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On Learning Mindsets, Relationships & Ecosystems: A Conversational Essay

Two research leaders invite us into their shared learning process to show how they leverage democratized research to expand the learning surface and nurture a culture of learning.

Words by Lena Blackstock and Justin Threlkeld, Illustration by Allison Corr

This is a conversational essay, which originated, evolved through, and is reflected here as a conversation between Justin and Lena. It's a manifestation of our shared learning process.


We aim to share a view into the evolving thoughts and contributing perspectives as we work through (learn together) what it might mean to us to build an organization that learns. We explore some tactical elements such as the creating, caring for, and sharing of sacred artifacts as part of a learning culture.


We discuss the need for individual humility and a growth mindset (ie a willingness to be wrong) and we hone in on what we find to be the most critical aspects of this ambitious goal: a shared, safe, and trusted environment at the team level where we can foster and leverage these relationships to encourage learning across an entire ecosystem in order to move towards a shared goal.


? ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

hey ... was thinking about the elements of a learning organization and what it looks like to really have a culture that supports an organization that learns. Up for a call to discuss?

✉️ ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD

Subject: Organizations that learn: growth mindsets, trusted relationships, intentional care

Recapping our convo, it sounds like a learning org is built on the following pillars

  • A learning mindset at the individual level
  • Trustful relationships for learning together
  • An awareness of the organization's purpose, strategy, and prior learnings
  • A connective "glue team" that can help foster the above
✉️ ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

Re: Organizations that learn: growth mindsets, trusted relationships, intentional care

Breaking those pillars down, each of us, as an individual, has to be open to learning, open to being wrong. This requires bravery and humility.

Second, we have to enable and support our teams to learn. This requires deep trust and connection.

Thirdly, we must be comfortable with a conversation culture rather than a documentation culture, one which encourages learning in public, together.

Knowledge transfer is not really possible. What we normally call knowledge transfer is really just the exchange of information. I really know something when I take that information and apply it.

So for learning together to happen, we need cultures, ecosystems, processes and mindsets that invite us to go through that learning process together, instead of solely exchanging, teaching, sharing or even solely activating information and insights.

Research democratization maximizes the learning surface

✉️ ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD

Subject: Democratization, the pace of learning, and trust

Democratization pushes many research activities to the team level and embeds learning into everyone's job. This accomplishes a few things:

  1. We increase the pace of learning since teams can design and run experiments without awaiting central research resourcing. The distance from observation to insight to application is significantly reduced.
  2. We expand the learning surface since each individual can themselves develop and execute experiments that have operational support in the form of research processes, resources like templates and participant panels, and even researchers who can advise on their initiatives and add degrees of rigor to even the most far-flung efforts.

By “learning surface,” I mean the direct and indirect interactions with users, points of observation of gathered data, and opportunities to experiment. Thinking about an organization as an ecosystem or an organism, here we are talking about the edge or the membrane.

Places where members of the organization encounter external information and respond to it. The more of these encounters there are, the more surface there is for learning.

✉️ ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

Re: Democratization, the pace of learning, and trust

100%. We also improve the chances that insights will be applied to decisions and result in impact. Since the team is deeply involved in (or even owning) the activities, they own the insights themselves. This also means that insights can spread within existing relationships of trust at the team level.

✉️ ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD

Re: Re: Democratization, the pace of learning, and trust

Expanding on the above:

Benefit 1 (increasing the pace of learning) is obvious and typically cited as the main reason to democratize research. But the actual impact here can get overlooked. it's not just "speed to insight," it's speed to impact which increases the organization's metabolism for new information.

Benefit 2 (expanding the learning surface) might feel like a restatement of another commonly cited benefit of research democratization—scale. But this is different than just scaling research through democratization. Scaling research only requires operational support, expanding the learning surface requires a mindset shift.

Benefit 3 (team involvement in insights) hints at the fact that relationships are the wire that insights travel on. You're way more likely to trust something from someone you have a relationship with, especially if that something contradicts something else you already believe to be true.

There's a vulnerability in changing your mind. On the flip side, there's also vulnerability in sharing what you've learned, especially when the signal might be a little shaky. On both sides of the learning relationship you need trust, and healthy teams are already building these types of relationships in their day-to-day work.

The connective glue team


✉️ ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

Re: Re: Re: Democratization, the pace of learning, and trust

One problem, then, has to do with insights that aren’t adopted because the team doesn’t understand or trust them. But another, potentially easier to solve problem, is one of connective tissue: who ensures that insights travel between teams?

? ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD

I'm thinking about the organization's edge (especially the teams that make products and teams involved in customer success, sales, community management, etc.) like a cellular membrane, a surface that touches the outside world and allows certain things to pass in or out while filtering other things.

? ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

Yes, training teams on good "insights skills" and encouraging a learning environment makes that membrane more effective. And healthier in the long term.

? ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD
Orgs as organisms. There's still the question of the "connective tissue”—what (or who) is responsible for creating an environment in which insights can emerge and travel?




Sticking with the cellular metaphor, perhaps this would be the ribosomes—floating around, making the proteins everything else is made from.



I think I’m talking about the "glue team” as the essential catalyst for building a learning org. I've researched several CPG companies who developed innovation programs,often by founding a team much like this “glue team,” sometimes called the "catalyst team."



This team typically teaches other functions and advises on projects, while conducting long-range projects that sit outside of "business-as-usual."Sometimes these teams embed members into various project or business-line teams to cultivate a mindset shift (training/advising) or to incubate special projects.



A similar approach seems like it would work well for a research team.

✉️ ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

They help connect the dots, perform an organizational acupuncture, and help everyone move forward together.



That central "glue" team could be a R&I team, but in this case the "I" isn't innovation, it's Insight. Research and Insights as a catalyst team can help model and foster that "learning-together culture.”



This is supported with training and by advising on and running projects. And of course, by inviting others into these still forming and vulnerable spaces of shared learning. It seems that we might have the truest “research impact” by focusing on nurturing trusted relationships based on transparency and humility.

Image via: wikimedia commons

Documentation culture

? ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD

Thinking on the idea of a documentation culture:

Ephemeral knowledge requires the carework of sharing ← distributing across relationships and retranslating for new contexts


Durable artifacts require carework of maintaining ← updating, deprecation, merging divergent versions back into the artifact

? ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

...yes, both require a culture of conversation to organically bubble up when calcification is occurring. And a culture of trust where artifacts and even relics can be updated, deprecated or retired.

✉️ ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD

Subject: Pros and cons of a documentation culture

While it's incredibly powerful to have a repository of all your prior documents, old research, project plans, proposals, etc., I wonder if a documentation heavy culture can really sink you if you're not careful.

There's a need for clarity on which documents carry what weight. There's a wide continuum between correspondence (which shows evolving thinking as an idea comes to be) and a durable artifact. I think there's a temptation to flatten these sometimes. Everything becomes a proposal or a "project plan (WIP)" and the context gets flattened out.

Not to mention the work that goes into maintaining and pruning authoritative documentation. Once you make something durable, you've gotta make sure it stays relevant and deprecate things that are out of date.

A documentation culture might be reframed into something like a writing culture, or a correspondence culture, where leading up to a document, there's a trail of emails and conversations, even memos (https://sriramk.com/memos), to show the thinking as it evolves or diffuses into strategy documents, project plans, and the like.

✉️ ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

Re: Pros and cons of a documentation culture

It feels like a lot of it is about being clear about the intent and acknowledging the goal and weight of different artifacts and formats of communicating. And safe spaces of learning to happen, individually and together.


So relevant, especially as more and more organizations are working in distributed or semi-distributed models. There is that tension between a need for clear, concise and action-oriented communications and the very real gap for open yet safe context-rich spaces that encourage collective learning and collaboration.

On "Sacred Relics"

✉️ ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD

Subject: Sacred relics and the organizational purpose

Every organization has a set of stated (or more often semi-stated) central beliefs. These aren't just the "principles'' or the "mission statement" but all the ideas that form the base layer of the organization's purpose.

These ideas extend from what I think of as "sacred relics": founding charters, pitch decks, company scorecards, conference talks and blog posts from the founders, etc. The tangible artifacts that get pointed to when people discuss the reason why the organization exists.

✉️ ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

Re: Sacred relics and the organizational purpose

Yes, being clear about what is considered a sacred relic is essential. Around those central documents you can begin to have conversations and dialog about them. You have certain truths you accept because they're contained in the "sacred texts" and you simply apply them in your day-to-day decision making.

✉️ ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD

Re: Re: Sacred relics and the organizational purpose

But even sacred texts can be re-interpreted or questioned, sometimes replaced in the canon. This is a complex idea I think, and probably deserves its own writing, but it's important here because identifying the sacred relics (and competing sets of relics) is essential to building a culture that learns.

These relics form the epistemological anchors for everything else, and while it's important (especially for researchers) to have a healthy skepticism towards any accepted assumed truths, you first have to acknowledge that they exist.

✉️ ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

Re: Re: Re: Sacred relics and the organizational purpose

Maybe in this metaphor researchers play the role of scholars, constantly studying the sacred texts—not with an aim towards teaching their truths to others, but in order to expand or refine or re-contextualize the shared understanding of these relics.

There are so many threads here. I think this idea of sacred relics and the care or intentional facilitation of the process of creating, maintaining, and deprecating these relics is interesting.

But we keep coming back to the idea that the relationship between individuals with growth mindsets is at the core of all of this. Especially when we talk about large organizations where you need this shared understanding while maintaining an environment that is open to and welcoming of change.

Informed intuition


✉️ ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

Subject: Relationships at the core of the democratization model

We've talked about this concept of informed intuition—how our own experiences, expertise, and mental models inevitably guide us in our world and work. And it’s interesting to set this next to the idea of humility: a willingness to see and leverage what we don't (and can’t) know.

This is one of the questions at the core of what we do as researchers. And it's at the core of being able to create a model of democratized research in organizations.

It comes back to the myth of rational data: There is no such thing as objective, purely rational "information"—especially in the framework of shared or collective learning. I will always see the world looking through my unique lens.

All the choices we make (framing, scoping, recruiting, timelines, approach, reporting) and also how we communicate and collaborate (with whom, how, when, where)...all of it puts a point of view into the data. And I have to be humble enough as a researcher and recognize these biases. And support those around me in doing the same.

✉️ ??‍? JUSTIN THRELKELD

Re: Relationships at the core of the democratization model

Yes! If we really mean what we say about participatory ethnographic or co-creative methods, it's perfectly valid for a person on a team to have a deep perspective based on their lived experiences. This is just a type of auto-ethnography, though it can often be done in a careless, unscientific way.

These experiences, the informed intuition, can actively work against you if you don't bring it into the research process. Suddenly you have a stakeholder with 20 years experience telling you your insights don't match what they've seen in the world.

We've all seen this blow up research projects. And maybe they're right and you could've done better research if you'd started with this team member's lived experience in mind. And regardless, you're in a sort of argument now and trying to get the team to trust your insights.

A democratized model forces you to acknowledge that the most important thing is the relationship. That's what we should start with: entering our teammates' or stakeholders' problem space with respect (and space) for their informed intuition.

A learning-together culture


✉️ ?‍? LENA BLACKSTOCK

Subject: The shared learning process to support a learning org

I agree. The self-awareness and humility coupled with this idea of respecting and offering space for our team members and colleagues' informed intuition is important. So this willingness to be wrong is at the core of it.

Being willing to be wrong and sharing still-forming, not-yet-fully-shaped and polished thoughts and ideas in front of others requires vulnerability, humility, bravery, trust.

If we didn't share our conversations more broadly, we would only learn alone. We might share learnings, which is teaching. But we would not be learning with others. Correspondence and public correspondence as part of learning relationships.

Our goal is to enable learning with our teams, instead of learning in isolation and then sharing, teaching and communicating out our findings.

The value is in this shared learning process and how we shape and evolve and grow all this together.

Summary thoughts

We shared some threads we continue to explore together as we learn about (and experiment with) learning organizations built on democratized research processes.

Some of these threads take us to learning mindsets at the individual level, and teams composed of learning relationships. We also circled around the potential of a written culture that avoids premature documentation while still making the organization's purpose and history accessible through correspondence and a healthy relationship to the central artifacts—the sacred relics—of the org.

And lastly, we explored what we might call the membrane of an organization, the surface area of learning, coupled with a connective glue team, which performs the care work and enables the outside-in and inside-out connection needed to build a learning culture.

There are many threads we weren't able to pursue or that we weren't able to dive into deeper....so for this piece, we leave you with a few questions (provocations, perhaps) that we all might explore together.

Provocations

Ops as a function to operationalize activities and processes is a key tenant of a democratized model of research BUT, is there a risk with operationalizing too soon / too much / too fast?

When we operationalize, we, in essence, make it harder to change, meaning by making one thing easier, we put a barrier for change at the same time, so how might we balance the need to operationalize things in order to scale with the value of informal, collaborative and iterative approaches and mindsets?

In this model, we discussed a centralized team (a connective glue team). What should this team do? What are the roles, skills and attitudes? How does they relate to the executives they support? How does foundational strategic research complement this structure?

When we think about the need for care/maintenance and the intentional erasing/deprecating of relics, what does that imply for corporate memory? What might be rituals of death and rebirth of relics? Of relationships?

If anything strikes a chord, feel free to keep the threads going, dive deeper into some of these thoughts or help us find new ones via Twitter ?‍? @lenacorinna and ??‍? @justinthrelkeld.

Lena applies her background in Design Ethnography and her research experience over the past decade to build and nurture research practices for sustainable growth and success. She is currently building a new Research & Insights team at HashiCorp, where her work centers on expanding the organizations learning surface through the democratization of research. Her life centers on creative collaborations and travel with her husband and two wonderfully-curious kids.

Justin is a researcher, strategist, and community knowledge gardener whose work focuses on systems for shared learning and imagining futures together. He has conducted research on everyday technology in places like call centers, living rooms, neighborhoods, and data centers. Justin is currently helping to build a democratized research practice at HashiCorp.

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