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Never Neglect The Basics
Prof. Preston C. Bottger and Dr. Jean-Louis Barsoux (IMD International, Switzerland) analyse the must-do steps that ensure team success through superior learning capabilities
Again and again we must remind ourselves of a basic truth: Competitive success is the result of superior learning. If our competitors learn faster and better than we do, then they win and we lose. This is especially so in times of turmoil and crisis. Here we set out a simple model of learning, and the ‘must-do’ steps that ensure success.

Our starting point is: Learning is the process by which the person, team, and larger units acquire new ways of looking at important tasks, new knowledge and new methods to adapt successfully to the changing environment.

The decision/action stages are where most managers spend most of their time. But, very few individuals can make major steps in learning while they are busy deciding and doing. To learn, most people need some time-out from their regular activities. They can begin to ask: “What should my new priorities be if I am to accomplish what is both desirable and feasible?”

The outcome of such reflection is a new perspective on new possibilities, and the productive applications of knowledge and techniques. This opens the way to decisions about how to proceed productively. Managers must lead their teams through this learning cycle. But the majority of executives we observe are trapped in the decision-action subphase: quick fixes and incremental adjustments. It is a rare executive who can see things differently or get new ideas when vigorously oscillating between these two poles.

From Action To Reflection
Over time, we can become fully absorbed by everyday activities. We lose sight of the big picture, and the necessity for upgrading. For success we must stop and validly answer these key questions: What have we learned? Is what we are doing taking us in the right direction with the right benefits at the right costs?

Reassessment of previous commitments and work methods is always easier when there is imminent danger in the current situation. But can we reassess before the calamity? How can we develop the hunger for such learning within our teams? Answer: Hot feedback from suppliers, customers, and competitors can provide valuable diagnosis of what needs improving. Two practices can help with this:

1. Imposing time-outs: We are often overconfident in the team’s current aims and methods, or ignorant of what could be done better or differently. We must reserve time in advance for listening to feedback, reflecting on the implications – positive and negative, and then rethinking goals and methods. But we must make sure that time for this is fixed in our schedules.
2. Sharpening the discomfort: Often, we must puncture the complacency of successful teams. This can be done by ensuring that a loud and legitimate ‘voice’ is given to key stakeholders.

Benchmarking against top competitors and best-in-class performers is a strong stimulus to self-improvement. The unit must create robust mechanisms that force it to focus on its effectiveness – information that might otherwise be screened out.

Reflection To New Perspective
Outside feedback and stimuli can generate learning only if the person or team is receptive. Insights from external benchmarking are often rejected on the basis of ‘not invented here’. Useful ideas might be dismissed because ‘our business is different’ – without consideration of the potential benefits. Learning and new ideas can threaten established routines, skill sets and formal or informal hierarchies, challenging values and assumptions. Existing ‘theories’ are critical determinants of what people see, hear, believe and can imagine.

There are two obvious ways that we can reduce such resistance. First, we can coach people to put their existing assumptions or preconceptions into ‘neutral’. Second, we can encourage our people to strongly express their ideas.

1. Shaping the learning context: The context in which learning discussions take place will strongly influence the content and output of such discussions. To think beyond the boundaries of existing belief patterns, the actual workplace is often too limiting. A new physical environment can stimulate different views and assessments of what is working and what is not, forcing team members to interact with one another in different ways. Important questions to be addressed include: What will be the general mode of conducting the discussion, the degree of openness and risk-taking, the kinds of and levels of conflict that will be encouraged, and the role of the executive in the meeting. At the simplest level, there are questions such as: Are we on-site or off? Downtown or country setting? What is the dress code? What is the agenda? Does the boss speak first, last, or not at all?
2. Modelling productive learning behaviour: How can we, as managers, best demonstrate our own commitment to learning? We must legitimise time-outs from tasks by talking about learning, expressing odd ideas, and reporting on what we have recently learned from suppliers, customers, and other outside meetings. We must be passionate in the pursuit of ‘what causes what’, not just when things go wrong, but also when they go right. Also, if we are open in acknowledging our own mistakes, we send powerful messages to others about the legitimacy of learning from failures. In doing so, we help create a sense of ‘limited-risk’ for others to admit errors, float creative and possibly productive ideas, and keep learning.

New Perspective To Decision
The reflection phase should lead to a fresh perspective, or vision, as it is often called. Concretely, what does a fresh perspective or vision comprise? There are three key parts. First, it proposes a breakthrough, more than just an incremental improvement, something that is rare and distinctive, if not unique. Second, it represents a major stretch, but it remains doable – both politically and technically. And third, a lot of people, especially the implementers and key stakeholders, stand to benefit from it in very major ways. Thus, the new perspective refreshes the sense of purpose, direction and focus, and signals the benefits for all stakeholders, including the doers.
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