03 Insight Opinion Why Your...

Why Your Organization Needs More ‘Astronauts’

Jeremy Koreski

I asked a partner of one of the world’s largest consultancy organizations a question regarding the future of the skills-development programs currently being used by the majority of business executives. His response was that we need more astronauts. It confused me, too.

He went on to explain that our current processes for training executive talent can’t keep up with the rate of change in our job markets and that we are nowhere near addressing the acceleration in the rate of change itself.

But why astronauts?

I took this observation back to our Watershed Partners team. We reflected on famous events like the flight of Apollo 13 and how astronauts are not just trained to succeed at the job at hand, they are able to solve problems they never anticipated. These emergent, unforeseen problems are the hallmark of a rapidly changing world.

Current best practices in education and skills development often fail because we focus on teaching people how to do their job, rather than enabling them to confidently solve tomorrow’s problems. Instead of teaching information or training specific skills, we should be creating environments where people can learn how to learn.

Certain work habits inhibit the ability of organizations to learn as a system. Determined to avoid risks, we train people in restrictive practices and then never learn from failure. We work in a handoff culture, where we each do our piece of the work and then pass it to the next person, failing to learn from each other. We defer to our superiors and expect others to have the answers, and so we never learn to challenge the old answers and find new ones.

Systems scientist, author and MIT lecturer Peter Senge describes a learning organization as a one that continuously transforms itself by facilitating the learning of its members. How?

Rethink the purpose of teams

Sometimes work teams are considered a means to an end – an inevitable necessity whenever the job becomes too large or too complicated. People may not want to work on teams because credit for their individual contribution gets absorbed by the team, but teamwork helps us to form bonds of trust that make it far more effective to learn from each other, rather than to learn only facts from a policy manual. And the information we absorb includes understanding the strengths and weaknesses of colleagues and new methods of problem-solving.

Each project is a lesson

It has often been said that the best way to learn to do something is to do it. This practical approach is certainly more engaging than reading manuals and other documentation. Learning-by-doing provides firsthand experience of the emerging and unanticipated problems that can occur in the field. However, for that experience to translate into learning on an organizational level, participants should be encouraged to reflect on the work within their team. Each person shares their own experiences of the project: what worked, what didn’t and what they learned from that failure. When combined with each individual’s unique quirks, this shared knowledge can provide fresh perspectives, allowing even seasoned veterans to learn from new recruits.

Roles and boundaries must be flexible

For many leaders, thoughts on the best way to leverage talent is far too pigeonholed by past successes, which ignore possible opportunities. A person builds some expertise in one area and is used for that expertise. Eventually, that individual’s development stops; perhaps they are learning and growing, but the limits of their perceived role prevents them from acting upon that knowledge and spreading it throughout the organization. All team members should be actively encouraged to seek new applications for their skills, crossing organizational boundaries to teach – and learn – in new contexts.

As the rate of change in our world accelerates, organizations can no longer rely on best practices. We must be prepared to reiterate and reinvent old ways of working. To achieve this, organizations must embrace learning as a continuous process.

In reflecting on the need for astronauts, I wonder when more leaders will come to realize that the future of work will require an entirely different approach to learning. To do that, we will need to concede that our approach to teaching and training will, therefore, require reinvention.

Easier said than done, surely, but there are schools of thought out there that invite leaders to consider how a different approach to learning will improve conditions for success. Teaching organizations will improve our capacity to meet the global challenges the next generation of leaders will be forced to address.

At co-design companies such as Watershed Partners, businesses are enabled to define this process for themselves through collaborative design. Clients are organized in cross-functional teams, allowing them to experience what true, mutual learning feels like.


Published by The Globe and Mail