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Posts tagged ‘Learning Organizations’

Success – or not

“We want to be successful; we want to be the best,” is one of the most common responses when leaders are asked about organization goals. But as I watch those organizations and individuals who are outwardly and apparently successful, I wonder, “Is that what we really want? Or do we want to inspire mastery?”

Success is a peak moment in time, captured in a photograph or by the plaque on the wall. It might be captured in Monday morning data, now the recent past. It may be celebrated for a night or a few days. It might even be noted on the local television station or newspaper. But success is not lasting.

Mastery focuses on what there is to learn, where the growing edge might be, and the discipline to continue moving forward. Mastery demands endurance and courage. It is not motivated by success or perfection – which have more to do with how others view us and what we do.

Mastery is not the same as success – which is only a moment in time. It is a constant pursuit of improvement, growth, and creativity. It is resilience in times of less than desirable outcomes and even outright failure.

Leaders can act to promote the pursuit of mastery over success:

Analyze Failure. Intermountain Healthcare, a system of 23 hospitals in Utah and Idaho, routinely analyzes physicians’ deviations from medical protocols. The goal is growth and improvement. Actively tracking and analyzing deviations and sharing the outcome data encourage physicians to buy into this program. The goal is to motivate people to move beyond the surface: “procedures weren’t followed,” to identifying critical thinking skills and understanding outcomes and results.1

Promote creativity. Mayo Clinic created the “queasy eagle” award honoring near, but abandoned wins. The goal was to create change and transformation after realizing that years of intolerance of failure stopped medical breakthroughs. In the 18 years prior to this award, Mayo had created only 36 new ideas for patient care in a particular field. In the year following, 245 new ideas were created, some of which are now patented.2

Build a learning culture. A learning culture is one where failures of all types, large and small, are reported, analyzed, and used as opportunities for discovery and growth. It is a culture where experiments are encouraged over and over again. Some leaders worry that being sympathetic to failure will lead to “anything goes.” In our complex world, failure is certain. It is our response to it that will dictate whether positive change and transformation emerge.

Creating an organizational culture that seeks mastery over success is not magic. It must be fought for every day in a disciplined, intentional way. It requires leadership, not management. If you lose this battle, you may lose the battle for talent and sustainability.

Mastery invests in people not just tools. It encourages risk rather than punishing failure. It rewards contribution not competition. It accepts responsibility rather than assigning blame. It thinks of span of influence, not span of control. It focuses on “what” is right instead of “who” is right.

A master does not know a subject perfectly, from end-to-end. An organization that seeks mastery will not be a perfect place to work. Those who seek mastery know that there is more that they don’t know that what they do know. The learning organization knows that there will always be more to learn.

Those who lead toward mastery know that courage is not the absence of fear. How do you define success?

1Bohmer, R.M.M. (2010). “Fixing Health Care on the Front Lines,” Harvard Business Review, April 2010
2APQC. (2006) “Mayo Clinic Innovation: Putting Ideas into Action,” American Productivity & Quality Center, p. 139.

Clearing the Brain’s Inbox

Neuroscientists have created a large body of evidence over the years for the importance of sleep. Now researchers have added new understanding to why sleep matters. When we sleep, information that is stored in our short-term memory (located in the hippocampus) moves to longer-term memory storage (located in the cortex). We process new information, create new neural pathways, and open space for new data and experience. This process happens during stage 2 REM sleep.

Of note is that it is equally advantageous to sleep before learning as well as after learning. Researchers say that sleeping before learning allows the brain to become like a dry sponge that is able to then absorb liquid. Enter the midday nap: data showed those who napped were able to integrate information more readily than those who did not. It allows the brain to take a “mental time out”. Even if you don’t sleep, a midday rest can produce similar results.

A good night’s sleep has not lost its importance. Most people know that stage 4 REM sleep is necessary for doing complex thinking and creative remapping of experiences and information.

In Brain Rules, Medina summarizes the importance of sleep by looking at its reverse, “Loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function (decision-making), working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasons, and even motor dexterity.”

Some organizations have set up nap-pods. In day-long kindergartens and in some first grade classes an afternoon nap time still happens. How can our organizations and learning centers integrate the benefits of rest? Let the midday naps begin!

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

The old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” is being turned upside-down. It used to be believed that the brain not only didn’t change, but deteriorated with age. But new research is proving that humans continue to form new brain cells and build new neural connections throughout their lives. The brain is elastic, “You can teach an old dog new tricks.” So what does the new science of neuroplasticity have to do with managing an organization?

In the past, the workplace was viewed as transactional: employees did work in exchange for pay. Managers made decisions and gave direction. But the research demonstrates that the human brain sees the workplace first as a social system. Like the human players in the game, people can experience anger and rejection at work. This happens when they are given negative feedback, not invited to participate in a team, assigned a task for which they’re overqualified, see unfairness, or asked to take a cut in benefits or pay. To the brain, these experiences are like being punched in the mouth or going hungry and are reflected in the activation of threat and pain related neural circuits.

The response changes the brain. The response uses up oxygen and glucose as blood is diverted from parts of the brain where working memory resides. It impairs the person’s ability to think effectively, to solve problems, and to be creative. Most employees learn to hide their reactions or shrug their shoulders and get on with it. But these same employees will begin to limit their commitment to the workplace and may give their best energy and ideas somewhere else.

This research has broad implications for how organizations are structured, communication happens, information is exchanged, and reward and benefits are structured. What are a few ideas that managers can use to avoid activating a threat response and activate a reward response? I propose the following as a short list for managers:

  • Choose your body language and words carefully. Observe how different patterns deliver different results. As a manager and leader, you’re always on stage.
  • Clearly communicate not only expectations, but priorities. Do this as often as necessary to maintain clarity in the organization.
  • Be flexible, whenever possible, letting employees make their own decisions.
  • Support employees’ ideas for building good workplace relationships.
  • Act with fairness, which can be increased by greater transparency, clear ground rules, and well explained objectives.

What is being learned in neuroscience about how we behave and relate to each other, creates a great advantage: there is now data backing the ideas that have been put forth in the past two decades about social and emotional intelligence. As managers and employees we have the opportunity to put that knowledge to use in successfully developing our organizations. We can all learn new tricks.

Read more about the research in my article: Managing in 2010: Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

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