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Are you a “team of learners,” or do you learn as a team? And why it matters

Supports talent-led transformations through leadership and capability building.

Marla M. Capozzi

Works with clients to build leadership capabilities at scale to help organizations shape their future

Sasha Zolley

Leads leadership and management capability building programs within McKinsey Academy overseeing the design, development, and delivery of learning journeys

Back in 1990, Peter M. Senge wrote, “Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. This is where ‘the rubber meets the road’; unless teams can learn, the organization cannot learn.”

Teams continue to be one of the main vehicles for delivering performance and innovation outcomes in businesses. It comes as no surprise that a recent Harvard Business Review study reports, ‘‘The time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more over the last two decades.” And yet learning and development programs are typically structured by level, function, and at times personal assessment outcomes. While this type of learning structure has its merits, it does not facilitate teams learning together to deliver successful outcomes.

Today’s teams operate differently and should therefore learn differently

Technological advancements in communication and collaboration tools have allowed many organizations to adopt remote work policies, relying more and more on virtual teams. COVID-19 has accelerated this shift dramatically; next will come the challenge of hybrid working teams. The rise of agile methodologies has shifted team structures from traditional reporting relationships to a network of teams that collaborate across functions to learn rapidly and make decisions. As agile ways of working become increasingly commonplace, the flexible and iterative approaches they bring allow greater opportunities to learn from experimentation.

To adapt appropriately, and inspire team learning across your organization, we recommend three activities:

  1. Set team learning goals that align with outcomes

    A team’s outcome and performance measures drive its learning. This builds on collective mastery and shared vision. Teams rarely jump start new work asking, “Are we equipped with the necessary knowledge to deliver these outcomes?” If a shift in collective team knowledge is needed, a formal team learning plan should be established.

    Think of topics such as artificial intelligence or business model innovation – everyone must have a foundation of knowledge to contribute. In some cases, individual learning based on role or an area of expertise might be needed for certain team members. Help each other make time for learning and time to share knowledge for the benefit of the team’s goals.

  2. Look out for triggers that offer team learning opportunities

    Identifying triggers for new learning opportunities is a discipline to be integrated into team governance.

    Triggers might include a new strategy or project, a change in team construct, or a crisis situation, among others. The question, “What must we know to deliver against our objectives?” should be raised periodically to ensure important changes in a team environment inspire new learning opportunities.

  3. Create the right environment for team learning

    To learn as a team, the team needs an environment that fosters learning. While learning is a skill, team learning is a discipline. The most important aspect of a healthy (and functional!) team environment is one of psychological safety. Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as, “A team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

    A recent Google study found that the primary driver of team performance was psychological safety. Teams with sufficient psychological safety outperform teams without it. Research by Edmondson reveals that psychological safety leads to more learning and better performance. Interested to know how your team scores on psychological safety? Take this quiz.

As you integrate team learning into your working environment, remember the importance of allowing space for curiosity when learning and exploring; nurturing curiosity fosters agility and an openness to learn. A team’s ability to learn in a post-COVID-19 world will be one of its most important skills and perhaps its greatest competitive advantage.

The authors would like to thank Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and member of the Consortium for Learning Innovation for her contribution to this blog post. They would also like to thank Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, a senior research science analyst in the Organization Practice in our New York office.

*This is the second of four blog posts highlighting ways to inspire lifelong learning – at the individual, team, organization and community level. Inspiring Learning for Adaptability is the theme at this year’s Consortium for Learning Innovation, convened by McKinsey.

Stay tuned for our next post in this series, where we will examine adaptability at the organization level.

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