You might think from the title of this book that it contains instructions on dealing with crazed school teachers who’ve resorted to holding their pupils at gunpoint. But thankfully, no. The title doesn’t refer to imminent death, but rather the slow death of an organization that cannot evolve with its environment.
The author, Edward. D. Hess, is a Professor of Business Administration at University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business and has spent decades studying and consulting with high-performance learning organizations. He’s written 10 other books, but this one focuses on the key characteristics of a learning organization and includes the kind of practical tools and advice that will come in handy for anyone facing the metaphorical gunpoint of “Learn or Die.”
Hess starts by describing the key features of a learning organization in terms of the right people, the right environment, and the right processes.
The right people
Learning organizations need people who can learn. Ok, that’s obvious. But what does a good learner look like?
According to Hess’s and others’ research, good learners
- Believe in their ability to handle challenges (self efficacy).
- Love learning for the challenge and the journey, not the end goal (intrinsic motivation).
- Believe they can learn and change with work (growth mindset).
Hess also notes that managers have to believe their people can learn and grow. Otherwise, they’ll never get the chance.
The right environment
Once you have a set of good learners in your group, you need to give them an environment that supports their efforts. Crucially, they need some degree of autonomy and the psychological safety to speak up and to fail.
This kind of culture won’t develop under traditional authoritarian management or in a culture based on prestige and status. Hess points to IDEO Design Firm, which designed Apple’s first mouse, as a great example of a group which successfully encourages experimentation and honesty in collaboration and has been an acknowledged leader in their field.
The right processes
Good learning groups don’t just shimmer into existence and hold there indefinitely. They take constant work and a set of people systems that reinforce learning values.
Hess explains that the key interaction around which these groups operate is the “learning conversation,” an open, deliberate, non-defensive exchange to test beliefs. Participants ask rather than tell, take account of their own feelings, share honestly, and leave egos out of it.
If this doesn’t sound like any conversation you’ve ever been a part of, you’re not alone. Learning conversations take a lot of time and practice. And over the years, Hess has collected a set of tools which teams use to help them acquire the skill.
Critical thinking tools
Over years of observation, Hess has distilled successful learning skills in these “Critical Thinking Tools.” The tools are designed to help you and your team engage in learning conversations by
- Slowing down knee-jerk thinking and encouraging deliberate reasoning.
- Increasing our openness to information that contradicts our beliefs.
- Identifying and testing assumptions underlying our beliefs.
- Helping us learn from the results of inquiry.
I won’t go into all the tools here, but there are a couple that caught my interest.
The Recognition-Primed Decision Model
Hess draws on the work of Dr. Gary Klein who developed this model to help us make better decisions by slowing down automatic thinking. When we’re faced with an important situation, we often instinctively decide how to respond based on experience. However, it often makes sense to stop and test that gut reaction before acting.
As Hess writes,
“[Thinking a decision through before acting] may cause us to notice something different about the current situation that causes concern. This is key. Is there something meaningfully different about the current fact pattern as compared to the pattern in our mind that we matched?”
The simple process of asking if something seems “a little off” can make us aware of key differences that our gut reactions overlooked.
The U.S. Army After Action Review
The previous tool helps slow down gut reactions before taking action. This one helps a team learn from a past action. The U.S. Army uses this process to ensure continuous learning throughout the organization.
After any project or event, the team gets together to objectively review the facts of the case. They ask what happened, why it happened, what worked, what didn’t work, and why it didn’t work.
These meetings aren’t concerned with blaming or praising specific players. They treat the recent experience exactly like a training exercise. “Regardless of rank, every person is expected to contribute and every person has permission to speak freely.”
Hess has seen the after action review work effectively in businesses of all stripes, especially where employees can safely confront the harsh reality of any situation.
Bridgewater Associates, LP: A real-life learning organization
Hess has studied hundreds of companies, and in his book, he includes some stellar examples of learning organizations. Bridgewater Associates, LP, one of the world’s largest and most successful hedge funds, stood out to me as the pinnacle of the bunch.
As is often the case, Bridgewater’s incredible learning culture derives from the deep-seated beliefs of its founder, Ray Dalio. Ray was so committed to his principles of success that he codified them in a 123-page compendium and published it on the Bridgewater website.
Hess dives deeply into Dalio’s background and the principles which shape the Bridgewater culture. But here are few key points in Hess’s words:
- “Truth – more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality – is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.”
- “It’s ok to make mistakes, but unacceptable not to identify, analyze, and learn from them.”
- “Even with the right principles, the right evaluation tools/tests and the right data analytics, it still comes down to human beings taking the time and doing the hard work to analyze, critically think, and come to thoughtful conclusions that are then stress tested with the employee in multiple conversations, all with the goal of personal improvement and fulfillment.”
Bridgewater has been so committed to this approach for so long that it’s ingrained in their processes, their tools, even how employees conduct their days.
Disciplined daily execution
This company is an extreme example, but I think it illustrates that good learning organizations are not born, they’re made and re-made every day through constant diligence from the top. As Hess puts it, “The science of learning and learning processes are in many ways the easy part. The hard part is the disciplined daily execution of the principles.”
But for any management willing to do the work, Hess’s work makes a handy reference guide with enough practical guidance, explanation, and inspiration to keep you on the learning path.
Thanks very much to Edward D. Hess for his extremely thorough and thoughtful work on one of the most challenging goals any group of people can target.