I’ve been thinking about the right balance of learning and performance at work. Or the balance of disruption and consistency of action, or of painfully self-aware norm-forming and happy living within established norms.
I say disruption because I think significant learning–adaptive, as opposed to technical–is disruptive. Especially at work. At some level you are re-thinking an assumption, a rule, an understanding, a belief, and while you are in between the old rule and the rule you replace it with, you are uncomfortably aware of two alternate interpretations of the world, and you can’t float along with autopilot engaged, as we all prefer.
This disruption isn’t that big a thing when you’re in school. On the one hand, you’re used to it, because you’re reforming rules constantly. On the other, you’re not that far away from your early years, when your whole existence was a messy and constantly discombobulating attempt to understand what was going on around you. And the school environment reinforces you. You’re learning things with a peer group. You’re helped by an expert who’s led people your age through the ideas you’re facing time and again. All your time is essentially set aside for you to learn, and society is happy with you doing it. But perhaps most importantly, there’s a certain philosophical remove from what you’re learning. It isn’t yet you. Whether you really get Moby Dick or Astrophysics isn’t going to deeply affect what you think about yourself and who you are and threaten whether you can pay your mortgage and send your kids to school.
Not so at work. Here learning is harder and more disruptive, because what you’re learning is a sapper’s tunnel to your identity. The rules and norms and behaviors and beliefs that are changed in workplace learning are linked to our image of ourselves as professionals, to our sense of belonging to a social group, to our belief in our power to influence people, to protecting ourselves from shame, and then through the transverse theory of the paycheck, they’re linked as well to our sense of financial and familial stability. Our workplace norms in a sense pay our mortgages, put food on the table, get us a Bosch dishwasher, etc. These thoughts are all connected in one big constellation of dark matter stars, and it’s a way we deal with living in an uncertain world.
If you start to question workplace beliefs and rules, you trigger this system. “If what I have been doing,” people will think to themselves on a certain level, “and what people around me have done for years, and what I painfully learned the hard way to do, etc., isn’t totally right, then . . . uh oh . . . I might not be able to do the new thing expected of me,, I might loose face in the workplace, I might loose influence over the world around me, I might be exposed to shame, I might not be able to pay my mortgage, I might not be able to get food, and there goes the Bosch dishwasher, etc . . .”
That’s what I mean when I say learning is disruptive, especially at work.
But of course we have to learn. To change, to adapt. As individuals, as teams, as organizations, as a society. In a world of constant flux, that is the one constant, everyone is agreed. You can either figure out a way to activate or initiate your own learning and change in some controlled and regulated system, like a prescribed burn, or you can wait and have external change, which you can’t control, wash over you like a tsunami, or wildfire.
The idea of the learning organization is basically the former–instead of thinking that we can achieve a stable state, to refer to Donald Schon’s book Beyond the Stable State, we accept that our context is always changing, and we try to find and bake in ways to help ourselves constantly and consistently learn and change. If external change obligations come along, fine, we’ll take advantage of them; if not, we won’t sit around eating pistachios, we’ll concoct our own internal change obligations.
So given that learning and change at work are disruptive and highly anxiety-provoking, how do you do that? How do you manage to do them regularly, consciously, intentionally? Clearly you can’t change everything everyone is doing or question everything everyone is believing all at once. Without some amount of consistency of behavior and expectations, the organizational identity dissolves. We don’t know why we’re here and what we’re doing. Chaos ensues.
I like Edgar Schein’s idea. The leader of the learning organization, he says, in my beloved chapter 20 of Organizational Learning, has to simultaneously assuage his team’s anxieties and prompt people to learn and change in some particular area. “We’re ok in general, but in this little bit, we need to do something differently,” she would say. We have to, that is, finesse a kind of propping up of the existing norms, while we rewrite some of them. It’s about a balance, or a percentage. We have to reinforce our status quo in, say 80% of our work, while we help people deconstruct and reform the status quo in the other 20%. It’s like a rolling blackout, but it’s not a blackout, it’s a spotlight.
But what would the right percentage of learning–the disruption percentage— be? I think the 80/20 rule probably works just as well as any other. I come at it from the opposite angle–If you take the reciprocal of work, when we’re learning full-time, in college, say, and you look at the ratio of learning to performance, you come up with something close to the 80/20 rule reversed. The average college student, say, works 10 hours a week, and has four classes, each roughly 10 hours a week, when you add up class time and homework. That’s a 20/80 work/learn rule, and we can induce from it that full-time work could be the opposite and do OK. In addition, it’s the percentage Google has seized upon in its famous workplace learning initiative.
Of course you’ll ask, percentage of what? Of time, of units worked, of number of work “categories”? I think you can use whatever metric you settle on with your team to organize what you do. It’s a rule of thumb, after all.
The point is to be humble in the breath and scope of your norm-changing initiatives, but be bold in the consistency and continuousness which which you inexorably promote them.