I’ve been fortunate the past few years to work with a number of very good senior executives who have led business transformations in pursuit of breakthrough performance. Their efforts pushed me to think deeply about how great organizations achieve great results, and in many ways they shaped my career as I moved from academia to finance-focused business process redesign and finally toward talent management and organizational development. As my thinking has evolved and as I’ve learned from my clients, I have reached the conclusion that business results require constant learning. So I try to keep this in mind as I design learning experiences for the C-suite and their teams.
At first, however, I felt that my focus on learning was divorced from the business planning and execution. But my most recent engagements across the last few years have underscored the centrality of learning to the “business of business” itself. In other words, learning must be embedded in the very business processes we put in place to achieve breakthrough business results. It must be attached to the projects we plan to execute to achieve business results.
I was driven to this conclusion primarily by the notion of VUCA — the fact that we operate in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. It’s not just that we are experiencing change. It has always been thus. Rather, it’s that increasingly we experience change that cannot be modeled, or we cannot put probabilistic thinking against. Linear planning approaches, that focus on fixed future projections, under-serve us as we begin to see more interconnections between workflows and enterprises in networked value chains, and causes and effects seem to blur. Thus, the only way to move forward effectively is to accept that the VUCA world requires adaptability and agility and the ability and willingness to learn on the fly.
Hence, my conclusion that business processes must be aligned with the learning cycle:
Building business processes, and aligning projects, around the learning cycle of Recognize-Extract-Reflect-Apply-Share is perfect for a VUCA world as it acknowledges that with increasingly new and unfamiliar situations coming at us our prior experience and knowledge may not serve us very well. So, pushing ourselves via learning activities embedded within work processes into recognition of knowledge/experience gaps is critical for project success and thus business success.
Once I landed on this conclusion it became clear to me that the sole job of leaders is to actually steward the learning cycle for their teams; that the pursuit of business objectives in a VUCA world is actually the pursuit of learning objectives applied to business goals. This has helped me offer guidance to senior executives struggling to drive the performance of their teams and acts as the design principle for every engagement I take on.
Perhaps this is true because in a VUCA world the only real skill we can depend on is learning agility; and I would posit that leaders who are not building learning agility in their teams won’t be leaders for long.
I would love your thoughts on this perspective, as I am sure your thinking can push me back into the learning cycle myself.