Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Can we speed up learning?

When the people I work with come across an improvement, they invariably ask me: how can we speed this up? What they usually mean is: how can we spread this around the company. Hmm. Not so fast.

Any improvement comes from learning. Very locally, the guys doing the job in specific circumstances have enquired into their own practice, found a better way to do so, tried it, ironed out the kinks and eventually adopted it. This is when leaders finally see it and go wow! (and wow, how do I spread this around).

Problem is, of course, that other units have not followed the same path and no risk to be told to do something different without understanding either the reasons or the ins and outs of the next best thing. It might also simply not be appropriate for them.

Enquiry is unique to us human animals. And still, we find this hard. We need a lot (as in: a lot) of self confidence and low anxiety to actually enquire as opposed to jump on the next available solution as a drowning person grabs a floating plank. Enquiry requires a kinder immediate environment even as it can be stimulated by a pressing overall challenge. Enquiry is hard - certainty is easy.

Businesses have learned to learn inasmuch as they've learned to identify best practices and then organize catch-up. It is learning, in a clumsy, inefficient, and not very nice way. It is a huge improvement from not learning at all.

But it's slow because whenever people are confronted with the instruction to catch up, they immediately push back against it - and who can blame them.

Faster learning is fuzzier and more reflexive. Faster learning comes from the learned habit to question one's own assumptions on the face of facts. Faster learning comes from the ability to parse cases and distinguish where any statement works, works somewhat or doesn't work at all: there are a few clear cut white cases, a few black cases and many grey areas.

Accelerating learning is possible, but it means slowing down catch-up learning to take the time to consider whether the new practice considered actually works, where, how or is a tactical special case slipping into a policy choice. Why does it work? How does it work?

Why? How? Where? By how much? You want to speed up learning? You can, but it means slowing down force-feeding solutions and developing the habit to ask why? and how? and where?

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