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Tips for becoming a dynamic learner ... and ensuring your success along the way
Bradley Staats addresses a packed house at Discovery Summit Tucson.Bradley Staats addresses a packed house at Discovery Summit Tucson.Ultimately, the ‘learn it all’ will always do better than the ‘know it all.’
-- Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

Bradley Staats, author of Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive, argued that in order to succeed, we must strive to be dynamic, lifelong learners.

“We live in a world where the only constant is change,” Staats explained to a near-capacity crowd attending his keynote presentation at Discovery Summit Tucson. To stay relevant, we either keep learning, share knowledge, build networks, and adapt -- or we get left behind.

Staats has spent a lifetime studying learning. A behavioral scientist and operations professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Staats works with individuals and organizations to understand and remove the obstacles to learning, in order to stay relevant, innovate and create conditions where individuals can best perform. He shared the key elements to becoming a dynamic learner with the Discovery Summit crowd, including two principles he felt were particularly essential: (1) focusing on the process, not the outcome and (2) focusing on questions, not answers.

Rethinking Process

Most of today’s leading organizations recognize the value of building a reliable process and the importance of analytics, Staats said, but tend to focus on the outcomes of the process, rather than the process itself. Dynamic leaders recognize that the “how we got there” is just as important.

“A good process gives us discipline.” Staats said. “Process is critical to innovation. It enables us to get the basics down, so we can then innovate.”

Staats identified three factors that keep us from realizing the benefits of focusing on the process rather than the outcome: fear of failure, outcome bias, and a fixed mindset.

Overcoming Fear of Failure

While many of today’s organizations claim they encourage their employees to fail, in reality that’s not the case. Though you’ll hear buzzwords like “fail fast” and “ready, fire, aim,” in reality, most organizations don’t welcome failure, even if it leads to learning and innovation. Staats said organizations that exceed expectations create a safe environment where individuals are willing to fail, in order to learn. Good leaders create a similar environment of psychological safety, where it truly is OK to try stuff, fail, talk about it, and learn from the experience.

Staats shared the radical idea of measuring failure, which one organization did by implementing a “Failure Rate” measure on their employees. Becasue the organization had an explicit mission of finding innovative ways of doing things, the company needed their employees to take risks. A failure rate measure essentially communicated that "if you're not failing at a certain rate, you’re not trying hard enough.”

“Mistakes aren’t a flaw in the process,” Staats argued, quoting one of his colleagues in the Kenan School of Business, “They are a fundamental part of the process.”“Mistakes aren’t a flaw in the process. They are a fundamental part of the process,” said professor and author Bradley Staats.“Mistakes aren’t a flaw in the process. They are a fundamental part of the process,” said professor and author Bradley Staats.

Overcoming Outcome Bias

A second factor keeping us from learning is overcoming the popular idea that if the outcome is successful, the process is good; if the outcome is unsuccessful, the process is bad. That’s not always the case, Staats explained.

To emphasize this point, Staats shared a laboratory experiment where subjects were given a hypothetical $5,000 to invest with either a broker that has a 54% chance of increasing that investment by 15% or one who had a 43% chance of achieving the same 15% gain. Of course, the subjects correctly selected the more successful broker.

After a while, some of the subjects were told they lost money while others were told they made money, and all were asked to rate their decisions. Those who enjoyed a positive outcome rated their decision at 6.33 (out of 7), while those who lost 15% scored their decision a 4.57 (out of 7). Subjects attached an emotional reaction to the outcome, not the process, a phenomenon Staats said is common and a real barrier to learning.

To overcome outcome bias, Staats encouraged the dynamic learner to look for ways to measure the process, not the outcome. “Keep decision journals,” he recommended. He also advised evaluating your process often, touching base with colleagues on a weekly or bi-weekly basis during a project, rather than just the end, when outcomes are likely to dictate how you view success.

Overcoming a Fixed Mindset

Staats said dynamic learners cultivate a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. Unfortunately, some of that is beyond an individual's control. Teachers, for example, have an incredible ability to affect their students’ mindset. Teachers who praise only the outcome, for example, will create learners focused on results; teachers who praise the process, encourage more active and motivated learners who are focused on growth.

To combat a fixed mindset, Staats encouraged reaching out to others - get input from a variety of sources, and do it often. Dynamic learners seek out others with a growth mindset and recognize the need to build networks and share ideas.

The importance of asking questions

Simple questions have led to some pretty powerful examples of innovation and learning. To illustrate, Staats shared the origin of instant photography. While on vacation with his family, Edwin Land’s daughter, after observing her dad take a number of family photos, asked him this simple question: “Why can’t I see the picture now?” The question spurred the American scientist to invent the Polaroid picture and launched a multibillion-dollar business.

However, even when we ask the right questions, we often fail to act. Why? Staats said there are three reasons: Activity bias, busyness, and self-censoring.

Overcoming activity bias

The need to “do something” often gets in the way of asking good questions. Staats provided an example from the world of soccer. A researcher at Ben-Gurion University reviewed hundreds of penalty kicks to determine in what direction a player directs the ball after being awarded a penalty kick. A one-on-one matchup with the goalie, penalty kicks give a shooter a decided advantage over the goalie; the shooter knows where he’s going with the ball, while the goalie’s only hope at saving the ball is guessing correctly and meeting the ball at the right location. Researchers found that kicks go to the right 29% of the time, the left 32% of the time and down the middle more than 39% of the time. However, despite knowing these statistics, goalies only chose the middle 6% of the time, instead deciding to dive right or left almost every time. Staats said activity bias, the need to “do something,” made the goalies act, rather than staying put and enjoying a much higher success rate. This happens in the business world all the time. We'd much rather be seen as a person of action; if unsuccessful, hey, at least we looked like a hero failing.

To combat activity bias, Staats said we need to have the intellectual humility to admit when we’re wrong. We will get better outcomes if we have "strong opinions, weakly held,” he said.

Overcoming busyness

Staats cited the general malaise of business as another factor keeping us from asking questions. With twice the work than they can realistically accomplish, many knowledge workers know they should be doing something different, but busyness gets in the way.

To overcome busyness, Staats suggested we block out time for thinking, and make time to pause and contemplate what we’ve learned every single day. Staats shared a great bit of advice he got from one of his mentors: “Don’t avoid thinking, by being busy.”

Overcoming self-censoring

Self-censoring is another reason we don’t ask questions of ourselves or others, he said: “We don’t ask questions in a public setting because we don’t want to appear dumb or be part of the problem.” But in reality, those who ask more questions are actually more well-liked. 

We see what we want to believe, and this is another reason we self-censor. “We’re going out looking to prove what we expect or want the answer to be,” Staats said; we consume facts or ideas that are helpful to our case and ignore those that are not.

How can we overcome self-censoring? By listening actively and learning from others. Don't just hear, Staats said. Play back the words or ideas someone shares with you, so you confirm that you truly understand what they’re saying. That's likely to create more buy-in than if they we’re forced into your way of thinking.

Staats concluded his talk by encouraging everyone to strive for these four F’s to stay relevant and thrive: have focus, and be fast, frequent, and flexible.

Visit the JMP User Community to view Bradley Staats' talk in its entirety.