Learning and adaption is crucial with the speed and scope of change that is perpetually being undertaken in any industry in the 21st century.
Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard University, popularised the phrase ‘Psychological Safety’, and her work on the topic is world-renowned. Amy sees a learning organisation as a “continually adapting and adjusting” entity that adjusts to remain viable in a changing world.
On that premise, we know an organisation needs to be able to learn in order to develop great psychological safety. It’s not an easy task to accomplish and the starting point is to know what problems and opportunities the organisation is faced with. The crux of this how do you find out what problems exist and what opportunities are dormant and waiting to be explored?
Avoid the negative cycle of learning
When people do not feel free to think and act without reprisal none of the problems and opportunities will be raised. People are not prepared to “put their heads above the parapet” as the saying goes. The reality of discretionary effort doesn’t exist, and you’re left with a mute acceptance of the status quo, however unsavoury that may be, with problems building on top of problems. A never-ending escalator of chronic issues that keep the organisation stagnating. Just as problems are unlikely to surface, then so are the solutions unlikely to reach the surface for fear of the consequences of failure. This is the start of a negative cycle of learning in the organisation. That’s not healthy for the organisation or the individual. There’s more impact too on the employee front.
Impact on skills and knowledge
An issue with Psychological Safety is that silence mean missed and hidden opportunities. You have to be agile enough to make progress quickly. In this uncertain world, the answers to problems are shifting, so the power of good questioning is lost because it simply doesn’t happen. Every point where the organisation needs awareness becomes obscured and the skills gaps and knowledge the organisation needs to develop be hidden from view. It is not, however, just about the stickiness of knowledge or the identification of problems and opportunities. It is about absorptive capacity, a given level of capability must be present before anything can reasonably be understood absorbed and embedded in the business. An organisation: “needs prior related knowledge to assimilate and use new knowledge.”
So, what is absorptive capacity?
Absorptive capacity is the level and practice of existing tacit and explicit knowledge in a business that allows it to engage in thinking about, discussing, interpreting and therefore developing new ideas. It is the systems fit with the social dynamic. Tools in the leader’s toolkit and social skills allow the leader to set the scene for knowledge to flourish and flow. This is known as capability.
As absorptive limits are a way for organisations to find ideas and implement them to build capabilities and competencies regarding innovation, the success of this highly depends on how an organisation collects and adopts new information. The idea of dismissing internal information is not always good. And, in organisations where Psychological Safety is low, you can waste time not seeking internal information, because that’s the culture, and employees would rather not share this. By and large, the information you are hunting down may well exist within your organisation.
For a few moments, reflect upon the meetings and team sessions in which you are involved.
Answer these questions.
- How diverse are opinions in your team?
- Who readily contributes ideas and who refrains? Find out why.
- What “subjective blinders” limit ideas and learning? These could be filters that limit or obstruct conversations.
- What can you do to embrace an open, innovative spirit in and outside your team or organisation?