Learning Expedition: Turning Data Into Action
Executive visits to tap down on high tech clusters are supposed to increase awareness and to accelerate innovation and reshape business models and management approaches. This learning expedition is dedicated to make people think outside the box. Does it reach this simple although highly ambitious goal? Most of the times, the answer is “no”. Playing outside the box aka the Big Company, needs a few precautions to be taken.
It is not the only tool to learn!
A learning expedition is just one tool among others, in the management development toolbox: real job experiences and reflections, approaches focused on education (external institutions) or the individual (mentoring, …) or on results (stretched missions) or training (corporate academies). Each has advantages and limitations. They make the most sense when used together.
What is your goal ?
Be specific at the beginning of a learning expedition: do you want your people to hunt for Insights alone or for lasting actions ? A short immersion may deliver good insights and short term change while it’s top of mind for executives, but its lessons may soon get crowded out by other priorities. Include then the learning expedition into the current strategy or leadership building process in order to capture its benefits. If it does not belong to the strategic priorities, it is irrelevant.
Beware of groupthink
Create groups that are too big and people could more or less “discover” the same aspects of a novelty, looking from the same “lenses” with the help of group pressure. If you want to greet new perspectives, make people spend most of their discovery time in pairs with different ways of learning. A finance guy partners with a sales person for instance. You can be pretty sure they won’t spot all the same stories. You need also to be specific on how people gather data. Instruct some of them to write down on the spot while others can just take pictures and others can just record videos and others, audios. You will have different angles so to speak as well as rich communication when debriefing.
Headquarters managers, senior leaders and all people related to innovation is the obvious answer. That is not enough. First line managers could also be part of it. This statement rises immediately an objection: you won’t spend the money for making them travel to Silicon Valley! Which brings the next question.
Where to go?
Silicon Valley is not the only destination. New York, Boston, Shanghai but also London and – yes – Paris. Or your place. How is this possible? Going to « exotic » places or companies is the hype. The gap with your own can be perceived as too big and would discourage linking your current situation with potential innovation. Taking simply your problem from a slightly different angle can bring better questions. In others words: visit the company next door too!
Install the right mindset
If executives view the trip as a semi-vacation or at the other extreme, can’t extract themselves from emails about daily operations to the team back home, you are loosing time and money. Solution: a clear mandate given by the CEO, and some pre-work to do. Planning must also be realistic regarding the moment to do it.
Break the corporate image
The company that welcomes you views your visit as a PR operation: Its image is at stake and it would be happy to give you shiny images of what it does. Look for problems as well as for successes! Include conversations (between 2 people) to allow them to disclose information they won’t expose in front of groups of peers.
When back home…
Back home your managers learned new things and wish to make changes. But no one seems to care. So they got frustrated. How the turn the learning expedition into an opportunity rather than leaving it becoming a problem ? This is the disconnection between the learning gathered in the learning expedition and its exploitation. Most managers do not accumulate a body of experience in learning expeditions. They go through it like undergoing a serie of happenings, which pass through to the organization, “undigested”. Happenings become experiences when they are reflected on, related to general patterns and synthesized. Plan debrief sessions (what did you discover ? Why is it important to you ? What can you do about it ?) and make the learners become teachers to others in the company. Your managers have to teach something; which means to process information, to select data, to analyze it and produce information and link it to other information that people taught have stored before, turning it into new knowledge.
At the end, there is – indeed – a difference between inspiration and learning. The first is fine and make great pictures on LInkedIn “ So proud of…” but is not very innovative 😉