The world is full of teams of talented individuals who share a vision for a while, yet fail to learn.  The great jazz ensemble has talent and a shared vision (even if they don’t discuss it), but what really matters is that the musicians know how to play together.
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline p. 236

Senge’s chapter on “Team Learning” offers practical insight for helping teams benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience.  The next few posts will address some of these insights.

In my experience teams often think they work together better than they actually do.  Everyone is busy and deadlines are met but is progress being made?  The concept of team learning brings together many of the elements of recent chapters, personal mastery, mental models, and shared vision.  If a team is not aligned and focused on a common goal that each member understands and supports, team learning cannot occur.

Successful team learning requires team members to share and receive information.  Sounds easy right?  What happens when you have an idea that is contrary to conventional wisdom?  Do you share it?  Can you share it?  I am not recommending or advocating that you go around telling everyone how to do their job.  What I am calling for is culture of openness where people feel comfortable sharing ideas.  This can happen formally or informally.  It all depends on the culture of your organization and the personalities of each team member.

Mr. Senge offers 3 dimensions of successful team learning.  The points below are a combination of his points and my thoughts.  My thoughts are in italics.

  1. the need to think insightfully about complex issues.  This requires individuals to think about how they do their work not just think about their work.  To do this a person must have time and freedom to analyze a situation or circumstances.  Being constantly under pressure to perform prevents most people from doing this.  Can you block off time in your schedule?  Are there ways you can be more efficient?
  2. the need for innovative, coordinated action.  Collaboration and collective intelligence has gotten a lot of attention with the growth of social media.  But collaboration does not automatically guarantee better results.  However it may reveal new opportunities or strategies. Outstanding teams in organizations develop… an “operational trust,” where each team member remains conscious of other team members and can be counted on to act in ways that complement each others’ actions.  Trust can only be built when team members are willing and able to challenge one another.
  3. seek contributions of team members on other teams.  Accountability is required for an organization to succeed.  However, accountability does not mean decisions must be made in isolation.  Team learning requires input from various points of view.  Some of my most creative experiences occur after I am exposed to something new, whether reading, listening, or discussing.  I encourage you to create opportunities to receive input from other teams.

Recognizing that these habits do not come naturally, Mr. Senge warns his readers of behaviors that prevent teams from adopting these habits.  He calls them opposing forces.  The most common of these are defensive routines.  He says we have all developed mechanisms that prevent us and others from threat and embarrassment.  Who doesn’t want to avoid embarrassment?  I try to avoid it as much as possible.  Recognizing these habits requires effort.  As noted in #1 above, we must take time to think about the work we are doing and how we are doing it.  Its easy to see counterproductive habits in others, but are we our own worst enemy?  Are we inadvertently undermining our own success?  Do we have defensive routines that are preventing others from achieving their full potential?

Team learning requires discipline.  If it didn’t we would all be good at it and do it naturally.  But it doesn’t come naturally so we have to consciously commit to share and receive.  Make appointments to share with each other.  Set aside time to reflect on your work.  Commit to learning more about the work your colleagues are doing and how they are doing it.  Below is a powerful insight into team learning.  I encourage you to take it to heart.

Individual learning, at some level, is irrelevant for organizational learning.  Individuals learn all the time and yet there is no organizational learning.  But if teams learn, they become a microcosm for learning throughout the organization.  Insights gained are put into action.  Skills developed can propagate to other individuals and to other teams (although there is no guarantee that they will propagate).  The team’s accomplishments can set the tone and establish a standard for learning together for the larger organization.