Words Matter: Creating a Learning Culture

agile leadership collaboration

By Ryan Fullmer

October 4, 2022

💬  “My hypothesis is that we haven’t made the strategic goals clear enough for the teams to be aligned”

💬  “Interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way. My hypothesis is the teams have too many things in progress and they are losing sight of what’s most important”.

I observed conversations like that occurring between members of a senior leadership team. They were in a planning workshop to help their teams align and make more progress on the strategic outcomes.

Being Agile Requires a Learning Culture

The conversations amongst the leaders were open and curious. There was passionate debate without drama. No yelling, no blaming, and no personal attacks. These types of conversations are the hallmarks of a culture that supports being agile.

Being agile calls on teams at all levels to self-organize, swarm around the work, and leverage everyone's perspectives, talents and ideas. This requires collaboration, supported by an environment of trust and psychological safety.

Too often, the underlying culture is not one of curiosity, openness and passionate debate. The culture values being right. Individuals advocate for their position and see the situation as a win or lose scenario. Mistakes and failures spark fault-finding and blame.

Change The Language - Shift the Culture

The leaders in that workshop made a conscious and intentional change in behavior to shift to a learning mindset. They were using a change in language to support that shift. They used the words “my hypothesis is” when sharing their ideas and solutions.

Through their language, the leadership team was modeling a new way to discuss ideas and solutions. This change in language was sending the message that :

  • An idea is a hypothesis and it is not necessarily right
  • We are open to different perspectives and ideas
  • We are open to trying things out
  • Succeed or fail, it’s what we learn together that is important

At the end of this workshop, the group identified a change experiment. The facilitator led a fist-to-five vote on the experiment. There were lots of 4s and 5s (liked or loved it), several 3s (good with it) and one leader that had a 1 (could not support it). This was in a group of 30+ leaders from various departments and levels of the organization.

The group turned their attention to the leader that had the 1. They listened to his concerns and discussed potential adjustments. They were able to make an adjustment that got everyone’s buy-in to proceed.

I found that moment to be particularly powerful. It stood out to me that the leader trusted that it was safe to speak up, even though he was feeling differently than everyone else. It was energizing to see the group listen openly to his concern and make an adjustment.

Make Your Own Shift

Here are two ways you can change your language to make it safe to contribute and try things out:

  • Talk about ideas and solutions as hypotheses and experiments.
  • When sharing your opinion, perspective or observation, start with the words “I have the thought that…” or “My story about this is…”

Changing your language in this way invites dialogue and makes it safe for others to share their ideas and perspectives.

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