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How to become a learning organization

 

DonorsChoose.org is ranked year after year as one of the most innovative organizations in the world. We think their insatiable curiosity and willingness to learn is a tremendous contributing factor. The best companies are learning constantly in an effort to push their creative capabilities and grow. We had the privilege to partner with DonorsChoose.org to help them in their efforts to stay inspired. Last December we took their partnerships and business development team on an inspiration field trip, visiting The Union Square Hospitality Group and TED.

How can a non-profit learn from a restaurant group and a global learning platform? The process and the tools we used are outlined below…

Step One: Visualize the challenge

When gathering inspiration it’s hard to know exactly where or how interesting nuggets of information might be applied back to your organization or role.  Instead of beginning with a single written challenge or research brief, have your team (or just you) visualize the challenge and all the areas where new inspiration can help.  Thinking visually allows us to look at many  areas of the problem at once and helps your team align on what your most essential challenge is.

Sketching for 5 minutes and then sharing your work and looking for overlaps and key points for 5 minutes for each sketch can really help your team get clear on where you should focus your efforts. (And your sketches don’t have to be pretty to be useful!)

Step Two: Go Outside your walls

Once you’re more clear on what areas of your business could use an infusion of new thinking, where the open questions are, go wide in assessing industries, organizations or consumer groups where some great ideas might come from.  A world-class restaurant group was not the most obvious choice for a not-for-profit supporting public school teachers. Union Square Hospitality values service and relationships like few other companies. When you look past the exterior, Donors Choose.org found a wealth of inspiration from Union Square’s guiding principles.

Choosing where to go and how much time and money to budget shouldn’t be a huge barrier. Our low barrier research method sheet helped us focus our efforts in the most time effective ways.

Download the Low Barrier Method Sheet

When you send a group of people into the world, it’s essential to have their eyes trained in similar ways.

The A-E-I-O-U observation framework can help a team share an observation language, which can help them share observations when they debrief. (Note – we didn’t invent the framework…we just love it!)

Download the Observation Template

Step Three: A Willingness to Build

Once you’ve gone out into the world, had compelling conversations and learned from new perspectives, now what?  As a team you want to debrief what was heard (We promise everyone heard something slightly different), organize your insights and questions, and think about where these  insights can apply to your initial challenge sketch.

What can you prototype? How can you put these ideas into action? As members of your  team are proposing how to connect certain ideas back to your business look to build on concepts with additions or tweaks. Say “Yes, And” (the first rule of improvisation!)…  Allow your team to be generative first, then organize and prioritize options. This generative process will allow for the development of concepts that no single individual owns, but are based on the needs and ideas of the entire group.

Being a Learning organization doesn’t mean having  a big budget or a huge amount of  time.  Like DonorsChoose.org the most innovative companies are continually out in the world (to steal a phrase from Danny Meyer) “collecting and connecting dots”.  I hope this simple flow can give your team the inspiration to get out there and gather some new perspectives.  And if you’d like some help getting started, we’re happy to help.

If working *inside* is more your speed: Download our Workshop Offerings

One Comment

  • Jim on Apr 02, 2014 Reply

    This is so damn cool. Thanks for sharing this!

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