Why organizations don’t learn

A review of Gino, F., & Staats, B. (2015). Why organizations don’t learn. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/11/why-organizations-dont-learn

Virtually every company leader will say they believe continuous improvement and being a “learning organization” are requirements to stay competitive. But, do leaders act on this belief — or is this just what one says in polite company?

In their 2015 article, “Why organizations don’t learn,” Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats explain how “biases cause people to focus too much on success, take action too quickly, try too hard to fit in, and depend too much on experts.”

The authors break down the reasons for these biases and recommend specific changes leaders can make in their organizations to mitigate against them.


The article’s research on organizational bias was “conducted over the past decade across a wide range of industries.” The lead author, Gino, runs a Harvard Business School program focused on applying behavioral economics to organizational problems

The Harvard Business Review is not a peer-reviewed journal but is a high-quality outlet for researchers to connect their work to entrepreneurs and managers.


Corporate management likes to win. Unfortunately, this leads to a consistent bias toward success in organizations. The authors identify four causes for this bias, the first one being a lack of tolerance for failure. The risk — and possible reality — of failure is anathema to management teams who often have bonuses or reputations tied to their teams’ performance.

So, many managers prefer to not try anything risky and not risk failing at all, even if the rewards for success are rich.

In other words, managers don’t get fired for not attempting. They get fired for attempting and failing.

The authors suggest destigmatizing failure will help learning organizations overcome a bias toward success. Adopt the attitude that risk accompanies opportunity and foster open dialog about risk among your team.

The authors discuss the second cause of bias toward success, which comes from the work of famed psychologist Carol Dweck, who identified two basic mindsets that people can hold.

Dweck has shown people develop either a fixed mindset where they believe intelligence and talent are largely genetic gifts, or they adopt a growth mindset where they believe seeking out new challenges can grow a person’s innate capabilities.

Based on Dweck’s work, the authors recommend developing growth mindsets on your team. In addition, challenge your own thinking about whether people can improve.

[A global executive search firm] has found that high-potential candidates perform better than their peers with less potential, thanks to their openness to acquiring new skills and their thirst for learning.

The third cause of bias toward success comes from an over-reliance on candidate past performance in hiring decisions. Managers overwhelmingly focus on what a candidate has done or can currently do.

Instead, they should focus on what they are capable of doing.

The authors recommend, instead, focusing on a candidate’s potential: curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. This will almost surely reveal additional interesting candidates to consider for positions.

The fourth cause of success bias identified by the authors is attribution bias. Simply put, people tend to take ownership of their successes but chalk up failures to bad luck or misfortune.

To combat attribution bias, the authors recommend collecting and analyzing data, in order to develop a more accurate, objective view of the causes of success and failure.

If any of us saw a drowning child in a swimming pool, we would jump in and try to save them; we’d take action.

When we hear of a negative incident on our team or see a negative turn in a key performance indicator (KPI), we also want to “jump into the pool.” We want to take immediate action — even if there is no drowning child to save.

But “jumping into the pool” makes us feel productive, even when our action leads to wasted effort, or worse, negative consequences.

According to the authors, simple exhaustion often causes us to act rashly. Who can learn or apply what they already know when they are exhausted? Rested workers are better positioned to both learn and make fewer mistakes.

Company data that we examined revealed that workers were actually more productive over a 12-hour shift if their day included such unexpected breaks.

The authors recommend conducting experiments to determine the optimal number and length of breaks for your team.

Lack of reflection is another cause of our bias toward action.

The authors conducted a study at a tech-support call center of Indian IT giant Wipro. One group of workers spent 15 minutes reflecting on what they had learned each day. The other (control) group just kept working for another 15 minutes. The group that engaged in daily reflection performed 20% better than the control group.

Base on this study, the authors recommend making time to think and reflect at some point every day. Only 20–30 minutes a day is needed.

People are social creatures and like to be liked. This is a wonderful quality for civilizations. But, it can also create issues.

Believing we need to conform to the group when we join a new organization can cause us to inadvertently leave at the door the very opinions and creative ideas we were hired to bring with us.

As Steve Jobs famously said, ‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’

The authors recommend helping team members identify and develop their strengths as a normal part of their job. The authors’ research showed that a focus on individuals and their strengths during the onboarding process was “associated with significantly lower turnover and higher customer satisfaction.”

It makes sense that the longer someone holds a position and the more credentials they have earned, the more weight their arguments should hold. Often extensive experience leads to more efficiency and effectiveness.

But, experience and credentials can also blind people and make them resistant to change. They can cause peole to dismiss information that conflicts with their long-held, hard-fought views.

Also, organizations can have a narrow view of what qualifies someone as an expert. Organizations often prefer certain credentials or experience, regardless of whether they are applicable to the problem at hand.

Another way a bias toward experts manifests itself is through the discounting of the opinions of frontline employees.

The authors recommend encouraging workers to own problems that affect them and make sure they get diverse experiences.

In our research at a Japanese bank, we looked at how data-entry workers performed when they were doing the same task repeatedly (“specialized experience”) and when they were switching between different tasks (“varied experience”). We found that over the course of a single day, a specialized approach was fastest. But over time, switching activities across days promoted learning and kept workers more engaged. Both specialization and variety were important to learning.

The authors suggest, like the Japanese bank, empowering employees to gain different kinds of experience and then encouraging them to use that experience.

The Take-Away

Why is it important for startups to foster a learning culture? Learning is a superpower.

In ultra-competitive spaces (aren’t they all?), how well your team learns will determine whether you move ahead of the competition or fall behind.

Software engineers should learn languages, APIs, or professional practices. Marketers should learn channels to explore, metrics packages to analyze, or better copywriting techniques. Salespeople should learn ways to overcome objections or qualify leads. Managers should explore team building techniques or ways to give employee feedback.

And, of course, everyone should keep up on the latest conversations and research affecting their profession.

The biases mentioned in this article frequently make an appearance in my own professional work.

For instance, the bias toward success can be a demoralizing undertone on many engineering teams. To combat it, I seek to instill a growth mindset, particularly among the engineers, creatives, and managers.

In other words, I give people permission to fail. As long as the team is learning from their failures (and the failures are not catastrophic), there will be a benefit.

In addition to fostering a growth mindset, encouraging thinking time and reflection are integral to how I manage teams. I first encountered these ideas listening to a talk by Rich Hickey.

Hickey — the creator of the Clojure programming language — terms this, “hammock driven-development.” The hammock represents permissions given to a team to take time out to think deeply about problems and solutions.

Create a special place in your office, whether it is a hammock, a “thinking lounge,” or a set of bean bags. Encourage team members to go there and think without the boss wondering why they aren’t typing.

Be aware of these potential biases in your organization. With the ideas included here, you’ll be ready to counter them building your own learning organization.

Originally published at www.founderscholar.com on June 26, 2017.



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Kevin Taylor

Stetson University professor with interests in startups, founders, motivation, productivity | Speaker | Formerly entrepreneur and 2x #Inc5000 CEO