This article was originally written for e180, for whom I was publishing We Seek on Medium, I’ve moved on from that work and they’ve moved on from Medium but the topics below are still very relevant to the future of work so I thought I’d keep a version here to refer to.
We produce our newsletter and this magazine to explore how people learn, work and think. We always like to share our discoveries about new tools and trends. Today, we will highlight a few concepts that have drawn particular interest in the course of our research: strategy, perspectives, conversations and deliverables. Considered together, they propose a new direction that is learning-focused and teach us how we might move forward and work together creatively.
Learning is THE strategy in times of change. So why do we refuse to learn and adjust to a new reality?
We are living in an age of rising complexity, gig economy, fluctuating careers and quickening of business and life. Today, constant learning is the best way to be prepared, to stay relevant and to be able to move and readjust. That is not to say that you should back to school for an MBA or a brand new diploma (but go ahead if you wish, of course!). Rather, start seeing change and challenges as opportunities to learn; engage people to acquire new knowledge, to dig through the massive amounts of courses, how-tos and opinions online; mentor and be mentored; join and start peer-learning groups; participate in a learning circle or a guild. The options are endless. Ultimately, it is important to unlearn, to be willing to scrap something that does not work and go with something better. Perhaps you need to find a new process, mental model, hard earned skill or favorite method, etc…
Realize and embrace the fact that everything changes and you can adapt by opening your senses and mind. Learn constantly.
A New Perspective
Once you have adopted this strategy for yourself, you can start applying it to how you approach external tasks, work and opportunities. You might have heard about design thinking in recent years or, “designers getting a seat at the table.” [~1~] This methodology asks designers to apply their toolsets to problems which might not traditionally be considered design issues.
How can a bank change how it presents itself? How should a robot behave when delivering room service? How does a government agency re-invent how they provide passports? These are questions that a designer can approach with their toolkit. They can find creative ways of deconstructing the problem, testing assumptions and coming up with a first solution to test. What if, like a designer thinking through unexpected questions with their specific method, you start approaching your unsettling challenges as opportunities to learn? Using this lens, you can discover new approaches and determine which one might bring about the most relevant knowledge.
Some examples would be: What can we learn when trying out a new on-boarding process for our app? What can I learn when attending this meetup? What can we learn as an organization from organizing an event? How about writing a book or white paper on some of our core values? Cancelling a product? Re-organizing teams? Relocating for a week?
Conversation & Place of mind
A lot of the work people do today relies on acquiring and creating knowledge and requires collaboration and creativity. As this becomes true for an ever greater number of fields, it is important to better understand how the workplace changes. Esko Kilpi has been making some fascinating explorations in this area.
First, Kilpi argues that knowledge should be seen as networked communication. We should not see it anymore as a stock (something stored) or as a flow (a constantly changing river to be understood and shared). Rather, it is social and contextual, something that happens in conversation and collaboration. “New and different knowledge is created when ways of interaction, and therefore patterns of relationship change… The richer the interaction, the more value and learning are potentially created.” Therefore, fostering good habits of communication and working on the quality and fluidity of the ongoing conversations are some of the most important things leaders should focus on. Kilpi states:
The new managerial task is to understand (1) the speed of the common movement of thought (2) what is being discussed, (3) the quality and “cool factor” of that conversation, and (4) how problems actually develop towards solutions and scalable learning.
What we spend our attention on, the space it occupies, this “place of the mind,” becomes the new workplace.
Consider learning as the new deliverable. In his post about shipping vs learning, Mike Davidson wonders if instead of focusing on incremental progress and shipping, on releasing small versions of the products — each version having mostly to do with fixing bugs. What happens when the choice is made to focus on what can be learned?
Instead of focusing on a number of times we shipped, how about we focused on what we’ve learned each time? What if weekly, monthly or per quarter you deliver “what we learned, cost to learn, plan to proceed and what’s needed to proceed”? How much faster could you progress? How does that change the products or services you produce? This process of setting deliverables proves to be a completely new mindset and provides a change of focus useful in determining what matters.
We can also look to Karthik Sridharan, who promotes the same kind of thinking when defining his view of a learning organization. The difference in his case—which probably makes it more widely applicable — is that he views learning as a parallel option to arbitrary goal setting.
The team can now consider a short-term success to be either hitting a short term goal, or showing learnings and iterating on your approach based on those learnings.
In this way, short-term goals do not penalize and demoralize the team when they cannot be reached. The learning angle, when properly explained and put into place, helps the team in not repeating mistakes, in asking better questions, in better understanding the client/user and the core issues of the product or service.
The unifying thread is learning, when we put these ideas of strategy, perspectives, conversations and deliverables together. The principal takeaways of each idea, respectively, are:
- Use learning as your personal strategy for growth and relevance.
- Look at everything around you as a learning challenge and opportunity.
- Collaborate and create knowledge through conversation. Make this “place of mind” your new workplace.
- Make learning a form of success and a deliverable in your organization.
What do you get from this learning-focused process? You get more agility, flexibility and resilience. When things change, we must adapt and understand in order to gain some agency over those changes. An approach that is rooted in constant learning will let you and your company evolve in the right directions and, hopefully, to do so at the right time. This timely evolution is otherwise known as the invaluable process of remaining future-proof.