EP 4: Strategic Planning – Part 4: Learning Organizations

September 8, 2022

Show Notes

In the final episode of our 4-part series on strategic planning, we dive into the value of being a learning organization. We cover everything from defining what that means to the massive impact it can have in your organization to simple practices you can implement today.

Your organization’s ability to learn and adapt touches every part of your organization and is what keeps you relevant through inevitable changes in culture, economics, and more.

How do we create an environment that fosters learning? How do we recognize opportunities to learn? What does it look like to embrace new learning as individuals and as an organization?

Let’s dive in.

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Tucker: Hey there, and welcome to THRIVERS: Nonprofit Leadership for the Next Normal. I’m your host, Tucker Wannamaker, the CEO of THRIVE IMPACT. And our mission is to solve nonprofit leader burnout. Burnout is the enemy of creating positive change. And we want to connect you with impactful mission-driven leaders, as well as tools so that you can learn to thrive in today’s nonprofit landscape.

I am joined today, as usual, by my delightful co-host Sarah Fanslau, our Chief of Impact. Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah: Hey, Tucker. Great to be here.

Tucker: Sarah’s our Chief of Impact at THRIVE IMPACT and is full of all kinds of impact that we’re gonna be talking to you about today, which is our fourth part of our strategic planning series that we’ve been doing.

And we’ve gone through why is strategic planning so important? We’ve gone through appreciative inquiry and co-creation. Last time we talked about data-driven alignment and the power of data, and how to use that to align. And this week is a really good one, which is around being a learning organization and why is this so important.

Sarah: This is one of my favorite topics, Tucker, and I’m super excited about today. And so I’m going to ask you to define that. Define this for us.

What is a learning organization?

Tucker: Well, you know, it’s actually a term that came, or somebody popularized it – a guy named Peter Senge. He wrote a book called The Fifth Discipline. And one of the things that he said was that a learning organization by his definition was, “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results that they truly desire where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Sarah: Mm, I love that definition. The learning and the whole together is my favorite part.

Tucker: Well, and it’s essentially fostering learning at all levels within the organization. At the individual level, where people are able to be able to be a part of learning types of practice or, you know, professional development.

It’s also in the way that we create the conditions that allow for learning to even happen in the first place, like psychological safety, interaction patterns. It’s also in leadership and, you know, and by the way, when we say “leadership”, we do actually think that everybody is a leader inside of the organization.

But there are people like the CEO or VPs who help set the stage for what it means to be a learning organization. And so we’re gonna get into some of those. But I think, Sarah, you know, this is something that you and I have talked a lot about around even the words that we use. And I remember you were talking about goals once and you were kind of making the shift between “growth goals” versus “performance goals”, it was like a shift in thinking, in terms of literally the even words that we use when it comes to learning.

Sarah: Yeah, a hundred percent. I mean, so this is something, when I was VP of a nonprofit organization of programs, you know, I had a set of staff that I managed and we created yearly goals that we checked in on monthly, but, there were always a few sets of goals.

One was what I like to call a “learning goal”, which is, “you know I don’t really know enough about what I might achieve to set a, “I want to be measured against this goal”, kind of goal, but I want to learn this quarter in relation to this area. So for example, if it was, creating a new partnership, for example, with nonprofit organizations and one of the areas we worked with, we might not have been able to say, “I want to create five new partnerships.” We might say, “I want to understand the landscape and get ready to know what I’m able to achieve”.

So I always love to help people set “learning goals”, and then also goals that, you know, they thought they could really hit. And it wasn’t necessarily about performance – which is “X percent of people did this” or “Y percent of people achieved this”, but what is the next step from what you’ve done? Right? Let’s look at where you’ve been, and let’s get together to say, “What can you realistically do?”

And for me that’s what it means to set a goal that’s based on performance, which is, “What’s the next step or growth?” rather than performance, which is maybe, “Where do we want to get to at the end?”

Tucker: Mm. So Sarah, why is being a learning organization so important? Why is this so important right now?

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I think it is THE defining feature of nonprofit organizations that are successful right now. And I think that oftentimes it really comes down to one thing, and that is the speed of change.

The speed of change has increased at such a degree that, you know, we as humans are often unable to kind of catch up with that rate of change. And so being a learning organization is all about putting in place the practices and the processes necessary in order to keep up with the rate at which the world around us is changing.

And I know Tucker, you know of a really important, impactful study around the rate of change in our ability to adapt that folks will probably find useful.

Tucker: Yeah. So there was this great graphic that was done by a guy named Astro Teller. He was the former head of Google X. I think, you know, if you’ve been on anything with THRIVE IMPACT, I actually found this first as a part of the XChange community that I’m part of with Jon Bergoff and the team over there.

But this particular graphic was so interesting, which was Astro Teller was saying that the speed of change and the complexity of that change is happening at an exponential rate. And he, by the way, did this many, many, many, many years ago, it was not just at the beginning of the pandemic or anything.

But he also said that our ability to adapt to that change has tended to be more linear. In fact, in some schools of thought our ability to adapt to the ever increasing exponential rate of the change and the complexity of that change that our ability to adapt has gone down. That we’re really struggling in many ways.

In fact, when we do our THRIVE 101 Workshop all the time, we share this frame and ask, “How many of you have experienced that?” And everybody raises their hand. I mean, it’s literally like every single time. “How many of you experienced the speed and the complexity of change happening at an exponential rate around you?” And “How many of you are experiencing that and looking at that change and wondering, I’m not quite sure how do I adapt?”

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. And so what does that mean, that rate of change, for you around how leaders need to engage in these challenging times?

Tucker: Well, I think when it comes to being a learning organization and especially what we learn as we go through a strategic planning process is not being leaders who have answers, but being leaders who have questions. Not being the few who have the answers, but engaging the many with better and more powerful questions.

We talked a lot about that in our co-creation part two of this series, actually. But there’s also a really great quote that I love, which is about our ability to be relevant in our day and age is not based on some single point in time. It’s based upon our ability to adapt over time and apply learning quickly over time.

It’s our evolutionary advantage that gives us an advantage and actually is able to help us provide a relevant, or be a relevant organization. Which is why I actually don’t like the term “plan”.

Sarah: I know, you don’t, you hate it.

In this case strategic plan, I keep finding we use that phrase because that’s what people know. But really what we’re creating in the strategic planning process is a strategic direction that we’re learning into. As opposed to the plan, that’s like, “Oh, it’s done.” Right? There’s something about the word strategic plan that almost implies it’s done. And like that even of itself sets us back and steals us from, you know, we’re going to learn from the first week of implementing this direction. Why wouldn’t we apply that learning as fast as possible?

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. And that is that, I mean I love that story because I think it illustrates the tension between old ways of working, and new ways of working. And really, you know, the learning organization is about this new way of working, which is to say there’s so much going on and so much always changing, we can either ignore all of that at our peril, or we can really pay attention, listen well, and leverage our learnings in support of future change.

And one of the things I know we’ve learned from strategic planning with nonprofit organizations is that a lot of helping people get into that groove around shifting from old to new ways of working, is helping them establish a rhythm.

Right? Because it can sound ethereal. What is being a learning organization, essentially? It’s creating a set of rhythms around when you’re going to come together to review what you’ve learned and understand how to apply those learnings to your future. Right?

We did that a lot with one of our recent organizations, a mental health organization, and supported them in establishing some monthly and quarterly rhythms around coming together to say, “What’s our progress against the subjective? How do we need to change it? And then what do we wanna do next?” Right? Really simple in some ways.

Tucker: Yeah. We even do that inside of THRIVE IMPACT ourselves. We have a quarterly strategic planning process. So it’s really a strategic direction process. I should say, because I don’t like the word strategic planning.

Note to self, let’s update that in our own language.

No, but we have a quarterly process that we actually learned as well from another organization, The Independence Center, which we have worked with in Colorado Springs around strategic planning too. And we’ve also seen it in some of these types of operating systems that are out there, like EOS is one called Entrepreneurial Operating System. And it’s meant to get us into rhythms, you know – weekly, monthly, quarterly, biannually, and annually. Around looking at “what are we learning?” and asking reflective questions. And, “What’s been the best of what we’ve done and how do we want to apply our learning to our next quarter moving forward?”

Yeah, it’s been really powerful for us and it’s been a great process for many of the nonprofits that we’ve been working with.

Sarah: I agree. Yeah. I think the other beautiful thing that shifting to the mindset of a learning organization does, especially in the context of strategic planning, is take the pressure off or lower the stress, right?

Because so often we’re like, “We have to hit this and this is what success looks like” – but if instead it’s all learning and we’re allowed, and actually incentivized, to shift on the way. It’s just like, “Well, yeah, I could do that. Sure.” Right? So it lessens the stress also of this thing called strategic planning that can feel really daunting.

And, you know, quite frankly, we’ve talked to CEOs that said, “How do I make this not turn into my personal assessment scorecard as a CEO?” And it’s by thinking about it as a learning opportunity rather than a set of performance objectives.

Tucker: You know, Sarah, I love that you’re saying that. We have had this phrase inside of THRIVE IMPACT that has, I think organically continued to come about, which is the phrase, “It’s all learning.”

Like, is it all learning?

Sarah: What if it’s all learning?

Tucker: What if it is all just learning, right? Like it’s learning about ourselves. It’s learning about our organization and our culture. It’s learning about the people we serve. Like, can it be that light?

I love that you said it depressurizes situations. Because there is this, I definitely have noticed this at the beginning of strategic planning processes of this, like – I mean, yes they are important, right? Like I don’t want to steal from the importance of this process. I mean, we’re doing this whole series on this, like this stuff is important. But how we approach it is that much more important.

That’s where there’s already enough pressure on people. How do we create it to where it feels light, and in that lightness we’re able to learn and move forward together? But that depressurizing by like “this is what it has to be no matter what” – that creates pressure for people that’s actually, frankly I would say that’s out of integrity to who they are. Because if people are learning people and especially if they’re mission-driven people, and they’re working with that particular person or that particular beneficiary, whoever. They might look at the strategic plan that was created, and if it’s not inside of a learning situation or a learning organization, they’re gonna feel a tension within themselves. Because they’re learning from the people that your organization is serving. But if this plan is so chiseled in stone that it will never be moved, it creates, actually, a tension inside of the organization itself, where maybe we’re not even living in integrity to what we’re doing, which is to create impact in the people that we’re serving.

Sarah: Yeah, a hundred percent. I love that.

So, Tucker this all sounds great, but what are the conditions within side organizations that foster learning? It’s kind of easy to talk about, but I think quite hard to do. So what do leaders need to do as they think about, “Okay, this sounds great.”

What do they need to do inside of their organization to start making it happen?

Tucker: Well, I think for the environment and the practices, well actually, you know what, let me start this place. I think it does start with who you are as a leader inside of your organization. And I think that one of the best things, a CEO, or an ED, or VP, or anybody who’s helping guide a group or a team, one of the best things that you can do is to show people you changing your mind.

Show people you learning and being explicit about it. Right? “I thought this way before. You all brought this data to me, or I got this data and now I think this way.” Right? I think stuff like that really helps facilitate that it’s okay to shift. It’s okay to pivot. It’s okay to take new learning, because we’re always getting new information.

It’s okay to do that. And you doing that in an explicit way, is one of the most important things that you can do. In fact, we coach our CEOs through a strategic planning process as we go through it – usually we’ll coach them ahead of time, but usually about halfway through, there’s always some learning that they’re going to have that is shifting their thinking.

And so we actually coach them on, “Let’s make that blatant and explicit and tell your team that at the next workshop.” Because that’s one of the most important things that you can do as a leader, is to be learners yourself. Is embody what it means to be a learner. And that there’s always more to figure out, and there’s always more to learn.

Sarah: I love that. And it’s so hard and so scary to do. You know, but I think getting support from folks to do it. And I know when you say data, you also mean, just people’s thoughts and opinions too, right? Like, people don’t have to come to you with an airtight case for you to change your mind. You should be able to, as a leader who’s a learner, you know, get a sense of where folks are at intuitively and be willing through conversation and connection to also shift approaches and opinions. Right? I think that’s what you were hitting too.

Tucker: Yeah. I also think it comes out in our language. Like we use different language inside of THRIVE. You know, one that I stole from Ben Greene over at Charity:Water, he’s their Chief Development Officer, and he had told me this, I think it was last year, and man did it stick so well.

He said one thing that they do inside of Charity:Water is they have a phrase which is “safe to try.” They even ask that question, “Is this safe to try?”

I remember him telling me about this with their cryptocurrency fundraising plan that they were putting together, their whole cryptocurrency like, totally new space. And so they put together, you know, some of the key components of that and asked themselves, “Is this safe to try?”

Y’all have used that, Sarah, I think about like, you’ve used that to me sometimes where I’m like – cause certainly I’ll revert into this perfectionistic side, like, “Is it right?” And then you’re like, “I don’t know, Tucker, is it safe to try?” And I’m like, “Oh, good one.”

Sarah: It’s a good one.

Tucker: It is a good one. It’s so valuable of a reflective question for people to their CEOs or EDS or even just to each other. So language like that that’s more, “Is this something that we can learn from, that we can try, that we can explore? That we can see what might…”

You know, inviting each other into that type of process. Another bit of language too, that we use a lot of, especially if we’re starting something new. But, also as we go along a journey of something that’s been building, is language like “piloting” or “would you like to test this with me?”

Like I remember we did a process, and we actually do this within our strategic planning process. We have an analogy called the skateboard analogy, which is if you want to build a big, beautiful car. You don’t build the chassis and the door and the wheels and all those pieces that nobody can really interact with until you actually put it all together as a big, beautiful car.

Instead build a minimum viable transportation vehicle first. AKA: build a skateboard. And then from there, let people try it. And then from there, “Yeah, it got me from point A to point B, but you know, my legs are a little tired and I kind of want to go a little further… Can we take off a few wheels and add some pedals and turn it into a bike?” Right?

Well, that type of process is actually inviting to people. Where it’s like, “Hey, what resonates with you and what doesn’t resonate with you?” Those are things of language like “piloting”, “what resonates and what doesn’t resonate”. We use a phrase inside of THRIVE IMPACT too called “pluses and deltas”.

So instead of “positives and negatives”, it’s more like “pluses” – like things that we’re proud about, things that we loved. And then “deltas” are things that we want to shift or change for next time.

Sarah: It’s an opportunity, right? Yeah.

Tucker: We got that, that was actually an innovation that came out of City Year, a great nonprofit. That one of our dear friends, Brendan who’s worked with us before brought into our culture and it was really helpful to think that way, right? Not “what was good and what sucked” or “what was positive and what was negative”. Is was actually what was, “What was positive and what do we want to shift for next time?” It immediately shifts it into a learning type of journey.

Sarah: Yeah. Well, and I think the other thing is it centers and focuses on appreciation. And you know, that’s one of the things we really hold dear here at THRIVE IMPACT and is a core part of the way we embody being a learning organization, which is to always lead with appreciation.

You know we talked about this a little bit last episode, but so many things in organizational life, be they data or, you know, strategic plans, or budgets – invite fear. They invite fear of failure, right? And so people are constantly asking themselves, “Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Can I really do this?”

And when we approach things with an air of appreciation, starting first with what we notice is going right, it opens the ability to have a conversation about the areas for change, I think in a different way.

Tucker: Mm mm. Yeah. What are the pieces of … what are the strengths that we want to build on? Yeah, we definitely talked on that a bunch around having a more strengths-based approach.

Because nobody likes to talk about where you suck. But, we do appreciate knowing what value we bring to a team and to an experience. And I think a few of the other things, you know, that we’ve already talked about in some of these episodes, but just to hit on ’em again, is the environment and the importance of psychological safety.

And, you know there was, as I’ve mentioned before, there was a study by Google that was called Project Aristotle that was studying quite a few different teams all across the world, on what were the primary factors involved in a high-performing team.

And the number one factor involved that was actually surprising to the research team, the number one factor involved was psychological safety. And you know, what we know, based on the neuroscience is that that was not a “strategic metric” or that was not a “strategic factor”. That was a “belonging factor”.

That wasn’t based on the skills that people had. That wasn’t based on the education or the talent. That wasn’t even based on the rhythm. That was based upon them feeling like they belonged. That they were able to share their voice, that they were able to take risks in meetings and not get slapped for it, and instead being able to learn from it.

So that piece of psychological safety is so important. In fact I’m reminded of a quote that comes from our dear late mentor, Dr. Danny Friedland who was the neuroscientist who wrote the book Leading Well From Within. And he used to tell me – and it still is for everyone ingrained in me around this – which is, “The primary purpose of every meeting is to move relationship forward.”

And if you all think about every single meeting, we’re all in a lot of meetings y’all right? The primary purpose of every meeting is to move relationship forward. If you move the task forward and you hurt relationship in the process, you have lost the meeting.

And it has been such a reframe for me of thinking about how are we, how am I, helping move relationships forward? I mean, I remember Sarah I’ve had times where I’ve accidentally or without me fully understanding, shut people down. Because I came in with answers, right? And I didn’t lead with appreciation.

And I remember Rob once came back to me and said – who’s on our team – he gave me feedback. He cared enough about me to give me feedback, which I really appreciated. And I realized that I did not create those conditions that moved the relationship forward with him. He felt shut down in the meeting. That was on me. And so I didn’t get defensive. I was like, “Rob, thank you so much for sharing that with me.”

And I actually, I think I have a little something inside of THRIVE, which sometimes we use, which is, “If I’m ever in that space as a CEO, will you please write the word CURIOUS in the chat for me?” Just to ping me out, because you know, we all have “unlearning” that we’re trying to do.

Speaking of a learning organization, sometimes that’s involving unlearning old ways. Right? So that was definitely one of the things that I was trying to process through of “How do I create those conditions?” and those little ways of saying to my team, “Hey, this matters to me. I’m not gonna get it right either. Will you help me?” And that really has helped internally, I think, as well.

Sarah: Well, I love that. I think what we’re hitting on here is there are kind of a few core conditions and then some tools and frames folks can use as they work on helping their organization become a learning organization.

And one of the foundational ones is psychological safety, and then there’s some language pieces folks can use. And then there’s some frameworks, like “pluses and deltas” and “skateboard” that that individuals can leverage as they start to practice this. And I think, you know, you’re going to have to practice becoming a learning CEO and a learning organization.

You’re going to learn about this and you’re gonna fail.

So, and that’s good, right? Because if you’re willing to take the risk of jumping in to be this type of leader, you know, it’s a huge risk to take. But, ultimately I think what we’ve seen and what we’ve talked about a little bit is that these practices and approaches are not just good for your team, but they’re good for your bottom line. Right?

They can strengthen and improve your profitability. They can increase your impact in the community. And importantly, and everybody’s talking about it right now, they can help support retention and increase recruitment. And we’ve seen firsthand with some of the organizations we worked with, right?

Tucker: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and so that’s why we put this in here as a part of this strategic planning process in this series we’ve been putting together because one of the things that we do through the journey of a strategic plan – we talked about this, I remember in the first episode we talked about strategic planning is such an incredible opportunity for you as an organization to make the pivots that you need. And not just strategically, actually even more importantly, the pivots you need culturally. And that’s why through the journey of a strategic planning process learning how to be a learning organization, putting in those reps there.

I love how you just said, you know, it’s a muscle that you’re building right? And you’re gonna fail at it. And that’s actually, frankly, the point! And it’s okay. And then just acknowledge it. Keep it light, right?

“Hey, I’m learning right now. Wow. I’m really learning how to do this. Because I’m unlearning old ways of behaving.” But it’s one of the things that we help teach literally through the process. And I remember, you know, the Independence Center really took, as an example. They took this process and they’re like, “Oh my gosh.” They actually did a whole shift in some of their work in terms of how they captured information from people, they co-created, you know, a certain I think we used this example in the co-creation episode, but they really took a lot of this and applied it. And it’s increased their culture in a very quick way.

Sarah: Yeah, one of the things that I have learned from you, Tucker, that I am totally already stealing is instead of saying, “I think…” or “My opinion is…”, is “What I’m curious about is…”

The start of that sentence is such a powerful way to share what you’re thinking about, but in a way that is not giving people the answers. So if anyone’s like, “What’s the first thing I can do here?” Leverage this thing that Tucker always does, which is “What I’m curious about is…”

It’s such a perfect learning organization phrase and learning leader phrase. Because it just invites a totally different type of conversation than, “Here’s what I’m thinking…” That’s the opposite of, “Here’s what I’m curious about…”

So for any leader out there listening, try that phrase, try it for two weeks and see what changes about your conversations and maybe about your relationships.

Tucker: Ooh, that’s good, Sarah. Nice little call to action there.

Sarah: Yeah. I love that phrase.

Tucker: Well, this is seriously one of the most important pieces of, you know, you can go through all the great strategic planning processes, but if you don’t create a direction and a muscle around learning, it’s what leads to what we’ve always talked about – The old cliche inside of nonprofits – the old “strategic plans sitting on the shelf gathering dust”, right?

And the reason why it’s a cliche is because it’s said and happens way too many times. And this is one of the most important pieces involved in the strategic planning process, is growing in your ability to be a learning organization, upgrading your culture as a part, the old Drucker quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And this particular piece is one of the key pieces around helping you not only build momentum through a strategic planning process, but actually really launch forward in the direction that you need to go and want to go, is by creating this muscle and building this muscle as a learning organization.

Well, this has been our 4-part series on strategic planning. I do think we have a bonus coming up, though. We’re going to be talking with some of the nonprofit leaders that we’ve done strategic planning processes with and hear, “What do they have to say about this journey?” It’s going to be a raw conversation, hopefully. That’s what we’re shooting for around, “How has this journey been? What does it mean to have data-driven alignment? What does it mean to grow in a learning organization? What does it mean to co-create? and What does it mean to leverage appreciative inquiry? And why is this so important?”

So you’ll be hearing directly from some of the EDS and the CEOs that we’ve been working with around some of this. So stay tuned to some bonus episodes on this series!

Other than that, thanks for tuning in to our podcast, THRIVERS: Nonprofit Leadership for the Next Normal, and we will see you next time, bye!

Sarah: Thanks y’all.