Encouraging Organizational Learning

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Guest post by Lori Fry, Principal with Navigator Management Partners, originally featured as a post at https://dignityatworkproject.com/.    Follow this link to listen to our first podcast with Lori.

Writer’s block – the struggle is REAL.  People who know me will insist that I’m rarely at a loss for words – so what gives?  Thankfully, I had a two-week break to figure out I was in a rut. Stagnant.  I’d let my consulting work encroach on my personal development. My personal learning organization was suffering.

Dr. Deming’s 13th Point for Management tells us to institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.  There’s no way to put a positive spin on stagnation. Whether you are an organization of one, one thousand (or one million – we know who you are), join me in encouraging ourselves and others to practice essential behaviors that drive a culture of organizational learning.

Be curious.

Not long ago I hired a fairly inexperienced business analyst I’ll call Mark.  What Mark lacked in polish he made up for for in initiative. He’s also the poster child for office fly-bys and lots of questions.  Twice a day. Every day. “Quick” questions.  Distracting? Sometimes. I try to meet his curiosity with my own. Sometimes we figure out he’s asking the wrong question. Sometimes his questions lead to new insights for both of us. I know without a doubt what he’s learned by his own initiative and curiosity is more valuable than any training or orientation program I could have developed.  Organizational learning is a two-way street; curiosity helps us navigate existing streets and pave new ones.

Be supportive.

In Point 8 of Dr. Deming’s 14 Points for Management, we’re admonished to drive out fear.  Fear is the enemy of curiosity.  As leaders and managers (and frankly, as human beings), we have a responsibility to support the growth and development of those around us. As a young consultant, I was asked to prepare a briefing for a very senior partner in our firm.  I spent days preparing for our initial meeting and was excited for the opportunity to learn from him.  His first words to me were, “I have no idea why you’re here or what we’re supposed to be doing.”  Not only was I completely demoralized; from that moment, I avoided that guy like the plague. On the flip side, I’m very aware of how my words, tone, and body language can affect others. We – each of us – have the power to encourage organizational learning or squash it.

Ride the wave of true learning moments.

Have you ever been on the verge of a breakthrough and suddenly become unsettled – so much so that you have to just stop whatever it is that’s happening? Jerry Harvey, in his book How Come Every Time I get Stabbed in the Back My Fingerprints are on the Knife? (and Other Meditations on Management), calls engaging in the “prayer of communication” a means to achieve organizational learning.  It’s spontaneous – it’s there before we are even aware of it – and can lead to those unsettling breakthrough moments.  He elaborates through the story of a young woman who suffers with severe depression.  Invited by her friend to a prayer group, she sits in silence for the full hour, and then through her tears, musters the courage to admit that she has considered suicide.  Two minutes of silence pass like hours. (The moment of opportunity.)  Then the Deacon breaks the silence and with a chipper and optimistic tone says, “Well, since all of us have a lot of things to do and nobody else has anything more to say, let’s all stand, bow our heads, and close the meeting with a prayer.”  Harvey wants us to understand that the prayer was in progress up to the moment when the Deacon shut it down, unwilling to ride that wave to a breakthrough. So it is with learning.  When the water gets rough, tighten your grip, press on, and be curious for what comes next.

Here’s to growth and new insights in the upcoming year.

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