As organizations look for ways to innovate and keep up with the competition, becoming a learning organization has become trendy. Although there are many benefits to becoming a learning organization, what matters most is how organizations go about doing so.
Ironically, as we’ll discuss in this post, many of these solutions tend to focus on superficial, easy fixes. However, as the principle of Occam’s states, the best solutions are usually the simplest. The path to becoming a learning organization doesn’t mean trying out the new, shiny approaches. It means choosing the harder ones that already exist.
The Curve of Growth model is a simple tool we can use to identify some of these harder choices. In this model, there are two paths we can take in any given situation: the path of resistance or the path of growth. Let’s look at each path, and how we can use this awareness to make choices that create a culture of learning.
The Path of Resistance
The path of resistance focuses on short-term gain. Instant gratification, quick fixes, immediate comfort, and the path of least resistance are part of this path. Not coincidentally, this is also the path of addiction. We seek pleasure (or relief) now without thinking of the long-term consequences. In organizations, this can show up as:
- Cutting costs (versus saving money)
- Laying people off
- Avoiding conflict
- Jumping quickly to solutions
- Imposing strict rules and policies
When we choose to take the path of resistance, we sacrifice long-term pain for short-term gain.
The Path of Learning
The path of learning focuses on long-term gain. Seeing the big picture, thinking things through, making informed decisions, delayed gratification, and investing in people are part of this path. This path can be more challenging because it sometimes requires us to be uncomfortable, make hard choices, take things slowly, and sacrifice pleasure (or relief) in the moment. In organizations, this can show up as:
- Analyzing and eliminating financial leaks, including overtime, unnecessary purchasing, shrinkage, high turnover, and re-work
- Leaning into conflict
- Making strategic plans with stakeholder input
- Researching issues thoroughly before making decisions
- Addressing the root cause, not treating symptoms
When we choose to take the path of learning, we sacrifice short-term pain for long-term gain.
The Choice Point
Fortunately, we have a choice of which path to take. The hardest part is making that choice. To choose the path of learning, we need to be clear on our values, have courage, and self-reflect. Of course, if this was easy we’d likely already be doing it. Therefore, we need to develop the muscles to face short-term discomfort. We have to be willing to ride it out or push through until we come out on the other side.
I once worked with a leader who was upset with senior management. Despite her frustration, she was quite successful in her position and liked her job. She was also making a significant impact on her team’s performance, and they appreciated her leadership.
After a series of disappointing interactions, the leader suddenly decided to transfer to a new location. However, it wasn’t until shortly after she made the decision that she realized how much she was letting her team down. She didn’t think about the impact it would have on her team and the success they were experiencing. Unfortunately, senior management had quickly replaced her and it was too late to go back.
When I debriefed with her, she expressed regret at how she handled the situation. She acknowledged her short-term gain of letting her emotions get the best of her and making a rash decision. When we talked about how she would liked to have handled it, she realized that should could have thought through ways to address her frustration. She could have put things in perspective and noticed how her frustrations were small compared to her wins. She could have had some tough conversations early on and been direct with management about what she needed from them.
Taking the Path of Learning
Unfortunately, my client didn’t recognize her choices until it was too late, which is what typically happens when we take the path of resistance. Fortunately, there are always opportunities to make different choices. As you reflect on a current challenge, consider:
- What causes you the most discomfort about your challenge?
- What are some options to handle your discomfort?
- What would the impact of your choices be five years from now? Ten years?
- What would you have to face if you chose the path of learning?
- What support would you need if you chose the path of learning?