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The Learning and Performance Paradox

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First I wanted to address the sense that many of you seemed to have yesterday that learning and performing are not dissociable. I think that’s right. You are always learning and performing. The question is what are you learning and what are you performing. If you have a very strong performance orientation—you’re totally risk averse, really care about maintaining appearances, and demonstrating your competence—you’d be biased towards performing in the same old way and not experimenting with something new. But you’re still learning—how to do your previously rewarded performance a little bit quicker, more habitually, and you’re learning that it feels good and safe not to take risks. So the previous neurological and behavioral pathways are reconfirmed. For the flip-side example, I think of a classical pianist learning jazz. If you have a very strong learning orientation, you are open to new experiences, not afraid of making mistakes, you learn jazz, but your classical playing takes a hit. If you define “performance” strictly as classical playing, performance has declined, but if you take a broader view of musicality or range, it has improved. So you always have to define learning what and performing what.

You can’t dissociate two, which means they are a polarity. So think about the polarity map in the brief that I and Barry Johnson made. It shows the upsides and downsides of emphasizing one pole or the other. When we say people are over-emphasizing the performing end of the pole, we mean they are favoring performing what is been previously rewarded and not learning what we think would be better for them in the future. And in a simple or even a complicated world, we can predefine the performances we want and the learning we want—based on our predictions of the future—and the challenge is to make sure people do both. Sometimes this is just an issue of resource allocation, making sure that people have the time they need to learn and the systems and structures of the work environment equally reward learning and performing.

[I think about a recent task I had where I had to create a market research survey. I had enough time to learn a little about how to do it, but not enough time to learn a lot. I don’t think my learning orientation or mindset had a lot to do with it. It had more to do with the fact that I had a deadline and didn’t want to work on the weekend. I could have learned more if time for learning had been more clearly budgeted, but I think the sense was that we faced a trade-off and a “good enough” survey was good enough.]

But in a complex world, you can’t predict (ex: culture change intiative) You can’t always say what exactly the performance needed is, and what the learning needed is. You have to perform while learning and learn while performing. That’s where Jennifer’s work comes in. Getting the upsides of both learning and performing in a complex world means doing things that lead us in the direction we want even when the outcome isn’t predefined. And to sense our way towards a new and uncertain direction, we can’t view learning and performing as a tradeoff, they have to continually inform one another.


  1. Teresa Roche

    April 17, 2016

    Thank you Katie for this post as well as sharing your thoughts in our “meaning making session” on Day 2. I always appreciate the depth of your thinking and ability to express yourself in a way that others can access easily.

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