Why is it that the smartest people often have trouble learning? There’s a classic Harvard Business Review article on this topic that’s dated in some ways and timeless in others. No matter what the year or industry, professionals accustomed to success often struggle when confronted with failure or the need to update thinking. So how can we help smart and successful people learn?
One strategy is to visibly and publicly redefine what we call smart in our organizations. It’s not what you know but rather how you acquire knowledge through experimentation. Bonus points for a willingness to try completely new things versus safer tweaks to existing ideas. The author of the above article introduced us to this idea of “double loop learning” and to maximize success, it requires a safe environment where new things can be tried without fear. It is also likely to require coaching support.
Another strategy is to allow space and encouragement for individuals and teams to explore ideas. There have been recent articles such as this one about class valedictorians. Expected to be the most successful of their college graduation classes, they often go on to decent but not stellar careers while famous drop outs (Walt Disney, Bill Gates, Oprah) take over the world. The explanation is that valedictorians tend to be generalists; they try to excel at everything versus cultivating their true passion. Organizations may increase breakthrough learning by allowing people time to pursue what excites them.
Role modeling and senior management support are key for these changes. Leaders need to show others that they are learning and supporting better ways to learn.
How do you learn? How does your organization define learning? How can you be a role model?