This gives insights that can explain why some retailers and manufacturers are hesitant to change and move to omnichannel and the New Supply Chain that drives it.
Why Organizations Don’t Learn
Executive SummaryFor any enterprise to be competitive, continuous learning and improvement are key—but not always easy to achieve. After a decade of research, the authors have concluded that four biases stand in the way: We focus too heavily on success, are too quick to act, try too hard to fit in, and rely too much on experts. Each of these biases raises challenges, but each can be curbed with particular strategies.
A preoccupation with success, for example, leads to an unreasonable fear of failure, a mindset that inhibits risk taking, a focus on past performance rather than potential, and blindness to the role of luck in successes and failures. Managers therefore need to treat mistakes as learning opportunities, recognize and foster workers’ capacity for growth, and conduct data-based project reviews.
To counter the bias toward action—and the unthinking perpetual motion and exhaustion that ensue—leaders can schedule more work breaks and make time for reflection. They can redress the tendency to conform, which stifles innovation, by encouraging workers to cultivate their individual strengths and to speak up when they have ideas for improvements. And they can develop and empower their employees to solve problems instead of turning automatically to outside experts.
Idea in Brief
The ProblemEven companies dedicated to continuous improvement struggle to stay on the path. Research suggests that’s because of deeply ingrained biases: We focus too much on success, take action too quickly, try too hard to fit in, and depend too much on outside experts.
The ImpedimentsThese biases manifest themselves in 10 conditions that impede learning. These include fear of failure, insufficient reflection, believing that we need to conform, and inadequate frontline involvement in addressing problems.
The SolutionsLeaders can use a variety of strategies to counter the biases, including stressing that mistakes are learning opportunities, building more breaks into schedules, helping employees identify and apply their personal strengths, and encouraging employees to own problems that affect them.
Bias Toward Success
Challenge #1: Fear of failure.
Challenge #2: A fixed mindset.
The Neural Implications of Different Mindsets
Challenge #3: Overreliance on past performance.
Challenge #4: The attribution bias.
Embrace and teach a growth mindset.
Consider potential when hiring and promoting.Doing this—and making it clear to employees that it is being done—will help counter managers’ incorrect first impressions, along with their natural inclination to hire and promote people like themselves. It will also encourage employees to try new things and seek support in developing their competencies. Considering someone’s potential to improve will almost certainly surface candidates who otherwise would be overlooked for jobs and promotions. When Egon Zehnder began including potential in assessing possible contenders for managerial positions, the resulting pools of candidates were more diverse in terms of race and gender.
Use a data-driven approach to identify what caused success or failure.Most leaders know that data is critical to uncovering the true causes of successful performance, but they don’t always insist on collecting and analyzing the necessary information. One exception is Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. He is a big believer in conducting data-based postmortems of projects—including successful ones—and stresses that even creative endeavors like moviemaking involve activities and deliverables that can be measured. “Data can show things in a neutral way, which can stimulate discussion and challenge assumptions arising from personal impressions,” he says (see “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity,” HBR, September 2008).
Bias Toward ActionHow do you usually respond when you are faced with a problem in your organization? If you’re like most managers, you choose to take some kind of action. You work harder, put in even longer hours, and place added stress on yourself. You’re more comfortable doing something, even if it is counterproductive and doing nothing is the best course of action.
Consider professional soccer goalies and their strategies for defending against penalty kicks. According to a study by Michael Bar-Eli and colleagues, those who stay in the center of the goal, rather than leaping to the right or left, perform the best: They have a 33.3% chance of stopping the ball. Nonetheless, goalies stay in the center only 6.3% of the time. Why? Because it looks and feels better to have missed the ball by diving, even if it turns out to have been in the wrong direction, than to have stood still and watched the ball sail by.
The same aversion to inaction holds true in the business world. When we surveyed participants in our executive education classes, we found that managers feel more productive executing tasks than planning them. Especially when under time pressure, they perceive planning to be wasted effort. This bias toward action is detrimental to improvement for two reasons.
Challenge #1: Exhaustion.Not surprisingly, exhausted workers are too tired to learn new things or apply what they already know. For example, research conducted by one of us (Brad) with Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, and David Hofmann found that hand-washing compliance by hospital personnel—widely known to be critical for preventing hospital-acquired infections—fell nine percentage points, on average, over a typical 12-hour shift. The drop was even greater when health-care workers had a particularly busy shift. However, compliance increased when the workers had more time off between shifts.
Challenge #2: Lack of reflection.Being “always on” doesn’t give workers time to reflect on what they did well and what they did wrong.
Research that we conducted at a tech-support call center of Wipro, a global IT, consulting, and outsourcing company based in India, illustrates this. We studied employees during their initial weeks of training. All went through the same technical training, with a key difference. On the sixth through the 16th days of the program, some workers spent the last 15 minutes of each day reflecting on and writing about the lessons they had learned that day. The others, the control group, just kept working for another 15 minutes. On the final training test at the end of one month, workers who had been given time to reflect performed more than 20% better, on average, than those in the control group. Several lab studies we conducted on college students and employed individuals in a variety of organizations produced similar results.
Build breaks into the schedule.Make sure workers take sufficient time to rejuvenate and reflect during the workday and between shifts. In many organizations, hourly workers are entitled or actually required to take periodic breaks.
However, our research suggests that companies should provide even more downtime than they do. At Morning Star, a vertically integrated tomato-processing company, the workers in the fields not only get mandated breaks, but they also sometimes have to suspend their work for periods that can last nearly an hour, as a result of glitches in other parts of the system (such as a tomato trailer’s failure to show up). Company data that we examined revealed that workers were actually more productive over a 12-hour shift if their day included such unexpected breaks. The message: Leaders should conduct experiments to determine the optimal number and length of breaks.
For many management and knowledge-worker positions, of course, there are no mandatory breaks. Individuals have to decide for themselves whether to pause and recharge. Virtually everyone in such jobs recognizes the benefits of watercooler conversations for learning and exchanging ideas. People also agree that it’s important to get enough sleep and take vacations. Yet many of us don’t practice what we preach. A recent survey conducted by Staples drives this point home. When Staples asked more than 200 office workers in the United States and Canada about their work habits, more than a quarter reported that they took no break other than lunch. The vast majority of those cited guilt as the main reason. Yet 90% of the bosses surveyed said that they encouraged breaks, and 86% of employees agreed that brief respites from work make them more productive.
Take time to just think.In the same way that you block out time on your calendar to plan an initiative or a presentation, you should block out a short period each day—even just 20 to 30 minutes—to either plan your agenda (in the early morning) or think about how the day went (in the late afternoon). If time is really scarce, try to reflect on your way to or from work. A study of commuters in the United Kingdom that we conducted with Julia Lee and Jon Jachimowicz showed that those who were encouraged (through text messages) to plan for their upcoming day during their journeys were happier, less burned-out, and more productive than people in a control group.
Leaders can help by thoughtfully structuring the workweek—for instance, by insisting that no meetings be held on Fridays, as Tommy Hilfiger and other firms have done.
Encourage reflection after doing.Through reflection, we can better understand the actions we’re considering and their likelihood of keeping us productive. “Don’t avoid thinking by being busy,” a wise mentor once told one of us.
Some organizations are finding ways to incorporate reflection into their regular activities. One powerful approach treats reflection as a post hoc analytical tool for understanding the drivers of success and failure. The U.S. Army is well known for its after-action reviews (AARs). To ensure that a rigorous process is followed, AARs are run by a facilitator rather than the project’s leader. An effective AAR involves comparing what actually happened with what should or could have happened and then carefully diagnosing the gap, be it positive or negative.