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Want to Become a Dynamic Learner? Here’s How to Do It

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that no man can step into the same river twice, because it’s not the same river and he isn’t the same man. It was his way of expressing the reality that change is the only constant in the universe. Between globalization and fast-evolving technology, that truism is as relevant today as it was in Heraclitus’s times. Continuous education and self-improvement are imperative to keep up with work and life in a rapidly changing world.

A book by Bradley Staats explains the benefits of dynamic learning and outlines the methods of becoming more effective as a lifelong learner. Staats, a professor of operations at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina — and a former visiting professor at Wharton — spoke with the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM about his book, Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why has continuous learning become such a challenge?

Bradley Staats: I think you made the case beautifully of why we need to learn. If we fail, we risk becoming irrelevant. We solve yesterday’s problems too late, instead of tackling tomorrow’s problems. But the issue is that, it turns out, we’re bad at learning. We’re supremely bad. In fact, we are often our own worst enemies. Instead of doing the things that will help us learn, we do the opposite. My research, my work with companies, and this book – all these are about trying to understand this. What is it that we need to do? Why does our behavior often take us in the wrong direction? And then, importantly, what can we do about it?

Knowledge@Wharton: Why are we “supremely bad” at learning?

Staats: Fundamentally, it often comes to this: We often end up being short-term focused, and the thing that we do in the moment isn’t the thing that’s going to help us learn in the longer term. Let’s think about failure as an example. Of course, we want to avoid failure. We don’t like it when things go wrong. It’s not comfortable. But we also recognize that if we’re going to innovate and accomplish new things, it’s not always going to work the first time. But because of that fear of failure that many of us have and that our organizations often impose on people, we end up never trying that new thing, never moving in a direction that might allow us to create something extraordinary.

Knowledge@Wharton: How can we accept and value failure as a step toward innovation?

Staats: I think it’s an appreciation that failure is a means to an end, where that end is learning. In the book, I talk about why we don’t do it and why we aren’t willing to try new things. It’s the fear of failure. It’s because of the emotion we get — the anxiety and shame — that we often overemphasize the negative outcomes. We think so much about what can go wrong that we don’t spend enough time thinking about what can go right. Sometimes we even neglect to see what’s going on around us. We reinterpret the environment in order to make us think everything’s OK when it’s going poorly.

“We often end up being very short-term focused, and the thing that we do in the moment isn’t the thing that’s going to help us learn in the longer term.”

Valuing failure means being open to the environment that we’re in. There’s a quote from (Pixar co-founder) Ed Catmull that “mistakes are not a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They’re an inevitable consequence of doing something new.” I think that gets to this point of valuing failure. It’s not that we’re eagerly seeking out how to do things wrong intentionally. These mantras of “fail fast” or “ready, fire, aim” are a recognition that we’ve got to get it out there, we’ve got to be willing to try that new thing and then see what happens, learn from it and adjust.

Knowledge@Wharton: You say that in order to stay relevant, we must become dynamic learners. What is dynamic learning?

Staats: Dynamic learning involves four steps that I’ll call the four Fs. The first is focus, or choosing which topics we’re going to learn. What are we going to say no to, enabling us to say yes to things? Where are we going to gain that deeper knowledge? Where are we going to have an impact? That means picking an area and moving in that direction.

The second F is fast; the acceleration rate matters. Once we’ve selected what we’re running after, then we need to be able to move in that direction and get up to speed quickly. It’s not, “Great, I’ll get back to you in three years with my approach,” but rather, it’s days, weeks, months.

Then there’s recognition that we’ve got to be frequent in our learning. Opportunities present themselves at unexpected times or unexpected places, so we need to constantly be looking at how we can improve what we’re doing, how we might recognize a need to change direction, which is really the last principle around flexibility. We’re picking an area to run at right now, but that doesn’t mean that we’re going to get it right every time. In fact, dynamic learners recognize that they’re often going to get things wrong. So, just as they quickly accelerate, they are willing to decelerate, change the direction and move to that next opportunity.

If we can focus, if we can be fast, if we can be frequent, if we can be flexible, then we start to build our our tool kit around dynamic learning.

Knowledge@Wharton: What process can we follow to become dynamic learners?

Staats: In the book, I explore different steps that we need to take. I lay out eight elements that make up dynamic learning, so I’ll mention them and then we can dive in where you would like to go.

The first is this idea of failure that I was talking about — a willingness to try things, have them not work out, but learn from that and move on. The second is an appreciation that process really matters. This shouldn’t be shocking to hear from an operations professor. Too often, as learners, we focus only on the outcome rather than the process. We know that sometimes you can get a good outcome and have done all the things wrong. You just got lucky. Sometimes you did it all right, and it didn’t work out. So, if we don’t focus on the process, we’re never going to get to a good spot.

The third is around asking questions. We tend to rush to answers. We tend to think we need to go, go, go, but we should be pulling ourselves back to ask questions. Fourth, related to that, is taking time to reflect and to think. A mentor of mine advised me to not avoid thinking by being busy.

The next two are really around ourselves. Recognize this need to not be a poor imitation of others, but to be ourselves to learn. What are those things that really energize us that allow us to bring our best selves to work? This is related to the sixth point that we need to play to our strengths. We often think of learning as a story of how do I fix the things that are wrong? Instead, we should ask what things am I great at doing? What are the elements that differentiate me? Think of it as your personal competitive advantage. How do you build those out?

The last two are thinking about one’s range, and also the depth of knowledge — specialization and variety. As learners, I suggest we need to aim to be T-shaped. What I mean by that is that we have a depth of knowledge in certain topics, but we’re also willing to appreciate breadth. It’s not either/or between those two. The final piece that goes into the puzzle is the critical role of others. Ohers educate us and provide valuable knowledge. They give us more detail and show us where there are opportunities for us to do even more. As we step through those eight different elements, we have a chance to accomplish the goal of dynamic learning.

“Dynamic learners recognize that they’re often going to get things wrong.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s dive into a couple of these, starting with asking questions. That seems like a simple concept.

Staats: It’s often not. Something that has been fascinating to me in working with companies is trying to understand, well, why don’t we speak up? The research shows there are a couple of different reasons. One class of reasons just goes into this general problem we have of being constantly busy, we have so much going on. Alarm bells go off in our head when we look at something that isn’t quite right, but there’s the next thing on the to-do list, or the next meeting alert that’s going off, or the phone’s ringing. So, we keep running. There’s this element of busyness that we have to step back and look at our calendars. Are we dealing with the important stuff, or are we just dealing with what is urgent?

The second piece, which needs more unpacking, is around self-censorship. We have the time to ask the question, we’re sitting in that meeting, and we choose not to put our hand up. That’s driven by two reasons. One is, we incorrectly think about how people are going to judge us for asking questions. If I say I don’t know that, it will be like being back in elementary school and the kids will laugh. But what’s fascinating — and the research shows this quite compellingly — is that when we ask questions, people like us more. They see us as curious, as engaging them — assuming it’s a legitimate question. There is tremendous value in overcoming that fear of asking questions. Some of my favorite research on the topic looked at speed dating. It showed that people who asked more questions were more likely to get dates. There are broad lessons not just for organizational life, but perhaps outside of the organization as well.

The other element around self-censoring is sometimes we don’t realize that we need to ask a question. We end up lacking an accurate picture of our surroundings. This is where some of the different cognitive biases that have showed up over the last 20 to 30 years in research really can be highlighted. You can think about something like the selective attention test, the fact that we tend to only identify certain things and fail to realize what we’re missing. We get so focused on individual pieces of the tree that we miss the forest.

Knowledge@Wharton: What role do rest and relaxation play in improving our ability to learn?

“We tend to rush to answers. We tend to think we need to go, go, go, but we should be pulling ourselves back to ask questions.”

Staats: I think it’s fair to say that we almost have an activity bias these days. We think that if we’re not doing something, then there’s a problem. We kind of get jittery if we can’t reach a phone. We recently had a colleague join from industry, and it had taken a little while for somebody to respond to an email, and he was asking me about this. It had been a couple hours. I said, “What is it about that that seems so long?” And he said that in his prior organization, you were measured by the speed at which you replied to emails. In one sense, that shows eagerness. In another sense, is your fastest answer always going to be the right answer and the best way to move forward? Probably not.

We have to recognize this activity bias exists. While we want to be seen to be doing something, that can be problematic. My favorite example of that from research comes from the world of soccer and shooting penalty kicks. Researchers looked at the data for goalies. Did they dive to the left or the right? They found it was split even. Almost all the time, they dove in one direction. Occasionally they stayed in the middle, but only about 6% of the time. But when they looked at the kicks, they found that the kicks were spread roughly equally left, down the middle, over to the right.

They went back to the goalies and said, “If you stay in the middle, you can stop more goals.” This would be beneficial. It would be an optimal strategy. Mix it in sometimes, dive sometimes, stay put sometimes. Basically, the goalies told the researchers, “We are not going to do that. We see the data, we believe the data, but we are not going to do that.” When the researchers dug into why, the goalies said they would regret not diving. One said, “If I dive, my face is in the dirt, I’m chewing on some grass, everybody’s going to agree that I did everything I could. But if I just stand there, it looks like I did not even try to stop the ball.”

That is how we are in organizational life. We have to be willing to pull back and take some time to rest and reflect.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk about learning from others. If there is more of an open feeling about asking questions, then not only is the person who asked the question going to learn, but others around are going to learn as well. Would you agree?

Staats: You’re absolutely right. When you ask the question, odds are that a handful of other people in that same meeting also are wondering about it. As a leader, you have to make it clear that asking a difficult question isn’t going to get the messenger shot, but it’s going to be seen as attractive behavior. We often think tasks are far more individual than they really are. We get obsessed with our little component, failing to see the broader element.

When we work with others, we have the ability to ask questions. What’s interesting is we also have the ability to share what we know. We’ve done research looking at the power of teaching. In an organizational environment, when I teach others, I learn my own material better, too. I understand that product design or the strategic plan, whatever it might be, with more detail. Incorporating others in all facets is huge as we think about dynamic learning.

“In an organizational environment, when I teach others, I learn my own material better, too.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What steps can organizations can take to become better environments for learning? Could you give us examples of companies that are good at this?

Staats: One I would highlight is work that Deloitte has been doing around the performance review process. I mentioned earlier this challenge we have of needing to highlight the process versus the outcome. If we think about the traditional annual review process, that often involves stacked rankings. Then it easily becomes a matter of, “What have you done for me lately?” Deloitte, in re-architecting the performance review process, not only took away that stacked ranking in a lot of areas and tried to make it an ongoing effort. Every couple of weeks, you have a check-in with your leader. It may be every week, depending on the project. Then you have mentors and coaches in place who help guide you through the process. If you’re having a conversation every two weeks, you actually have insight into the process, right? You start to get a measurement of how the person is spending their time, what they’re doing, how it might help them. It’s a lot easier to understand that. If all you do is look at the end of 12 months, it’s hard to know what they actually did over the course of that day. I think that’s one of the areas that we see a lot of attention going into, of thinking about what development looks like.

The other one I would highlight as an example is this idea of strength. To stick with Deloitte, we did some work with them looking at how we can help people discover their strengths, in particular as they come into the organization. How can we do things to help them use those strengths? We know that strengths and their use is a critical determinant of employee engagement.

Knowledge@Wharton: Companies now collect data about so many things. They use analytics to make sense of that data. How do you think companies can learn better from data and analytics, and use that to make sound decisions? Could you offer any examples of that?

Staats: Oh, that’s interesting. I think that you’re absolutely right that the world of people analytics has opened up all sorts of exploration. I would now refer to a good chunk of my research as people analytics. When I started it 15 years ago, that was not a term that was being used. I think what it highlights is we have a chance to understand what drives performance in a good way. We have a chance to understand what gets in the way of performance. A number of different organizations we’ve worked with have been eager to understand what sets people up for success, whether that’s individually or as a project team, then trying to get the data knowledge together with the business knowledge, really forging those two together. In too many places, these things are pulled apart, still. If you think we need HR, and we need analytics, and we need business domain expertise, finding a way to bring them into the proverbial same room so that we not only understand the data, but we start to change policies.

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