Lives are On the Line
People are depending on you. They depend on your organization.
Your mission is important.
With the world relying on you and your team, it is vital that you stay relevant, effective, and connected.
History is strewn with examples of organizations that failed or are struggling to respond to a changing world. Here are just a few:
- Borders Books – digital and online changes killed their business
- Blockbuster Video – same thing with digital and dvds in the mail
- US Education System – poor results for many due to misalignment with current realities including non-agrarian civilization, increased need for knowledge workers, and out-of-school support required for extreme urban / suburban students.
- Easter Island civilization – continued using wood past the time the supply could be regrown
- Figure skating programs that aren’t including quads for male skaters
- Banking organizations that invested in bundled securities whose actual value could not be determined and which could not be sold
- The Jedi Council when the Sith take over (just checking if you’re still reading – but for you Star Wars fans, Yoda does ultimately realize he had been training Jedi for the past, not for the future. For everyone else: I promise no more Star Wars references for the rest of this post.)
The Antidote to Decay
Organizations that stay relevant, effective, and connected do one vital thing consistently:
The people in them learn, their leadership learns, their teams learn.
Learning (and action with that learning) is the antidote to decay and irrelevancy.
The 18 Truths
1. Learning is not “squishy”
Lives are at stake. Your mission is on the line. Learning is vital – not a ‘soft skill’ to be left to chance or a training department.
If your outcomes are important, so is investing in people.
2. Learning requires action and action requires learning
Take action, learn from it, then act again.
Learn, take action, then learn more.
Action without learning is busyness. It is ready, fire! (no aim).
Learning without action is disconnected and will not produce change.
Then do it again.
3. Learning starts Day 1
When people join your team or your organization, how are they greeted? What investment do you make in them? How is the commitment to learning demonstrated?
4. Learning belongs in organizational values
One of the values in my current organization is innovation. We explain it like this: “Mission is sacred, change is essential.” The emphasis is on learning and ongoing response to changing environments.
Is learning a part of your organizational or team DNA?
5. Learning is everyone’s responsibility
Effective learning organizations ask everyone to contribute. Everyone can share what they are learning and can teach it to someone else. You can create peer accountability for individual and team learning.
Can your team see you learning? What was the last thing you learned and applied? What was the last lesson a successful project taught you? How have you implemented that learning?
6. Every project requires “make us smarter” time.
Personal and team reflection is essential.
After every project (or during big ones) take time to ask:
What went well?
What worked that we didn’t expect?
What would / will we do next time?
Incorporate the answers into the team’s future operations.
7. Learning reveals itself in language
Strive to infuse learning language in all your interactions. Work to ask the right questions rather than give all the right answers.
What have you learned? What was most surprising? Most challenging? Most rewarding? Most helpful? How will you handle that next time? How can I help? What do you need to know to make that decision?
8. Show me the money!
What is your people development budget? What books are you giving people? What training courses? Are you supplementing coaching?
Effective organizations invest in their most important assets. If you truly don’t have money, invest time.
It doesn’t have to be a ton of money, but is it there? As part of a small nonprofit team, I started with handouts until I had budget to buy books.
9. Performance evaluations are useless if they’re not based on strengths
No one will be perfect at everything. We’re not made that way. Structuring performance evaluations to highlight “weaknesses” is a waste of time.
More effective are two questions:
What are this persons strengths?
How can they better leverage their strengths?
10. We need to keep outcomes in front of our eyes
We naturally work at what has our attention and what motivates us. Just regularly seeing outcomes is naturally motivating and produces curiosity, investigation, and the learning to accomplish them.
See 5 Ways Angry Birds Will Make You a Better Leader for more…
11. Experiments are Vital
Effective organizations continually try different solutions, explore new ideas, and respond to changes in the world outside the organization.
For experimentation to succeed, you need a few things:
- Make it safe – if no one’s experiments are failing, then you’re not pushing the boundaries with creativity. If you punish “misses”, people will shut down and you will not get creative effort and new ideas
- Establish criteria to asses the effectiveness of the experiment – what objectives does it need to meet to be considered for more resources or wider use?
- When an experiment doesn’t work, either make changes and reinvest according to lessons learned or else shut it down. Don’t leave it hanging out there with everyone wondering what happened.
- Celebrate experiments – including the ones that don’t get replicated! This helps build the safety to try new ideas.
12. Pilot for Effective Change
When an experiment works or your team has a sure-fire idea, roll it out in a couple different environments, take notes, do the review in truth #6, and learn from the pilots. Then roll it out across the organization. This will save you and your team countless hours of frustration.
13. You can’t delegate investing in people.
Integrate leadership development and professional growth into the fabric of the organization. Leaders develop leaders. This can’t be outsourced to another department or just one person in an organization.
Some people are gifted teachers, coaches, and mentors – but even for those who are not, they can still help their teams identify areas of growth, match staff with the appropriate resources, celebrate growth, and be growing themselves.
14. Servant leadership doesn’t happen by accident
There are generally four reasons people seek leadership positions. The first group are the three “P”s: power, prestige, and purse (money). While all are understandable, none of these reasons are a strong foundation for effective leadership.
The fourth reason is service. You’re looking for people who genuinely want to help their team perform, who take personal and organizational responsibility, who have high integrity. They live out Hunter’s ultimate test of leadership: their people are better off today than when they met.
As you’re looking to fill leadership roles, seek out people who are already doing these things. It is unlikely someone will magically begin serving others because you change a few words following their name.
15. The Elephant Corollary – Optimize the System
In talking about systems, Peter Senge said that if you split an elephant into two pieces, you don’t end up with two baby elephants.
The idea is that your organization and team are part of a larger whole. Each task or project they do is part of a larger system. Trying to extract one team, one project, or one task out of the larger system and focus on it alone is like trying to split an elephant in two and expecting two small elephants as a result.
I refer to optimization as the elephant corollary: your goal is to optimize the system, not to make one part exceptional. Here’s a quick example:
If you serve people, you can spend all your time meeting their needs and no time on the needed paperwork to ensure your funding continues. Despite being 100% awesome at serving the people, your organization would fail.
Same problem if you maximize your paperwork energy. Being 100% perfect at paperwork would result in less time with your clients.
You want to optimize: find the right amount of time with people and the minimum amount of time on the paperwork needed for funding. The organization as a whole – that’s your focus.
16. Learning takes time
Bulbs planted last fall may bloom this spring or they may bloom next spring. It will be 6 – 18 months before you see the results of your actions.
Organizations can be similar. You want to allow enough time to examine the natural consequences of changes you make.
Every organization has its own change cycle. Organizations in a traditional academic environment might have to wait an entire year to see the results of changes.
You can and should monitor what’s happening along the way, but know your own organization’s lag time between change and results.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Greek Proverb
17. Learning requires humility
Curiosity, the willingness to admit there might be a better way, and to actually try it – these all spring from humility.
By humility, I mean the awareness that this is a huge world we live in and an incomprehensibly giant universe – and that I’m not the center of it. There is so much we don’t know collectively, much less as individuals.
Humility is vital for individuals and organizations that want to learn. We can’t look for new ideas or incorporate them if we think we already know all there is to know.
Cultivate your own humility and your team’s. Whether through spiritual practices, time spent in nature, or activities for which you have no aptitude – do what it takes to maintain a sense of awe and wonder.
18. There is never an ideal time or circumstance
Some of you will be reading this and wishing your organization was practicing the truths on this list.
My challenge for you is to start where you are. If you have a team, begin implementing these truths with them. If you don’t have a team, begin with yourself. Then develop your influence with others who are willing to join you in learning.
If you’re not part of a learning organization, create pockets of learning – learning teams, learning departments, and learning work groups. The organization may or may not learn, but you will.
You and your team will be better off for it.
Thanks for reading – if this has been helpful, please like, +1, pin, stumble, tweet, or share it with a friend!
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David M. Dye
(Photo by Paul Bica)
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I share twenty years experience teaching, coaching, leading, and managing in youth service, education advocacy, city governance, and faith-based nonprofits. I currently serve as Chief Operating Officer for Colorado UpLift and enjoy helping others discover and realize their own potential.