Want a learning culture to take root? Approach it sideways.
The social change sectors love learning. Being a learning organization, fostering learning, learning and adaptation, adaptive learning. It has many names, but comes back to a perennial thorny problem: how to improve our work.
The prickliest briar in the bunch is the question of learning culture. Whether at a venerable institution or a flashy startup, culture is everyone’s favorite intangible enabler of learning.
Unfortunately, there’s no obvious way to create a learning culture. You often have to approach the issue sideways: if you want your culture to value learning, you can do more by focusing on a culture of adaptation instead. Here’s why.
Culture is the set of shared norms, values, and expectations that guide how a group of people interact. Or informally: “how we do things around here.” Every organization has its own micro-cultures, influenced but not determined by the broader and overlapping cultures in which they sit.
Cultures can be hard to describe because they’re multi-dimensional and always evolving. Nevertheless, if you’ve been part of a positive learning culture, you know how great it can be. People are inquisitive, probing, and challenging, yet supportive and encouraging too. You create space for reflection, individually and as a group, and generate insights that move your work forward.
But knowing how that feels is very different from knowing how to get there.
How cultures change
Our default tools for cultural change are blunt objects: organizational values statements, culture decks, leadership messaging, and other explicit affirmations. These direct approaches disappoint because cultures are skittish creatures. They don’t like being pushed. They don’t take orders.
The cultural impact of something like a values statement lies not in the statement itself, but in how that statement is experienced by others. For example: a crystal clear statement buried on the website has little impact; you’ll do more to shape culture with a rambling and fuzzy statement that’s incorporated into new staff onboarding, the weekly newsletter, annual reviews, and the team retreat.
Those are all channels for ensuring teams experience the values statement, and that’s the key: shared experiences shape culture. The stronger the experience, the more it shapes culture. New norms or expectations get solidified as people discuss, respond, and see others responding to shared experiences. But even as culture shifts, it’s not infinitely malleable, as staff interpret experiences in light of the existing culture.
Put in systems terms: culture is a stock, while shared experiences are the flow. Older and larger organizations have larger cultural stocks, so it takes a greater flow of new experiences to make change. Younger organizations change quickly, but can also find their cultures less durable.
We can create various experiences that will shape culture, from the way work is praised or blamed (including through reviews and promotions) to staged events (like weekly meetings or staff retreats). If promotions go to blowhards, your culture becomes boastful. If staff meetings are brief and energizing, culture moves at a fast clip.
Orienting toward learning
When bringing learning into the culture, we tend to first use the blunt objects described above (values statements and such) before moving on to staged events (workshops, brownbags, or webinars). These all create spaces where learning can be a shared experience and thereby instilled in culture.
We can also do a fair amount with hiring and turnover. After all, the bulk of a person’s life experience happened before they arrived at your organization. They’ll help move the culture toward learning if they already bring a mindset for it. If they don’t, then you can try to short-circuit things through onboarding. That’s what a bootcamp is: whether in the military or a corporate knock-off, immersing new recruits in intense experiences aims to overwhelm their stock of prior norms and expectations. However, unless you have a huge in-flux of new people, hiring is a slow way to change culture.
Unfortunately, that’s the last of our direct levers for improving learning culture. We exhaust those and then we look around saying: okay, what else?
Focus on adaptation
That’s when we need to zoom out and ask what we’re trying to achieve with all this learning. For most organizations, it’s just a means to an end. What we want is adaptation and improvement. Because learning seems more fundamental, we try to use that as the pivot point for cultural change.
But what if we approached the challenge from adaptation instead? You can’t get people to experience what leadership learns, but you can get them to experience the resulting adaptation. Leadership shifted tracks, and that means I have to shift too. You can also reward a new adaptation in a way that you can’t reward whatever learning may have been behind it. (Learning itself is too squishy and too easily faked to reward directly, unless you’re an academic department or think tank where that’s your core output.)
Importantly, adaptation not only provides a set of experiences for shifting culture, but they are powerful experiences that potentially transform it. “Hey, remember last year when we learned X?” is never as meaningful as “remember last year when we launched new program Y?” The latter can change a culture. And if people understand why adaptations are made — due to new learning, not out of random flailing — then the culture adjusts to incorporate learning as well.
This attention to how team members experience adaptation also helps to mitigate the risks of change fatigue. A constantly adapting organization can leave team members uncertain about what’s coming next or their place in it, leading to low morale and difficulty planning. Leadership shouldn’t be adapting for its own sake, but for the value of the strategic change and the message it sends to team members: we are an organization that learns and adjusts in pursuit of better outcomes. Then, rather than depleting existing cultural reserves, adaptation builds new ones.
Final thoughts: relationships, data, and power
A few other principles will help to keep your culture change efforts on track.
First: Culture is relational, so learning cultures are too. Organizational learning happens when people bring ideas and perspectives together to create something new. Build connections and spaces where that can happen. Your organization is a complex system, and learning can be one of its emergent properties. (Which also means it’s nonlinear: sometimes it builds slowly, only to unleash in a flood.)
Sub-point: Cultures span organizational boundaries, so make yours permeable. Organizations are great at streamlining interactions and smoothing frictions to focus energy for impact. Unfortunately, those same qualities throw up barriers to the outside, including barriers to learning. Just like you want connections and informal flow across divisions, you want the same across allied organizations. Otherwise, the lack of learning and adaptation at a partner will become a barrier to your own.
Second: Don’t confuse learning with data. Advocates of evidence-based approaches like to say that “the plural of anecdote isn’t data.” True, but likewise, the plural of data isn’t learning. And the plural of learning isn’t adaptation. (And while we’re at it: the plural of adaptation isn’t improvement.)
Data grounds us when we learn, but learning functions have grown beyond M&E (“monitoring and evaluation”) departments precisely because they involve a different set of practices. Learning requires connections and synthesis, while data atomizes and analyzes. They are yin and yang: equal partners.
Third: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s work culture. Every organization is different, and every sector is different. The staff at a nonprofit or volunteers at a political group experience different constraints than the techies at a Silicon Valley startup or researchers at a think tank. We can always learn from other organizations, but we have to contextualize it.
Finally: Power is not a natural friend to learning and adaptation. Sure, power makes it easier to learn and adapt, but it also dampens the incentives to do either. At its most extreme, having power means forcing others to adapt to you. In milder forms, power privileges your perspectives over those of others. It creates a comforting illusion that you already know the answers, allows you to proceed without adaptation (or with the wrong adaptations), and liberates you from corrective feedback loops. This goes for obvious and formal sources of power like wealth or job title, as well as informal sources like gender or race.
This last point is worth emphasizing in social change and social justice work. So much of what we’re doing aims to shift gross power imbalances or counter their effects. We can’t succeed unless we’re constantly learning, adapting, and improving our work — if for no other reason than because powerful interests on the other side are doing the same. Even to keep pace, we need the best we can muster.
If power relationships among supposed allies are keeping us from learning, we have to actively dismantle those. It’s not a side project in our journey toward justice. It’s a central driver of it.