Roy Steiner
Senior Director, Learning & Impact

Not So Super Chickens: Creating a Culture of Learning

July 21, 2017

To kick-off Season 2 of my Friday Learning Notes series, I would like to share some insights about a dynamic and integral dimension of a learning organization: culture.

You may recall from Season 1 that building a learning organization is more like planting an award-winning orchard than winning the Olympics. There is no end point where you declare victory, but rather it’s a continuous journey of nurturing a set process and culture to produce results. As with systems thinking, this is not about success or failure but about becoming more effective and this requires:

Learning processes: These include strategy, hypotheses development, reflection, and knowledge management

Culture of learning: This begins with staff that value and recognize learning as a priority, share a common language, and are able to create an atmosphere of trust, curiosity, and exploration

Margaret Heffernan shares the story of evolutionary biologist at Purdue University named William Muir in this TED talk.

Muir wanted to find out what could make chickens more productive, so he devised an egg-cellent experiment.

Chickens live in groups, so he selected an average flock as his control group, and observed them over six generations. He then created a second group made up of the most productive chickens — you could call them superchickens.

He put the superchickens together in a superflock, and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding. After six generations, the control group of average chickens was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered, and egg production had increased dramatically.

However, only three chickens remained in the supergroup because they had pecked the rest to death. It seemed that the superchickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest of their cohort and utilizing resources for their own development.

For the past 50 years we’ve run most organizations and some societies along the superchicken model. We’ve thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the best and brightest who we’ve then given all the resources and all the power with poor results. We badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.

If the superchicken model doesn’t produce a healthy work culture, what does?

Every Sunday I go for a hike and meditation with an old friend of mine from MIT who is now a leader of the infrastructure strategy group at Google. He shared with me results of a research project code-named Project Aristotle that studied hundreds of Google’s teams to figure out why some stumbled while others soared.

Project Aristotle collected thousands of pieces of data about team members, yet no matter how researchers arranged the data, it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference (temperament, intelligence, working styles, etc.). However, as the researchers continued to study the groups, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared:

  1. On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well, but if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.
  2. The good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions, and other nonverbal cues.

So how is this relevant to your work? These studies (and many others) illustrate that what happens between people really counts — the quality of relationships matter. In groups that are highly attuned and sensitive to each other, ideas can flow and grow, and they learn quickly.

When people spend time together they build relationships or social capital, and social capital is the reliance and interdependence that builds trust. In practical terms it means that time is everything, because social capital compounds with time. So teams that work and spend time together longer get better, because it takes time to develop the trust you need for real candor and openness. And time is what builds value.

It is not uncommon to hear that “culture is too vague” or that all this emphasis on relationship building is superfluous and detracts from getting the work done. However, this point of view is simply misinformed — all the latest business research confirms that we put our organizations at grave risk when we fail to systematically build the right culture and foster trusting relationships.

If you are interested in contributing to a culture of learning, a good place to start is to ask yourself:

In my team, is there “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking” or do a few people dominate (and therefore lower the collective intelligence)?

Am I building in enough time with my team to really get to know each other and build bonds of trust?

Let me know your thoughts about building a culture of learning in the comments section below!





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