Continuous Learning Culture
This is achieved by becoming a learning organization, committing to relentless improvement, and promoting a culture of innovation. It is one of the seven core competencies of Business Agility, each of which is essential to achieving Business Agility. Each core competency is supported by a specific assessment, enabling the enterprise to assess its proficiency. The Measure and Grow article provides these core competency assessments and recommended improvement opportunities.
Why Continuous Learning Culture?
Organizations today face an onslaught of forces that create both uncertainty and opportunity. The pace of technological innovation is beyond exponential. Startup companies challenge the status quo by transforming, disrupting, and in some cases eliminating entire markets. Juggernaut companies like Amazon and Google are entering new markets like banking and healthcare. At any moment, political, economic, and environmental turmoil threatens to change the rules. Expectations from new generations of workers, customers, and society challenge companies to think and act beyond balance sheets and quarterly earnings reports. Due to these factors and more, one thing is sure: organizations in the digital age must be able to adapt rapidly and continuously or face decline—and, ultimately, extinction.
What’s the solution? Organizations must evolve into adaptive engines of change to thrive in the current climate, powered by a fast and effective learning culture. Learning organizations leverage the collective knowledge, experience, and creativity of their workforce, customers, supply chain, and the broader ecosystem. They harness the forces of change to their advantage. In these enterprises, curiosity, exploration, invention, entrepreneurship, and informed risk-taking replace commitment to the status quo while providing stability and predictability. Rigid, siloed top-down structures give way to fluid organizational constructs that can shift as needed to optimize the flow of value. Decentralized decision-making becomes the norm as leaders focus on vision and strategy and enable organization members to achieve their fullest potential.
Any organization can begin the journey to a continuous learning culture by focusing its transformation on three critical dimensions, as shown in Figure 1.
Employees at every level are learning and growing so that the organization can transform and adapt to an ever-changing world.
Employees are encouraged and empowered to explore and implement creative ideas that enable future value delivery.
Every part of the enterprise focuses on continuously improving its solutions, products, and processes.
Learning organizations invest in and facilitate the ongoing growth of their employees. When everyone in the organization continuously learns, it fuels the enterprise’s ability to dynamically transform itself to anticipate and exploit opportunities that create a competitive advantage. Learning organizations excel at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge while modifying practices to integrate new insights [1,2]. These organizations understand and foster people’s intrinsic nature to learn and gain mastery, harnessing that impulse for the benefit of the enterprise .
Learning organizations are different from those using the scientific management methods promoted by Frederick Taylor. In Taylor’s model, learning is limited to those at the top while everyone else follows the policies and practices created by management. Becoming a learning organization is not an altruistic exercise. It’s an antidote to the status-quo thinking that drove many former market leaders to bankruptcy. Learning drives innovation, leads to greater information sharing, enhances problem-solving, increases the sense of community, and surfaces opportunities for more efficiency .
The transformation into a learning organization requires five distinct disciplines, as described by Senge. The best practices for developing these disciplines include:
Employees develop as ‘T-shaped’ people who build a breadth of knowledge in multiple disciplines for efficient collaboration and deep expertise aligned with their interests and skills. T-shaped employees are a critical foundation of Agile teams.
Forward-looking leaders envision, align with, and articulate exciting possibilities. Then, they invite others to share and contribute to a common view of the future. The vision is compelling and motivates employees to contribute to achieving it.
Teams work collectively to achieve common objectives by sharing knowledge, suspending assumptions, and ‘thinking together.’ They complement each other’s skills for group problem-solving and learning.
Teams surface their existing assumptions and generalizations while working with an open mind to create new models based on a shared understanding of the Lean-Agile way of working and their customer domains. These models make complex concepts easy to understand and apply.
The organization sees the larger picture and recognizes that optimizing individual components does not optimize the system. Instead, the business takes a holistic learning, problem-solving, and solution-development approach. This optimization extends to business practices such as Lean Portfolio Management (LPM), which ensures that the enterprise invests in experimentation and learning to drive the system forward.
Some organizations support innovation with paid time for exploring and experimenting, intrapreneurship programs, and innovation labs. SAFe goes further by providing consistent time each PI for all Agile Release Train (ART) participants to pursue innovation activities during the Innovation and Planning (IP) iteration. Innovation is also integral to Agile Product Delivery and the Continuous Delivery Pipeline.
The following sections provide practical guidance for initiating and continuously improving an innovation culture.
The foundation of an innovation culture recognizes that systems and cultures don’t innovate: people innovate. Instilling innovation as a core organizational capability requires cultivating the courage and aptitude for innovation and encouraging employee risk-taking. For existing organization members, this may necessitate coaching, mentoring, and formal training in the skills and behaviors of entrepreneurship and innovation. Individual goals and learning plans should include language that enables and empowers growth as an innovator. Rewards and recognition that balance intrinsic and extrinsic motivation reinforce the importance of everyone as an innovator. Criteria for hiring new employees should include evaluating how candidates will fit in an innovation culture. Opportunities and paths for advancement should be clear and available for people who demonstrate exceptional talent and performance as innovation agents and champions .
Time and Space for Innovation
Experimentation and Feedback
Innovation cultures embrace the idea that conducting experiments designed to progress iteratively towards a goal is the most effective path to learning that creates successful breakthroughs. Regarding the many unsuccessful experiments to make an incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”  Experiments don’t fail in the scientific method; they produce the data needed to accept or reject a hypothesis. Many companies don’t innovate sufficiently due to a fear of failure culture. Such fear cripples innovation.
In contrast, innovation cultures depend on learning from experiments and incorporating those insights into future exploration. When leaders create the psychological safety described in the Lean-Agile Leadership article, people are encouraged to experiment (within guardrails). They feel they have permission to solve big problems, seize opportunities, and do so without fear of blame, even when the results of the experiments suggest moving in a different direction.
Pivot Without Mercy or Guilt
Since its inception in the Toyota Production System, kaizen, or the relentless pursuit of perfection, has been one of the core tenets of Lean. While unattainable, striving for perfection leads to continuous improvements to products and services. In the process, companies have created more and better products for less money and with happier customers, leading to higher revenues and greater profitability. Taiichi Ohno, the creator of Lean, emphasized that the only way to achieve kaizen is for every employee always to have a mindset of continuous improvement. The entire enterprise as a system—executives, product development, accounting, finance, and sales—is continuously being challenged to improve .
But improvement requires learning. Rarely are the causes and solutions for problems that organizations face clear and easily identified. The Lean model for continuous improvement is based on small iterative and incremental improvements and experiments that enable the organization to learn its way to the most promising answer to a problem.
Relentless improvement is one of the four SAFe Core Values, conveying that improvement activities are essential to the survival of an organization and should be given priority, visibility, and resources. The following sections illustrate how a continuous learning culture is a critical component of relentless improvement.
Constant Sense of Urgency
Problem Solving Culture
Reflect and Adapt Frequently
Optimize the Whole
Too often, organizations assume that the culture, processes, and products that led to today’s success will also guarantee future results. That mindset increases the risk of decline and failure. The enterprises that will dominate their markets in the future will be adaptive learning organizations with the ability to learn, innovate, and relentlessly improve more effectively and faster than their competition.
Competing in the digital age requires investment in time and resources for innovation, built upon a culture of creative thinking and curiosity—an environment where norms can be challenged, and new products and processes emerge. Alongside this, relentless improvement acknowledges that the survival of an organization is never guaranteed. Everyone in the organization will be challenged to find and make incremental improvements, and leaders will give priority and visibility to this work.
A continuous learning culture will likely be the most effective way for this next generation of workers to improve relentlessly and ensure the success of the companies that employ them.