Creating a Culture of Learning

By Mike Morrice

Last week Priyanka and I spent half a day in picturesque Port Perry at the office of Durham Sustain Ability (DSA), with Shawna Mutton, their Executive Director, and Board member Don Chapman. Our purpose? To do a deep dive into the 10 milestones we’re coaching each of the three Emerging Members of the CoLab Network through – in DSA’s case, to prepare a re-launch of their sustainability program for businesses.

Priyanka and I were feeling more confident about these milestones than ever, having walked each Emerging Member through them as recently as last week. Now, not even a week later, as we approached the end of the ten milestones with Shawna and Don, we were asked at what point DSA should have all the key elements in place for service delivery – for example, software for businesses to track their carbon footprint. I looked again at our detailed breakdown of the milestones. Of course this was part of the critical path for the team I led at Sustainable Waterloo Region back in 2009. And to my surprise, looking back at the milestones, it wasn’t yet captured. Well, I announced to the room, I guess we’ll have to add another milestone to the process, won’t we?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that in these early days of this new experiment, the speed at which Priyanka and I can apply new learnings will have a profound impact on our overall success. In short: how quickly can we move from a new experience to experimenting with a specific improvement based on that experience? Writing this post, I found that psychologists call this experiential learning.

A number of years ago, we chose the name “Sustainability CoLab” quite intentionally. Including “Lab”, was meant to keep us and others focused on the experimental nature of our work, on this need for constant innovation and continuous improvement. Only now though am I realizing that it’s the speed of this innovation that will be the challenge we need to rise to, and it cuts across every aspect of the organization: from learning where we should focus our time, to what support members need and want, to learning how to be the best possible mentor for each network member.

Knowing this, here’s what we’re doing to create a culture of learning at CoLab, which I encourage others to test out as well:

  • Making it clear from the beginning that it’s ok to make ‘mistakes’: Because this is the heart of experiential learning. It’s through these mistakes – or what psychologist Kolb would more neutrally call ‘concrete experiences’ – that will we do our best learning. And as any entrepreneur will tell you: the more quickly we make the mistakes, the quicker we’ll evolve.
  • Valuing questions more than answers: Priyanka and I know it’s our ability to ask good questions of one another that will allow us to learn from our experiences; what Kolb calls ‘reflective observation’. It’s a concept that gets at the heart of one of my favourite comics, which I’m so glad I have a good excuse to share here: 
  • Prioritizing debriefing: Both of our gut instinct after a half-day like the one we had with Shawna & Don is to take these questions and talk through all the different angles. In turn, this spurs new questions, and gives rise to ‘abstract conceptualization’ – the initial ideas that form the first threads of a new improvement to the way we do things.
  • Keeping a learning journal: Inspired by our friends at The Natural Step, Priyanka and I recently committed to trying out a “learning journal”. At 4:30PM every Friday, we stop what we’re doing for a half-hour, both open the same Google Doc, and together write and talk out the following four questions: (1) What key things happened this week? (2) What did we learn? (3) What are particular ‘forks in the road’ or points of tension for us? And (4) What are the key decisions we made as a result? While it isn’t overly formal, our intention is this will focus us on ‘active experimentation’ – ensuring we continue to prioritize and experiment with all of our learnings each week.

Do you have other approaches to creating a culture of learning? Or reflections on the effectiveness of these four? If so, I’d love to hear about it, as Priyanka and I continue to push ourselves to more quickly distill and apply new learnings.

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