Team Learning is Different

This is another one of the posts that got pushed aside from a book review because the topic was thorny enough that it needed its own post. This post was largely sparked by The Fifth Discipline, but has its roots in other books as well. More importantly, team learning is at the heart of how every organization becomes better and more effective.

I’ve spent much of my life working on learning and teaching. I’ve always wanted to help folks understand the skills they need (See the Shepherd’s Guide, for instance). I’ve tried to help folks think about problems differently (See the Psychology of SharePoint Adoption and Engagement). I’ve researched instructional design (See Efficiency in Learning). I’ve learned about how adults learn (See The Adult Learner). Learning how individual adults learn and how to teach them has been a passion of mine for a long time.

However, helping teams learn is something very different. It’s more about team dynamics and trust than the skills of teaching (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy). I’ve done my share of research and thinking in this area, too. There’s a long list of books that talk about leadership of teams, innovation, and efficiency, for instance – Leading Change, The Heart of Change, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Heroic Leadership, Good to Great, The Advantage, etc.

Individual learning is about pedagogy, andragogy, instructional design, and principles of learning and teaching which have long been studied. Certainly individual teaching can vary by topic and by the learner, however, the long history of training individuals in skills and knowledge has created a relative wealth of information about how to do the individual instruction well. The profession of instructional design has arisen because there are people who have focused on learning about learning. As with other professions there are good and bad instructional designers, however, the fact that there’s a more-or-less established professional discipline is an indicator of the level of maturity in designing solutions for individual learners.

Learning individually is a different set of skills than team learning. There’s a sense of emergence that comes with team learning that’s like the way that fish school and birds form flocks. There’s no single characteristic that identifies when a group of fish become a school or birds become a flock. Nor is there a central coordinating intelligence that defines that fish should school or when birds should flock. It just happens. This is very similar to the way that teams learn. In many cases, there’s no one thing that triggers teams to learn.

There are certain conditions that are optimal for team learning. There are themes for how teams are able to become effective at learning as a unit. Some of those themes are:

  • Trust – Trust is the great lubricator in teams and is also a prerequisite for vulnerability (as I explained in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy). Trust may seem like a strange theme until you realize that it’s important to be vulnerable in order to learn.
  • Emotional Intelligence – Certainly teams learn about what it is to do the technical tasks of their work, but more importantly they learn how to work together. It is not working together in the sense of the mechanics but rather from the point of view of the sensitivities of one another that must be considered for everyone to effectively contribute. (See Emotional Intelligence.)
  • Identity – Good teams learn to connect their personal identity with the identity of the team. The more that people are able to form a shared identity with the group the less internal fighting and positioning will happen – and therefore the team will be more effective and will learn more.

Team Effectiveness

In the discussion of learning themes above, there was the inevitable slip into a discussion about how teams learning is measured. The desired outcome of team learning is that the team will be more effective. As a result team performance is a rather obvious measure of how a team is learning. That is, the team that is performing better is probably learning better, or so the thinking goes. However, how do you determine which one is doing better?

One can compare the results of two teams and decide which one is doing better. Although that isn’t as simple as it would seem – except for two very important challenges.

First, no two teams are solving the same issue with the same resources so getting a calibrated comparison is difficult. The teams have different people, with different experience and skills, thus different resources. Without a control group, it is hard to tell what the normal performance would be – so it’s hard to measure how well the team performed compared to normal.

The second challenge is that success on a single project is a short term metric and teams are most frequently together for several projects. That means that we need to sample their performance on enough projects that we’re sure we’re getting a representative sample of their work, not a one-time blip.

If we look at measuring a team’s effectiveness for solving a particular problem, it can absolutely be that the team wasn’t well aligned to solve that type of problem, or there was a mental block, or some other unforeseen barrier. Most organizations, while they desire teams to have excellent success every time, don’t expect it. The expectation is that every person and every team will have projects that are challenging for them. The trick is, that measured across the long term, the team should be able to deliver reliable results on a wide variety of projects most of the time.

If your organization believes that every team should succeed every time, then perhaps the organization isn’t challenging its teams to solve new and novel problems. No professional baseball player bats perfectly. No organization succeeds on every initiative. Failure is always an option – and is necessary for success.

If we look at long term measures, it’s hard to take corrective action in the short term if your measures are long term measures. In fact, team learning is itself a long-term measure. You can’t measure learning directly. You’re measuring effectiveness through measuring specific results. That’s three derivations away from where you started. You can’t measure the rate of change of effectiveness – which is the rate at which the team is learning. In fact, you can’t really measure effectiveness – although, you can measure the results that were achieved. Learning is the rate at which the effectiveness of the team is changing. Effectiveness is the rate at which there are successes in projects.

A Good Example

Years ago I read and reviewed The Wisdom of Crowds. It was a book about how crowds can be either very smart – or very stupid. One of the things I wrote about when I reviewed it (which wasn’t in the book) was about the Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin. Kelly Johnson’s team cranked out some of the most sophisticated and radical aircraft designs of his era. The important part of the Skunk Works was the way the team worked together. If the assembly team had trouble getting a part to work, the engineer and the machinist would meet on the floor, the engineer would “fabricate” a piece of cardboard and tell the machinist to make the part in the shape of the cardboard – and then return the cardboard shape to the engineer so he could draw it up later. That’s a team that’s working well.

There was no accusatory finger-pointing going on. Instead, everyone was lending their experience to the project and working towards the common goal, rather than remaining focused on who didn’t do their job or who was to blame.

Kelley Johnson is arguably responsible for a very results-focused environment that didn’t allow “the blame game” to be a valid option. Everyone knew what they were doing was intensely difficult, so there was no point in focusing on failures. Much of their work was considered impossible. Consider the SR71 Blackbird, the aircraft that could fly higher and faster than a missile fired at it. It’s incredible to think that that aircraft could be created with the technology of that era.

Creating the right environment for team learning to flourish requires utilization of the themes that were discussed here, possessing the character to create the right environment, and implementing the techniques to keep the team together despite difficult circumstances. While it may be difficult to measure the ability for a team to learn, it’s not impossible to do if you have leaders with the right passion and emotional intelligence of their own to be able to discern how to lead the team.