Eugene Eric Kim on Enhancing a Culture of Learning with Experimentation

Nov 02nd, 2016

At BC Healthy Communities we have been asking ourselves how we can enhance our culture of learning so we are continuously learning and improving our work to have the greatest impact.

We recently had the chance to talk to Eugene Eric Kim about what he’s learned in his work supporting organizations become more comfortable with experimentation and learning.

Kim has had a fascinating career path, focusing his work on how to build capacity for better collaboration within the social change movement. You can learn more about Kim and his work on his website, Faster Than 20.

Here is an excerpt of our conversation.

BC Healthy Communities: What kind of a mindset is required to support learning and experimentation? 

Eugene Eric Kim: I think the big thing you need to have is a mindset that learning means making mistakes and that mistakes are not a failure signal, but they are a success signal.

I think you hear the idea that we need to get more comfortable with failure a lot in the social sector, but even framing it in that way reflects an old mindset. I think the actual mindset is that we need to get more comfortable with learning. Learning means diving in and being open to things you didn’t know before and diving into uncertainty. 

"You want to make as many mistakes as possible. You just want to do them quickly and cheaply."

It’s hard to know what failure is because you don’t even know what success is. That’s a part of what the exploration is about. I think that’s a huge part of that mindset shift which is around mistakes you want to make as many mistakes as possible. You just want to do them quickly and cheaply. As opposed to thinking that mistakes are a sign of failure, the willingness and joy of diving into uncertainty is important.

BCHC: What are some ways to create the conditions for a learning culture?

EEK: There are a lot of ways to support a learning mindset. First, it’s hard to get into that mindset unless you have a feeling of agency and abundance. Under pressure if I feel like my job is at risk if I don’t succeed, or if I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders as I’m working then it’s going to be hard to feel like I’m able to try stuff and see what happens.

"Getting to that state of agency is important."

Getting to that state of agency is important. There are a lot of structural things you can do to support learning, but one of the best ways in terms of a cultural intervention is modeling.

The easiest way to start adopting a different culture is to actually experience that different culture somewhere else. This can look like bringing someone into the team that has that kind of mindset and is really good at modeling it, or building up your process so other people can participate outside of your organization or group.

In terms of getting to a state of agency, I think reminding people of where they’ve been powerful and playful in the past is really helpful. I also think it’s important to reward people for making mistakes.

In the process that we’re leading with Social Transformation Project right now, I’m docking them points every time they come up with an experiment where they are 90% sure that it’s going to work, because they are just playing it safe. The whole thing about this is that playing it safe is fine and good if you’re just moving and making changes that are for the better, but at some point you’re going to reach a limit to what you can achieve by working this way. That’s when the mindset becomes a constraint. I want people to get into the habit of practicing what it feels like to take risks and being uncomfortable.

I can give you a quick personal example. I have recently taken up photography as a hobby. It’s not for any work related reasons - I love photography and I wanted to have a bit more of a creative outlet. One of the things you find when you are a beginner at anything – at any kind of craft, is that you just have to do it a lot and a lot of your results early on are kind of crappy. Experiencing that in something that is completely new for me was a good reminder because in my work, a lot of what I’m doing is stuff that I’m already good at. Trying something that gets me into a state of discomfort helps me to break out of that mindset.

"I'm docking them points every time they come up with an experiment that they are 90% sure that it is going to work...I want people to get into the habit of practicing what it feels like to take risks."

I think that it’s important to have reminders of what it means to be learning something hard and diving into the unknown, and reminding ourselves of what that experience is like when it’s joyful versus learning something where we are just feeling pressure all the time. This is the extent to which you create a safe learning environment. I think that’s just really really hard and not the status quo. 

BCHC: What’s the role in leadership in cultivating a learning culture?

EEK: Formal leadership is pretty important especially when you are talking about organization-wide changes. 

It’s possible to create a culture in a small group environment, within a larger organization or institution. You see this all the time when you see people create pockets of really experimental environments like innovation labs or skunkworks that have completely different leadership internally. Groups are generally successful at this but at some point you get encompassed by the bigger machine.

If you really want this to be an organizational mandate then it’s really critical for the formal leadership to be on board. What’s interesting about that is that goes back to the mindset. Often times people in formal leadership are, or perceive of themselves of being, at the biggest risk. They are the most vulnerable and it could be the most challenging for them to do this sort of work. I think it’s really important to build in leadership support, such as coaching.

"I think the other big thing about how you create an environment where learning can really thrive, is by creating space for being thoughtful and for reflecting."

I think the other big thing about how you create an environment where learning can really thrive, is by creating space for being thoughtful and for reflecting. So far what we mean by experiments is we’ll just try whatever and we’ll see what happens – which is fine – there is a lot of good stuff that comes out of that sort of mentality, but the challenge is when you are a group of people because then power starts coming in to play. 

If you don’t actually take the time to be thoughtful about what it is you think you’re testing and if you don’t take the time to be thoughtful about what it is that you’re learning and if you don’t do that collectively then too often what happens is that the people in power are the ones that end up making decisions. And they are not necessarily making decisions that are based on data or a lot of thinking – often times decisions are made based on habit, emotion, and things you don’t necessarily want to be making decisions about.

Experimentation requires a willingness to slow down. And I think that is the hardest thing for any group to do – especially if you don’t already have the in your culture. So, that often that starts with leadership and modelling.

"Experimentation requires a willingness to slow down. And I think that is the hardest thing for any group to do."

For example, if you are talking about it, but you are not modeling it, you’re not going to create an environment where people can slow down. Similarly, structurally you have to be real about it. You can’t just say we have to take time to reflect, and then not actually create structural time for people to reflect.

BCHC: What are some surprises that groups have encountered when playing with experimentation?

EEK: When we were working with Social Transformation Project on building capacity for experimentation, our primary goal was not to help them internally as an organization. Our primary goal was to give them an experience of what a structured experimental process might look like because they were trying to support a structured learning experience with their network. If they were going to do it with their network they needed to have an experience of it themselves.

Even though it wasn’t our primary goal, we ended up helping them break out of silos and become a lot more efficient, because the process of using the experimentation structures really helped them to connect with each other.

One of the things I learned in a previous role where we were really explicitly trying to model the principals we were trying to support other organizations in doing, is how difficult it can be. Modelling was always an element of our work – at least I’ve paid lip service to it, but in my previous consultancy it was a high priority for us. It was incredibly humbling on the one hand, because again you see how hard it is. If you can’t do it… or if you’re not doing it well then maybe you need to reset your expectations of other people. That is an important kind of value to have. 

BCHC: What led you to do this kind of work?

EEK: I grew up wanting to be a scientist. I later realized that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I came to Silicon Valley where the tech industry is completely immersed in a culture of diving in and experimenting. This all gave me the cultural frame to begin with. When I realized later that I still wanted to be entrepreneurial, but I wanted to do it for the sake of humanity, I started working with more social groups.

I have a lot of personal and professional experiences of bridging different cultures, so that was naturally something that I like to do and that was interesting to me. I’ve also been influenced by certain frameworks such as Lean Startup.

Check out this webinar on Learning and Experimentation that Faster Than 20 held with staff from Social Transformation Project.

 

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