Can you do Learning Teams without doing the New View?

Published by Andy Shone

Dozers and mining machinery dig in the sandy landscape of an Australian mine site, demonstrating the benefits when organisations successfully run Learning Teams.

In recent times, we’ve been asked if it’s possible to do Learning Teams without necessarily doing the ‘new view’, Safety II, or HOP? It is true that, by and large, Learning Teams have been associated (thus far) with organisations that are doing, or attempting to incorporate, the new view into their organisation. Does that however mean you have to be doing the new view or Safety II, to successfully implement Learning Teams?

Sadly, I have no empirical evidence, and therefore cannot be definitive in my answer. I can however say that in my own opinion, an organisation really needs to have some key traits in place to make Learning Teams successful. If an organisation has those traits, fine, go ahead and try Learning Teams, but in my experience the vast majority do not have the key traits already embedded, without first trying to embed new view thinking. I would go further and say many organisations would be outright hostile to the underpinning ideas behind Learning Teams. Let us however put aside those organisations that are utterly opposed and work on those that, while not being opposed, are not necessarily committed to the ‘new view’.

It does not really matter which flavour of ‘new view’ you are signing up to, because ultimately all would be in agreement as to what the key traits are, that must be in place for effective Operational Learning to take place. For me, there are three key traits that an organisation must develop; all of which are comfortably embedded or engendered within the new view approaches.

Firstly, all new view ideas accept that there is a difference, sometimes significant, between work as imagined and work as done. Safety II would use the terminology ‘work as imagined vs work as done’, HOP would talk about the ‘black line and the blue line’, and these concepts very much tie into the reality that workers adapt, vary, and flex every day to be successful. This however is not necessarily accepted, nor is it something which people have thought about in many organisations. It is fair to say that scientific management, Taylorism, and other associated ideas, while not specifically or explicitly discussed, form the underpinning pillars on which many of their management systems, processes and practices sit.

One of the key fundamentals of doing Learning Teams is to find out how work is really done, not how we think it is done, but how it is done. This involves working with the frontline workers, the ‘blue line’ workers, i.e. the people that do the work every day. How do you think news of ‘blue line’ work as done, would be received by safety managers or operational managers in an organisation that is not comfortable with the fact that work as done is often different to work as imagined? I can tell you that in my experience, when managers are confronted with scary stories (the blue line stories) of what it takes to get the job done, their first response generally is not, “thank you so much for bringing in this vital information!” Managers tend to become defensive and upset as to why they did not know about this. If we are not careful, conducting Learning Teams simply exposes the gap between work as imagined and work as done, and without that being understood and accepted first by management, this can create more problems than it solves. In fact, we know of organisations where this has created severe friction between management and frontline workers.

It is for this reason that, at Southpac, we often talk about preparing the soil. Before commencing Learning Teams, it is vitally important that management are comfortable and are accepting of the fact that there is this presence of two worlds or perspectives; work as imagined and work as done. We must get them comfortable with dealing with the blue line. That is quite a big thing to achieve within an organisation.

The second trait, and this is closely linked to the first, but is probably distinct. Much of the world, and many of the different disciplines and approaches and tools that we use are steeped in traditional approaches to management, a key principle of which is reductionism or the breaking down into ever smaller parts. Evidence of this in safety is often in the form of root cause analysis or other approaches that come up with generally very convenient and simple explanations for quite complex phenomena. This is a problem not just because it completely misdiagnoses what the real underlying issues are, but it also tends to lead to very simplistic and ineffective fixes and solutions. This, however, is not limited to safety. You only need to switch on the news, read the newspaper, or tune briefly into LinkedIn to see a whole host of very complex issues being boiled down, denuded of all nuance, and fixed with one very simple (and often wrong) solution. The whole purpose of Learning Teams is to get beyond the simple and obvious story that, “someone screwed up” or, “someone didn’t follow procedure”. Learning Teams are about working in the messy and the complex. In the times that we have focused on wide and deep context-focused learning, we have rarely come up with simple problems. That is not to say that we do not sometimes find relatively simple solutions with the assistance of field experts, but that is another point. Organisations that want to be successful with Learning Teams must be very comfortable with complex and messy stories of how work gets done, and how things sometimes go wrong. Without that foundation, Learning Teams and their stories are likely to completely clash with the underlying beliefs of the organisation.

The third trait cuts across a number of different ideas, both within safety and beyond. These traits (or their absence) first become apparent when it comes to the first session within a Learning Team. What happens if people do not feel safe or comfortable sharing their stories of how work really happens? The simple answer is nothing happens and Learning Teams will not be successful. Workers must feel safe to share their stories of work as done, the blue line. What does an organisation look like where their workers can freely share these stories? Well, two things come to mind. Firstly, and Amy Edmondson speaks of this so well, there must be psychological safety within the organisation, such that workers or managers or whoever happens to be in the Learning Team feel they can speak freely. Secondly, leadership – senior or frontline – must be able to manage their response when they hear bad news. This does not come easily to many of us. Consider your own experiences; when someone brings you bad news, is your first response to say, “thank you so much for bringing me this vital message”? If we are all honest and fair-minded, we would say that we all tend to, at least partly, respond in an emotional way. For Learning Teams to be successful, it must be safe for people to share both in the Learning Team specifically, but then for the organisation to hear the message and to respond in an appropriate way.

How many organisations have these three key traits already in place? I could be totally wrong, but my feeling is that most do not have these traits already. Some may have one or maybe two, but rarely all. I would argue if you really want Learning Teams to be a success in your organisation, to bring you the rich insights, the stories of failure, near failure and success, these are the traits that as a minimum you must try to develop.

If your organisation is already very comfortable and accepts that there is a difference between work as imagined and work as done, feels that the world is complex and not simple and acknowledges that there are many, many influences that impact on everyday work, and they can manage their response providing a safe environment for workers to talk about this, I would say great, start doing Learning Teams. I would however caution and say, be honest with yourself, is that really your organisation?

If it is not your organisation, do not despair! We have worked with many organisations that were not in this place, however with dedication and some deliberate action they have created the conditions to enable operational learning to be a success. What will you do today to create the conditions for Learning Teams to be a success in your organisation?

Learn more about Learning Teams.


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