Build a Deliberately Developmental Organization Through Peer Learning Groups

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“The culture of most organizations is not designed for practice; it’s designed for performance. Everyone is trying to look good, display expertise, minimize and hide any mistakes or weaknesses, and demonstrate what they already know and can do well. In a culture of practice, in contrast, everyone is learning and growing.” Robert Kegan and Lisa Kaskow Lahey

Sink or Swim

Tamika was struggling. A new manager, she had been hired after one of her employees had filed and lost a grievance. This employee was acting out now and negatively affecting the morale and performance of the rest of Tamika’s team. Like many new managers, Tamika had been promoted from within the organization due to her technical expertise. No thought had been given or training offered to her in how to handle the interpersonal issues that came with supervision. Tamika felt all alone. She feared that admitting her inability to effectively handle the situation would indicate that she didn’t belong in her managerial job. So, she was very hesitant to ask the advice of human resources or of the more seasoned managers in the company.

The VUCA Workplace Challenge

There is a lot of conversation and conjecture these days regarding how organizations can survive and thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and constantly changing world environment. Becoming a learning organization, which provides the psychological safety for employees to innovate and make mistakes, seems to be a key recommendation. But what does that really mean for leaders and managers? It is one thing to tell employees it is all right to take risks and learn from their mistakes. It is another thing to provide the time, encouragement and support for employees to do this.

Focus on Performance is Not Enough

As Robert Kegan and Lisa Kaskow Lahey state in An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, employees need time to face their vulnerabilities, practice new skills, learn and grow more effective. Unfortunately, most organizations focus on performance and hitting the bottom line, which precludes taking time to learn and practice new skills or create new products or services which may or may not ultimately be effective.

There needs to be a commitment at the top, where leaders model taking the time to learn and innovate, and openly encourage and incentivize making mistakes and learning from them. An investment in becoming a deliberately developmental organization (DDO) helps everyone “overcome internal barriers and harness—rather than hide—their vulnerabilities to drive personal and organizational growth.”

Tamika’s organization had been focused on performance and meeting established metrics. But it was in the process of becoming a learning organization, where weakness was seen as a learning and growth opportunity. Experimenting with a new management development method, the company offered managers the opportunity to meet in small peer learning groups to share their concerns, work through issues and gain new insights.

All Hands on Deck

The idea is that  “All employees in a DDO [not just hand-selected ones] are expected to contribute to the shaping of the culture, to step forward at any time to improve how the organization does its work.”

For this to occur, managers can no longer be “implementers and enforcers of standard operating procedures.” Now they must be “shapers of the conditions and structures that will allow crew members on the front lines to continually participate in improving the way they work.”

Executives can no  longer merely be responsible for developing strategy and overseeing its execution by others. Now they’re “trustees for the principles that guide process design. They are coaches and mentors in the complex, ongoing process of organizational adaptation of which everyone in the DDO is a part.”

A Peer Learning Group as a Microcosm of DDO

Building a DDO does not happen overnight. It is a journey that takes time and can start small, such as with peer learning groups of managers and supervisors. The peer learning groups serve as a microcosm of a DDO. They begin the organization’s movement toward becoming a DDO with the peer learning groups as a scalable pilot program.

Small six-person peer learning groups offer a psychologically safe environment where managers and supervisors can share their vulnerability and expertise, and support each other as they learn new skills in a self-directed 90-minute session. They then practice their new skills and hone them through trial and error for a month. After that, they reconvene to reflect on their practice experience and plan how to use what they’ve learned going forward.

For the peer learning groups to function effectively, they have the same needs as a DDO: a commitment from the top to provide the necessary time and logistical support for the sessions; incentives to reinforce the practice and application of new skills; safety and encouragement to learn from mistakes; and integration with other performance development initiatives.

Peers Come to Rescue

As the group members discussed their challenges, Tamika discovered that she was not the only manager faced with a difficult employee and low team morale. Because they were admitting their vulnerability in a confidential session, trusting relationships began to develop, and they reinforced each other as they learned new techniques to handle their challenge. With this mutual social support, Tamika and the other managers were encouraged to test these new techniques over the course of a month. Their new learning was supported by weekly microlearning tips, a weekly check in with a peer partner, and journaling.

Through trial and error and repeated practice, Tamika built confidence in her skills. The difficult employee calmed down and become a productive member of her team. Respecting Tamika’s supervisory skills, team morale went up. When the peer learning group reconvened to discuss their practice experience, all of the managers were eager to share what they’d learned and how they would handle similar situations in the future. Tamika realized that admitting her vulnerability had given her the freedom to learn and grow without fear in the peer learning group.

Start Small, Grow Large

If managers and executives must change their roles and their focus, they will benefit from the support and model that peer learning groups can provide. In peer learning groups, they can build a culture of practice to lay the necessary groundwork for the organization to become a learning organization.

For more information about peer learning groups, please schedule a call with one of our training specialists at

Deborah Laurel, Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer

The Peer Learning Institute

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