Chief Scrum Master Scrum Alliance
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Why a learning culture is inherently agile

20th Aug 2019
Business team working together
iStock/Eva-Katalin

Growing an ‘agile’ business isn’t something that can be achieved overnight – leaders should work long-term to establish a culture of continuous learning in order to achieve this.

In an ideal learning culture people feel rewarded for seeking continuous improvement and can do so in a safe and fearless environment.

People often talk about creating desirable cultures in the workplace, but what do we mean by ‘culture’?

In my view, it is our values, as demonstrated by our habits, traditions and behaviours.

For years, I’ve partnered with teams and organisations to grow their mindset and adapt their approach to operations and development so that they can thrive in today’s fast-moving world.

When trying to create a new culture, particularly one focused on learning, agility is key to ensuring it is flexible and empowers employees.

Creating the right culture is a critical part of any transformation, but particularly when seeking greater organisational agility.

Beware though - ‘culture’ has become such a buzzword that some have lost sight of their ability to influence it, but there are some concrete steps that can be taken to create and care for those traditions, habits, and behaviours.

In this article we'll look at why a learning culture is crucial, how fear stops or slows teams from creating change, and how HR directors can lead the charge in developing a culture of learning and agility.

The agile agenda

Agile values and principles originated in software development, yet the impact has been far and wide.

Agile is a mindset and set of principles that trains us to use incremental, iterative work sequences to deliver products in faster time, that are of higher quality.

Integrating agile values and principles has been so successful in addressing some of the most technically complicated business challenges, it has won fans and adopters across a broad range of organisations and industries – even in classrooms – as a means of creating a culture that allows teams to proactively engage in reaching a common goal.

Agile values encourage us to shift our focus to radical customer satisfaction, moving and adapting to their needs.

That type of customer-centricity is applicable, no matter the industry or the customer.

An agile learning culture requires time and support for experimentation.

It’s important to highlight that agile is an adjective, not a noun. ‘Agile’ is not a goal we strive to reach. It is a mindset that enables employees to be flexible and adapt strategies to move with the market, successfully meeting the challenges that face the business.

An agile learning culture enables teams to create sustainable growth, giving them the freedom to launch fast and learn quickly.

In this environment, if an experiment fails, lessons are learnt and we recognise that time was not wasted.

In an ideal learning culture people feel rewarded for constantly seeking better ways of doing things and can do so in a safe and fearless environment – just as in an agile culture.

Even if you aren’t calling it agility, a learning culture is inherently agile.     

According to recent research by Forbes Insights in conjunction with Scrum Alliance, those that succeed at achieving greater agility report incredible results for their organisation, including:

  • Faster time to market (60%).
  • Faster innovation (59%) .
  • Improved non-financial results i.e. morale and retention (58%).

The numbers speak for themselves - successful agile adoption delivers higher quality, better value, and customer-centric solutions with a happier workforce.

With results like these, it’s little wonder that business leaders are increasingly looking to create a learning culture in their teams that increases agility - so what’s holding them back?

Fear of the unknown

As humans, it is deep rooted in our DNA to fear the unknown, leading us to get stuck in our ways.

For our caveman ancestors it was a necessary survival instinct, ensuring caution against dangers in the wilderness, and now, that same fear is carrying over into our business decisions– long after those threats have gone.

Often, there is an incredible amount of change that is required to shift our traditions, habits, and behaviours.

That change can be painful as we grapple with fear of the unknown that is so deeply part of us, but the only way to get past that is to acknowledge it and push through.

An agile learning culture requires time and support for experimentation.

I encourage leaders to set realistic and inspiring organisational goals, but allow their teams to set their own team-level goals and objectives.  

Employees and teams learn and innovate by doing crazy things, testing new ideas – but this requires time and support from senior executives, HR directors and the organisation as a whole.

While many of these leaders will outwardly support this shift in culture, it’s the formal and informal policies that may stall such an initiative.

For example, when business leaders set prescriptive goals with no room for experimentation, all the team’s time is set on trying to reach targets and objectives, leaving little time to fail or to experiment.

Business and HR leaders alike need to evaluate whether their words, actions, and policies are aligned to creating the culture they desire.

Fear of losing control

There is also a fear of losing control, particularly for HR professionals and C-suite executives who experience constant pressure to meet the high expectations set by the board or shareholders.

If leaders are faced with unrealistic expectations, it creates fear of failure, fear of disappointing others and a fear that their teams cannot deliver unless given strict direction and under strict supervision.

This is a difficult fear to manage, given the constraints are placed by hard-to-reach third parties.

I encourage leaders to set realistic and inspiring organisational goals, but allow their teams to set their own team-level goals and objectives.  

By giving that freedom to the teams, leaders create a sense of empowerment and autonomy whereby teams can meet the expectations but also make time to innovate and learn.

You can’t just ‘speak’ a culture into existence – as a leader you have to be the example, while also helping people in the organisation see why it’s beneficial to them.

With the guardrails of organisational goals in place, leaders can breathe easier knowing that the expectations are clear.

Senior management can also be resistant to the implementation of a learning culture if they fear that pushing decision making down the ranks makes them less valuable.

Allowing those closest to the work to make the daily decisions opens up great opportunity for leadership to focus their energy and effort on strategic thinking that will sustain the business for years to come.

They have the chance to dream and envision a bright future, making them even more valuable than before.

Who is responsible for creating an agile learning culture?

Change starts at the top. The first step in creating a learning culture is with the leadership team clearly and passionately painting the future vision for the organisation.

Developing agility in a team won’t get you far without a wider vision for what you want to accomplish.

It should be clear very early on in the journey what the ultimate, collective purpose for the business is, as that provides motivation and acts as the foundations of the culture.

You can’t just ‘speak’ a culture into existence – as a leader you have to be the example, while also helping people in the organisation see why it’s beneficial to them.

Of course, everyone in the organisation must understand and adopt the habits and beliefs of the new culture and appreciate the changes needed to get there, but that is difficult to foster without leadership example (and not just buy-in).

Shifting culture in a business is challenging, a bit frightening, but ultimately creating a culture that reflects your values and strategy is incredibly rewarding.

Establishing a learning culture requires a lot of courage and trust as you push through the fear of change.

It is up to the leadership team to decide the purpose and overarching ambition for the business, but they can be supported by external experts in developing a learning culture.

This could include an agile coach, who will have the objectivity to know where to begin making changes and how to best communicate the new vision to ensure everyone feels included and engaged in the journey.

What is important to remember with any change is that it’s not a race to the finish line - the aim is to be open to continuous learning, with a view to implementing business agility that is sustainable.

By embracing agility, businesses can drive towards their broader, overarching purpose – and maintain it – through an empowering learning culture.

Interested in this topic? Read How to cultivate agility through learning.

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