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23rd October 2019

Driving High Performing Teams via a Culture of Continuous Learning

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

A great quote isn’t it? It’s powerful and rings true. We all love to talk about culture, but it is sometimes difficult to truly conceptualise what it is and how we can affect it. At Impact, our favourite catchall definition is “the way things get done around here” (Deal and Kennedy, 1982).

A great analogy would be to understand strategy in terms of a sat nav when driving. You choose your desired destination and follow a road map of how to get there. However, will you arrive at your destination on time? How is your driving? Are you checking your GPS? Are you driving in a fuel-efficient manner? Is everyone happy in the car or did you forget the snacks again? It is our culture which determines the way things actually get done.

This month, our Business Psychologists, Ro Fasoura, Anya Moore and Sam Warren, delivered a Pro-Manchester masterclass on how to drive high performance teams through building a continuous learning culture. This article shares their insights, providing you with a glimpse of the key concepts of a ‘Continuous Learning’ culture and a great technique for assessing culture and implementing positive change within your organisation.

Culture is Bigger Than What You Think

Most people think of culture as the observable characteristics within an organization that we can *see* with our eyes, for example the organisational strategy, vision and goals. But, these are only part of the story. Like an iceberg, where we only see the tip, the majority of what drives our behaviours within an organisation lies below the surface. These less visible elements of culture include the personal beliefs, values, norms and assumptions shared by individuals in an organisation and these are translated into observable behaviours, such as the way we act and communicate with each other. Therefore, it is important to consider both the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ elements of culture when implementing change.

What is a Continuous Learning Culture?

“A learning organisation is an organisation that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” – Peter Senge

A learning culture is one which embraces a set of attitudes, values, and practices that support and encourage continuous learning for the organisation and its members.  Research has found that high performing learning organisations are 92% more likely than other organisations to innovate, 46% more likely to be first to market, 58% more prepared to meet future demand, and experience 37% greater employee productivity.

A fantastic example of a culture that embraces continuous learning can be found in Japan in the form of ‘Kaizen’. Kaizen is the Japanese term for continuous improvement, roughly translating to “change for better”. It is commonly discussed alongside the concept of lean thinking and is a popular case study of what “good” looks like within manufacturing and other super-competitive industries. It is driven around getting the most out of your staff and requires employees at all levels work together proactively to achieve regular, small improvements that are linked to measurable results and the deeper purpose of the organisation.

Kaizen is a frame of mind where individuals are always striving to be better. This philosophy assumes that ‘’our way of life – be it our working life, our social life or our home life – deserves to be constantly improved’’.

Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)

A commonly used tool for delivering Kaizen is the PDCA model. It is an iterative approach based on science that organisations can use for continually improving products, processes or services and for resolving problems. This is a great approach for starting to embed a culture of continuous learning in your organisation.

The stages are as follows:

Observe

Understand the current (as-is) situation. What is the status quo, what are the current issues and needs of the business?

In order to understand your ‘to-be’ you will need to know your ‘as-is’. Conducting a cultural assessment includes reviewing various components of culture such as: environment, traditions, social relations, incentives, and values. This understanding will highlight the gaps between the current state and the desired state. Tools such as surveys have been designed to help this process, enabling you to gather ideas from those who are involved in living and also contributing to the culture on a daily basis. Through this you can identify what barriers need to be removed in order to shift the culture, as well as what is needed to enable it.

Plan

Develop a plan for change which embraces whole systems-thinking. What are your goals, vision, strategy and how will you measure success?

In planning change, you need to embrace it fully. Culture change is no quick fix, it takes time and requires commitment, investment and persistence to get it right. Therefore, implementation must not be rushed! Take time to develop a robust plan for improvements and work steadily to embed the changes. You need to drill down into what you want your culture to look like in terms of behaviour. This helps you to define a clear vision, allowing you to establish a timeline and a desired end date. If you fail to plan appropriately and realistically you will struggle to realise the benefits of your culture change and keep the business case alive.

Do

Implement and embed your change. Introducing new ways of working which support the bigger picture you have identified in your planning.

There are many areas in which you can look at to embed or improve your learning culture, here are a few of our suggestions:

Formal Arrangements:

Supervision

  • Ensure alignment between the culture, structure and strategy
    Does your organisational structure support information sharing at all levels of the organisation? Do you have a system that reinforces the values of experimentation, initiative and innovation? Weaving the desired culture into your organisational strategy and structure is a powerful way to support the change throughout much of the work your business is doing.
  • Performance reviews
    Are people being motivated and reviewed on desired behaviours? We need to recognise those who have demonstrated innovation and acted as pioneers of the organisational culture change whilst helping those who may need to develop.
  • One-to-one discussions
    Let’s keep this at the front of people’s minds, talk, discuss and appreciate the contributions people are making to aid the learning and the improvement of those around them.

Provision

  • Concrete learning processes and practices
    Formalise and concrete your provisions for learning. This will allow the foundations to be set for learning to flourish. For example, establishing robust knowledge management systems to enable people in an organisation to share, access, and update business knowledge and information.
  • Make learning accessible
    Allow people time throughout the week to engage in learning. The availability of resources such as learning and development opportunities is a key consideration. Is learning only a couple of clicks away? Make it easy and you’ll increase the uptake of learning behaviours.
  • Communicate the change/learning requirements
    Make people aware of changes and key learning requirements to help them prepare to adapt.

Informal Arrangements:

  • Employee Involvement
    Bring people along with you in developing the learning culture. Engaging them early will help with people embracing the change and maximising the fit of your culture to your business.
  • Psychological Safety
    Do people feel safe to share their ideas and take risks? Psychological safety creates the bedrock for great conversations and more importantly impactful learning opportunities. You need to ensure that people are not afraid to fail and that failure is seen as a stepping stone to success.
  • Champions of Change
    We need advocates i.e. people who will help to keep the energy and discussions around this within the organisation. The way that we set and model the precedent is a big contributor for setting those unwritten rules and the social norms within groups, and ultimately the organisation.

Check

Review your success metrics and fix what doesn’t work. Evaluate the results of the test and share the lessons learned.

This is where you will be testing your hypotheses. Have you seen the changes you expected to see? If so, great! Shout about it and celebrate it. This will help maintain the energy and enthusiasm towards the change. If not, why not? What needs to be adapted? Or do we need to look elsewhere for the desired improvement?

Act

Report results and determine any follow-up items.

This could be a small adjustment which then involves another iteration through the PDCA cycle, or it could be taking a big action such as implementing across another department or even the whole organisation!

It is important to remember that the PDCA cycle is continuous process, it’s a journey which never really ends!

So what are you going to do to foster a learning culture in your organisation?

To find out how Impact can help you to assess and develop your workplace culture and use change as a positive force for your organisation, get in touch with our expert Occupational Psychologist Consultants here.