Creating a Culture of Learning

When you hear “barnacle” you might think pirates. That’s understandable. Today, however, we’re not talking about pirates (unless your company sells pirate services).

First, an interesting biology bit:

Barnacles are a type of arthropod, which means they’re related to delicious lobster and crab. Yet, you do not want to eat these suckers. Barnacles attach themselves to ships, docks and underwater caves, feeding off plankton.

Barnacles are really hard to remove. They create weird cement-like glue to fasten themselves to things, like the side of a ship. The seal is so strong that some researchers are exploring how to commercialize it! When left ignored, they grow and multiply, causing ships to drag and burn more fuel, leading to significant economic and environmental costs. The Navy is not happy about this.

So there’s a quick biology lesson. What does this have to do with organizational culture?

You’ve heard that organizations live and die by their culture. You’ve read the management books. Culture eats strategy for lunch, yadda yadda.

In short: Culture impacts how an organization serves customers, innovates, and treats humans inside and outside of the organization.

But organizations can grow barnacles.

Cultural barnacles are habits and mindsets that attach themselves to companies and grow exponentially when left unchecked. They start small, grow quickly, and are difficult to remove. At first innocuous, soon an expensive drag on the ship.

Barnacles develop as leaders and employees sleep-walk through the motions of growing the business, often saying:

“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

“That’s how we’ve always been measured…”

“I just do what I’m told…”

“It worked before…”

Legacy processes, stale KPIs, and a habit of leaders to slip into tunnel vision are common barnacles. When left ignored, these habits drag on an organization’s ability to learn, move, and evolve at scale.

Over-processed workflows, siloed problem solving, and top-down, closed-door decision-making are other barnacles that create a culture where humans become robots who do, not humans who think. (And you know the robots are coming.)

Learning Is the antidote to barnacle growth

A culture devoid of learning lives in an echo chamber of its own preferences. Nothing new can get in. Data is often cherry picked to create a self-sealing bubble of logic that deflects the reality of the outside world and suffocates creativity growing from within. It’s where ideas die because, “That’s not part of our process.” Voices are smothered because, “I’m sorry, what’s your title again?”

So. What now?

Let’s start by answering a simple question: What is learning? Simply stated, learning is “the detection and correction of error.”

Humans are exceptional at error detection.

We’re primed to identify when things don’t go as expected because it’s easy to point to things that don’t go our way. We are not as easily primed to learn.

We can learn how to learn better by delineating between two distinct types of learning.

First, there’s single-loop learning.

Single-loop learning is essentially trial and error based on a defined problem statement.

We detect an outcome we don’t like, build the problem statement, and test different actions to influence the result. We learn how to get closer to our desired result by testing different actions.

For example:

  • Employee does not meet target KPI, therefore we test different training methods to correct the result.

  • We aren’t generating quality leads through the website, therefore we test different layouts and website copy to learn what converts best.

  • We aren’t seeing engagement with this new feature, therefore we test different drive-to / activation techniques to increase engagement.

Detect, test, learn.

Single-loop learning has its place in our every day, but it’s the shallow end of the learning pool.

Then there’s double-loop learning.

Rather than experimenting with different actions or behaviors to influence a new result, double-loop learning requires you to first analyze the problem statement by unpacking the assumptions, beliefs and biases that informed it in the first place.

For example: Employee does not meet target KPI. 
Rather than immediate action, unpack the problem statement:

  • Why do I assume this is an indicator of success for this role?

  • Am I biased to this approach of measurement because it accommodates my management style?

  • Why do I believe the creation of this metric is realistic?

The next example: We aren’t generating quality leads through the website. 
Rather than jumping to testing design layouts, unpack the problem:

  • What assumptions inform the definition of “quality”?

  • Why do we believe the website is the right channel to generate leads?

  • Am I biased in believing this can be fixed with layout tweaks because my background is in web design?

The final example: We aren’t seeing engagement with a new feature.

  • Why do we assume the problem is activation, what if it’s the feature itself?

  • What beliefs informed our metrics for defining engagement?

Double-loop learning is uncomfortable. It exposes very human flaws in our thinking.

As leaders, we can start cultivating a learning culture by doing three simple — yet difficult — things to keep toxic barnacles from latching on to our culture. They are at the center of building a culture of learning.

  1. Never think you’re immune to the blindfold of your own biases and assumptions.

  2. As a management team and as an individual contributor, ask yourself this question often: “Why do I believe this to be true?” and get ready for the uncomfortable reality that maybe you don’t have all the information.

  3. Build teams who ask questions, not just take orders. Encourage teams to ask, “Why?” and give them the freedom to experiment. Don’t hire people who just like checking the box. Box-checking is controllable, formulaic, comfortable. We’re always busy, but busy doing what? And why? We’re often not learning because we’re avoiding the dirty work of looking in the mirror and asking questions.

Designing a culture of learning is complex, uncomfortable and messy.Start by finding the barnacles and unpacking why they exist, then roll up your sleeves and start scraping them from your ship.