Improve Team Dynamics: How to Create a Learning Culture at Your Startup

A culture of learning creates encourages curiosity and knowledge sharing.

Creating a learning culture is one of the three lines that carry through all six levels of a high-performing team.

It starts with a growth versus fixed mindset, and how that’s a spectrum of learning.

It is also interwoven in different areas such as psychological safety and emotional intelligence, by learning about yourself hence, being self-aware.

A learning culture also shows up when speaking of empowerment, role designing and setting goals and decision-making.

Finally, it shows continuously in feedback. Continuous feedback is crucial for learning and for your team.

So, learning culture, at the fifth level is where it really wraps up. It’s the final step that allows us to evolve. This is where we see it all coming together before we land the sixth and final step, an all-encompassing vision.

But first, here is a little reminder on the 6 steps to make teams more effective.

What is a Culture of Learning?

The Burson report showed that the single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization's learning culture. This is a huge statement.

A strong learning culture can better position your organization for the needed skills of the future.

Research by Bersin found that companies who effectively nurture their workforce’s desire to learn are at least 30% more likely to be market leaders in their industries over an extended period.

The world's changing quickly.

Economies change quickly.

Industries change quickly.

And it's our ability to be responsive, our ability to be adaptive.

"There is a considerable consensus today that a key competitive advantage for organizations lies in their ability to learn and be responsive to challenges from both internal and external environments,” Bates and Khasawneh (2005).

An authentic learning culture is a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization.

To develop and maintain employee skills for the future and in the present environment, an organization must emphasize learning and development or, simply put, coaching and training.

Learning and Development programs are strategically oriented to the organizational process for managing the development of human resources to contribute to the organization’s overall success.

However, training alone is not sufficient to enhance employee skills and performance to a greater level because not all knowledge and skills obtained from training are properly transferred.

Thus, an organization should create a learning culture within its structure so that employees can share, acquire, and create knowledge and skills,

Let's dive into the 7 learning culture elements.

7 Learning Culture Elements

We have to create a learning culture in order to actually help our employees learn.

So, what are the elements of this organizational learning culture? Let's look at them.

1. Create Continuous Learning Opportunities

The first element is continuous learning opportunities.

Meaning learning designed into the work so that people can learn on the job, opportunities are provided for ongoing education and growth.

In the beginning, maybe that means teaching and shadowing, having employees join you.

Maybe they shadow several different superiors in the department to learn from them, where there are continuous learning opportunities, not just when you start a job, but one year in, two years in, three years in, how do we continue to create those opportunities.

Reward continuous learning

Sadly, even when managers understand the importance of learning — at least in theory — they are often more interested in boosting short-term results and performance, which can be an enemy of learning.

By definition, performance is highest when we are not learning.

Equally, it is hard for employees or managers to find the necessary time and space to learn when they are asked to maximize results, efficiency, and productivity ALL while learning.

A report by Bersin found that among the more than 700 organizations studied, the average employee had only 24 minutes a week for formal learning.

Note that rewarding curiosity is not just about praising and promoting those who display an effort to learn and develop; it’s also about creating a climate that nurtures critical thinking, where challenging authority and speaking up are encouraged, even if it means creating discord.

This is particularly important if you want your team to produce something innovative.

2. Promote Inquiry and Dialogue

People gain productive reasoning skills to express their views and the capacity to listen and inquire into the views of others.

This is key.

The culture is changed to support questioning, feedback, and experimentation.

We talked about the culture of conflict, productive conflict, being able to inquire, ask questions, listen, provide feedback.

We want to encourage that.

Give meaningful and constructive feedback

In an age where many organizations focus their developmental interventions on “strengths,” and feel-good approaches to management have substituted “flaws” and “weaknesses” with the popular euphemism of “opportunities,” it is easy to forget the value of negative feedback.

However, it is hard to improve on anything when you are unaware of your limitations, fully satisfied with your potential, or unjustifiably pleased with yourself.

Although one of the best ways to improve employees’ performance is to tell them what they are doing wrong, managers often avoid difficult conversations, so they end up providing more positive than negative feedback.

This is particularly problematic when it comes to curiosity and learning, since the best way to trigger curiosity is to highlight a knowledge gap — that is, making people aware of what they don’t know, especially if that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Give your managers and employees proper feedback to improve.

3. Team Learning Through Collaboration

Work is designed to use groups to access different modes of thinking.

People like to learn as a team, doing workships as a team, doing courses, the peer-to-peer accountability when we all learn together.

As groups, we’re able to actually advance more than just learning alone.

Collaboration is valued by the culture and rewarded.

Although you're likely doing this course, maybe with a team or with some other colleagues, and it's that collaboration that allows the learning to go further.

4. Create Systems to Capture and Share Learning

Both high and low technology systems to share learning are created and integrated with work.

Whether it’s having a learning management system, or ensuring that the learning is part of the training, onboarding process and ongoing tasks.

You want to embed learning within the system and use technological tools to help you do that.

5. Empower People Toward a Collective Vision

We’ve looked at empowerment.

People are involved in setting, owning and implementing a joint vision of the company, training and the learning.

Responsibility is distributed close to decision-making.

Let them write their own lottery ticket.

What do they want to learn?

What courses have they found?

Perhaps they're interested in more training opportunities or books or group workshops.

Have them involved in the decision-making so that people are motivated to learn toward what they're choosing and improve at their role aka what they're held accountable to do.

6. Connect the Organization to its Environment

People are helped to see the effect of their work on the entire enterprise.

This way, they see how what they're learning actually affects their job and how it affects the entire organization.

People constantly scan the environment, use information to adjust their practices in their learning.

So, system connection is key to look at the community as a whole and how that learning affects it.

7. Provide Strategic Leadership for Learning

Finally, strategic leadership.

Leaders have to model, champion and support learning.

Leadership uses learning strategically for business results.

So, are your leaders also learning?

Are your managers learning continuously? Not just through a leadership course, but maybe in their own technical skillset and their strategic skillset?

Are they setting that example?

Lead by example

Another critical driver of employee learning is what your managers or leaders actually do.

Leaders’ behaviors — particularly what they routinely do — have a strong influence on the behavior and performance of their teams.

And the more senior that leaders are, the more impactful their behaviors will be on the rest of the organization.

Accordingly, if you want to nurture your team’s curiosity or unlock learning in your organization, you should practice what you preach.

For your managers: start by displaying some learning and unlocking your own curiosity.

And if you want them to question the status quo and be critical and nonconformist, then don’t be a sucker for order and rules!

3 Ways to Implement Better Learning at your Startup

1. Have your best performers teach

Your best teachers are sitting right next to you.

At Google, 80% of all tracked trainings are run through an employee-to-employee network called “g2g” (Googler-to-Googler).

This volunteer teaching network of over 6,000 Google employees dedicates a portion of their time to helping their peers learn and grow.

Volunteers — known internally as “g2g’ers” — can participate in a variety of ways, such as teaching courses, providing 1:1 mentoring, and designing learning materials, and they come from every department of Google.

An employee-to-employee learning program is not about “doing more with less.”

If you’re looking to save money on a training budget and mandating participation, you could end up with resentful employee teachers delivering rushed classes to confused employee learners.

Before proceeding, consider potential pitfalls.

One thing that has made the g2g program so successful at Google is that the employees participate voluntarily and are supported by a culture that values learning.

Creating a simple mentorship program where experienced leaders so offer confidential, one-to-one sessions to support team members in our organizations from various skills.

In addition to benefiting the person being advised, the advisors themselves benefit as well.

2. Don’t celebrate failures. Celebrate learning!

We’ve all heard it before, fail fast. Celebrate failures to encourage more risk-taking.

We’ve also heard the opposite, focus on the positives and success to learn best practices.

Both failure and success are needed for learning.

"Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure." Chris Argyris.

Jurgen Appelo notes that we learn most when failure rates are around 50 percent.

In other words, when your experiments have a good chance of succeeding and a good chance of failing, they generate the most information for you to learn from.

We learn the most when we can’t predict whether our experiments will lead to good or bad outcomes.

"What we actually learn from the most is the experience we’ve never had before." — Jurgen Appelo.

A learning organization should not aim to minimize the amount of failure.

Reducing failure would reduce learning.

But of course, maximizing failure also makes no sense.

Appelo suggests that what we should maximize is the understanding of our problems and to focus on what matters.

If you focus on mistakes, people will make more mistakes.

If you focus on good practices, people will invent more good practices.

This introduces us the Appelo’s celebration grid.  (keep reading to learn how to use celebrating as a learning tool)

Instead of celebrating reckless failures, we reward thoughtful failures that were intentionally experimentative, and we celebrate the use of best practices.

Ask yourself two questions:

  1. What did we do well? (by following best practices)
  2. What did we learn? (by running experiments).

3. Exploration Days

As more teams become self-organizing, the trend of self-developing or self-educating doesn’t seem to follow.

Many organizations will argue that the education of employees is not in it’s prime responsibility.

Or that the only real form of education is self-education, and that we can’t do it for them.

While it is true that you cannot educate employees, in the same way, you cannot truly motivate employees, or make someone laugh, you can create the right environment and circumstances that encourage self-education, motivation and laughter.

Here are a few strategies implemented by companies:

1. Exploration Days

Every employee is entitled to a number of education days per year (start with 12) and they are encouraged to use for self-education.

It doesn’t matter whether they spend it reading, attending a conference, experimenting a new technology or building a prototype of some crazy idea.

This idea has worked for some companies, and failed miserably for others, where employees felt they didn’t have the time to take “exploration days”.

The trick was the take company-wide exploration days.

Where everyone was off together learning — when everyone was off together, much like during holidays, the pressure to attend to other duties diminishes.

Obviously some part of the company may still need to work to ensure systems are still running smoothly — you split those teams up having different exploration days.

2.Hackathons or ShipIt Days

Once every three months Atlassian selects a day on which everyone in the company works for the entire day on an idea of their own choosing.

The requirement is that they deliver a result in just 24 hours, hence the name ShipIt Day. Facebook, Shopify, Spotify all do these internal hackathons.

At these hackathons, you can work on whatever you want, as long as it isn’t part of your regular work.

Some choose to do it alone, but it’s a lot of fun to team up.

Days like these are well known to be wild spontaneous. Though these days take a good amount of organization to prepare meetings to come up with ideas that can then be turned into projects.

ShipIt days or hack days, work well because they stimulate creativity, help solve actual problems, and increase knowledge and experience.

But also because they create great social bonds that elevate overall team dynamics.

These hackatahons increase people’s social connection and help them self-organize and increase commitment beyond the day.

Appelo says these Shipit Days work for 4 reasons:

  1. Peer pressure makes it harder for employees to claim to be too busy
  2. The commitment to present results in 24 hours creates pressure to deliver
  3. The prize recognition for the best idea adds to the motivation
  4. The potential evolution of ideas into actual products

3. Internal Crowdfunding

Some companies have discovered that leaving the selection of innovative ideas to employees is the best way to go.

They take the hackathon a step further and turn it into an innovation stock market by giving all employees a personal (virtual) budget to invest in ideas.

Employees pitch ideas and need to convince their peers to invest in them.

There is no hierarchy the crowd decides.

It is a system for internal crowdfunding.

The job of management shifts from selecting the best ideas, to creating a great system that allows for the best ideas to emerge.

The caveat here is to not leave all long-term strategic innovations up to the crowd but to balance management-initiated innovations and employee-initiated innovations.

4. Learning pods

Choose a course for your employees to all watch together and learn together.

Or create a little book club where you can all learn together and meet to talk about the book.

Perhaps download Audible for the team and have a new podcast to listen to every week.

This is great to create learning and come together and discuss that learning.

Learning pods are effective because they bring us together to reflect on and see how it is implemented in our own teams.

Use Celebration as A Learning Tool

A business’s success hinges on the success of its employees.

When employees feel unappreciated, they disengage from work, causing them to be unproductive as they search for other opportunities outside of the organization.

It’s critical that you don’t take what people do for granted. Employees need to be celebrated and recognized.

When employees feel valued, they're more innovative, better at communication and collaboration, and produce a higher quality of work more efficiently.

Three Principles of Celebration

When celebrating things, keep the following three principles in mind:

  1. Celebrate Frequently

Every day there’s a reason to celebrate. Don’t just focus on significant achievements. The little things count.

Feel free to celebrate something as small as everyone being on time for a meeting or for how well a team member wrote a blog post.

Small and consistent celebrations create a culture of positivity and joy where team members are excited to come to work each day.

  1. Celebrate Noticeably

Celebrations must be visible. Everyone should know what’s being celebrated and why. Turn celebrations into mini information exchanges.

Celebrations will help keep the team informed as to what’s happening across the board in a positive way.

  1. Celebrate Remarkably

Target multiple senses with your celebrations. Be remarkable by introducing your own unique celebration rituals.

Ring a bell, share chocolates, or send congratulatory confetti over your workplace messenger app, are just a few examples you can use.

By turning celebrations into little rituals, they will become a part of organizational culture.

Final Thought

If you want to nurture curiosity and learning in your employees, there’s no need to rely on your organization’s formal learning and development programs.

Reinforcing positive learning behaviours, giving constructive and critical feedback to align employees’ efforts with the right learning goals, showcasing your own curiosity, and hiring people with high learnability and a hungry mind are all likely to create a stronger learning culture within your team and your organization.

To create better ways of learning, to implement better learning in your organization, have your best performers teach, find out what they want to teach, get them a Friday afternoon workshop, order some pizza, order some food and have them teach each other.

Start simple.

You don't need a complete employe-to-employee network.

Celebrate thoughtful failures, celebrate learning.

At the end of every project, identify the experimentative areas where learning happen and celebrate those.

And lastly, create exploration days, whether they go on your own and learn days, whether they're learning pods, whether they're hackathons or they're crowdfunding, that is what creates better learning.

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