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A Fresh Take on The Learning Process: The Adaptive Loop

George Brooks
July 1, 2020

Building a product or an organization requires a relentless desire to learn. This is one of our digital product agency’s superpowers. At Crema, we’ve learned industries, niches, and product concepts more rapidly than our clients thought possible. We aren’t experts in everything, but we are experts in learning.


The drive to learn was essential to our survival early on. In the early days of Crema, new prospects were thankful that we were able to grasp their unique situation quickly. This won us more contracts and helped us retain more clients because we were able to learn faster than our competitors.

This is why one of our five core values today is Constant Improvement. It’s assumed that if you work at Crema, you’ll always be learning, growing, and stretching yourself to greater heights. As humans, we learn and adapt to new situations naturally, but the aforementioned kind of rapid growth takes a much more intentional approach.


We’ve approached work with a posture of tenacity to learn new ways of working, new business models, various languages, design tools, product management methodologies, and more. We’ve learned the ins and outs of one business and applied those learnings to other verticals. This ability to learn quickly and adjust has been the primary driver to our success as a digital product agency.


As Dan (Co-Founder & COO) and I have looked back over the last 10 years, we’ve worked to define what it takes to craft a team of individuals that are truly passionate about learning. What we’ve found is that you must work to make it a habit. It requires a continuous “loop” of attention, testing, and reflection.  



Various models for learning

To start, I’d like to unpack a few models we’ve borrowed from to create our own learning loop. Hopefully, you can steal and implement a few of these ideas to help your own teams become pros at learning constantly and intentionally.


Learning faster requires the ability to listen, observe, demonstrate, and confirm in rapid iterations. Many frameworks have been created to explain this way of thinking or this method of validating. Each of these models and frameworks were first observed in real-world environments before they became the systems we know today.


Lean

With his book, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries popularized the “Build, Measure, Learn” concept. I have to give him and Steve Blank (his mentor) props because the 3-pillar flywheel is crazy simple to remember. The Lean Startup has been the inspiration for an entire generation of new startup organizations and enterprise innovation teams. The focus shifts away from the output of work and points towards learning and validation. Pulling from both lean manufacturing and agile development, the goal is to build learning into each short cycle of work.


Single Loop and Double Loop

The Single Loop and Double Loop theories have been used in scientific research, education, and business for a long time. These ideas are interesting because they allow a person, team, or organization to adapt their goals as they learn. Based on principles from The Behavioral Theory of The Firm, this thinking was initially radical for organizations. It began to shape how creativity and innovation are fostered by learning and adapting as you progress – rather than long, upfront planning and unwavering execution of that plan.


Design Thinking Loop

IBM’s Design Thinking has shaped much of how the software world approaches and iterates on process. Their Design Thinking Loop is a figure 8 (or infinite loop) of “Observing, Reflecting, and Making.” I absolutely love how they’ve described their thinking here:

“If research is the discipline of understanding the world, design is the discipline of shaping it. While research asks “what is?” design asks “what should be?


Our own iteration of the loop

We’ve been heavily influenced by many of the above models and have taken our experiences, experiments, and learning to shape our own. This loop is similar in many ways, but strategically fills in some gaps we discovered while applying the methodologies above.


The Crema Adaptive Loop is made of the following 4 core stages:

  1. Collect
  2. Decide
  3. Experiment
  4. Share


We’ve depicted this process in the image above. In the next few sections I’ll dive into these stages in more detail.



Collect


If you’re like me, you may be trying to pay attention to a lot of things at once. This is really difficult! It’s why we suggest you find a place to collect your ideas, problems, inspiration, etc. Think of Collecting like taking inventory of what you’re paying attention to.


I used to spend hours downloading new apps in the app store. I would sign up for almost every SaaS tool that hit the market and would study every new, award-winning digital experience. Along the way, I collected design and UX inspiration, taking screenshots of every interaction. I used different online tools to collect this information, such as Dropbox, Evernote, and Pinterest. It really doesn’t matter where you keep your collection, as long as you make it a discipline to capture it in a place you can reference in the future.


We may think that we do a good job of collecting, organizing, and storing information in our brains, but we just don’t! The rate at which our brains attempt to take in and organize observations in a meaningful way is astronomical. And that’s not only true for a UX designer. This is key for developers, managers, sales reps, marketing professionals, and C-suite leadership. For some, collecting is about taking really good notes in a notebook. For others, it might look like a robust list in Evernote or Asana, or possibly something more visual like Miro.


What you’ll find is that as you decide to collect your ideas, you will be both inspired by your collections and motivated to take action. Todd M Thrash and Andrew J Elliot explored the core characteristic, component processes, and functions of inspiration. Their research found there are differences between the activity of seeing something that inspires us versus the action of being inspired to do something. We believe that paying attention and collecting is about addressing both of these parts of inspirations.


If we are to become individuals or teams that are creating, improving, and adapting to a changing world, we must collect these inspirations to help us build mental models of what’s possible.



Decide


Making a decision is usually the most challenging part of an endeavor. The task is made even more difficult as the number of people involved increases. There have been countless articles, books, and white papers written on decision-making that you can reference elsewhere, but there are a few key factors that play into our learning loop that I’ll cover here.


Make decisions faster

In my experience, more projects, initiatives, and goals have been held up by a lack of a decisiveness than about any other factor. And there are countless decisions to make in any effort worth doing.


To get past this roadblock, you must take action and do something - anything! The decision to not make a decision is a decision. It’s an acknowledgment that nothing will get done and people will needlessly be waiting.


Next are all the micro decisions that feed into the big thing we’re doing. For example, I decided to write this blog post. I made a decision. But along the way, I’ve had to make a hundred decisions about what to put in and leave out. What to reference and what to come up with on my own. What’s important is that I’m moving forward. You can always iterate on where you landed later on.


Speed is a crucial mindset because it forces us to reframe the decisions we are making. If every decision we make is a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), our ability to carry out decisions will be impossible. By speeding up the decision-making process and learning to move ideas forward into the experimentation phase, we’re forced to reframe our decisions to be smaller, more manageable efforts.


Empower others to make decisions

For most teams, decisions are the ultimate bottleneck. I hate bottlenecks. It’s a waste of precious time! This is one of the main reasons why I think that a micromanagement mindset from a controlling leader is the fastest way to destroy any culture, team, organization, or great idea. I’ll write more on that later for sure!


When I, as a leader, feel that every decision must be put in front of me with the right amount of supportive data and the correct prioritization methods employed, what I get is a never-ending stack of decisions that I don’t have the time or mental ability to make. Spread the decision-making power to multiple areas of influence. This doesn’t mean that decisions are made in silos, but in balance with a posture of transparency and open communication.


With a clear understanding of the vision, direction, constraints, and guidelines of the effort, a decision can be made by the lowest level employee all the way up to the C-suite. If decisions are smaller and more iterative, then the risk that any one decision will crumble an initiative is drastically reduced.


Make your decision with empathy and diversity

Almost as bad as a bottleneck is a silo. A siloed team member or team can lead to poor decision-making. If our goal is to make decisions faster, that means that we must be more informed. This is one reason that Crema champions the idea of cross-discipline teams. Call them pods, squads, product teams - whatever. They are intentionally NOT a division of skill type, but instead are teams grouped into momentum-making collaborative power.


When you have diverse views at a table, it allows you to check that any decision made will not harm the team, the vision, or the organization. The London-based agency Clearleft wrote a brilliant piece about consent over consensus. The basic idea is that when you’ve empowered the team to make decisions faster, anyone on the team can suggest how to move forward. This usually takes place after the cross-disciplinary team has heard each unique perspective.


Rather than spending hours of time over days or even weeks, give yourself the constraint to make a decision during one specific meeting. If there is true empathy, trust, and respect for your peers on the team, then you can have an honest and candid conversation around the decision.


Once a decision has been suggested, move forward unless someone on the team can make a clear case for how the decision may actually harm the goal, team, or organization. The word harm is important. Don’t let a difference of preference halt progress. Instead, let the decision play out and learn from the results.


Practice making decisions

Finally, making decisions is a muscle that takes conditioning. The greatest leaders have exercised this muscle over and over to the point where making a decision no longer requires that pain it might take another person early on in their career. The more you get comfortable with making decisions, the less anxious you might feel worrying that the decision is or is not the right one.


Not every decision will end in success. This is true for everyone from front line sales to the C-suite. But remember that progress and learning are the key results. If your decision ends in failure, then learn and iterate. As you learn and collect additional data, inspiration, and experience, your next decisions will be even more informed, and you’ll have strengthened your decision making muscle to do it again.  


Experiment


This experiment step is similar to “Build” in the Lean Startup method. Although, what we found is that when you only refer to build, it's implied that a lot of effort is required to learn. Even though the Lean Startup method qualifies the build stage with the idea of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), the industry understanding of what an MVP actually is or should be is all over the place. Instead, we like the language of experimentation.


An experiment suggests, even by definition, that there is something to learn. An experiment assumes a clear understanding of our hypothesis and assumptions. It suggests that the work may be smaller and testable, and it insinuates that the process will be refined over time. An experiment is the perfect time to take the decision that you've made (influenced by the inspiration and/or data you’ve collected) and take action to find a result that will help inform your next step forward.


For example, one experiment may be a survey. We had noticed that many teams seem to lament that they are not moving their ideas forward as fast as they would like. They struggle to prioritize and decide what ought to be done next.


We had seen a handful of teams share this information as we worked with them, but we wanted to run an experiment that confirmed that other teams across additional industries and organizational sizes also struggle with this, so we shipped a survey out to a handful of other companies, peers, etc. asking them what challenges they faced. This small experiment is a great way to learn and iterate toward a better, more valuable product or service.


When experimenting, make sure the team understands that it is an experimental or exploratory phase of a project. You may have been exploring with experimentation and finally your current solution is performing its given purpose, allowing you to move on to the next set of goals and experiments.


Clearly state with your team that your intention is to explore and test your hypothesis: “I believe that by creating a YouTube Channel for our product, we will gain trust with our potential customers before they choose to buy our product or service.”


Ok, it's an experiment. We may find that starting a YouTube channel results in no qualification with our customers, and we need to pivot or persevere. But right now, we are learning and exploring. A good portion of all valuable work is exploratory. Yes, at a certain point there are stages of maintenance and sustainability, but we would suggest that at this plateau of sustainability, you attempt to push the boundaries and experiment with ways to improve your solution and your support.


(Hint - This is the secret to innovation!)


Experiment toward your goal

We are not suggesting that you don’t set short- or long-term goals. However, within the structure of that goal, experiments are a great way to learn as you make progress. This requires the leaders and teams within your organization to adopt a specific posture. If the result is to achieve a long-term outcome, then we must continue to test the best possible ways to achieve that outcome over time. Our assumption up front may be the right direction, but the final solution might look radically different as you test and learn.


As you work through small slices of the goal, it will be good to reframe your work as an experiment. Make assumptions about the results that you hope to achieve from the next phase of work or the next sprint of time. Then report back the results of the experiment. Ask yourself and the team: “How do these results move us closer or further away from our goal?”


Every experiment results in value

Not every decision will be a success. This is okay! We assume that we should only experiment on ideas that we know will end successfully with happy clients. The reality is that this does not actually teach us as much as a failed experiment and an ensuing retrospective to ask why it failed.


This is one reason why A/B testing is so powerful. By setting out with two hypotheses or using an existing baseline and testing against it, we can measure multiple experiments at the same time. One may perform better than the other. Or maybe both perform well and force us to rethink our assumption. If both fail, we need to rethink the direction altogether.


Feed your inner curiosity, connect to the inspiration you’ve collected, and start experimenting with the ultimate goal of learning.



Share


The final stage of the loop can be where some of the most powerful learning takes place. So many loops stop at the experiment and then tell you to iterate. It's a loop – iteration is assumed. How do we round out our loop?


We look back and share what we’ve learned. Remember that any result from an experiment is valuable. If the experiment did not hit the intended outcome, we learn. If the experiment exceeded our expectations, we learn. The point is that we continue to learn. But often, we skip this step of stopping to pay attention to how the experiment went. We instead keep moving forward with our task list and meetings.


After you finish your experiment, sprint, or phase of work, we suggest that you do a retrospective.


Retrospectives

We believe that the retrospective is one of the most powerful tools in the learning organizational toolkit. The retrospective is an intentional, safe, and collaborative time to look back and discuss how the most recent activity went. In this regroup, everyone should be open and candid. It’s an opportunity to celebrate, correct, learn and grow. While a retrospective is primarily about how the work went and less about what actually happened, it is a great mental framing to give yourself a time to stop and ask how the experiment went.


Sometimes, the experiment will need time to run or play out, but set a date to collect your findings and share. When you share, explain what was assumed would happen, what you did to test this assumption, and the results of that test.


I’ll be honest: this step can be really hard. It often feels like it's wasted time not “doing work” and sometimes requires that you admit to a decision’s success or failure. Either way, the act of sharing forces you (yet again) to tune your mind to pay attention.


You've now reached the beginning of the loop once more. From here, repeat the steps of paying attention, collecting your findings, etc. and move forward in your continuous learning.



Building a habit of learning

As I’ve detailed already, there are many models for learning. And one thing is true for all of them: it takes practice! Around the office we often use the analogy of exercising to describe what it takes to get better at the work we do. In the same way, it takes intentional training to build the “muscles” of learning.


Without this training, less productive habits slip in and take control. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that a habit loop involves a “Cue, Routine, and Reward.” In order to build a new habit into your life, it requires replacing an existing habit and training your mind to take advantage of the different activity. This means retraining yourself to look for new cues, build new routines, and then reward yourself for learning.  


If you’re planning to move yourself or your team into this full-on learning mindset, it will take an extreme focus on building a set of disciplined habits that reshape how you look at every aspect of your day, your team, your project, or your goals.  


Why a loop?

A loop suggests that there are many unknowns to any problem, opportunity, or challenge. It suggests that we do not have complete knowledge and must continually seek to validate our assumption and refine our solutions.


But what’s wrong with a line or a wave rather than a loop? A line or a wave does give us a sense of progress. It paints a picture of movement and success – even if the movement is in the totally wrong direction. Most of the time, we are ultimately moving in a line or wave, rarely taking the time or patience needed to allow the loop to fully complete. A loop assumes that there is actually time given to learn. The results of the previous steps inform a movement back into the loop.


This takes an incredible amount of discipline. It is much easier to move on and ignore the learning/application steps, bulldozing an initiative forward. In order to compensate for the lack of true learning, we replace it with arrogance. Rather than seeking a feedback loop to learn through experience, we shelter in silos and create bottlenecks of decision-making. This ignores the value of perspectives, experience, and information.



As you shift to a learning loop, bring your entire team into the process. This includes your leaders, your peers, other teams in your company, and your customers. Let them know that you are exploring and learning. Help them to understand the cost savings in refining your work as you learn rather than over-investing, taking a long time to progress, and starting over.


Encourage each other to pay attention. Call out when something is or may be a distraction. Celebrate learning. Incentivize it. This focus on constant improvement will lead you to better, more valuable results. It will also lead to employees and teams that are fed by their continuous growth together.  


In my next post, I’ll share a few pillars to focus on as you think about how to optimize your approach to the learning loop. It requires a strong focus on our feelings/mindsets, disciplines and habits, and the structures and constraints that give us direction. Until then, check out our podcast, Option Five, to hear more about our approach to learning and adapting.

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