I have been privileged to be a part of some excellent “learning organizations” throughout my professional career. By learning organization, I’m referring to a group focused on a common vision or goal who are empowered to make decisions, innovate, and create without the fear of failure. Top-level leaders in these organizations underwrite mistakes because they trust lower levels to make the right choice based off a common vision and organizational climate.  

With the increasing future rate of change and evolution in today’s 21st-century marketplace, organizations are constantly faced with the challenge of keeping pace with new consumer interests and a highly competitive playing field. According to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, 76% of executives feel their particular industry will change dramatically over the next three years – up from 26% a year ago. This means organizations that rely on more rigid systems of command and control are prone to be outpaced in today’s global marketplace where agility and innovation thrive. This system of inefficiency will not produce the best possible outcomes to challenges like large-scale population growth or the need for more sustainable systems. 

So – how does a learning organization maintain an edge?   

A learning organization learns.

When you watch a child play on an outdoor climbing obstacle, they rarely reach the summit on their first attempt. More times than not, they make a mistake and inevitably fall to the ground. A persistent child will try, try again, especially when a friend, older sibling, or a parent is encouraging them. What’s the risk of a mistake in this example? It can be a bump or bruise from a fall, which are possible on the playground and in the marketplace, especially for a young leader following up on an innovative idea or streamlining a process.  

A leader within a less-rigid organization is free to learn; to make choices, take risk, innovate, and debate methods because the learning organizational culture embraces change. Leaders who give direction and purpose allow their organization to create opportunities knowing there will be setbacks – and failures. The learning organization increases face-to-face interactions, rewards, competition, and post-action reviews. 

A learning organization trusts.  

Back to my playground analogy – the padded surface under the climbing apparatus represents a form of trust. I trust that my child will fall, but because of the padding, I am less concerned and willing to underwrite the risk associated with playing. In a learning organization, trust is the padding.  A climate of trust means talented junior leaders are expectedto think critically, debate, and innovate. But what happens when they fail, waste a resource, burn a prospective lead, or miss a milestone? An engaged leader underwrites the failure to encourage learning. The boss talks with the “front-line” leader about the failure, helps assess, analyze, and adjusts course. As the organization learns, leaders mitigate the risk of failure by listening and adapting based off input from leaders “on the ground.”  

A learning organization is united with a common vision.

…that is over-communicated until everyone understands their role in achieving excellence. The organizational leader provides the vision and the intent of how to achieve success. When organizational leaders visualize success and strategically steer the ship, lower-level leaders can course-correct to achieve milestones and avoid pitfalls. Vision needs buy-in to be successful. A leader must involve their entire leadership team, including key stakeholders, in the vision-development process. When you allow this two-way communication to inform vision and direction, a climate of trust and learning begins to form. 

If your organization isn’t learning, the risk of being surpassed in a competitive marketplace is high. When organizational leaders begin to tap into the combined power of all organizational members, you will be amazed at the capabilities and power unlocked to meet the anticipated, and unanticipated, changes tomorrow may bring.