain experience in trying something new (succeed or fail) and make decisions on which direction to go next based on that knowledge. We are not focused on just shipping features or functionality; we want to ensure we build the right thing and build it correctly. We are being agile – learning, innovating, and delighting customers.

The next time you think about agile, consider this mindset of continuously learning and adapting to meet a shared goal. Remember the importance of safety and vulnerability in relation to the extent to which employees are willing to speak up and try new ways of working in the face of challenges. Lastly, remember that learning and success are not limited resources. There are abundant opportunities ahead, if you’re willing to stop focusing on the assembly line atmosphere and start enhancing your organization’s capabilities.