About half of jobs in the U.S. are at risk of being automated (paywall), even including coveted Wall Street jobs that pay over $200,000 a year. This rise is mainly a result of two mega trends: artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, and the rising emphasis on participatory leadership, flat organizational structure, and empowerment of those who are closest to the action.
Even if your job is not directly replaceable by AI, it is inevitable that an increasing proportion of the workforce will become “knowledge workers,” who focus on non-routine problem solving and creative thinking. Your value-add (and your ability to keep your job) as a leader will be determined by how much your organization contributes to the creative, new output. So how will you prepare for the upcoming era of the knowledge economy?
Here is a startling statistic: According to The Wall Street Journal (paywall), U.S. firms spent about $156 billion on employee learning in 2011, but some 90% of new skills were lost within a year. People are getting taught but they are not learning; current learning models produce only temporary results.
So how do we produce learning that sticks?
Those leaders with competencies to win in the era of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, whom I call Quantum Leaders, facilitate learning by helping others unlearn first, then learn through trial and error. This type of adaptive learning builds a self-sustaining momentum that can catapult into radical innovation.
Update Prior Knowledge In Response To Feedback
Unlearning requires curiosity and flexibility, leading to radical innovation: the ultimate goal of knowledge workers.
If new information that is contrary to or disconnected from an employee’s body of existing knowledge is forced on them, the result of learning is only temporary. Updating prior knowledge is unlearning what you know (actually what you thought you knew) to be true when given new evidence. It requires openness and flexibility in thinking.
Many leaders become stressed when they don’t have all the answers to direct their teams, but providing answers as an expert is not an effective leadership competency in the VUCA era. Rather, asking the right questions to enable others to unlearn what has become automatic or implicit for them and to find the answers in unconventional places, is.
To facilitate the type of learning that catalyzes radical innovation in your organization:
- Learn to use questions effectively. Frame a question in a new light that expands the horizon of thinking by asking “What evidence supports the opposite conclusion?” and “How else can we interpret what we are seeing?”
- Ask about the context. “What conditions would have to be true for this idea to be true?” and “How complete is our set of prior beliefs?”
Gain Additional Knowledge From Profuse Trial And Error
Profuse, fearless learning is essential for radical innovation, but failure is required to learn, which means failure is required for radical innovation. To resolve this conflict, Quantum Leaders can curate a culture of safe risk-taking, fast failures, rapid feedback, and a platform to disseminate collective intelligence from failures. Effective leadership in the VUCA era calls for prioritizing speed over accuracy: As a simple rule, 80% accuracy today is much better than 99% accuracy a month from now.
Leaders should develop a strategy based on simple rules to increase the speed of processes core to innovation and change these simple rules when situations call for.
Implement Simple Rules To Accelerate Learning
Simple rules provide cohesive guidelines and a unified direction necessary for a diverse population of self-organizing employees. They also facilitate a rapid vehicle to speed up information processing.
Google’s simple rule for deciding when to add a layer under a manager? Have a minimum of seven employees. How to allocate corporate funds? Spend 70% on existing products, 20% on emerging products, and 10% on moonshot projects. These rules might not apply to your organization – you need to find what these rules should be through trial and error. But they speed up decision making because you don’t need to decide on the same things all the time.
As a leader:
- Set the expectation that experimenting and failing is absolutely OK. Emphasize that failures are a necessary input to radical innovation.
- Ask your team members how often they feel scared or overwhelmed because they can’t (or don’t know how to) do their job. If the answer is never, they are not learning; provide more challenges. If the answer is more than 40% of the time, provide more resources to help them.
- As I mentioned in my previous post, provide a safe, fast way to fail, such as A/B testing and quickly iterating with a ship-and-iterate approach.
Adapt And Change Behaviors Accordingly
Learning requires action. I define learning as “reading signals from the environment, then correcting errors and adapting accordingly.” Quantum Leaders take action and change behaviors based on new information.
- Make feedback safe. Separate evaluations from providing feedback so that the purpose of feedback is learning.
- Provide frequent, timely feedback.
- Change the focus of feedback from “good and bad” to “do more of this and less of that.”
Implementing these skills isn’t easy because it requires self-awareness and courage. When done consistently and consciously, they can set your organization on a path to radical innovation.