In this post, Rich Sheridan, Founder, CEO and Chief Storyteller at Menlo Innovations and author of Joy, Inc. - How We Built a Workplace People Love, explains what small companies and departments in large organizations can do to create a learning culture. He addresses fear, reward systems, hiring, on-boarding, learning, making mistakes, and experimenting. He writes:
1. We must come to grips with the role that "manufactured fear" plays as a technique for increasing performance in teams. There can be some short term benefits, near term gains, but in the long run, this destroys a learning organization.
The difference? In an organization where managerially-generated fear reigns, people are always striving to "be safe".
However, if fear is systematically removed, then people start to feel safe around each other and their leaders. Trust begins to form, and collaboration emerges and finally teamwork. True teamwork, not just an org chart with tee shirts. People gain productivity and quality through collaboration. Then innovation, imagination, invention and creativity emerge. These are the true signs of a learning organization.
2. Existing reward systems must be re-evaluated as they may be negating opportunities for collaboration and the results that learning in a collaborative system can produce. For example, one corporation I worked with seemed to have everything needed in place for their "learning organization" and yet it still wasn't happening. I asked them "what is your greatest reward here? What do you celebrate?"
"Patents", was their answer.
I asked, "And how do you celebrate this?"
They went on to describe an award ceremony, a small monetary reward and the presentation of a plaque by the CEO at the award ceremony, and then a small parade to the "wall of fame" where the plaque is hung in perpetuity. I asked to see the wall of fame. They proudly walked me back and I looked at all the plaques, and they all had the same attribute that was clearly killing their attempt at building a learning organization.
Each plaque had exactly ONE name on it. Their culture would not change until they dismantled this reward system. Collaboration will not occur in this culture. They did dismantle it, (at least reduce its relative importance) and the effect was profound. They changed their culture.
3. Recruiting, interviewing and hiring practices must change as well. Most companies hire for exact skills fit because they want their new people to "hit the ground running." This ensures that no new learning will occur because we only hire people who know what we want them to know, and we "bin" them into their long held silo because that is where they are the most productive. No learning. No growth. Stagnation.
Don't hire for skills. Hire for talents that fit your culture. Provide opportunities to learn new skills while doing real work.
4. On-boarding processes for new staff at most companies feel like a hazing ritual or, "I will try my hardest to get you productive before I demoralize you." This is our greatest opportunity to teach our new and different culture, but it is typically squandered.
5. Make books ubiquitous, and don't have a checkout policy. Don't worry if they get lost; just replace them. This sends a strong signal to staff that YOU and YOUR LEARNING are more important than a $20 book.
6. Establish a pattern of lunch & learns where staff present to each other on various topics of interest, including non-work-related topics. It exercises the mind and creates opportunities for community building and serendipity. Occasionally invite outside speakers in for these.
7. Make Mistakes Faster: Encourage quick trials of new ideas, celebrate small mistakes with laughter. This goes hand-in-hand with pumping fear out of the room. One of my most tweeted quotes:
"Fear doesn't make bad news go away, fear makes bad news go into hiding." If mistakes are hidden they grow until they metastasize and kill the organization. Think about HealthCare.gov. The President of the United States declared to the nation that the project was going fine just two days before the launch. And then all the wheels came off. Why? Fear-based management systems make good people lie.
8. Run The Experiment! When learning begins, ideas emerge. Someone suggests trying something. A peer or boss says, "That won't work here." The idea dies right then and there. Adopt the following cornerstone behavior of a learning organization. Look the person in the eye and say, "Yeah I know, but let's run the experiment. Let's try it first and see what happens."
Listen to Rich. I know from my personal experience with Menlo Innovations that he knows how to create a culture that makes a company a joyous place to work and financially successful, too. He knows how to align values with results.