How Do People (And Organisations) Learn?

My personal observation is that there are three types of learning:

1. Factual/Immediate – learning data and facts, as one does at school or from a book. The information is immediately learned, but might also be as quickly forgotten! If the information is frequently used then it more easily remembered.

2. Gradual – progressive learning of a skill or process, e.g. the way a professional chef slices vegetables. Anyone who sees it can immediately do it VERY slowly and VERY carefully, but with practice will get incrementally better. Because of the continuous practice the skill becomes deeply ingrained.

3. Discontinuous – abrupt learning of a skill, e.g. riding a bike or learning to juggle. You can see it demonstrated but can’t do it, you have to try again and again, and then suddenly something clicks and you’ve mastered it. Then gradual progressive learning takes over as you build and improve the skill.

So, what does this mean to a business?

Discontinuous learning requires a safe environment where you can repeatedly make mistakes until you get it right. When you do get it right you take a big leap forward in competence. For example, a few years ago I taught myself to juggle; one ball and then two balls is easy, getting to three is extremely hard and took a week of dropping them in a room with plenty of space and no breakables. But then, one day, quite suddenly I caught the third and did a proper juggle. I immediately did it again, then again, and within minutes started to improve how long I could keep them in the air – gradual learning had taken over.

How many businesses allow their teams to try something new and fail? Are failures treated as a chance to learn, or the opportunity to blame someone? If businesses had environments where repeated trial and error was not only possible but promoted, would more businesses make massive breakthoughs into entirely new territory?

A safe environment means two things. First, your teams have the space, time and permission to try things that might not work, they are doing so with the support and encouragement of the company, and they don’t get blamed if ideas don’t work. And second, the business supports and trials these ideas in a controlled way that doesn’t put the rest of the business at risk.

How good is your business at encouraging this kind of innovation?