Want To Stay Relevant? Never Stop Learning

Continuous learning has become a mantra for everyone from college newbies to seasoned C-suite veterans.

Trouble is, most of us are bad at learning. Supremely bad.

That’s the conclusion of Bradley R. Staats, an operations professor whose research examines how individuals, teams, and organizations can learn to improve their performance.

Staats, who teaches at the University of North Carolina’s business school, outlines a framework to help you become more effective as a lifelong learner.

The steps include:

  • Valuing failure
  • Focusing on process, not outcome, and on questions, not answers
  • Making time for reflection
  • Learning to be true to yourself by playing to your strengths
  • Pairing specialization with variety
  • Treating others as learning partners

The framework, based on the most recent behavior science, is the core of Staats’ new book Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive. He explains how to overcome the challenges to our own learning.

Rodger Dean Duncan: We live in a time when learning is arguably more important than ever. But you say most people are bad at learning. Why is that? What’s the behavioral science behind people’s difficulty with learning?

Bradley R. Staats: Learning is hard. It takes time, things don’t work right the first time, we have other things to get done, the list goes on. Becoming a dynamic learner is not a one-step process. There are lots of things that we need to do—incorporate failure, focus on the process, ask questions, reflect, play to our strengths, and learn from others. These elements don’t come naturally as we have developed tendencies that help us in the short-term, but really can hamper us in the long run. We have a number of biases against learning. We need behavioral science so we can identify these biases and then identify new strategies to address them.

Duncan: Some successful entrepreneurs seem to adopt the “Ready-Fire-Aim” approach to innovation. You suggest reflection and relaxation better serve the dynamic learner. Can you elaborate?

Staats: “Ready-fire-aim” is a great strategy to learn in uncertain environments. It embraces the idea that we need to experiment and try things in order to learn and determine a path forward. Unfortunately, for too many people the strategy ends up playing out as “Fire-fire-fire.” In other words, we never take time to stop and think about what is happening and how we should adapt.

We don’t learn from our misses. Part of the problem is that we have an action bias. We want to be seen doing things, so we equate action with progress. Great research on soccer goalies and penalty kicks highlights how this plays out. The researchers found that goalies almost always dove either to the left or the right on a penalty kick. Only 6% of the time did they stay put in the middle. However, almost 40% of kicks actually go right down the middle. Goalies’ chances of stopping kicks would improve dramatically if they just stayed put and reacted. Why don’t they? They want to be seen doing something. No one feels much regret with a face full of dirt after diving and giving their all.

Taking the time to reflect—both before and after we do things—gives us a chance to learn. We make connections, we build confidence, and we course correct.

We worked with a company in its training operations and found that by adding 15 minutes at the end of the day for reflection performance improved at the end of a six-week program by almost 25%. So by all means—engage in ready-fire-aim to try out new ideas. Just make sure to follow IBM’s former CEO Thomas J. Watson, Sr.’s advice to “Think.”

Duncan: Consultant Tom Peters famously said the winning strategy for organizations is WTTMSW: “Whoever tries the most stuff wins.” What do you see as some of the challenges of learning from failure?

Staats: Peters is right. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, said “in a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” Long-term success requires trying new things to see what will work as the world changes around us. The difficulty is that when we try new things, some of them won’t work. Although most organizations give lip service to a desire to “fail fast,” it’s often just that: lip service. So why is it so hard to learn from failure? First, failure is unpleasant. Our bodies experience failure just like any other high-stress situation—we feel embarrassed, or ashamed, or anxious. We respond to failure like we respond to physical pain. The same part of the brain is activated.

But that’s not all. We overemphasize the bad things that might happen to us when we fail. We think our future suffering will be so bad that we don’t even try something. But research finds that we actually adapt quite well—once we’ve been willing to take the risk. Failure is a regular part of life. In addition, we might discover something new. For example, when Pfizer developed drug UK-92480, they were hoping to treat heart disease. Although the trials failed on that front, they discovered an interesting side effect: participants’ sexual activity increased. The scientists failed their way into a billion-dollar blockbuster: Viagra.

The final challenge to note is that because of our fear of failure we may miss that failure occurs. We have an instinct for self-preservation and so we may not be honest with ourselves about what really happened. We end up blaming our failure on bad luck rather than our own actions. We may even change the standards so we can tell ourselves that no failure occurred rather than emotionally adapt to it. As Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.”

Duncan: Although many people focus on desired outcomes, you say “outcome bias” can be dangerous and that focus on process can help a person become more effective as a lifelong learner. Why?

Staats: We tend to evaluate ourselves based on the outcome we achieve. A good outcome means we followed a good process and that a bad outcome means we followed a bad process. But lots of things go into the outcome. In a sales process we have other companies that are fighting to get the deal too. Maybe we won because of our great product and sales pitch, or maybe we won because we went to school with the key decision maker. Think of it this way. If I play roulette and hop twice on my left foot, spin around, while chanting “red, red, red” and then I win—should I really take any learning lessons away for my gambling process going forward? No, clearly not. But we often do just that in other contexts. If we want to learn we must focus on the process that can get us there. Identifying the key inputs, the relationships, metrics of success and eventually focusing on the learning, not the performance outcome.

Duncan: What are the keys to unlearning our less helpful learning practices?

Staats: It starts with understanding why we’re doing those less helpful things. Research shows that if we want to change behavior it’s better to start at the high-level—with the why—before we get into the what that needs to change. This is why looking at behavioral science is so important. Once we understand why we run into trouble with different parts of learning then we can build up the right practices. The why and then what approach is a powerful way to drive change.

Duncan: The old saying is that you should be yourself because everyone else is taken. You suggest that “being yourself” can accelerate learning. How does personal authenticity help a person learn?

Staats: First, it motivates us. We engage more when we are our authentic selves. My colleagues and I ran a study with a large technology firm. We randomly assigned workers into an individual condition where they were encouraged to be their authentic selves, as well as an organizational condition (focused on the strength of the company) and a control group. For the first two we simply took an hour on the first day of work and highlighted the individual or the organization and then gave the workers a fleece sweatshirt with their name or the company name, respectively. That was it. What we found was that when individuals were their authentic selves, they were more likely to stay at the firm, more likely to be engaged, and more likely to perform at higher levels.

The second reason being yourself helps with learning is that it engages positive emotions. We actually change how we learn when we experience positive vs. negative emotions. With positive emotions we follow a “broaden-and-build” approach. We think more diversely about what is going on and see broader connections which help us learn. When you are yourself, rather than just imitating someone else, your learning improves.

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.

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