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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Knowledge Sharing and the well led team paradox

I was reading an article by Amy Edmondson over the weekend which had an interesting paradox, that I’d like to share with you.

We all know that without learning organisations, teams and managers can suddenly find themselves trapped like a mammoth in a tar pool in yesterdays world.

Edmondson has been looking at how organisations can better access and utilise the talents and the insights of their employees. She found that employees sometimes find it very difficult to make a difference at work and to help their organisations make the jump forward - sometimes out of a culture of fear or by receiving a comment from a senior manager that acts as a dissuader on them feeling safe to put forward other ideas.

Most people would logically think that organisations that have teams that report less errors are the efficient ones. Edmondson’s work shows that the more effective teams are the ones that report more mistakes.

Upon investigation, she discovered that well led teams with good relationships don’t actually make more mistakes just that they feel comfortable in owning up to them because they had managers who tended to have open discussion, accepted trail and error rather than teams with punitive leadership and poor relations

It was due to an understanding that learning comes from being messy. When we are learning there isn’t always a precedent to guide us and provide us with guaranteed results. I am a three fingered typist - and not a touch one - if I started to learn how to touch type - my productivity would drop in the short term - but in the medium to long term - I would learn to type a lot faster.

Learning processes by their very nature tend to involve facing failures. James Dyson is recently quoted as saying that it took 5127 attempts before he got his vacuum cleaner correct.

I’d like to say that I’m referring to the new mistake where we are in unfamiliar waters. This is where if errors are made then we can carry out a review, see where we could improve, what we did well and also if anyone else needs to know the lessons learnt. This is different to the mistake made when there is something that we have past records to go on. That may be just an error of understanding and some coaching and mentoring may be of use for that error.

The presence of problems doesn’t signal high performance to most people and therefore managers need to recognise this reality and factor it into the cost of learning. As Edmondson highlights, the here and now appearance of high performance will seem more valuable and preferable than learning with its messy and error ridden nature. Not learning is an option but not one that a knowledge based organisation would want to take if it wanted to survive in the long term.

It is important that organisations learn best through group learning so that the interaction of individuals based in small groups is harnessed.

Each element of an organisation might face a different challenge based on it’s market - ie one might work on technical abilities to attract clients - some may have a more business developed approach which harnesses several strands.

We have talked earlier in this blog as the manager as coach rather than just a supervisor and to encourage learning behaviours by remembering to tolerate initial failure. This article I believe bears this out and highlights an interesting paradox that we should consider whilst training

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