Learning on the job

How to make your organization a learning culture through slow, incremental changes -- the way social entrepreneurs do.

Paul Brown over at Forbes’ “Action Trumps Everything” blog has been studying the way social entrepreneurs learn, develop ideas and meet goals. Here’s what he’s come up with:

1. Determine what it is you really want to do.
2. Take a small step toward that goal.
3. Pause to see what you learned from taking that step and
4. Build off that learning.
5. Take another small step.
6. Pause to see what you learned from step two.
7. Build off that learning….

The “Act. Learn. Build.” model is simple enough: take a step, reflect on it, and adjust accordingly for the next step. Repeat. It’s an approach to learning based on incremental change and constant adjustment, and it’s at the heart of most successful organizations, according to Brown.

There’s plenty here to recommend to churches and Christian institutions that don’t have the resources to instantly make massive, sweeping changes -- and (working within communities with histories and traditions) wouldn’t want to do that anyway.

Here are three keys to fostering a learning culture of incremental change that Christian leaders should keep in mind.

Take your time. Instead of looking for the quick fix, success depends more on the patience, discipline and resilience to take steps and make adjustments over time. Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid, described it as the challenge of pursuing “a wonderful dream even if…there are about five thousand steps to be take before we realize it.” The key, he wrote, was just to “start making the first ten, and stay making twenty after.” Focusing on incremental change is such a powerful strategy because it will keep you from losing heart when you consider the Herculean labors that await you. After all, why fret about tomorrow, when “each day has enough trouble of its own”? (Matt. 6:34) That the church, beginning as a tiny, persecuted sect, is now the largest community in the world, should liberate Christians to think, if not in centuries, at least in years and decades rather than weeks and months.

Failure is a key to success. Cultivating a learning culture means assuming mistakes will happen. Though incremental change allows organizations to turn the inevitable errors of their fallen and finite members into opportunities for growth, this strategy won’t work if the community’s culture only exalts heroic successes and marginalizes the failed experiment or the hunch that goes nowhwere. Christians above all know that true success incorporates failure; life, for the church, is truly found only on the Easter-side of Good Friday.

Too many rules suffocate growth. The key to a learning culture is flexibility. Too many rules suffocate the continual, shifting evaluations that make incremental change possible. Firefighters trusted to apply four rules flexibly and creatively are more effective than firefighters forced to memorize forty-eight detailed instructions, write Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in “Practical Wisdom.” But a healthy skepticism toward rules just makes you a good student of St. Paul: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:10). Augustine also called the church not to let rules distract from its “core mission”: “Love God, and do as you’d like.”