Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Female guru alert: Amy Edmondson in July/Aug HBR

Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School appeared on our recent list of Overlooked Female Business Gurus, and she has also published an article in the July/August Harvard Business Review. Titled "The Competitive Imperative of Learning," it's a blockbuster that will cement her position on the guru list for some time to come.

Edmondson persuasively argues that a focus on efficiency in most companies chokes off resources for innovation and learning and creates an environment of harried, fearful employees rushing from task to task. Sound familiar?

In such an environment, given that the business, market and competitive playing field are changing continuously, the certainty is that the company will lack the learning, vision and insight to adapt itself to new realities. In essence, it will become a highly-efficient producer of last year's products and services. The market will have moved on.

Edmondson's work complements that of Dave Snowden and Mary Boone on the Cynefin Framework. Snowden & Boone describe simple and complex business contexts and the challenges these different contexts pose to managerial decisionmaking. In simple contexts, best practices and efficiency are the tools for success. But in complex contexts, learning, experimentation and adaptation are key.

As Edmondson points out, "the influx of knowledge in most fields makes it easy to fall behind." In other words, the space where competitiveness is created today is the complex space.

Three key inhibitors to learning environments are time, safety and review. Efficiency-based companies don't allow time to think and reflect--the emphasis is on processing and dispatching tasks quickly. (Gary Hamel discussed this issue nicely in "The Future of Management.")

And few companies provide the psychological safety required in a learning environment. Learning requires failure, failure is stigmatized, therefore people try to avoid it. Or if it's unavoidable, it is covered up or played down.

I can tell you based on my work to date on The Mistake Bank that psychological safety is a big issue. I have had numerous dialogues with colleagues, members, mentors, etc., which have involved the ramifications if someone were to discover the mistake the person has contributed to The Mistake Bank.

[My position on that matter is this: people who admit mistakes are more valuable to companies, customers and colleagues than those who don't--because we all know that everyone makes mistakes. No exceptions.]

Finally, Edmondson emphasizes the need for disciplined reflection and review. By evaluating, discussing and communicating the results of new ways of doing things, companies achieve the payoff of experimentation. My experience is that most companies don't like to look back.

There's a lot more to the article than I've discussed here. Read it when you have some time to think and reflect! (Better yet, talk about it with a colleague.)

Related posts:
Great innovation requires great teams
Leaders need to manage complexity
Toyota excels by revealing hidden problems
Stop studying the problem and just try something!
On Gary Hamel's "The Future of Management"
For consultants, adopting the "Google 20%" is vital

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Jo said...

Is this view only possible with an us and them division as a foundation.

If an organization was built as vehicle to express purpose, then the outcome would be very different.

John Caddell said...

Jo, can you elaborate on your comment? I'm not clear if you're referring to the efficiency-minded company or the learning-minded company.

Thanks, John