The following is an interview with Edward Hess, author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization:
Question: What is the purpose of Learn or Die?
Edward Hess: The book uses the science of learning to answer two important questions:
First, how can we individually become a better and faster learner?
Second, how can we as a manager/leader build a team or an organization that continuously learns better and faster than the competition?
Another purpose of the book was to review and synthesize across academic disciplines the developments in the science of learning that have occurred since Peter Senge’s 1990 landmark book on learning organizations and put forth a new blueprint of how to build a learning organization based on the current science of learning.
Q: How should readers approach this book?
EH: Readers should read this book with an open mind. A natural reaction will be “that is not me” – “I don’t think that way”. Well, the science says it is highly likely that you do. To get the most from the book, one has to accept the science of learning and that paints an unflattering picture of how most of us think. Many people who have read the book and have communicated with me found it personally a “wake up” call.
Q: Aren’t most of us good learners?
EH: Yes, many of us are good learners but it is highly probable that we are suboptimal learners. We know from research that cognitively we are fast reflexive thinkers who seek to confirm what we already know. We are confirmation machines. Emotionally, we tend to be defensive thinkers protecting our views and ego. Emotionally, we defend, deny and deflect. The saboteurs of learning are ego and fear. That is our ‘humanness”. To be a great learner requires one to overcome those natural proclivities. Learn or Die puts forth a blueprint of how to do that.
Q: How did that research impact you personally?
EH: I have been working on this project for years and it had a big impact on me. I realized I had to take my learning game to a much higher level. Even though all the feedback from my schooling and my work life in the business world and academia had been very positive, I had areas that I needed to improve in order to really be a great learner.
So, I started working on those areas: managing better my thinking and emotions, quieting my ego, redefining what “being smart” means, actively listening with a non-judgmental open mind to others and treating everything I believe as being conditional subject to stress testing by new data.
I had to define myself (my ego) not by how much I knew or by having the right answer but rather by how well I use best thinking, listening and collaborating best practices. I created checklists that I use daily to grade myself and reflect on my learning performance. Overall, I am a better thinker, listener, and collaborator today than I was before writing this book—but my work is not done.
Q: What does a great learning organization look like?
First, the organization must accept the challenge that it has to create the right learning environment, model the right leadership behaviors and put in place the right learning processes to enable employees to overcome their “humanness” and become faster and better learners.
The right environment is not a command and control environment. It is not a culture of fear. It is not Theory X leadership as defined by Douglas McGregor. It is a people-centric emotionally positive work environment. High employee engagement is necessary—something that is missing today in many companies. The organization’s culture, structure, leadership behaviors, HR policies, measurements and rewards have to be designed to create learning mindsets and drive best learning behaviors. Companies have to change their mindsets about mistakes especially with respect to innovation and experimentation. The book describes companies that have done this and are leaders in their industries.
Q: Why aren’t more organizations great learning organizations?
EH: The purpose of almost all organizations is to produce standardized, predictable, reliable, and low variance results. Organizations by their inherent nature are anti- change. That drives one to view mistakes as bad and something to avoid. Well, that inhibits innovation, experimentation and learning. Mistakes and failures are a necessary part of innovation, experimentation and learning. Most learning comes from mistakes—fixing things or trying things and learning by iteration.
Fear of making mistakes can become a dominant emotion in a company and fear diminishes the quality of cognitive processing, creativity, innovative thinking, judgments, and decision-making. That is why the concept of a learning culture is so important. Learning underlies both operational excellence and innovation. The difference between operational excellence and innovation from a learning perspective is the tolerances for the amount of variance and risk necessary for success. Learning is the unifying theme that can allow an organization to be both operationally excellent and innovative.
You can also add leadership ego, arrogance, complacency, laziness and hubris to the answer.
Q: What does it mean to take one’s learning game to a higher level?
EH: It means becoming a better critical and innovative thinker, more emotionally and socially intelligent and a better collaborator. That requires using best processes, having a learning mindset, managing one’s emotions, quieting one’s ego, being open-minded, fair minded, a non-judgmental listener—all of which require managing self, empathy and humility.
Q: In the book you talk about the learning power of “surprises”. In doing your research what really surprised you?
EH: Let me give you some context—I have had prior educational experience in the fields of cognitive and educational psychology. First, I was surprised by the recent research in neuroscience that shows that our emotions are intertwined in every step of our cognitive system. I had undervalued the impact and importance of emotions in our thinking. Rationality is a myth. Managing our emotions is as important as managing our thinking. The power of positive emotions—the research in positive psychology is quite compelling.
Second, I found the congruity between a high engagement learning environment and a high employee engagement business environment fascinating. Third, I found the congruity of the research findings on building trusting relationships in business, education and psychological counseling settings interesting. They drove me to focus on foundational enabling learning behaviors in the book.
The BIGGEST surprise was Bridgewater Associates, LP., the largest hedge fund in the world and one of the most successful. I was very fortunate to have been invited inside to experience and learn how they have created a learning system that helps people overcome their natural cognitive and emotional proclivities that inhibit learning. Bridgewater was the most advanced learning organization I discovered in my research and I devote 50 pages to describing in detail how and what they do. The time spent working on each person’s learning inhibitors at Bridgewater is unique. I believe that the organizations of the future will be those that focus on developing the best learners. I am most thankful to Ray Dalio the founder of Bridgewater for allowing me to take public for the first time so much of their “secret sauce”.
Q: Who are other great learners organizations?
I am highly impressed by the work being done inside Intuit; IDEO; Pixar; W.L Gore & Associates; and the Special Operations Forces of the United States Military—all of which are discussed in my book. I am sure there are more great learning organizations out there and I encourage readers to send me names of organizations that they believe are great learners.
Q: Taking everything you have learned in your research and taking into account the coming technology advances would you be willing to make some predictions about the future of business organizations?
Well, here are some ideas and remember all ideas are not good:
(i) While technology will displace many human workers, technology will also humanize many organizations. Why? Because the human workers remaining will likely be engaged in activities that require higher order learning and highly developed emotional and social intelligence. Most people come to the workplace needing lots of developmental work in those areas. To do that developmental work inside the business will require many businesses to create a positive emotional work environment that drives high employee engagement and will require many leaders to change their attitudes, mindsets and behaviors. Hierarchy and rank will be devalued. Structures will need to change. Many organizations will need more candor, humility and empathy. Many organizations will have to become more people-centric and positive emotional places to work. They will have to be humanized in order to become better and faster learners.
(ii) Assuming (i) is correct, that will require the transformation of many HR functions into a world class professional personal human development group that provides individual customized personal development experiences with mentoring to thousands of employees. The time spent on such personal development will likely exceed in amount, intensity and depth of engagement anything the HR group is currently doing. The Chief HR Officer will become the Chief Human Developmental Officer reporting directly to the CEO. The mindset will change from “managing” human resources to really developing learners. It is a HR game changer – which many HR professionals will probably welcome.
(iii) At the same time, business management education will likely have to change to meet businesses’ needs for business managers who have strong foundations in critical and innovative thinking, experimenting, collaborating and who have begun the personal developmental work to advance their emotional and social intelligence. Those types of educational experiences are experiential, done in small teams, highly personalized and require high engagement faculty competencies in counseling and mentoring. That will likely require major changes in many business schools.
(iv) The management practices at organizations like Bridgewater Associates, W.L. Gore & Associates and Pixar will likely become more common – they are “organizations of the future”, assuming they continuously improve and do not become complacent or lose their learning environment or rigor in the pursuit of growth or in leadership successions.
(v) The required humanization of many business organizations and the increased importance of “soft” skills such as empathy, humility, emotional and social intelligence, mindfulness etc. could be challenging to many men. Men can learn these skills – but many men need to learn to “lean out”. I predict the upcoming learning revolution in business will propel more women into C-level positions and that will likely accelerate in many cases the humanization of organizations.
Technology advances could change the business world in some interesting ways.