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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
Now, as we move towards decision time, two challenges can arise. The first is often the uncertainty about the availability of resources necessary to test a new idea. Restricted funding often precludes experimentation when results are uncertain. Critically, professional time is already over-stretched by the sheer number of ongoing projects, taskforces and change initiatives. People simply do not have the spare mental, emotional or physical capacities to contemplate another improvement effort. Sometimes, to get something new started, other projects must simply be postponed to free up the required energy. The second major factor that can inhibit new action is the risk of spending a lot of money on an uncertain outcome. ‘Quick prototyping’ is a way through this problem. Prototyping is often associated with products, but it applies just as well to processes. For example, a marketing team can run small-scale trials in test markets and HR can set up a pilot site of new ways to evaluate performance.

Prototyping enables the transition from thinking to productive action without deploying major resources in an irreversible way. It generates knowledge and feedback that allow people to focus on unresolved questions.

To capture the learning from experiments, we can use a form of ‘After Action Review’. This is built on four simple questions: What did we plan to do? What actually happened? Why did it happen? What are we going to do next time?

The prototype might fail and the initiative might then be abandoned. But the lessons from this failure can guide the next round of prototyping, and show the way to robust final solutions.

Decision To Action
Turning plans into action is now critical. Three tasks are key here:

1. Realigning: Supervision and coaching is necessary for any improvements to be realised. For example, a typical error is to announce a new system, whose success depends on new and different forms of collaboration among people, but no supervision or coaching is provided.
2. Unlearning: Supervision and coaching is required to ensure that people stop using the old, less effective methods. The old ways must be ‘forgotten’.
3. Persisting: Supervision and coaching is required for persistence. It takes time and effort to regroove behaviour and make it stick. Absence of senior management involvement has sunk many an improvement project.

Full Circle Today in many companies, it is accepted that an effective learning culture is a critical competitive advantage. Managers do see the importance of reflection and the capacity to generate new perspectives. The chief challenge remains ‘doing it’.

The purpose is to provide managers with an alternative to ad hoc and costly learning that might derive from unexamined experience, or the traumatic learning that is driven by crisis.
Many managers go on to implement their own version of this learning cycle. They take a disciplined approach, consciously taking control of their time-outs rather than waiting for circumstances to present a lull in the action. As one executive conceded: “I hate these ‘retreats’ being in my diary because I know I can’t afford the time. But when I get here, I wish we did them more often.”

Ultimately, it is a matter of how much this method can reduce your pain! How long do you think you can carry on like this? Maybe you will get by for a couple of years or even more. But is it sustainable for the next one to three decades? If you do not take charge of your own learning, who will do it for you? How will you stay fresh and energised over the decades to come?

To summarise, it can be said that superior learning is a necessary component of competitive success. It is a rare person or team which can achieve deep learning - that is, replacement of obsolescent beliefs, and the gaining of new robust perspectives - while immersed in the daily patterns of ‘action now’.

Deep revisions of outdated beliefs and of failing execution methods, requires that the person or team must break the decision/action loop, go offline, and explore new possibilities – without the distractions of the typical daily demands for ‘action now’. The results of effective offline rethinking will be superior results through better decisions in setting new priorities and the allocation of effort.
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