Learning the organisation

One of the key ways to underwrite success is to get up to speed with your new organisation quickly and efficiently. Learning a new organisation might sound like an easy task from the outside, but there are many factors (size, sector, industry, age, orientation) that can make your new workplace very different. This means it’s not only ways and processes that you have to learn, but history, pace and culture too.

Despite managerial pressure to perform, this is not a process you can or should shortcut. When managers fail, it is often because they don’t take the time to learn enough about their new organisation, and instead allow themselves to be sucked into decision-making too early. Harvard professor, Michael Watkins calls this period of learning, adaptation and entrenchment is a ‘point of vulnerability’ for the new manager. The objective must be to minimise it, both by taking a structured approach and knowing when to step outside that approach.

Learning to learn

Whenever we need to size up a situation, or get the measure of something, our instinct is to use what we already know as a yardstick. Our experience eventually crystallises into theories of life; we create for ourselves strict points of view on how things are and how they should be. Then we apply these theories to new situations. We use them to judge our own actions and achievements and that of others, as well as organisational health and performance.

Using what we know already is a very efficient short cut to learning, and we use it so often and so successfully that we often forget we’re doing it, much as we don’t consciously think about breathing or driving. However, doing so necessarily involves making assumptions, which can rapidly lead us down wrong tracks, or into making inaccurate predictions about outcomes.

Suspending judgement

Jumping to the answer is a trap that smart people with lots of experience often fall into. One way to guard against this is to focus for a while on our theories of life and where they came from, and try to become more consciously aware of them. This is easier when we feel the urge to judge the way something is being done.

When you feel the urge to judge, draw back and watch for a while, asking questions to understand how this situation came to be, and why. Don’t immediately assume that what you are seeing does not make sense. Reflect on it. Take your time and let other pieces of the jigsaw become apparent.

By the same token, beware of situations and performance that do look right to you, and examine those closely, too. It could be that what you are seeing only looks efficient or effective because it is outside your previous experience or it could be something so familiar that you skim straight over it. For many of us, if we don’t want to see a problem, we simply don’t see a problem, but the problem may be there, nevertheless.

Suppressing ‘what you know’

Having a great deal of knowledge and experience in an area can lead us to feel justifiably defensive of that expertise. However, this reliance on ‘what I know’ can create blind spots and block learning, and occasionally cause embarrassment when ‘what we know’ is proved not to be so. Sometimes, simply being aware of this can cause us to keep our minds open. After all, on day one – and even on day 30 or day 60 – you don’t know what you don’t know.

If you have held a similar role before, you will have some an idea of what’s important, but in a new organisation you may find that responsibilities are grouped differently and managed in different ways.

Another trap of smart managers is substituting problem-solving for learning. If you are used to driving groups to problem-solve a situation, try applying similar techniques but making your objective to analyse a situation and test its strengths rather than to fix it. Use the opportunity to let those working with you tell you how they got to this point, and why, and what they think needs to be done next, if anything.

Developing new perspectives

Try re-framing what you are seeing. Try out different interpretations, or ask others for their interpretations. Stand in different shoes, and try to see things from all angles. This might be from the points of view of the different management disciplines. Another useful tool is to use the Six Thinking Hats of Edward de Bono.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind and revise your view of what you’re seeing. Think of your mind as you would your socks – better for a change now and again.

What you were really hired for

Something else to ponder is why you were hired. Yes, your experience was probably a large part of the hiring decision, but that doesn’t mean your new employer is asking you to replicate what you did in your last job, so that shouldn’t be the start point for a gap analysis when you are getting to know your new organisation.

The most valuable part of your experience is not what you previously delivered but how you decided what to deliver given all the variables in that situation. Anyone who has big achievements on their CV will be familiar with the discomfort inherent in the process of delivering. Doing something amazing means sitting in the ‘don’t know’ space a lot.

What an employer is looking for is someone who will know how to take their unique organisation and all its unique variables, and work out what the best deliverable for them will be. It is unlikely they were looking for someone who could simply bring with them a finished solution that was designed for someone else.