Team learning

In the latest instalment of his Driving School Improvement series Stephen Mitchell, chief operating officer at the Spencer Academies Trust in Nottingham, looks at team learning – the third aspect of the ‘learning organisation model’ – and how to achieve it in your school

It sounds very clichéd, but good teams are stronger than the sum of their parts. Getting a sense of team learning in your organisation is of key importance; it is the next stage in the five disciplines of learning organisations, which brings together the two that were discussed in previous articles – personal mastery and shared vision.

We are very good, in schools, at believing we are all one team with all colleagues working for the benefit of our children – scratch the surface, though, and it can often be a different picture, with silos of different faculties sometimes working to different aims, or a pervasive tension between teaching and support teams.

Developing a culture of team learning is the first step through which people can converse, dare to be vulnerable and get to reveal their true selves – with all of their glorious skills, strengths and, yes, weaknesses. It’s an environment where honest mistakes can be made without fear of retribution or reprisal and, out of this culture, true learning can take place.

It is very easy to assume that team learning solely relates to teams jointly developing skills and knowledge, or putting in feedback loops where we pass on knowledge gained from training courses or workplace experiences. All of this is very important, but it only goes so far; true team learning is different and distinct from just working effectively as a team. Typical school structures can support team learning, but team learning requires more. Team learning must be part of the common language used to develop the shared vision. It must become a procedure; it must become the expectation of the way we are going to support a collaborative work culture.

Getting team learning really embedded requires the buy-in of the SLTs of our schools; we can’t make this work without it becoming a norm across the whole organisation and supported from the top-down. We need to give consideration to how we develop proper feedback loops, how we can encourage true opinions from our colleagues and, crucially, how we act on this feedback in a constructive way.

Senge, the academic who defined the learning organisation concept upon which this series of articles is based, defines three dimensions of team learning that we will want to explore:

  1. The ability to think insightfully about complex issues.
  2. The ability to take innovative, co-ordinated action.
  3. The ability to create a network that will allow other teams to take action as well.

1. Thinking about complex issues
Senge defines a good systems thinker in an organisational setting as, “…someone who can see four levels operating simultaneously: events, patterns of behaviour, systems and mental models.”

One of the key elements of team learning is a willingness to deeply explore a problem; we can develop this skill individually, using personal mastery, but something unique happens when we bring our willingness to explore a problem into a group situation. According to Senge, a group’s collective IQ is much higher than the IQ of an individual if the group can coalesce and begin to use each other as a springboard for understanding and resolving the problem at hand. We’ve all been in meetings where everyone is engaged and excited, and the ideas just seem to build seamlessly on one another. When this happens, the solution the group has developed is above and beyond the work that any team member could have done individually.

As an aid to helping teams think through complex problems, Senge has developed a list of challenging assumptions.

  • Today’s problems come from yesterday’s ‘solutions’.
  • The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
  • Behaviour grows better before it grows worse.
  • The easy way out usually leads back in.
  • The cure can be worse than the disease.
  • Faster is slower.
  • Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
  • Small changes can produce big results—but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

I find this a really helpful checklist to aid the memory when faced with problems ahead. The primary goal of nimble project management is to do those things that actually help us deliver the best solution for our schools in an acceptable time frame and for an acceptable cost. If you’re pondering how this list of assumptions (many of which sound like Zen koans – riddles, or puzzles) is going to help you manage your project, let me offer what I hope is a reasonable answer; I have always operated on the principle that, if you want people to be able to achieve peak performance as a group at critical points in the project, they need time to hone their skills in non-critical situations.

How you accomplish this objective will be unique to you and your team; I’ve heard of two initiatives that support getting to a culture that supports team learning conversations – the project coffee pot and the virtual think tank.

The project coffee pot
The ‘project coffee pot’ is a catch-all term for setting up a space for the practice of congregating informally in order to allow the team to work the kinks out of their relationships. How you go about establishing this space will have a great deal to do with your personal style, or the styles of your team leads and managers if one of them will be taking the lead on setting this up. It will most likely coalesce around the staff room, but there could be other areas, or times – including, perhaps, a regular coffee break, or doing gate duty together as a team on a regular basis

I heard of a manager at one company who had developed a practice of bringing in bagels every Monday morning for the development group. The rule was that you had to answer the question-of-the-day (usually about problems you’d confronted in the past) for the edification of everyone in the room, in exchange for your bagel. These Monday morning exchanges were remarkable for revealing people’s more obvious mental models, their personal visions, and often skills and interests none of us knew they had.

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It’s important at this point to return to a brief mention of the first discipline of personal mastery. This helps to know who you are and how you approach personal interactions prior to trying to set up something like the project coffee pot. For example, as much as I admire and appreciate the approach the manager took to creating an informal opportunity for team interactions with free bagels, one of the reasons it worked so well for him was that it was tailor-made for a personality type that was gregarious and extroverted. I know of other examples where introvert managers tailored their approach by doing other things, for example, by keeping a list of ‘project assumptions’ and posting it by the coffee pot. The list was designed to help colleagues see what they must secretly believe, based on the organisational values.

A virtual think tank
The technique of setting up the virtual think tank is one that is especially appropriate to a complex project that is trying to solve a problem which ‘hasn’t been solved before’. The premise behind the think tank is that flashes of brilliance come when they come, so the think tank serves as a place to record them and have others ponder them as time allows. Threaded discussions and blogger sites are all wonderful examples of this strategy in practice. The key factor in setting up the think tank is that it needs an advocate as part of the project who can also be a significant participant. From the perspective of the nimble project manager, the think tank is a concept that transcends a single project.

2. Taking innovative action
Most teams have an innate bias toward action, but the implicit shared vision within which the team operates can have a significant influence on what happens to the product of all that insightful thinking we’ve been trying to stimulate. From the perspective of the nimble SBL it is vitally important to understand what people believe they have permission to do. If a colleague or team has been tasked with a particular project, then this is easy for them to understand; however, if they are noticing that ‘the way we do things’ isn’t quite right, do they feel that they have authority or permission to suggest changes?

3. Creating a network
The third element Senge talks about is the ability of the team to sell its learning outward to other teams. Everyone on the team will have one of three roles in helping accomplish this goal.

  • Organisers: these people are process-oriented and know to the depths of their souls that you can’t share what you can’t communicate clearly.
  • Acceptors: these make up the majority of your team; their role in any innovative solution is to help create it, accept it, and then convey their acceptance to others when asked.
  • Linkers or networkers: the linker takes the piece of knowledge the team has discovered and forms another group around that knowledge (e.g. like a community of practice), whereas the networker simply conveys the message.

Once the organiser has articulated the learning and the acceptors have all agreed that’s what the group created, getting the word out to others isn’t very hard – but does take some planning.  Whether it’s posts on your intranet, running an inset session or just putting it in a staff briefing, there are ways we can communicate learning and pass the knowledge around. Team learning is probably one of Senge’s most complex areas, but even looking at the three elements we’ve focused on here should give us some tangible suggestions on how to empower our teams to create innovative solutions to today’s complex problems.

How does this fit with the other aspects of the learning organisation model?

This series looks at the learning organisation model and maps these onto how we can work in schools. I am of the firm belief that this model can – and will – bring huge benefits for those schools which can embrace it.

The five disciplines are all very different, but all interlinked. Together, they are very powerful.

Following his Really Important Bits series, which explored lessons from an MBA, Stephen’s latest series looks at the five traits of the ‘learning organisation model’ and how these can be applied to drive improvement in your school. The concepts in both series are explored in more detail at www.stephenmitchell.info and are available for you to freely download and use. 

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