Being a learning organization

What has your organization learned as it’s navigated the Covid pandemic? And how can you apply the best of your learning going forward? Today we’re talking about being a learning organization. What does it mean? How do we put it into practice? Why is it important – especially in times of uncertainty.

Pieta Blakely 0:02
What has your organization learned as it’s navigated the Covid pandemic and how can you apply the best of that learning going forward? Today, we’re talking about being a learning organization. What does it mean? How do we put it into practice, and why is it especially important to do during uncertain times?

CTMM Jingle 0:23

Pieta Blakely 0:47
Good morning. I’m Pieta Blakely I’m the founder and principal of Blakely Consulting and you’re watching Coffee Time with Masterminds, a 30-minute conversation with and for leaders of mission-based organizations where we talk about leading during uncertain times. I’m joined by my colleague, Cynthia Rojas. Good morning, Cynthia.

Cynthia Rojas 1:10
Hi, Pieta, how are you?

Pieta Blakely 1:16
Good. How are you?

Cynthia Rojas 1:18
I’m good! You know, I love that jingle. I just have a funny story. Yesterday I was on a panel and right before they asked me to introduce myself, the jingle came into my head. I almost introduced myself exactly the way I did in the jingle. Yeah, I love it. I love it.

Pieta Blakely 1:37
So, I want to welcome our listeners in the United States, in Australia, and, around the world. If you are joining us today, please put your name and where you’re coming from in the comments, and
chime in with any questions and comments. So, Cynthia, today, we’re talking about
being a learning organization, and, I think everybody talks about that. Everybody, wants to be that. What is a learning organization?

Cynthia Rojas 2:06
Yeah. You know, and, wow, it’s so complex, and you’re right. I hear people say that all the time and when I then ask them how they do that. I can see holes or gaps in what they’re really trying to achieve. Pieta and I, have spoken about the importance of knowledge within an organization. For me, I’ve come to define, your greatest asset as your knowledge, right. Every non-profit organization has knowledge. That is if it goes away with employees or just disappears for a variety of transitions or reasons.
That it could really serve as a hindrance for the non-profit. So, knowledge management is really important. The reason why I start with that is because then that goes into how do you develop and document your knowledge and one way is by becoming a learning organization. So, what does that mean? Well, it’s when you come together, and you look at the behaviors, actions, outcomes of things that you have done, and, ask yourself. Did we do it most effectively, what could we have done better? But one major factor that has to exist is this idea of psychological safety. That’s where I started seeing the gaps. Pieta, you want to take us through what that is and then we can continue.

Pieta Blakely 3:41
I’ll take you through what I think it is, and then you can fill in the gaps in my understanding because you know how I understand that is. You’ve got to create a space where you make it clear that we’re learning here. We’re not expecting anybody to get it right the first time. I saw a post that was very funny to me on linkedin, a few weeks ago. The question was something like. How far into doing somebody’s job do you think it’s okay for them to make mistakes? And I thought, are there people who don’t make mistakes? I’ve made several mistakes just this week, right. But I also thought, well, the underlying assumption there, is that at some point you get so good at your job that you’re not making mistakes anymore. Which means, to me, that means, you’re not doing anything new. You’re not doing anything that you don’t already know how to do. Now, I would leave at a boredom way before I completely ran out of mistakes, right, because at the moment that I’m an expert in everything that I’m doing. I’m kind of tired of it. I’m going to move on, but there was that underlying assumption that like at some point you just know everything and you’re going to keep doing that. And that instead of saying mistakes are a great thing because it means you’re stretching and learning and willing to conduct experiments. It’s a bad thing and we’re going to punish it because you should limit your activities to the things that you know how to do really well.

Cynthia Rojas 5:26
Yeah. That’s interesting, and I wonder if the jobs in that post, if that post was sparked by a leader within an organization that does a lot of technical or tactical work, right.

Pieta Blakely 5:28
Maybe. Yeah.

Cynthia Rojas 5:30
Because I could see that. But, to add to what you’re saying, Pieta. This idea, we’re also human,
right. So, what I used were productivity metrics as a way to understand how my employees were doing, right. Not shaming, but I knew that if you had this benchmark, and you were declining or decreasing on your average data entry metrics. That, after a while, because everybody’s entitled to a bad day or two, but, after a while, we could have that conversation. If we didn’t monitor that kind of thing, we couldn’t have that conversation but it has to come with this idea that you don’t want to shame the person but really use it as a catalyst for information, for a conversation about what’s really happening here. You know what you what used to arise a lot of the times? I’m bored, and what a great

Pieta Blakely 6:45
I’m not paying attention anymore because it happens.

Cynthia Rojas 6:51
Yeah. I love bored employees because that means that you are ready to go to the next level.
But, what I’ve seen from organizations is that they focus on the event and the tactical things that are happening. Like, this person did this, and we should have had an on-staff email, and we should have done this, and you should have, you know, trained people better. Yes, that information is important, but let’s take it a step further. Let’s learn from this. So, if you find that there wasn’t enough training. Well, do you have a culture of training, right?

Pieta Blakely 7:35
I think this is one of the things that we talk about in terms of using logic models and conducting program evaluation, is being clear that we’re setting up experiments and that we’re going to be interested in the results, right. Not that we’re setting up expectations and we are going to praise or punish based on the results, right. So, to me, the reason a program has a logic model or even a little experiment within a program has a logic model, is just so that we can document what our thinking is and what we think is going to happen, so that we can look back afterwards and understand whether or not that happened, right. Not whether or not we did a good job, or you personally did a good job. You know, where are our assumptions born out here or is there a better way to accomplish this goal. I think you’ve got to make that clear in the beginning.

Cynthia Rojas 8:29
I love that reframe. I really love that reframe. I once got excited because I learned from another organization. I mean, talk about my newness and things. I learned from another organization that they used to do this event, called the Mistake Project. They got it from the medical field where in the medical field doctors do presentations about mistakes. That took place in either the operating room or in some other medical experience. And so, they through that presentation, they take you through the learning, right. Again, usually more tactical than long-term strategic learning, but I was so inspired by that and how this non-profit organization took that model and applied it in theirs. Then it was called, the mistake project. They would bring staff together and someone would do a presentation about all the learning, so, I decided that I was going to do the same thing. One time there was a really huge debacle that happened, and I wanted to use that as the impetus for trying this out and it failed, incredibly. The reason why it failed now that I look back, is that I was bringing in people from other departments that influenced the outcome of that mess. And, I never set the stage for psychological safety; they didn’t know who I was as a leader, right. They had a different manager, and my team was very accustomed to my style but not others, and it didn’t bode well. The organization was not yet on the bus. They weren’t even aware that I was doing this, and so, there was no larger conversation about it. Hey, we’re going to start doing this thing, but we’re going to use it to learn. I never did that prep work, and it failed. It failed miserably, and it became a case study.

Pieta Blakely 10:40
And you created a new mistake.

Cynthia Rojas 10:46
But, you know, I didn’t get fired. I used to work in an organization, Pieta. This is great, i used to ask my boss. What does it take to get fired in this place? You could make mistakes, and she allowed them, and I’ve never felt safer; I’ve never felt safer. And I learned so much. So psychological safety is really important, really important.

Pieta Blakely 11:06
We’ve talked over the last, you know, two years, that we have been talking about running organizations during covid. We’ve talked to a few people who’ve talked about it. How to do learning, or different learning activities in the context of an unsettled uncertain environment? And I want to bring up a couple of those organizations. For example: Matt Von Hendy, came on the show and he was talking about documenting what you know. Particularly, documenting it in online spaces where everybody could access it when they weren’t at the office. So, you know, making sure that you took your bulletin boards and things like that, and made them virtual and compensated for the fact that people couldn’t just lean over the cubicle wall, and ask a question. So, that was one example of, you know, making it explicit and really thinking about what knowledge is. But we’ve also talked about some maybe subtler examples, like in one show, we talked about preparing a budget. Now, a budget is also an experiment. You write down what you think is going to happen, and then you document what actually happened. You compare the two, and you make some adjustments. One of the things that we talked about was budgeting by quarter, instead of by year. When you’re not really sure what’s happening, I think we can adapt that to other kinds of learning. Saying when you’ve got an organization where you’ve got to make adaptations quickly. It’s probably less appropriate than ever to review things annually. Let’s think about reviewing things like, weekly, monthly, quarterly, because we’ve got to learn faster.

Cynthia Rojas 12:49
Yeah. That’s so key. Pieta, we have a comment from one of our viewers, Myra. “I often meet with my crisis teams, and I have 151 crisis teams, to go over what’s working or what doesn’t work but I never want them to think I am micromanaging, but what I like about this is the data that comes from these meetings.” One thing, I’m really curious about Myra, is when you think about organizational learning.
What are the long-term changes that teams realize they need to make in order to be more effective? So, again, we could take an event; you’ve been a long-time viewer. We know that you work in the school systems in New York City. That there are a lot of things that happen to young people. So, we could take a specific event, but how do how do your teams dig deeper. You really say, wait a minute. This is the learning that needs to happen; we’re going to embark on that learning. That would be interesting for us to hear. If you have a minute, let us know, but thank you, Myra. So, having that culture alone creates a safe space.

Pieta Blakely 14:09
Yeah, and there are different structures, I think, that are helpful to have those conversations. I mean, this is the after-action meeting or what used to be, called a post-mortem meeting, or a scrum meeting. That they have formulas or rituals that I think are particularly helpful in guiding a conversation that doesn’t descend into finger-pointing or, you know, saying my way is better than your way, or anything like that. So, Cynthia, maybe you could talk about some of those rituals. What I take away from it is, it doesn’t matter which one you apply to; it’s helpful to have any structure to these meetings.

Cynthia Rojas 14:53
Yeah. I think a great approach is to have the person who led or was essential in that event that we are processing lead the conversation. This way that person has processed it, is coming up with what they think, what the error is. And it doesn’t feel like finger-pointing, but it really feels like reflection. So, I think that’s one approach that you can take. I think another approach is to laugh and have fun. I know that mistakes can be serious, especially, if you’re working in the crisis field. And, I do not endorse laughing. Please do not send me an email about that. I’m not saying good luck with that, but to laugh at each other in a way that is fun, and really relaxing. So, that we’re not shamed. I mean shaming, is such a big deal. It really is, and it happens all the time. I have to admit, I have something in my head and I forgot, which is why. I look like I’m thinking about something else. But it happens all the time and we want to be careful about that. And then, you know, make it again, make it part of your culture. I love when you say, “we can’t then wait until the end of the year to talk about these mistakes”. But make it part of the culture, and don’t say what were your mistakes; say what was your learning. Give it a different term. Cool! Let’s see what Myra has written. Recognize the triggers or targeted goals for them. Wait, I think I’m reading this wrong. So, let me back up, because we have individuals that listen to us and do not see us in Australia. It’s important to repeat where we are. Myra, who is a viewer, a long-term viewer had commented that she often hosts meetings with her crisis teams, to go over what’s working and what is not working. That it is her hope that they don’t perceive it as micro-managing; but that for her this is very useful, and so we asked her, you know, how do her teams then take this information to really get to what’s under the current. What are the actual behavioural changes that have to happen, and she writes, “recognizing the triggers are my targeted goals for them, and being able to begin the crisis response and recovery without me is what I aim for” That is wonderful for them, recognizes what I meant, right. That is a wonderful reason to become a learning organization, is to then give your staff the knowledge.

Pieta Blakely 17:20
And the confidence to say, I recognize this is a mess up.

Cynthia Rojas 18:05
Yeah, but then to lead, and not need the leader. So, what Myra is saying is, I want them to begin to lead the crisis responsibility for me to do that.

Pieta Blakely 18:18
I mean, that’s a really interesting point, that you’re doing these activities, explicitly, with the goal that eventually, people will start doing it on their own, and come closer and closer to solutions.

Cynthia Rojas 18:35
Yeah. We should talk about that, Pieta. Documentation, because i don’t see any of that, and so the gentleman that you talked about Matt, came from a show. One of the things Matt said is, “let’s document things.”

Pieta Blakely 18:47
Let’s document things. You know, and his background is that he’s a librarian. So, his expertise is, how do we put knowledge in places where everybody can find it and access it. I think that, in organizations we don’t necessarily do that, enough. One, because we’re super busy. We’re doing the work; we don’t have time to write about what we’re doing. But when you start to create sop manuals. Standard operating procedures manuals, or you can start to have a learning journal of best practices. When you start to document things, like here was our logic model, and here’s how we adapted it based on knowing certain things. You let your whole organization participate in different ways. When that information is in people’s heads, or people just know it because they were there. You’re really isolating anybody who wasn’t there, who wasn’t with the organization yet, or isn’t privy to those details. They’re going to make up other stories about what happened, and what the best practice is, which means you’re going to, you know, repeat these experiments over and over and over as every single person. Assume that everybody you hire is bright and they’re all going to go through the same thoughts, and they’re all going to run the same experiments. So, they’re all going to make the same mistakes over and over and over if you don’t have like, fairly explicit way of saying, like here are some of the experiments that we have already run, and here are our findings. As opposed, to just saying, do it that way, trust me, that’s a good way to do it. So, we’ve talked about a few different ways of doing that. I really like, logic models, as a learning template. Mark it up, say like here is the place where we made an incorrect assumption, or here’s the part that got broken. Like during covid, and we didn’t have access to this resource, this part of the logic model got broken. Here’s why we’re doing it this other way so that you can go back, at some time in the future, you can go back and question. But does that still apply? Do we still need to be doing it this way, do we want to reverse some of those decisions now, or have we uncovered something that’s actually a best practice that we should have been doing all along? For example: I work with an organization that does educational programming for leaders and not-for-profits. Pre-covid, those were physical events at their physical location. Nobody really thought about that. Obviously, you come to workshops; that’s just how workshops happen. Well, it was hard for people from all over the state right to get into Boston. To ride the trains, or drive their cars. People were always late. Some people couldn’t attend. They had programs that were just under-enrolled. When covid forced them to make everything online, all of a sudden. Under-enrolled was never a problem anymore. They said, “oh, no, we’re never going back, these events are always going to be virtual, it’s so much easier for people.” I mean, it makes a three-hour event actually fit into three hours as opposed to taking it all day, and it makes it accessible to people who are in remote parts of the state people who don’t have a travel budget, people who don’t have a car, etc. It just turned out here was a bad practice that we had never, ever been examined. I think in all of our organizations, there are probably better practices that have emerged that. Now, is a great time to sit down, and say, what are these practices? What have we learned about them? What about them do we want to make permanent, and why? And then really talk to people about that, and make it clear what we’re keeping, what we’re not keeping, because that transparency really helps.

Cynthia Rojas 22:58
Yeah. I love that example. I do know of an organization. I just finished a survey which we will be featuring at coffee time, and I spoke to almost 20 leaders about adaptability. Really great insight, and I know that there’s an organization that is, specifically, carving out time for the learnings of all their adaptations. So, that’s going to be exciting to hear about. Correct, your example, Pieta. This is great because this is a time for organizations to be reflecting on what they learned during the onset of the first year of the pandemic. Yet, what is not sufficient enough is saying, okay. Well, if this happens again, you know, we’ll do x, y, z, or we’ll go virtual. Perhaps, the learning, again, this is about going a little deeper, is, did you take risks? Did you think outside the box? What did that feel like, what was the fear of failure resonating in you? And once you reflect on those things, then you are slowly becoming a different kind of organization. Not only preparing for the next event, but you actually want to be transformed. Now, if you were a leader that liked to maintain the status quo, or because you had a board that forces you to maintain the status quo, and what you’re realizing is that, what you need to do is give a space to your employees to really be adaptive. That’s the learning, that’s the transformation, and that is a learning organization, so great example.

Pieta Blakely 24:54
One of the things that you’ve talked about a lot, Cynthia is having people participate based on their specific skills and abilities not their job titles. You know, that was really effective during times of needing to make rapid adjustments and changes. Is that something that you think organizations can keep moving forward?

Cynthia Rojas 25:19
Yes. So, you would get a whole lot of information from your direct service staff, or your front desk staff than you would from say, your leadership team. Yet, depending on the size of your organization executive directors tend to spend a lot of time with their leadership team. And if you’re that type of director, then what you might want to start thinking about is making that table bigger, and how do you bring the people who were interacting with others right. So, the learning there could be not how fast can we put the glass barriers, which were ultra-important and still remains important. How do we continuously make our clients or patients or guests or members feel safe? How do we create a safe environment? That’s the learning, not how do we prepare for the next infection spike. Which is also important.

Pieta Blakely 26:22
I mean, that’s going to happen, but I think the more important issue is, some other really disruptive event is guaranteed to happen. Whether it’s just in your organization, or in your entire state or country, it’s guaranteed to happen. So, how can we take some of the practices that we all had to adapt quickly during covid and embed them permanently in our organizations?
Cynthia Rojas 26:51
Yes, I spent a couple of weeks researching pandemics. I don’t want to inject fear into our society, but I’ll tell you this. We’ve had more pandemics in the first 20 years of this century than we’ve had all of last century. So, what this is telling us, is that as we continue to blur the boundaries, global travel is working transnationally. These urban settings that are getting more and more crowded. I live in a place that is very crowded. These infectious diseases and pandemics are just becoming more rapid and more sophisticated. These events are going to keep happening. You can prepare for the event, or you could be the kind of organization that has transformed itself. That is ready for anything, right.

Pieta Blakely 27:56
Right. That’s right.

Cynthia Rojas 28:03
Yeah. Myra has another comment. Thank you for joining the conversation. “I agree that more can get done. I have a crisis fair every year; this is my third virtual crisis fair”. Wow, that’s interesting. “And I really like the in-person fair better, especially when, you know, the speaker. I believe impact is better in person.” Absolutely, I agree. She says, “safety is always the key”. We believe that in person, still remains to be the best way to communicate and to be together. As we transform, it is key or essential to do it in relationship to others; now there have been organizations that have been able to do this on zoom or virtually, seamlessly. But many of us still yearn for that face-to-face or in-person contact, and so that’s still important, and there are many organizations going back to the office. I used to say live, I’m going to do something live, and then I remember, I am live right now.

Pieta Blakely 29:12
We’re live, and while I agree that there is something very special about face-to-face communication. I would also remind us, that this show is an example of something that would never have happened if we depended on face-to-face communication. That hundreds of people are watching us, and listening to us, and we have never been face-to-face with any of them. So, there is also some power in not doing that.

Cynthia Rojas 29:42
Right, yes. Including we would not have been picked up by a radio show in Australia. Can you imagine? That still blows my mind.

Pieta Blakely 29:56
I think for health reasons, equity reasons, and environmental reasons. We are going to think a lot harder about the need to see people face to face going forward, and that is ultimately positive.

Cynthia Rojas 30:15
Yeah, and little by little. So, Myra has gone in person; she just put in the comments. Yes, I’ve begun doing some things in person. But to keep with the theme of this show, and to wrap up. You know, learning is also about what, how have we transformed, how can we transform now being in our virtual reality, and still remain effective. It’s a great show, great show, Pieta.

Pieta Blakely 30:45
Great. We’re going to be talking about learning some more over the next few weeks. Look forward to having everybody join us, have a great weekend, everybody. Bye.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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