If you are reading this, then you probably value the importance of curiosity and learning – both in your personal and professional life. But if your experience of learning is anything like mine, your education, training and development will have focussed more on knowledge and skill rather than on attitudes and habits. But without the latter, the former are like arrows without a bow. A positive, adaptable attitude allows us to develop new habits; and both habits and attitudes help grow knowledge and skills.
- Knowledge: being aware of facts, concepts
- Attitudes: feelings, emotions, beliefs or values
- Skills: ability to perform tasks or activities measured in time and precision
- Habits: aspects of behaviour that are repeatedly and consistently done without (significant) effort or thought
We are more likely to learn if we have a positive and motivated attitude. Just as importantly, with a flexible, growth mindset we will also be open to learning new things in the first place, and less likely to be put off by failure.
Coping with disappointment is an essential part of innovation. Thomas Edison tested more than 6,000 materials in his bid to make the first lightbulb filament, famously concluding that “Innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” It’s this recognition of the importance of attitude that is also reflected in the (probably apocryphal) story about how, when Edison was expelled from school for being “mentally deficient”, his mother instead told him his final school report said “Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him. Please teach him yourself.”
At AMX this approach prompted us to adopt the “Lean” method, in which new business initiatives are treated as experiments that are developed iteratively through a “build-measure-learn” cycle. We’ve aimed to adopt Henry Ford’s maxim that “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”
So if letting go of the fear of failure, and remaining calm in times of stress, are key ingredients for learning – what we can do to promote this kind of positivity? It’s unlikely to be enough to rely on discipline and willpower alone. This is especially true when collaborating in organisations, where sometimes it only takes one squeaky wheel to slow the car down.
This is where good habits come into play.
Make it routine
Psychologists have shown that the most effective way to improve behaviour is to work with your unconscious mind. i This is why many effective organisational skills are based on habits. Knowledge, skills and positive attitudes are useless unless they are implemented effectively.
Habits reduce our ability to self-sabotage, translating the three other competencies into reliable, repeatable action. If the resolution is to use your new Peloton every Monday evening, making that behaviour routine means you won’t need to rely on self-control to avoid firing up Netflix.
So how do you kickstart this kind of habit? Yale psychologist John Bargh talks about “implementation intentions” – not simply resolving “I will use the Peloton tonight” but instead making concrete plans about the when, where and how of your plans.ii For example: “After the 6pm team conference call (that’s the when) I’ll go into the bedroom (that’s the where) to change out of my work clothes, and I will immediately put on my gym gear (that’s the how)”. It’s been shown that this kind of specific and practical visualisation materially improves the likelihood of putting intentions into practice.
A classic example of the usefulness of habit in organisations is the deceptively basic yet hugely powerful checklist. In his book The Checklist Manifestoiii, doctor and author Atul Gawande distinguishes between errors caused by ignorance (not knowing enough) versus those caused by ineptitude (failing to properly use what we know). Failure is usually caused by the second of these errors. For instance, the complexity of many modern medical operations makes it impossible for the surgical team to remember every step and plan properly for every outcome.
Knowledge, skills and positive attitudes are useless unless they are implemented effectively.
Gawande and his research team took this idea and developed a safe surgery checklist with staggering success. The checklist turns the thank goodness I remembered to take the swabs out before I sewed the patient back up moment into the routine – item 10 on the checklist: count the swabs out; count them back in.
The checklist makes core tasks part of a basic, repeatable routine (a habit), freeing up mental space to focus on higher value, more complex questions.
KASH for competence
Both within organisations as well as at a personal level, we have the best chance of learning and therefore succeeding by improving all four aptitudes – knowledge, attitude, skills, habits.
At AMX we see ourselves as a learning organisation. Innovation is at the heart of what we do, and we’ve been working to improve not just our knowledge and skills; but also our attitudes and habits to drive the flywheel of change.
For example, in order to help our clients better manage their cash holdings we investigated launching an AMX money market fund. We quickly concluded this wasn’t practical right now. However, we learnt that investors and asset managers want to invest in a third-party money market fund using AMX’s preferential fee terms combined with the additional reporting we can provide. This resulted in a partnership with Goldman Sachs Asset Management, making their money market fund available through AMX.
As catastrophic as Covid has been, is it too optimistic to hope that the changes it has forced on our working practices might make us more adaptable, better able to learn? Making changes can be uncomfortable – there’s the implication that the current way of doing things isn’t perfect; and there’s risk that what’s new won’t work or will be something we cannot do well. But as Jeff Bezos said – “Being wrong might hurt you a bit, but being slow will kill you.” This is an acknowledgement that sometimes being wrong is the best way, ultimately, to get things right – it’s only by trying out new ideas and new ways of working that we can improve, that we can learn.
So, I’ll leave you with this question – How do you think you, and your company, measure up against the KASH learning pillars?
iBefore you Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do by John Bargh, October 2017
ii As above
iii The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, December 2009