Posted on 20 October 2016 by Hymie Gordon


For a number of years we have been hearing about the “Learning Organisation” and while many organizations profess to be or want to become learning organizations.  In my view very few actually are, or are willing to do what it takes to become one.


Recently, in a session with a leading banking group, they stated that their absolute imperative was innovation, to become one of the leading innovative banking groups. Being curious and understanding a bit about their culture, I posed the question, “So what is your appetite for risk?” They looked perplexed and answered that being in the banking business with high levels of compliance they had very little appetite for risk.  This raised my second question, “How does one innovate without risk?”


This, in my view, is what sits at the heart of stopping most organizations from becoming true “Learning Organizations”.  It is underpinned by a lack of trust, and the need to manage people as opposed to leading them.  In a recent article by Simon Sinek, he deepens our understanding of some of the additional underlying drivers.  He points out that most people are promoted up the leadership chain based on their competence to do their jobs.  Arriving in the new role they are now responsible for the people who are doing the job they used to do, and so they tell them exactly what to do.  Few companies teach us how to do, and even fewer companies teach us how to lead, which is like putting someone at a machine and demanding results without showing them how the machine works.  The result being that we get managers and not leaders. In Simon Sinek’s words, “When we tell people to do their jobs, we get workers. When we trust people to get the job done, we get leaders.”


 “When we tell people to do their jobs, we get workers.  When we trust people to get the job done, we get leaders.”


One of the hardest leadership lessons to learn, once promoted, is that we are no longer responsible for doing the job; we are now responsible for the people who do the job – for training people, coaching people, believing in people and trusting people.  Leadership is a human activity.  And, unlike the job, leadership lasts beyond whatever happens during the workday.


So what is a learning organization?

Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, whose long time business partner was the late Steve Jobs, is accredited with (among many other things) bringing computer animation to the movies, with films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo, etc.


In Ed’s book Creativity Inc. he explains that to drive the innovation required for achieving his goals, he needed to find the right people and give them the space to do their jobs. He also understood the need to allow them to fail, but his requirement was that they “fail fast” and to bring the failure into the broader team, so that they could all learn from it.  In other words he understood that in order to innovate one had to fail because in failure there is a learning opportunity.  He understood that in order to get the best from his people he had to create a safe environment where people were given direction and the necessary autonomy to get on with it. He understood that in order to create the culture where innovation would thrive he needed to trust the people he had chosen to do the job. This was a good example of smart trust where he set clear objectives and measures, but allowed his people to choose the pathway to achieving those objectives.


Dr David Rock, one of the thought leaders in the human-performance coaching field, who has a Professional Doctorate in the Neuroscience of Leadership, created the SCARF model based on neuroscience. The A in SCARF stands for autonomy and using this model he proves that human beings are hard wired to push against being micro managed and tend to thrive when given adequate levels of autonomy and are trusted to deliver the required outputs. Competent leaders intuitively understand this.


Leadership is essentially about creating a strong people-first culture, it’s about understanding and respecting diversity, then aligning your people behind a shared vision. Great leaders create a learning culture by treating people with respect and giving them the space to innovate and grow. They look to build competencies like personal mastery, which is essentially about moving from reacting and judging to being curious, which in turn leads to learning.


Peter Senge, one of the frontrunners in thinking about building the learning organization, pointed to this in his ground breaking book The Fifth Discipline. We know, from his work and our own, that the shift from managing to leading people, which includes understanding self and others, is one of the key foundations of a learning organization.