In a world where the only constant is change, learning determines our individual and organizational success. So, why don’t we put a greater emphasis on making learning part of everyday life?
Learning is a behavioral science, but it’s our behavior that often makes it hard to learn. The good news is we have the power to change our behavior. Research from diverse fields, from operations to psychology to economics to neuroscience, identifies the adjustments we must make to master the art of lifelong learning. Let’s examine two in detail.
Focus on the Process, not the Outcome
When we focus on the process, we can identify problems, create new solutions and maintain a disciplined approach to improvement. So, why do we obsess over short-term outcomes? We think that a good process always leads to success, and when we don’t see the desired outcome, we change things — often the wrong things. Our tendency to evaluate outcome variance as “bad process” impedes our learning.
To overcome outcome obsession, measure the process. For example, Deloitte spent 1.8 million hours on performance management annually, but employees disliked the outcome focus and the lack of transparency. The company switched to multiple, monthly conversations between employees and managers. These frequent interactions create process data, which the company uses to build individual dashboards and enable coaching interactions to drive learning. This tactic led to a significant increase in employees’ belief that the company was interested in their growth and development.
To start this change in your own work, think about your current project. What are the different steps required to complete the work? How can you track and evaluate your progress in each step? Taking this approach not only gives you a better view of what is going on, but it can also create a lot of learning opportunities that improve your overall chance of success.
Block Time for Thinking, Not Just Doing
Success depends on getting things done, so we often confuse activity with progress. The same is true for learning. In a recent study, participants learned a new task and then spent three minutes either thinking about the activity or practicing it. Eighty-two percent chose practice, but the “thinkers” later outperformed the “doers” by 22%. Learning is more powerful when we combine learning-by-doing and learning-by-thinking. Neuroscience shows that both alter the brain in different advantageous ways.
Constant activity also has a high cost. With more to do, we can work faster — at first. A study at a Japanese bank found that as the workload increased, workers sped up, but when the load stayed at high level, the gains were lost, and performance worsened dramatically.
Overcoming the habit of constant activity creates time to think. As the late chairman and CEO of IBM Thomas J. Watson, Sr., reportedly said, “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough … Knowledge is the result of thought, and thought is the keynote of success in this business or any business.”
To encourage people to think, a field experiment in a technology organization’s six-week training program randomly assigned participants into a control or a reflection group. For 10 days in the middle of program, the reflection group spent 15 minutes at the end of the day writing about what they learned. At the end of the program, participants took a technical exam. The individuals who took the time to reflect performed 31% better than the control group.
So, how can we improve our process focus and make time for reflection?
Keep a Decision Journal
For important decisions, write down what you think is going to happen and the reasons for your prediction. Then, after you learn the outcome, go back to your journal. What was right? What was wrong? How can you do better next time? If you don’t see things you individually can improve upon, dig deeper; we can always do better. Whether at the end of the day, before the day starts or in between, make reflection a regular activity.
Success in today’s changing environment requires continual learning. Behavioral science can help us accomplish this goal. You have the power to overcome these learning traps so that you can never stop learning.