It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know

In this TED Talk, Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School talks about “How to turn a group of strangers into a team.” Although long-standing teams are able to perform, our workplaces today require ad-hoc collaboration between diverse groups. The question is: What kind of leadership, and what kind of structure, contributes to working together on the problem?

For those of you unfamiliar with her work, I’ll add that I have found anything that she writes or speaks about is worth reading or listening to.

The key message starts around the 10:00 minute point:

“When teaming works, you can be sure that leaders, leaders at all levels, have been crystal clear that they don’t have the answers. Let’s call this ‘situational humility.’ It’s appropriate humility. We don’t know how to do it.”


“It’s hard to offer up an idea that might be a stupid idea if you don’t know people very well. You need psychological safety to do that. They overcame what I like to call this basic human challenge: it’s hard to learn if you already know. And unfortunately, we’re hardwired to think we know. And so we’ve got to remind ourselves – and we can do it – to be curious; to be curious about what others bring.”

Here is the entire TED talk. If the embed isn’t working for you, this is the direct link: How to turn a group of strangers into a team.




Which brings me to the quote I pulled for the title of this post: It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know. As Amy Edmondson points out, “we’re hard wired to think we know.”

To counteract this we need to construct different artifacts that focus our attention on our shared understanding vs. trying to advocate a particular position.

Creating The Structures of Teamwork

As obvious as this is when we say it, if we want to create a culture or social structure of teamwork this must be done deliberately. This is especially important in environments where ad-hoc groups must collaborate very quickly. So… what works? I don’t know. But we do have the tools to figure it out.

Structure to Focus on The Problem

When two people are talking about a problem while looking at each other, they tend to equate “the problem” with “the other person.” Rather than trying to reach a shared, common understanding, the tendency is to try to convince the other person to adopt their point of view.

But if we introduce some kind of artifact – an A3, a Learner’s Storyboard, a shared keyboard and monitor – that physically turns people to look at the problem rather than at each other, the dialog changes.

Collaboration at a shared keyboard and monitor

Collaboration at a learner storyboard.

“What we’ve got here is a reason to communicate.”

Think about the key difference between people looking together at the information versus someone at the front of the room, facing everyone else. The tone shifts from “tell me” to “work with me.”

Think of the key difference in a meeting between everyone sitting at the table talking about the problem vs. what happens if someone stands up and starts to draw it out on a whiteboard.

What companies like Menlo Innovations, Kaas Tailored, Toyota, and others do is construct physical artifacts to focus people’s attention away from the person and toward the information. The information becomes neutral, vs. being attached to someone. If something isn’t working, we can work together to fix the issue vs. fix blame.

The “Lean Tools”

Let’s take something as simple as standard work. What is it for?

One interpretation could be that I watch you perform the work, and if you violate the procedure, you fail the audit for not following the standard.

But the other interpretation is that we have a neutral point of comparison for how we think the work should proceed if it is problem-free. Seeing, or detecting any difference reveals a problem of some kind. We are invited by this information to look at the problem and seek to gain more understanding.

Of course, just sending an invitation doesn’t mean people come to the party. Shaping that conversation in constructive directions is what leadership is about.

And, as always, I write these posts mostly to clarify my own thinking by trying to explain it to someone else (you). I’d love to know what you think, so post comments!



3 Replies to “It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know”

  1. This is timely for me. I’m in a new job leading a new team. The team has a bi-weekly review meeting that is meant to be something of a retrospective. From what I’ve observed there is reflection but without emphasis on improvement. Your writing leads me to think I can help the team by introducing something(s) that put a focus on desired state or outcomes so we have something more tangible to compare to and then ask what we might do differently to move toward that.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Mark. Leadership is hard if you have to act on your belief that you already know and should tell people what to do. So much less stressful to respect people and give them a safe place to work together toward new answers and new ways to think about problems. Also makes me think about those kids in Thailand, and the team of people working to get them back to the surface.

    One of my favourite questions to ask people to understand their work culture is, “Tell me about the last time you had a really good day at work.” The most common answers are stories about someone unexpectedly thanking or acknowledging them and their work, or about a time when they were completely surprised by the way a situation they thought they knew all about turned into a moment of discovery, new knowledge or making an improvement. I love these ones. You don’t just need an open mind, you need open eyes and ears (and heart), too.

  3. My humble opinion is that Teaming is complex process unless a shared urgence feeling or common big objective.

    What I’ve observed is that introducing a new tool could sustain a team work and the objective of team work could be facilitate through a tool (but the tool would not replace the team work). So I would say yes Jeff Y try to find a new tool, but a valuable one and maybe better try to mandate your team to find out this tool. Good luck

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