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Break the Cycle of Failure as A Continuous Learning Organization

Tue Jun 4, 2024        6 minute Read

"The illiterate of the future are not those who can't read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." — Alvin Toffler

In the aftermath of the pandemic, continued dynamic market conditions, changing expectations, and the need to prioritize sustainable growth, your organization is also joining the bandwagon to revisit your enterprise strategy. Your organization is constantly living on the edge (political, social, regulatory, and technological changes) having to deal with hybrid working, and navigate the transitions due to technology, social, and environmental justice responsibilities. You anticipate future skills, focus on building and assessing the capabilities needed across all levels, and want to scale at the right time by increasing capacity. All of this to stay relevant, become future-focused, and make a lasting positive impact.

In reality, along the journey you get stuck in a traffic jam, hit a roadblock, and are unable to open the gridlock to change the game. The article discusses how to break the failure cycle by building a learning organization. Rather than pushing against a wall, the article helps you find or build another door to reach your destination.

The Making of a Learning Organization: Sense It. Build It. Test It. Fix It. Scale It.

As we can’t predict the future, the best we can do is imagine a future, sense an opportunity or identify the issues that can derail us (Sense It), build a solution prototype (Build It), test is, and learn from experiments (Test It), and iterate by adjusting the experiments (Fix It), and set the stage for growth (Scale It). 

Along this journey to become a continuous learning organization, ask yourself:

  • Have we ever struggled to anticipate the required skills, learn and master a skill, or break an unwanted habit to respond to changing market conditions and expectations?

  • Have you identified where your assumptions went wrong?

  • Are you preoccupied with success, that you have not identified where future investments might go wrong or figure out ways to manage risks better?

  • Do you get swept up in a flood of activities in every project without yielding positive results?

  • Have you executed a strategic initiative as planned, but missed the opportunity to capitalize on its benefits, as it was not used, demanded, or valued?

  • Do you lose out on to blame game and sabotage attempts on your change initiatives?

  • Despite training, do your leaders and employees return to old ways of working?

If so, your organization is suffering from cognitive biases and competency traps, which are caused by "Parkinson's Law of Work” that prevent you from getting off the ground by considering failure as an opportunity to learn, improve, and reinforce the adoption. The capability and capacity building programs are expanded to fit the time (and resources + and budgets + and practices + and pet projects) available. It often leads to taking cover under a predictable and safe routine, and a lack of courage to challenge the power gradients.

The negative consequence is failure to step up the game and realize the vision as it impacts decision-making and productivity.

All of this occurs because two crucial steps are missing in the adult learning process while adopting or adapting to new situations.

What Are The Crucial Step To Breaking The Cycle Of Failure?

By adopting the concept of intelligent failure, your organization can break free from its inhibitions. You can learn much more quickly (and efficiently) than if failures or disappointments are buried. Hence the terms #failfast, #failcheap, #failsafe, #failintelligent, #learnfast, #intelligentfailure. So, ask yourself:

  • Can we reap the benefits of learning investments to stay ahead of the curve?

  • Does our system allow us to benefit from intelligent failures? Or are we squandering our learnings from failure?

  • Otherwise, who might be taking advantage of our ignorance?

To stop depriving your organizations of valuable learning, and break the cycle of failure is.

The first step is “unlearning” something false, misleading, incorrect, irrelevant, or unnecessary and dealing with the resistance to shift the mindset, habit or systems. 

Once you manage to move past this gridlock, the next step is “relearning” to reinforce the new learning and make it stick, and reach a specific level of proficiency in a chosen area to change the game. 

According to Edgar Schein, emeritus professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, “Learning is easy, it’s the unlearning that’s hard.”

To unlearn means to rid oneself of or reconceiving hard-earned knowledge, to make room for new knowledge. In short, unlearning is interfering with the beliefs and knowledge in the past, is acting as roadblocks to realizing the vision. A growth mindset is developed through challenging preconceived concepts and biases with new experiences and evidence.

It is the basis for failing intelligently, while "rethinking," "reimagining", "reinventing", "revisiting", and "resetting". Sometimes, it can be referred to as “de-adoption,” “de-assumption,” “de-diffusion,” "de-execution", or "unknowing."

It starts with admitting what you don’t know, recognizing what’s not working, what’s failing, and a willingness to rectify it. It’s a deliberate act to wipe out or modify how your organization senses, thinks, builds, tries, and/or acts - necessary for adaptive change.

The Shift from A “Uh-Oh” Into an “Aha” Moment

The spark to change varies from one organization to the other. For your enterprise to change course with new resolve and intent to create a positive impact, you are required to understand the root and depth of the change and stress the urgency of making the change. You need to rethink the belief system and overcome the barriers limiting it. To get buy-in and active participation, you need to reinforce the "why" and "what's in it for me (WIIFM).

A word of caution. It's a necessity to be mindful of: 

  • What we need to unlearn (e.g., could subsequent studies confirm new evidence?

  • Is the behaviour, process, routines, and technology being changed properly following a 'trend' or 'sentinel event' that acts as a trigger?

  • Is there any other approach for making better progress?

Your organization's "aha" moment may occur when it sees an opportunity and moves forward to seize it. Rather than trying to return to "normal" after COVID-19, many business leaders challenged themselves to reimagine their mindsets, businesses, and operating models. The "ah ha" movement was to take advantage of new opportunities and become more agile and resilient in the future. For better rebuilding, it is necessary to unlearn entrenched beliefs and models.

Second is the "uh-oh" moment when an unpleasant personal experience or crisis forces companies to change course. During the global shutdown, companies were forced to transition to remote work and figure out ways to support customers and employees.

Failure is something you have learned from childhood. Now it’s time to unlearn and create a new narrative of failure in a learning organization.

Potential Areas for Unlearning

The key is to gather diverse perspectives; evaluate problematic behaviours, beliefs, experiences, and practices; to co-create unconventional solutions to existing problems and fleeting opportunities. The potential areas ripe for unlearning include:

  • Cognitive unlearning: evaluate problematic behaviours, and beliefs and question their relevance, challenging existing thinking patterns to question the status quo; reevaluating existing assumptions, and experiences and replacing them with better and more productive ideas to reimagine industries and build stronger relationships with stakeholders.

  • Procedural unlearning: remove redundant steps in an existing process and workflow and eliminate barriers, errors, inefficiencies, and mistakes; redefining ways to measure success, accountability, experience, and performance.

  • Societal unlearning: to create an inclusive workplace, redefining norms, values, and relationships to achieve a balance between human beings, the planet, profit, and purpose.

  • Technology unlearning: identify jobs impacted with automation, upskill and reskill employees to fulfil future jobs, and replace old technology with efficient tools and applications.

Making Unlearnt Learning Stick

With our attention span of a gold fish, in the absence of the factors that sustain learning (application, assessment, context, emotional appeal, level of impact, exposure, incentives, recognition, relevance, repetition, reinforcement) what we learnt fades over time. The recall rate of new information we learnt can be described using Ebbinghaus’ ‘forgetting curve.’ This illustrates how learned information can disappear from our minds over time without action.

To combat the curve and make learning stick, you need to space review and help learners build a conscious competence ladder to stay ahead of the game. How and when you time and space the review sessions depend on several factors: the context, the type of material, meaningful information, the amount of detail they need to know, ability to challenge their memory and stretch their recall. To build a learning organization and make learning stick, you will likely have to work harder if other information distracts or disrupts you.

A Fresh Start

Unlearning requires acknowledging that old models and systems don't work and that it's time to change. The pandemic has disturbed the slumber of most organizations. Rather than clinging to limiting beliefs, models, and systems, it is now up to us to accept reality and take bold steps to become agile and resilient. 

You may want to check the course I offer, “Strategic Agility for Leaders.” It equips you as leaders to change the game and make a positive impact:

  • What are some ways to spot "the edge" and know which paths to follow and which cliffs to avoid?

  • How can you build capability and capacity to support new ways of thinking, doing, managing and excelling?

  • How can you bet on failure and embrace uncertainty? What can be done to solicit critical feedback and enable formal and informal learning structures to evolve along specific business edges?

  • How to innovate, expand continuous improvement, and improve productivity, engagement, and retention in an uncertain environment?

It draws from agile, behavioural science, business design, circular design, entrepreneurship, design thinking, future thinking, lean, service design, and system thinking.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Dr. Vidya Priya Rao 
Her purpose is to equip 1 million people with adaptive skills and toolkit to ride the waves of change for breakthrough results.  She is the Founder of Innovatus Marketers Touchpoint LLP and author of the book Master Agile and Resilient Strategy. She can usually be found facilitating a strategy / innovation workshop, designing actionable visual tools, teaching design principles at business and design schools, or raising awareness of design to solve complex problems. When not absorbed in writing her second book, Vidya loves cooking, trekking, and travelling. She lives in Mumbai, India.

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