3 Ways to create a culture of learning, not blaming, in your business

If you can create a culture of learning, not blaming, in your business, you are more likely to see your business grow and flourish.

If you allow a blame culture to take hold in a business, staff will tend to hide, or even cover up, any mistakes. This attitude can often compound problems further. On the other hand, a learning culture encourages errors to be highlighted so everybody can learn lessons from them.

To help explain the benefits a learning culture brings to your business, and how you can instil such behaviour in your team, we asked Justin Hughes, author of The Business of Excellence: Building high-performance teams and organisations to share his experiences and to explore a few of the key issues around a learning culture;

The job’s not finished until the debrief is done

As a former Red Arrows pilot, I come from an organisational background where the learning element of the job (the debrief) has equal priority with the job itself.

It wasn’t a case of not having time to debrief, more that the job’s not finished until the debrief’s done. So, how do you make that happen?

Before answering, I should just point out that the debrief is only one example of a learning culture, but it’s a particularly relevant one. The recent focus on the 70/20/10 approach to learning (only 10% of learning on formal courses) makes the case that the most important learning is done ‘on the job’.

This is particularly important in a start-up or growing businesses. Is it going in the right direction? Are we doing the right thing?

However, you also have to do something to capture the learning, to actually accelerate the performance improvement, otherwise you just get better by osmosis, because you are a year older.

The debrief is also where you see the organisational culture laid bare – learn or blame? It’s therefore a very valuable opportunity for you, as the business’ leader, to create the conditions for a learning culture to develop.

1. When the leader is interested in learning, then everybody is interested in learning

In nearly every cultural issue in a business, in almost any context, there tends to be no bigger lever you can pull than what the manager’s or owner’s role model.

People notice what leaders do, not just what they say, or write on the posters in the canteen or the values statement in reception. Any successful cultural initiative must be actively and explicitly championed by the people at the top.

In this case, that not only means taking part in debriefing or learning, it means leading from the front – setting up an environment where people feel comfortable admitting mistakes, knowing that there will be no retribution or blame attached.

In a fighter pilot debrief, the first person to hold up their hand will invariably be the mission leader. This sends a powerful message. It’s OK to make mistakes. The leader’s performance will be analysed the same as any others’, in front of everybody else. The leader might learn as much as anybody else.

It is important to notice an important aspect of this form of transparent dialogue though: do not mistake no blame for no accountability. The debrief is about learning, not blaming, but with accountability.

If things aren’t working or went wrong, somebody needs to be responsible for fixing them. Equally, honest mistakes made in good faith will be treated as such. However, recklessness and unprofessionalism will also be treated as such. It’s not a free lunch!

2. You will get what you reward

Culture of learning Business of excellenceBuilding a culture of learning is an intellectual leap of faith.

It’s the same as leadership development in that sense. It will not be possible to correlate directly the performance improvement with your investment of time (which essentially means money). You just have to accept that it’s what high-performance teams and organisations do, and go with it.

Overnight success rarely comes overnight. Think of time for reflection as the same as rest in sport. That’s when the increase in fitness actually happens – when the muscles repair stronger.

If the behaviour of the senior team will have a significant emotional impact on others, then the big practical impact will come from what the organisation rewards and recognises.

If you want people to believe that the organisation has a culture of learning, then they have to see that contributing to that is in their own interests.

Positively endorse those who prioritise continuous improvement and the no-blame approach. Deploy champions to demonstrate that this is important. If a learning culture is important to you, make it important to others.

3. Demonstrate value

People believe when they see the evidence. Learning not blaming sends a powerful message, but what then happens to the learning?

If the people in the review meeting are the only ones to receive the benefit of the learning, you are really only scratching the surface value of a culture of learning. The real value is in sharing the learning so that others do not even have to go through the same painful experience.

If I receive the value of others’ learning, and I can see that they were recognised, not blamed, for their mistakes, I’m starting to believe the story that is how we do business around here.

To get real leverage from learning requires a knowledge management system. Again, it is insufficient (and a waste of time) to just go through the motions. There are a few common factors in successful knowledge management systems:

  • The system must be designed by operators, owned by operators and used by operators. This is not something that can be outsourced to some sort of ‘knowledge manager’; they will not have the insight or the operational credibility to be effective.
  • Credible robust processes are required which capture information from all available sources.
  • Access should be easy and information overload avoided.
  • The underlying concepts should be kept simple.

I have tried to offer some clear simple insights into the concept of learn vs blame, but cannot emphasise too much that, in the final reckoning, this is a cultural issue, and that cultural issues are leadership issues. There is no bigger lever that you can pull than manager and owner role modelling.

About the author

This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Justin Hughes, a former Red Arrows pilot and Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy that partners with organisations committed to high performance. His new book, The Business of Excellence: Building high-performance teams and organizations, published by Bloomsbury, is out in hardback now for £25.

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