Why Organizations Do not Learn? Part II of IV


In our previous post we learnt about how Leaders actions across organizations show a preoccupation with success. In this post we will focus on how Leaders are biased towards Action, towards working hard even it adds no value.

Bias Toward Action

How do you usually respond when you are faced with a problem in your organization? If you’re like most managers, you choose to take some kind of action. You work harder, put in even longer hours, and place added stress on yourself. You’re more comfortable doing something, even if it is counterproductive and doing nothing is the best course of action.

Consider professional soccer goalies and their strategies for defending against penalty kicks. According to a study by Michael Bar-Eli and colleagues, those who stay in the center of the goal, rather than leaping to the right or left, perform the best: They have a 33.3% chance of stopping the ball. Nonetheless, goalies stay in the center only 6.3% of the time. Why? Because it looks and feels better to have missed the ball by diving, even if it turns out to have been in the wrong direction, than to have stood still and watched the ball sail by.

The same aversion to inaction holds true in the business world. When we surveyed participants in our executive education classes, we found that managers feel more productive executing tasks than planning them. Especially when under time pressure, they perceive planning to be wasted effort. This bias toward action is detrimental to improvement for two reasons.

Challenge #1: Exhaustion

Not surprisingly, exhausted workers are too tired to learn new things or apply what they already know. For example, research conducted by one of us (Brad) with Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, and David Hofmann found that hand-washing compliance by hospital personnel—widely known to be critical for preventing hospital-acquired infections—fell nine percentage points, on average, over a typical 12-hour shift. The drop was even greater when health-care workers had a particularly busy shift. However, compliance increased when the workers had more time off between shifts.

Challenge #2: Lack of reflection.

Being “always on” doesn’t give workers time to reflect on what they did well and what they did wrong.

Research that we conducted at a tech-support call center of Wipro, a global IT, consulting, and outsourcing company based in India, illustrates this. We studied employees during their initial weeks of training. All went through the same technical training, with a key difference. On the sixth through the 16th days of the program, some workers spent the last 15 minutes of each day reflecting on and writing about the lessons they had learned that day. The others, the control group, just kept working for another 15 minutes. On the final training test at the end of one month, workers who had been given time to reflect performed more than 20% better, on average, than those in the control group. Several lab studies we conducted on college students and employed individuals in a variety of organizations produced similar results.

The following antidotes to the bias for action may sound obvious, but they are infrequently applied.

Build breaks into the schedule.

Make sure workers take sufficient time to rejuvenate and reflect during the workday and between shifts. In many organizations, hourly workers are entitled or actually required to take periodic breaks.

However, our research suggests that companies should provide even more downtime than they do. At Morning Star, a vertically integrated tomato-processing company, the workers in the fields not only get mandated breaks, but they also sometimes have to suspend their work for periods that can last nearly an hour, as a result of glitches in other parts of the system (such as a tomato trailer’s failure to show up). Company data that we examined revealed that workers were actually more productive over a 12-hour shift if their day included such unexpected breaks. The message: Leaders should conduct experiments to determine the optimal number and length of breaks.

For many management and knowledge-worker positions, of course, there are no mandatory breaks. Individuals have to decide for themselves whether to pause and recharge. Virtually everyone in such jobs recognizes the benefits of watercooler conversations for learning and exchanging ideas. People also agree that it’s important to get enough sleep and take vacations. Yet many of us don’t practice what we preach. A recent survey conducted by Staples drives this point home. When Staples asked more than 200 office workers in the United States and Canada about their work habits, more than a quarter reported that they took no break other than lunch. The vast majority of those cited guilt as the main reason. Yet 90% of the bosses surveyed said that they encouraged breaks, and 86% of employees agreed that brief respites from work make them more productive.

So urge employees to take breaks and vacations, and set an example. Research shows that the restorative benefits are greatest when you get out of your office or go for a walk. Don’t have lunch at your desk then; head outside for a stroll instead, especially in a park. It will put you in a better mood and reinvigorate you, allowing you to accomplish and learn more.

Take time to just think.

In the same way that you block out time on your calendar to plan an initiative or a presentation, you should block out a short period each day—even just 20 to 30 minutes—to either plan your agenda (in the early morning) or think about how the day went (in the late afternoon). If time is really scarce, try to reflect on your way to or from work. A study of commuters in the United Kingdom that we conducted with Julia Lee and Jon Jachimowicz showed that those who were encouraged (through text messages) to plan for their upcoming day during their journeys were happier, less burned-out, and more productive than people in a control group.

Leaders can help by thoughtfully structuring the workweek—for instance, by insisting that no meetings be held on Fridays, as Tommy Hilfiger and other firms have done.

Encourage reflection after doing.

Through reflection, we can better understand the actions we’re considering and their likelihood of keeping us productive. “Don’t avoid thinking by being busy,” a wise mentor once told one of us.

Some organizations are finding ways to incorporate reflection into their regular activities. One powerful approach treats reflection as a post hoc analytical tool for understanding the drivers of success and failure. The U.S. Army is well known for its after-action reviews (AARs). To ensure that a rigorous process is followed, AARs are run by a facilitator rather than the project’s leader. An effective AAR involves comparing what actually happened with what should or could have happened and then carefully diagnosing the gap, be it positive or negative.

Whether reflecting with a group or by yourself, keep a few things in mind. First, remember that the goal is to learn. That means being honest with yourself—something an outside facilitator can help ensure in group settings. Second, try to get a full and accurate picture of what occurred. That requires considering multiple perspectives (because we all have incomplete and often biased opinions) and using data. Third, work to get to the root of why things played out the way they did. Finally, think about how the work could be improved. Beyond the obvious fixes to the existing process, take time to imagine how you would do things completely differently if you could.

Acknowledgement      : Harvard Business Review, Nov 2015

In case you missed it, my last post was Why Organizations Do not Learn? Part I of IV

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Gemba Kaizen