Monday, September 14, 2009

How people learn.

Post 324 - Studies show that living organisms have learning curves that are S-shaped. So people start with a period of slow orientation followed by a rapid acceleration. However, at a certain point in time, the curve begins to tip downward. Then if a person or an organization doesn’t move onto a new curve, its success life is sharply limited. There are many recent business examples where companies that initially enjoyed great success couldn’t reassess their strategies, and missed the changing market as a result – think of the auto industry for one. Similarly, the PC is not a fixed product but a continuum. It’s not one thing, it’s a continuing phenomenon and every couple of years its definition changes. Success gives the illusion that the curve only goes up. It requires reflection and introspection to know otherwise.

To be introspective means creating an observation point where you can see the past and the future and then decide what to do next. This means retreating, withdrawing to reassess, reframing your perspective, and then returning to the fray. Individuals are most likely to do this when they see different values and conflicts between themselves and their work or their organization. The best strategy is to face up to it and decide what you can change in the organization and what you have to change within yourself. As Professor Pam Posey points out, transitioning between learning curves (created by plotting results v/s effort) is very tricky to do. “It feels like a free fall zone - it feels like we’re throwing away our progress and going back to ground zero again.”

Many companies waste an incredible amount of energy trying to make do with what they have rather than creating something different (in this context, different means better). Managers tell me over and over, “The organization we have is fine - it’s just that it doesn’t really work all that well.” There’s a widespread practice at all levels of people waiting for the experts to tell them the right way to run their business rather than thinking it through for themselves. But deep inside, people usually know a better way to do their work than the way their they’re currently doing it. Ask them, “Would you run the business like this if it were your business?” and the vast majority say “No way.”

However, people in general lack knowledge about how to reach in and access their own beliefs and learnings. And they don’t know how to join their ideas with those of others and act on them together. To many professionals, this approach seems too simple and simple approaches are really difficult for them to trust. However, it’s what works best. The tools most American managers are using to explore their world have grown dangerously out of date.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Today, I leave you with this thought: The future is coming at us with ever increasing speed. We need to engage with it - today; to seize its opportunities - now; to start shaping its possibilities - in this very moment. And our approach must be very different from the behaviors we’ve relied on in the past.

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