Improving Your Team's Learning Curve

If your team received a grade on how well it learns, would it get an A or an F? Its score could predict how successful your company will be in the long term. Gone are the days when a management team could simply master a winning formula and execute its way to market dominance. If today's competitive environment has taught us anything, it is that lurking around the corner is an innovation, a new competitor, or a new way of doing business that could dramatically change the field of play.

So just what do we know about how teams learn? Not as much as we should. While business researchers have studied manufacturing learning curves in industries that make microprocessors, cars, and medical devices, how teams of professionals learn is just beginning to get their attention. And some early results are surprising.

Learning from Surgical Teams
A few years back I read a New Yorker article by Atul Gawande about experts at Harvard Business School who studied 18 surgical teams as they learned a new, minimally invasive, cardiac procedure. Now you may ask, "What does heart surgery have to do with running a business?" but think for a moment about the similarities: Both involve groups of highly trained professionals with a specialty, and both depend upon each other and are trying to integrate their efforts to accomplish a task.

The new surgical procedure enabled a team to operate via a small incision between the ribs, potentially far less traumatic for the patient than traditional surgery, which required the opening of the chest cavity. But there was a catch. The new procedure was a tricky one, requiring the team to manipulate balloons and catheters inserted in the groin. An experienced team could complete this new procedure in anywhere from three to six hours. A novice team might take three times that long—up to 18 hours—and the extra time on the operating table was stressful on already ailing patients.

When one of the researchers visited the fastest-learning and the slowest-learning teams in the study, he was immediately struck by several important differences. The fastest-learning team was led by a surgeon who was quite a bit less experienced than the slowest-learning team, but the way he ran his team proved to be the deciding factor.

Leader Must Also Be Partner
First, he was careful to pick team members who worked well together, and he kept the team together for the first 15 cases before allowing new members to join the team. He also scheduled six operations one after the other so that the repetition would reinforce what the team had learned. He got his team together prior to each procedure to discuss strategy and gathered them again to debrief immediately following each surgery.

His attitude toward the team was evident in a quote recorded in the article: "A surgeon needs to be willing to allow himself to become partner [with the rest of the team] so he can accept input." The slowest-learning team was led by a surgeon who took little care to build cohesion—the team had different team members for each of the first seven procedures—and they did not meet before and after the surgery to discuss the cases.
The study confirms one thing that many executives I have met know intuitively. Members of great teams develop a sense of how to work together with other members, and that knowledge can often have a significant impact on the quality of their shared work. The study also suggests that team learning can be enhanced and accelerated by a simple discipline—the pre-brief and the debrief.

Teams Should Meet Quarterly
I have seen this discipline pay the greatest dividend when it is integrated into how a company manages its strategy. Think of strategy as simply a collection of ideas about how a business believes it can win. If a company is run well, this collection of ideas will change as people in the business learn about themselves, their competitors, and their customers. But unless that learning is organized and codified, it is unlikely to have any real impact on how the business functions. Like the poorly performing surgical team, the team is gaining experience, but that experience isn't optimized in a way that accelerates learning.

I encourage companies to build a strategy team that is tasked with managing the key assertions and assumptions that it believes will determine its long-term success. I tell the team to meet at least quarterly to identify and adapt the major strategic themes, and to create a set of initiatives designed to advance them. I have that found strategic initiatives represent the 20% of the activities likely to create 80% of the impact on the business—and they are specific, measurable, and assigned to an initiative champion.

The session serves as a pre-brief—a discussion of what the organization plans to do over the next 90 days. Then, a quarter later, the same group gets together and analyzes the company's achievement of those strategic initiatives. Each quarter, the team gives the company a report card of sorts, and then sets up for a new set of actions for the coming quarter.
In my experience with nearly 200 companies over the past fifteen years, most of the companies that committed themselves to this discipline for at least three quarters saw their performance improve dramatically. The teams got better and faster at figuring out where the leverage points are. They got better at learning.