In this second of a series of posts about enabling ongoing change in organisations, I look at how organisational culture can encourage learning to flourish.
I’m starting with culture because it’s the most important ingredient in enabling learning in my view – tools, methodologies, approaches etc are helpful but what really matters is an organisation’s ability to create a working atmosphere in which staff:
- share ambition and willingness to take a few risks
- have the integrity to honestly say to one another what worked and what didn’t
- ask their users and stakeholders for their views and uses this information.
In a recent post US Museum Director Nina Simon talks about how she’s created what she calls an ‘experimental’ culture in her institution – and this has many similarities to the learning culture I’m trying to describe.
Organisational culture is a massive topic – I just want to focus on 3 practical things we can all do, whatever our role in the organisation:
1. Be positive
Reflection (e.g. evaluation) is an important part of learning. It’s very human to focus evaluative and feedback conversations on what didn’t work or what could be improved. That’s part of what we need to be asking, but it’s equally important to look for what works as well – so we understand what worked and why so we can replicate it or learn from it in other ways. Simply starting any reflective conversation by asking questions such as those below can be helpful:
- what went well?
- what am i most pleased with?
- what do I want to remember to do again next time?
2. Be honest when you get it wrong
Getting things wrong is an important part of learning and if you are not making mistakes then you’re clearly not being ambitious enough (or perhaps you’re superhuman – congratulations).
Modelling that it’s OK to make mistakes and get it wrong sometimes can be very powerful – especially if led from the top of an organisation. Readily acknowledging your mistakes – and what you’ve learned from them – signals there’s no shame in the occasional cock-up.
Pretending something hasn’t gone wrong and skirting round it can be very damaging to trust and morale – but some people find ‘less than perfect outcomes’ hard to talk about. Swift acknowledgment and constructive feedback (which I’ll come onto) clears the air and allows everyone to move on, having learnt what needs to be different next time.
Learning from your mistakes can be really powerful. Nobody likes to feel they’ve ‘failed’, but if things don’t go 100% to plan being able to understand what happened and know how to do it better next time is incredibly empowering. I know I’ve learnt some of the most useful lessons in my life through getting it wrong and learning from it – and it also makes me feel a hell of a lot better about messing up if I’ve feel at least I’ve learnt from the experience.
3. Give (and seek) feedback
How often do you give feedback to others, or receive (and ask) for it yourself? How helpful is the feedback you give and receive?
Good feedback is a gift – a specific, timely piece of feedback can do wonders for confidence and motivation. I was talking with a colleague recently who told me how some constructive feedback from her line-manager improved her performance more than any course she could have paid to attend. Feedback can both encourage and promote learning – so it’s a win-win for any manager. Ever wondered why companies constantly seek customer feedback and offer various rewards to incentivize it? It’s because feedback can be brilliant: if done well.
One simple model for giving feedback that I’ve come across is called BOFF:
Behaviour – describe what someone did
Ownership – explain what impact that behaviour had on you (this is important second-hand feedback can be dangerous territory)
Feelings – how did this make you feel. If you’re uncomfortable with this – e.g. if from Yorkshire – you can skip the ‘feelings bit’ and it still works more or less.
Future – ‘next time you could do XX differently?’ This last part is crucial it’s what turns a complaint into constructive feedback.
There are some other ‘golden rules’ about feedback I should mention. Make sure it’s expected or requested, and think where/when to give feedback so the receiver is most likely feel comfortable and able to listen without getting defensive. But make it timely – feeding back on something someone did 6 months ago might given the impression it’s been festering in your mind for a while. And don’t just given negative feedback – make sure there’s plenty of positive feedback too.
I sometimes use the idea of the feedback sandwich: positive, negative, positive. Or (and this is stolen from my son’s primary school) ‘three stars and a wish’: three positive pieces of feedback followed by one constructive suggestion for next time.
So, those are some of my top tips regarding culture – but I’d be really interested to hear what works for your organisation? In the next post in this series I plan to look at the process and tools for organisational learning – when, how and what to learn.