Whereas learning in a failure culture is dominated by training courses, personal study and certification, learning in a risk managed culture occurs as people do the work and solve new problems, problems that they be the first in the world to encounter. I worked in a failure culture where people were given “points” when they completed training courses on Coursera or read a book on O’Reilly. The “point” score was recorded in a system that monitored Coursera and O’Reilly activity and was used in the end of year performance appraisal. It was a an example of failure culture mentality, “Measure it because it is easy to do so, not because it is valuable or the right thing to do.” However the real problem is that you are rewarding the laggards, the people who have failed to stay up to date in their chosen profession.
By the time a subject makes it “big” with several books on the subject, you are looking at the idea being between five and ten years old. By the time a subject has a single book on the subject, the idea is about three to five years old. It takes one to two years for someone to write a book on a subject, particularly a new subject. Before someone writes a book on a subject it is normally implemented in a few different organisations. Prior to appearing in a book, a subject is normally discussed or described in blog posts, in meetups, in conference sessions, in e:mail groups, and in twitter threads, all of which are available on-line at some level either as blogs, YouTube or Vimeo videos.
Cloud as a case study.
I remember back in 1997 when a strange phenomena occurred on the derivatives trading floor at Chase Manhattan. All of a sudden stack of five PCs would appear at the end of a desk with a single monitor and keyboard, and a switch that could be used to inspect each PC using the monitor and keyboard. Shortly after the cloak room was cleared of coats and sweat gym kit and replaced by stacks of PCs without monitors and keyboards. By 2005 the credit derivatives trading desk at BNP Paridas had hundreds of IBM high reliability PCs in its data centre. In 2010 UBS had twenty thousand cores that we could switch between using for UAT or Production depending on the priority. In 2014 Skype leased twenty thousand machines from Amazon Web Services for just a few days. Since then, Kubernates, Servlerless, Microservices have flourished around the world. And in 2022 failure cultures around the world are rewarding developers for learning the basics about the cloud on Coursera or O’Reilly. Rewarded for being twenty years behind the leading edge, and a full decade behind the early majority. Of course anyone who learnt about the cloud along the way doesn’t get that recognition.
Managing the risk associated with learning.
When I coach coaches about learning I use Sharon Bowman’s “Training from the Back of the Room” to structure a conversation about learning. “Tell me as many different ways you can think of to learn?” is the Connection question. Write down as many ways you can think of… The answers normally include “Blogs, Books, Articles, Videos, Doing It (though rarely in the agile world these days), Training Courses etc…
For the Concept I introduce them to a modified version of David A. Kolb’s “Circle of Learning”.
- Observation – The learning is separate to the action. e.g. Reading books, articles, blogs. Watching videos or watching other people doing things.
- Reflection – Discussion of ideas and observations. e.g. Retrospectives and discussion groups.
- Experience – Doing things, interacting with reality.
- Modelling – Creating models of how things should work.
For the concrete I ask two questions. The first question is “What types of learning are the least risky for individuals who do not want to show they do not know the material?”. The answer is “Observation” and “Modelling”. These are types of learning that an individual can engage in such that other people do not know they do not understand the material. The second question is “Which types of learning are least risky for the organisation?” The answer is “Experience” and “Reflection” as they learn by doing something, met by reality each step, or are challenged by others who have different experiences. People who learn by doing start with “Hello World” and build up their knowledge incrementally making sure each step works. People who learn by reading books and articles, and modelling can suffer from Dunning Kruger and build grand architecture that SHOULD work.
Learning in a failure culture will be dominated by “observation” and “modelling”. Learning in a risk managed culture will have a preference for “experience” and “reflection” but will also learn from other organisations through observation, and identify gaps in knowledge, and design experiments using modelling. Risk managed cultures are more likely to come up with innovate approaches to solve real world problems whereas failure cultures are more likely to simply follow the herd.
Impact of Learning Style on Culture
Learning by doing is not about playing with canned examples but rather applying new knowledge in the context of work. Complex skills are learned by beginners through a process of legitimate peripheral participation, or situated learning which could be described as the “Padawan Model”. Teams in a risk managed culture adopt new technologies gradually solving real business problems using small safe to fail experiments. They do not learn by adopting a new technology in a big bang approach. The majority of the learning takes place as part of the work, with the product owner putting one or two stories using the new technology into the sprint, possibly as time boxed spikes.
Expecting the team to do the learning by reading books and acquiring certifications from on-line courses naturally leads to that work being seen as secondary, which should be done outside of office hours in employees’ personal time. This creates an “interesting” cultural bias. The people who will have the least amount of time outside of work are those that have other responsibilities such as parents, especially single parents, carers looking after a sick friend or relative, people who support others in the community such as councilors, youth workers or charity volunteers. The people who do have the time are likely be people who do not have those types of responsibilities. The people who do have the time will have an advantage and will be able lead discussions regarding new technologies marking them out for promotions. This style of learning results in an organisation where the natural leaders with empathy for others are disadvantaged, a culture where leaders are less empathetic and less diverse in their thinking.
How failureship blocks learning
The MacLean Triune brain model sees the brain in three parts, paraphrasing, these are “The reptilian brain” responsible for fight or flight get me out of trouble mode, the “Everyday brain” responsible for every day life, and “The holo-deck” where the brain imagines new thing in familiar and new scenarios. We can only access the “holo-deck” if we feel safe and unstressed, stress drives us toward the non-learning “reptilian brain”. Learning requires us to be able to access the “holo-deck” so that we can think through how a new approach might impact the way we work and how we need to modify that work. Extreme pressure, especially time pressure creates stress which makes it hard to acquire new skills. The failureship demand teams adopt new technologies and approaches, AND they demand that team meet ambitious deadlines… is it any surprise that the first bump in the road sees teams scurrying back to familiar, old ways of working in the reptilian brain. I liken this to a child learning how to ride a bike. They put all their weight on the foremost pedal but at the same time they put their weight on the back pedal, the result of which is the bike doesn’t move.
Leaders in risk managed cultures give the teams space to learn and apply new technologies and approaches as part of their work. They see the learning as a valid form of work rather than a luxury for those with excess spare time.