The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage. – Arie P. de Geus
I’ve just finished We do things differently by Mark Stevenson, a look at where things are going right in the world.
In one chapter called The worst school in the country we’re introduced to Carl Jarvis who turned around the school in question.
Before we look at how he did that, take a minute to consider what normally happens in organisations – the loop marked 1 in the picture above.
Leaders in an organisation start with an ambition – they want to achieve something and do well. That inevitably means coming up with activity targets – turnover and profit for the year, Ofsted results, sales calls per day and so on.
If you have more than one person doing such activities the natural next step is to compare how everyone is doing – carrying out a benchmarking exercise.
You find that some are below average and some are above average.
Oddly, it always seems to be around half on either side…
In any comparison you get winners and losers – people who do well on the metrics and people who do poorly.
Because we want people to do well we try motivational tactics – carrots such as payment of bonuses, for example.
Or we bring out the sticks and punish poor performance.
Firing the bottom 10% of the company every year used to be, and perhaps still is an approach used by some.
Either way, the winners are motivated, the losers tend to be demotivated and the net result is what shows up in the activity statistics.
The thing to notice is that winners push the numbers up by more and losers by less.
If the same people are there over time – this will end up with putting out numbers that vary within a predictable range most of the time.
In other words, you have a stable system in such an organisation – one that stays where it is but that cannot grow.
Surely you just get rid of the losers, you say – and keep the winners?
You could do that – but variation has a nasty way of evening the score – with one year’s losers going on to be next year’s best performers and vice versa.
All this work, however, misses the point.
The point of an organisation is not to create winners and losers but to get people working together well.
That’s the only reason to work with someone else – when together you can do more than either one of you could do individually.
The reality is that in most organisations you could do a lot more by yourself than working with anyone else.
And that’s a problem – because it makes a mockery of all the time we spend at work.
This is the thing that Carl Jarvis saw as he looked at his group of teachers.
Stevenson writes “Carl realised that his teachers. like many in the profession, had become atomised. They didn’t collaborate or feed back on each other’s work. They never saw each other teach. They didn’t discuss the impact they were collectively having on students and how they might work better together to improve it. In short, and with no small dose of irony, they were teachers who had stopped learning. They weren’t acting as an organisation but a set of individuals.”
Now, you can spend a lot of time thinking about what competitive advantage looks like for organisations.
The best one is actually having barriers to entry – having a monopoly on your business.
But the next best one, as in the quote that starts this post, has to do with your ability to learn.
Take the loop marked 2 in the figure, for example.
This is a thinly disguised version of Deming’s Plan, Do, Study, Act model.
Again, leaders can start with an ambition – a plan – but the next thing to do is look at what activity is actually going on.
Then, you study what you’ve found, perhaps alone but it’s better with others because you’re more likely to learn something new as you discuss things together.
Then you try doing something – taking action that might help and see the impact it has on activity and go around the loop again.
Unlike a loop that leads to motivation or demotivation – this loop leads to learning – and a learning loop is a positive one because whether things go well or badly, you have the opportunity to learn something from it.
As group participants and leaders, then, we have to let go of familiar instruments like criticism and contempt and reach for less natural ones like praise.
Stevenson writes about Carl – He spent weeks tirelessly observing and encouraging his teachers. “I told them they were all amazing, all the time. Even if the teaching I saw was terrible, I would pick on some small thing that was OK and praise it. I went over the top, but I had to, because I had to get them to believe in themselves again. I spent the first six months not in my office but in classrooms, watching things get better.”
It’s one thing saying that we need to create learning organisations – but it’s another creating them.
You’ve got to relentlessly, as the song goes, accentuate the positive.