I love the expressions ‘willingness to learn’ and ‘ability to learn’. But, they are not the same: I’ve come across some wonderful people who are very willing but who, in their present situations, are actually unable to learn.

I always wondered why they were unable, because as children we were always learning. Our parents allowed us to learn from our mistakes—to scrape our knees and eat strange things from the garden. But for some reason, adult society prevents us from learning and makes us fear failure.

As time goes on, with everything moving faster and faster, we put ourselves under more and more pressure; we simply have less time. We are falling further behind, unable to steer ourselves. We barely have time to breathe.


How do we catch our breath, how do we find that space to be able to think for ourselves again? When we do rediscover that space, our awareness of problems, waste, and tension increases. But that is not all. That space will also allow us to come up with creative, elegant solutions that we love.

Today, the technology sector is our standard bearer. Look no further than the iPhone and all the great-looking software that we have at our fingertips, whenever we want. Somehow, technology companies have managed to find that space and can create amazing products because of it.

It wasn’t long ago, however, that the technology sector was full of disasters! IT endeavours were over-budget, over-managed, poor quality projects that didn’t meet customers’ needs. But beginning in 2001, the way that the IT world approached work changed. Now we see customers delighted by empowered, autonomous teams made up of quick learners who are engaged in and have attained mastery of their work. What caused this change? The radical approach known as Agile software development.

A key part of Agile software development is that Agile teams are constantly working to learn in order to improve how they work. The teams conduct regular meetings, known as ‘retrospectives’, after each iteration (typically every two or three weeks), to reflect on how they work and to identify waste. Then, they take action. In other words, they make space to (a) recognise issues and (b) fix them. They have to have space for both. One without the other does not work.

All of this is known as the ‘Agile mindset’, which means these Agile teams are not just doing Agile, i.e. following the process, but they are actually being Agile. They are living the Agile principles!

So how can we reflect and learn from these Agile teams? How do we apply that Agile mindset to ourselves and the organisations we work for? So that we and the organisation learn faster and more effectively?

First we need to look at ourselves, and specifically at our brains. The brain is at its best in terms of problem awareness and creative solutioning when it is in daydream mode. We all know our greatest inspirational insights come when we are in the shower or walking the dog or cleaning the car. So the question is this: how can we create more of this space? To answer that question, we have to appreciate our brain.

What is filling your brain right now? Is a little voice in your head constantly reminding you of things you need to do? If so, this just increases the pressure you place on yourself, which takes away valuable space to think.

Therefore, we need to put everything in our heads that takes up thinking space into a list outside our heads. Every time something comes to mind, write it down. Do not try to remember it. You will not get a medal for remembering; you are not at school anymore.

Your brain is, however, the best problem solver known to man. Let’s use it for that specialised purpose—which, let’s face it, is far more rewarding than just trying to remember odds and ends.

Second, you need to get in shape. You need to calm that reminding voice in your head and become grateful for small things. Also, just like an Agile team does, you should get into the habit of reflecting daily on what you could have done better—it’s extraordinarily powerful. Just identifying one thing every day and improving or being aware of it means that you make 365 personal improvements per year! (366 in 2016!) And keeping up-to-date? How about reading 10 pages of a book each day? This results in 15-20 average length books each year. How many have you read this year?

And now the twist: If you do all of this before 7 AM, you will have the entire day without that voice in your head telling you that you need to exercise. This really is, as the late Stephen Covey would have said, ‘sharpening your saw’.

So two pieces of the puzzle are now in place. We have discovered how Agile teams improve, delighting their customers, and how and why individuals need to reclaim space within themselves. But what’s the final piece of the puzzle? The organisation we work for.

Most organisations are terrible places to be. Full of waste. For example, organisational silos may be efficient in and of themselves, but they make the whole system extremely ineffective. Yearly budgeting is the best way to maintain costs, let alone to keep managers busy for 6 months, recruitment plans fail to recruit the best people, expenses are gamed 10%, and sales commissions reduce sales by 20-30%. Worse, though, are all the great opportunities that are missed because of busyness and organisational rigidity.

But who has the space to resolve these issues and then have the space to do something about them? And to do it regularly and frequently? Clearly the responsibility lies with senior management. Yet they are already working 12 to 14-hour days. What space do they have?

Senior management needs to be made aware. That way, they will want to make the space to learn quickly and constantly. This will allow them to improve their organisation, the teams within, and ultimately themselves and their people, who will begin to satisfy their customers.

How can they start? It is a matter of thinking at a higher level and on a higher scale. If the individuals are taking time to reflect on a daily basis and teams are reflecting every two or three weeks, then maybe the solution at the organisational level should be monthly, or, at least at first, every three months.

Essentially, the organisation has to reflect every three months. This means continuous planning with neither recruitment planning nor yearly budgeting cycles. It also means organising people around the work rather than the work around the people.

In order to do this properly and effectively, the organisation must be willing to stop producing products and working on projects when they are no longer delivering value or are not aligned to the organisation’s strategies. Today, not many organisations are willing to stop projects, as stopping is viewed as failure.

To avoid the ‘failure’ label, it means that people ultimately need to have confidence in their workplace. This requires full transparency. Only when this happens can the organisation be Agile.

The first step is to start improving transparency. For example, start with expense claims that are personal and at the same time make project status reports available to all.

By taking stock every three months in a transparent environment, the organisation is able to reflect, refocus, and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. And three months is also a period of time in which to actually see some value being generated. Once the organisation is fully attuned to this rhythm and changing culture, then it can start to reflect more frequently, which accelerates the learning cycle further.

Who though, does the learning, the organisation, the team or the person? Clearly the people within. Are those people now not only willing to learn but also able to learn?

So we must give them the chance to learn once again, and that requires space.