We’ve heard it over and over again. Companies must be agile in order to innovate. They need to make quick decisions in order to survive.

So, why is Edward D. Hess, business consultant and author, telling us to slow down? Author of the book Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization, he claims it all comes down to learning.

What’s So Important About Learning?


“To be a great learning organization, speed is not a virtue,” said Hess. Instead, he advocates “slowing down to listen, to think and to take your listening to a higher level.”

According to Hess, organizations and individuals must continuously learn, or risk becoming obsolete. Whether a company is striving for operational excellence – cutting costs and increasing efficiencies – or focusing on innovation, there is one underlying premise that drives it all: learning.

Hess gave us three components that must be aligned in order for individuals and organizations to continually learn faster and better than the competition.

The 3 Core Elements

“To build a high-performance learning organization, you need the right people, in the right environment, with the right processes,” said Hess.

1. The Right People

According to Hess, hiring the right people means identifying those who are intrinsically motivated to learn, have self-efficacy, humility and who are good at not knowing.

Intrinsically motivated learners: “Hiring intrinsically motivated people is critical because intrinsically motivated people are more likely to have more learning resilience – they bounce back from learning mistakes faster,” said Hess. “They’re more likely to have learning persistence – that is to work diligently, concentrate and be persistent in working through hard problems than extrinsically motivated people.”

He added that the right people are not motivated by good grades, nor do they want to impress people. Instead, they want to learn in order to become masters in their world, or their subject matter, or simply for the joy of learning.

Self-efficacy: “People who believe they can generally can,” said Hess. He added that hiring managers can identify these people by using behavioral interviewing techniques, situational behavioral interviewing techniques and, where applicable, “lots of different tests.”

Humility: “Humility is critical to being a great learner,” said Hess. Humility means being open minded, having the ability to engage in critical thinking, being a good listener, and practicing empathy, which he says, is critical to customer user innovation.

“You’re not looking for someone who is more on the arrogant end,” said Hess. “You’re not looking for somebody that has their ego heavily invested in being right all the time. You’re looking for people who have had experience with failure, people who have bounced back from adversity, because failure helps builds humility.”

Providing an example from his book, Hess discussed IDEO, a company that has a philosophy of putting new hires on projects they’re likely to fail on as fast as possible, because they understand that failure builds humility.

Good at not knowing: “In today’s world, being smart is no longer the person with the most knowledge,” said Hess. “Those people are going to be rare because the rate at which knowledge is generated is so fast that what you learn in school, or what you learn today could be very, very different than what you learn tomorrow, or two to three years out.”

He added that good learners are good at not knowing, and are comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” And then, they need to be good at figuring out how to learn what they don’t know.

2. The Right Environment

Hess said that, because technology like smart machines and smart robots, will soon displace people, those people who are left behind will need to have “the skills and abilities to do what technology can’t do well, which is high-level critical thinking, innovative thinking and high emotional intelligence with other humans.”

He added that, in order for organizations to successfully adapt to these changes, they must create the right environment.

“You need to have a certain kind of environment to enable learning,” said Hess. “You can have the right people in the wrong culture, and they’re not going to be good learners. If you put them in a command-and-control, top-down, hierarchical culture of fear, they’re not going to be good learners. They’re going to be suboptimal learners because those environments inhibit learning.”

Learning Opportunities

Hess continued that hierarchy gets in the way of critical thinking and innovation because people in those environments are afraid to speak up for fear of being wrong or being punished.

“Critical thinking and innovative thinking occur best in small teams,” he said. “Team environments require candor and building of trust, permission to speak freely, and permission to fail within financial parameters.”

Hess cited examples of companies with this kind of innovative culture: “If you look at Pixar, IDEO, Google, and Bridgewater Associates – all of them have created an environment that drives candor, and decisions made based on best data, no matter whose it is. Hierarchy doesn’t trump data. Everyone’s views are important so long as they’re respectful, and so long as they’re data–based.”

3. The Right Processes

According to Hess, the right processes include: critical thinking processes, innovative thinking processes, experimental processes (how to do small, fast, cheap experiments) and collaboration processes.

“If you don’t have the right processes that you rigorously use daily, you will fail as a learning organization,” said Hess. “Rigorous processes used daily is part of the persistence and the discipline that is required because it’s too easy for humans to revert to their humanness – the big learning inhibitors, ego and fear.”

Hess emphasized collaborative processes, stating that real innovative thinking requires others.

“Our natural tendencies are to be fast, reflexive thinkers, and to be lazy thinkers. We are emotionally wired to defend our self-image and our ego,” he said. “Collaboration is so critical, so you need collaboration processes – it takes humility, authenticity, and building trust that people will collaborate.”

One More Thing: The Right Leaders

Hess concluded that developing a high-performance learning organization is also going to take the right leaders.

“We’re talking about major shifts in how leaders act and behave,” said Hess. “Leadership is going to become more coaching and guiding than knowing and telling. You won’t have to inspire people, because they’ll be inspired by their work.”

Hess left us with a few tips on how to get started on the road to learning.

“Learning is a lifelong journey, and life is a lifelong learning journey,” he said. “Every day, ask someone what they have learned. Share with people what you learned yesterday. Say, ‘I made a big mistake – here’s what I learned.’ If you do this, you’re going to become human.”

Title image by Juan José Aza  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.