learning organizations

Three Ways to Build a Dynamic Learning Environment

The illustrious UCLA educator and basketball coach John Wooden observed, “When you’re through learning, you’re through.” Coach Wooden taught his players about preparation, conditioning, poise, team spirit, loyalty, industriousness, and several other principles captured poignantly in his famed Pyramid of Success. His players graduated from UCLA and proceeded to become successful writers, historians, business executives, professional athletes, teachers, and parents. Whether competing for national championships or thriving in their careers and families, the disciples of John Wooden shared a common catalyst for excellence: the love of learning. 

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To run a successful enterprise, infuse your environment with a spirit of inquiry and opportunities that will intrigue and satisfy eager minds. Here are several ways to build a dynamic learning environment:

1. Encourage questions.
The Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman became a great scientist because of his mom. When Leon returned home from school each day, his mother greeted him not by asking, “How was your day?” or “what did your teachers cover today?” Instead, she asked him, “What questions did you ask today?” Questions generate amazing breakthroughs when they challenge people to reconsider assumptions or to consider a topic in a new light.

You can encourage a spirit of questioning by applauding the person who asks the most intriguin question in a meeting, by asking staff members to submit questions to a suggestion box or online forum for teammates to consider, and by refusing to end a discussion until someone has asked a pertinent question that your team cannot answer. The toughest questions are often the most thought-provoking and effective ones, so foster a spirit of friendly competition to see who can pose the best questions.

2. Create a catalog of projects and honor employees’ requests to try projects they haven’t done before.
A great example of this approach comes from McKinsey & Company, a renowned strategic consulting firm. McKinsey has a worldwide internal database that lists current and forthcoming projects. Associates within the firm may apply to join any projects that interest them. A consultant may contact the “engagement manager” for that project, explain her reasons for wanting to do the project, and then join the project, even though — and sometimes because — that consultant may have little prior experience in the subject! McKinsey prides itself on hiring people with inquisitive and malleable minds, recognizing that a motivated and swift learner will quickly become highly valuable.

In your organization, ask yourself, “Do we really always need to have the same person doing the same work?” Cross-train your staff. Give them opportunities to try assignments that traditionally fit into others’ job descriptions. The more skills and perspectives your staff members gain across your organization, the more capable, flexible, and creative your team will become. Even if staff members make mistakes along the way, the net benefits will make an open learning environment worthwhile.

3. Establish blocks of time when employees may work without interruption on topics of their choosing.
One of our client’s teams faced the challenge of constant e-mails and phone calls throughout the day. Team members could hardly think creatively or thoroughly about a business issue because they felt constant pressure to respond to these communications. We addressed this problem by establishing a “siesta” period in which staff members would put their phones and e-mail inboxes to sleep. For a designated two-hour block each week, the office became quieter than normal as team members focused fully on designing concepts, writing, or learning new skills. The siestas spurred gains in performance and knowledge, energized the company, and fueled higher income. 

This approach works because our minds are designed to learn throughout life. New cells and synapses form every second. Do not let rigid job descriptions or traditional ways of doing things get in the way of active learning. Give team members the freedom and encouragement to ask daring questions, try new roles, and concentrate for prolonged periods on topics of interest. Your entire team will benefit.