Team leaders who understand learning as an on-going process have greater success in developing team knowledge, skills and abilities and synergy than those who view learning as events. This article discusses the difference between individual and team learning plus gives five strategies for effective team learning.
Peter M. Senge authored two ground breaking books in the 90s, the Fifth Discipline, and The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. He drew attention to the art and practice of the learning organization. Senge's approach was instrumental in advancing the notion that learning is continuous - something not fixed in time but always evolving. His books take time to digest but are full of relevant strategies and tools for strengthening a learning organization.
Learning means integrating knowledge in order to do something different including becoming more human such as strengthening relationships, being non-judgmental and acting non-defensively.
When individuals apply themselves to learning they often experience a steep learning curve, whether that be a new skill, new process or a different approach to a past practice. They are also often tired because learning can be taxing on the brain and hard work.
On the flip side, finding new ways of doing things differently can be exciting. Yes, our energy can be drained but then it is restored especially when we apply our learning to a new task or relationship.
Like individual learning team learning takes effort, expends energy, and needs discipline. But unlike stand alone individual learning two things happen almost simultaneously in teams - both individuals and teams learn at the same time. That's even harder work.
Individuals can learn something new by reading a book, attending a conference or a lecture. They then decide to apply what they have learned through consistent practice. No one else need be involved. What they learned will no doubt influence others, but the learning is individual.
Teams on the other hand, are a collection of individuals, all with their own expertise, behavioral strengths and weaknesses, personality traits and mix of skill levels. Team learning is about taking all these ingredients and melding them into a cohesive whole so that the team runs smoothly like a pleasant piece of music. And in the process the "I" is subsumed within the "we."
The purpose in team learning then is to take the collection of individuals, who are experts in their own right and who may have "egos" that tend to override others and blend them into a cohesive whole; and to do so without undermining the confidence of team members.
The balancing act of keeping the confidence of individuals intact while strengthening the confidence of the team is crucial to effective team learning. Team members can best do this through empathetic dialogue and on-going conversations that connect the members.
When each team member unselfishly contributes their expertise and talents to the benefit of the team and work together to find breakthrough solutions to problems or support one another in change, or respectfully share observations, then the team comes together. And as it does, it continues to learn in the process.
When we look at winning teams in sports we witness well organized, integrated, energetic and disciplined effort that has come about by individual and collective practice. Winning sport teams spend hours honing their ability to work together as one - they don't view the process as a onetime event, they keep at it day in and day out and build on both their successes and mistakes. Their learning is not confined only to the field, arena or court, it is also found in the locker room, team meetings and gatherings outside of the game and practice settings. Everything they do and all the conversations they have as team members contribute to the melding of the team.
From all of this, the real learning for individuals who operate primarily from an individualistic value base is to learn behaviours that lead to a "relational value system." Daniel F. Prosser in his book Thirteeners offers a trilogy of relational behaviours necessary to succeed in today's workplace - "cooperation, collaboration and co-creation." These form the basis of a "relational value system." And building on this trilogy individual team members perform at high levels.
Learning starts with the individual. First and foremost, individuals need to be open to learning, and when they are, they are usually:
Team learning starts when individuals have a team perspective. As team members, they:
5 Strategies for team learning
Be open to dialogue
Dialogue is about coming together to understand each other's point of view. It's respectfully listening to each other, speaking in an empathetic manner and coming to a decision. However, reaching the decision doesn't mean achieving a 100% agreement. It does mean that team members have had the opportunity to fully participate and that their point of view has been considered. The role of the leader is to listen, discern and when necessary break the log jam of disagreement by deciding. The decision isn't arbitrary or dictatorial but one where people have had their input through engaged conversation. The team leader summarizes the discussion and ends with a decision based on a majority consensus.
Take ten minutes to share
Teams can take 10 minutes during the team meeting, best at the beginning and at the end, to identify the way the team is working together and focus on one or two questions like: "How can our team become more effective?" or “What can we do to help us become better at what we do as a team?" An excellent exercise at the end of a meeting is to ask: "What did we do well in today's meeting?" and "What can we improve for next time?"
Seize opportunities to learn
From time to time individuals can attend conferences or workshops outside of team settings. It is sound practice to share the new-found learning with the team, and let the team discover how to integrate it into the way the members collaborate and cooperate with each other.
Taking time out
Sometimes teams just need to take some time out from all the buzz that goes on within the team and around them. Some teams go on retreats to regroup; others build in short quiet times before a team meeting to allow team members collect their thoughts and calm themselves down from the rush of work; and still others have found a way to introduce meditative practices. Phil Jackson, in his book Eleven Rings. devotes a chapter on how he introduced meditation to a championship basketball team.
Continue to Learn
Team learning, just as individual learning, is always evolving, and doesn't stop. It continues to build on past performance and applies past experiences to new challenges, not so that it does the same things over again, but to apply the learning to help the team become stronger. It's all about encouraging team members to get on the same wavelength so that the team has the power to perform at a higher level.
A team that clicks as one means that the members have learned how to work well together and have made the effort to ensure that everyone contributes to the benefit of the whole. They know that to become a winning team it takes individual and collective energy, discipline and practice. Teams learn to function as a synergistic whole, where individual egos are buried but their expertise is respected and shared so that the team achieves outstanding performance as one.
As always, thank you for reading and continue becoming the best version of yourself, stay safe and keep well.
(Edited from “The Eight Interlocking Building Blocks For Successful Teams” - Building Block #7 Learning Mentality)