How Great Companies Become Ultimate Learning Machines

The Learning Culture Lotus
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“Success is just a byproduct of learning, and learning is a byproduct of curiosity. Ultimately, if you are curious about something, you will be successful at it, and the more curious you are about it, the more successful you will be at it.” 

–Naval Ravikant

On August 12, 2019, I received a text message that turned my stomach.

“Andrew, I’m leaving.”

Text message telling me she's leaving
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I founded my business, Curious Lion, to help companies develop and retain their best talent, but I couldn’t even keep my own people on board.

At the time, we were a remote team of four, and one of the remaining two had a foot out the door. Without us all working on our projects, we’d lose clients. I was in my own version of a Great Resignation crisis, which propelled me to flip everything I thought I knew about corporate learning on its head.

Our model for helping great companies learn was causing our own company to fail. Yet I still tolerated the old model. That was about to change. 

In this essay, I’ll share how turnover at my own company led me to rethink corporate learning and help top companies like Pinterest, Bolt, and Brex completely transform how they develop their talent.

Great Performance Begins With A Healthy Learning Culture

In my 20s and early 30s, I was a consultant at KPMG. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was discovering my life’s work. I loved delivering corporate training and helping people reach their potential. 

Typically, corporate learning is top-down. Back then, I thought this model worked and that we could improve it by increasing quality: professional videos, better instructional design, cutting-edge VR/AR, etc. That’s why I founded Curious Lion.

I ran my company on this top-down model as well. I packaged information and pushed it down to my small team, expecting them to absorb what I sent. I was ignoring the obvious human cost of this approach.

I thought we developed a better way to deliver corporate learning and build culture, but we put lipstick on a pig – and that pig had teeth. It tore my company apart faster than I could put it back together.

Over the past three years, I had to codify a series of insights to turn Curious Lion around. In the process, we created a framework to transform our clients into Ultimate Learning Machines.

I learned that great companies don’t just have great cultures. 

Above all, they have great learning cultures. 

Learning Cultures Start with Individual Curiosity

My team was adrift, remote, and discouraged. I felt lost and needed inspiration. 

Another major shift taking place was the rise of cohort-based courses. So, I enrolled in a few to see how other entrepreneurs approached education. 

Even with all my experience, I realized I had a lot to learn – and even more to unlearn. 

Their unorthodox ways of teaching reignited my curiosity – mainly because they worked! I was learning more, faster than I’d ever learned before. 

I’d always been curious about learning, but now I was re-energized. Being exposed to different methodologies allowed me to connect dots and see patterns. Most of all, they made me want to learn more. These courses were changing me. 

For example, I took Building A Second Brain, a live cohort-based course. It gave me a method for capturing, organizing, and remixing my ideas and sharing what I was learning with others.

For the first time, I realized that learning requires individual curiosity as a pre-condition, the first piece of the flywheel for learning culture. If a company can optimize for that, they’re on the right track.

Individual Curiosity
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But how do you get the flywheel turning?

Another online course was about to reveal the next wheel to me. 

Learning Cultures Expand Through Human Connection 

My journey led me next to encounter the power of a learning community in another live cohort-based writing course, Write of Passage.

I was thrown into Zoom breakout rooms, often with accomplished writers way ahead of me. I felt like an imposter amongst such talent. At first, I lurked in the background, hesitating to turn on my camera.

Making friends in online group learning
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Slowly, I embraced the feeling of vulnerability and connected with fellow students. Others did the same. I learned better from the students one or two steps ahead of me and found joy in sharing what I was learning with them, with those behind me. I learned more from interacting with those around me than from our instructor. 

Energized, I encouraged my team at Curious Lion to learn on their own, too, exploring what interested them. Their learning kicked off conversations and connections between us we hadn’t had before – just like what I experienced in the online course world. 

It dawned on me: maybe I understood corporate training all wrong. Perhaps instead of top-down training, the key to learning was a combination of curiosity and human connection.

I saw that we all have a teacher deep down inside of us. If we bake human connection and peer-to-peer teaching into a live curriculum, teams can perform better than ever before. 

I was discovering my first significant insight. Corporate training doesn’t fail because people lack information or quality media. It fails because people lack the chance to explore their curiosity and connect with fellow learners. People lack SHARED EXPERIENCES

Shared Experiences
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Now I had two wheels of the flywheel – and I was about to uncover the third. 

Learning Cultures Spread Through Continuous Learning 

It was time for me to put my new insights into action. After all, new ideas always sound good, but the real test is how they perform in the wild. 

I partnered with Phylicia “P.J.” Jones, Director of People Development at our biggest client, PagerDuty. She, too, had a Big Consulting background, a passion for inspiring others to learn, and a willingness to experiment.

Together, we designed a learning experience for six Senior Vice Presidents – and it was a wild success. Ordinarily, executives rush through corporate training (or skip it). But these six busy professionals stayed longer than the allotted time, coaching each other and bonding over common challenges.

As soon as the experience ended, they wanted more. 

We weren’t building training events. We were creating learning journeys.

From Novice to Expert over time
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Suddenly, P.J. had dozens of requests for more learning experiences. The SVPs told their teams about their experience – and their teams wanted in. We ran another one – and another and another and another. It was obvious that people were craving opportunities for continuous learning.

We noticed something special happening. When human connection and continuous learning came together, SHARED STORIES emerged. People were giving and receiving new insights and making transformative breakthroughs in their work, spreading pictures of excellence that inspired others to higher performance. Moreover, people started to experience organic “mind melds” across functions, unlocking new strategies and innovations.

Shared Stories
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We saw a new learning cycle begin to emerge: individual curiosity empowered people to connect and create Shared Experiences around learning. Shared Experiences fueled continuous learning, producing Shared Stories that kept the cycle going.

However, we missed one final piece to bring the cycle full circle. 

Learning Cultures Drive Performance Toward a Company Mission 

We rolled out similar learning experiences at Pinterest, Brex, and Bolt with the same success, but one thing still hung in my mind.

I had to prove that this approach moved a business forward. I figured that results would naturally follow if we could get people moving in the same direction behind a common purpose. 

So we started weaving our clients’ purpose, mission, and values into the learning experiences we were creating. I noticed something magical. The company itself, in each case, started to change for the better. Whole teams and divisions updated their beliefs, changed their behaviors, and created new habits. 

The basic assumptions that define how people work were being rewritten.

Teams were developing new SHARED ASSUMPTIONS for how to work together, further sharpening their collective understanding of the company mission and the actions necessary to achieve it.

We found the final element: the company’s mission.

Company Mission
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This final element completes the flywheel and brings us back to the start: individual curiosity. We know businesses perform best when individuals embody the mission of the company. We also understand that each individual has their vision of where the company should go. Even the greatest companies grapple with how to bring these two together. 

I think we’ve figured out how to do that. 

When people follow their curiosity, connect with others, learn continuously, and are guided by the company mission, this forms an ever-tightening feedback loop and creates a clear and inspirational SHARED VISION

Shared Vision
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Combining these elements comprises the complete learning flywheel we’ve witnessed with our clients and inside Curious Lion. 

The flywheel is the process. To find the outcome, we can zoom into the diagram’s center to see the Learning Culture Lotus – symbolizing creation and resilience and reminding us of the unity of everything. 

The Learning Culture Lotus
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I wish you were in the room as this unfolded. The relief I felt after this discovery filled our company with purpose. It’s been a long, intense journey paved with hard-won insights, things learned and unlearned. 

Seeing the Learning Culture Lotus opened my eyes to something completely logical now but still hidden to most. I want to change that by sharing it with the world. 

Here then, are the active ingredients for reverse-engineering a healthy Learning Culture: 

  1. Shared Vision
  2. Shared Assumptions
  3. Shared Stories
  4. Shared Experiences

The VASE Framework for Learning Culture
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The VASE Framework: How to Build a Learning Culture 

What began as an exploration into a new corporate training model has become a codified framework for transforming our clients and their people. Here are the four phases in our systematic approach to developing a culture of continuous learning. 

Shared Vision

For people to care about anything, it must be personal. Shared Vision, therefore, emerges gradually from personal visions and requires ongoing conversation. I frequently share my vision for Curious Lion with my team. Rather than expecting compliance, my stance is, “will you follow me?”. I encourage them to share their visions too. Together we create a picture of the future we want to see. 

Here are some helpful questions for painting that picture of the future:

  1. What is the transformation you’re looking for? What do you want people to be able to do differently?
  2. What does transformation feel like? If you close your eyes and imagine your company a year from now, what does it look like?
  3. What do people no longer do that they were doing before?
  4. How will you know if someone has completed the transformation? What does success look like?
  5. What company values must be reflected in this transformation?

Shared Assumptions

Shared Assumptions define culture and are developed by a group of people as a set of norms for how to solve problems (based on the work of Edgar Schein). It’s how we serve our clients, how we design our products, how we collaborate as a team, or how we create value as a company. The work of developing a Learning Culture requires an understanding of the assumptions in place at your company. 

Here are some examples of Shared Assumptions a company could have:

  • “It’s ok to speak up when I disagree with someone on my team.”
  • “I’m close to burnout, but I won’t be viewed as a team player if I say something.” 
  • “Mistakes are ok. Making mistakes is the way we learn and develop.”
  • “I need to do whatever it takes to look good before someone else gets promoted.”

Assumptions can be positive or negative. The point is not to evaluate them. The point is to find out what they are. Knowing where you are is the only way to begin the journey toward your Shared Vision.  

Questions we use to diagnose existing Shared Assumptions:

  1. What are the key responsibilities of the role you’re looking to transform?
  2. What behaviors are rewarded in this role?
  3. How do people solve problems, especially when stressed?
  4. What mistakes do people most commonly make?
  5. What questions do people most commonly have?

Shared Stories

A Shared Vision spreads when clarity, enthusiasm, communication, and commitment increase and reinforce each other. The ultimate vehicles for this reinforcing process are Shared Stories.

We have a channel in our Curious Lion Slack where we share examples of team member wins, client praise, or exceptional teamwork. These are our stories.

Stories connect with us on an emotional level. They’re memorable. They trigger our imagination. They build connections. They inspire. 

Here are a few questions to help you create systems for Shared Stories:

  1. What stories were you told when you started? 
  2. What stories do people tell you about how things are? 
  3. What stories can you find about exceptional performance that impacted customers, the team, or the community? 
  4. What delivery systems exist for your people to share their stories?
  5. What new ways can your people share their stories within your organization?

Shared Experiences

If Shared Stories are the vehicles for spreading a Shared Vision, Shared Experiences are the vehicles for moving people closer to that vision

Shared Experiences are the arenas in which the action takes place. They bring people together to engage in dialogue around common challenges, using a common language. 

Shared Experiences are Cohort Learning Experiences (CLXs).

Cohort Learning Experiences
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CLXs have three components.

Asynchronous Content

Content is abundant, so curation is key. Less is more. The purpose of content should be to introduce new mental models and frameworks to act as a common language for discussions. Forget about testing comprehension. Focus on application.

Live Sessions

Live sessions are where the magic happens. CLXs are time-bound and focused on discussing real-world challenges in real-time. They promote accountability. You’re much more likely to show up if you’re in it with your peers. They turn collective wisdom into common practice. 

Practice and Reflection

Active learning is critical for building skills, as a 2019 Harvard study showed, and reflection time solidifies your learning. Reflection introduces double-loop learning. The purpose of reflection is for people to apply the new mental models and frameworks to their current work. Done right, they’ll write their own scenarios and case studies for rich discussion in the live sessions. 

CLXs are the most visible touchpoint of your entire Learning Culture. Get these right, and almost everything else falls into place. 

It’s been almost three years since I received that text message: “Andrew, I’m leaving.”

Never has a message haunted me as much as this one.

Today, I’m grateful for receiving it. Without those three simple words, my vision and approach for bottoms-up learning would not be what it is today. I would not be the proudest CEO of a growing company with a thriving Learning Culture. And I wouldn’t be able to share this approach with you. 

By following our VASE approach, you’ll create systems for learning that will transform your company into an Ultimate Learning Machine.

Remember, it all starts with individual curiosity. Are you ready to head down the rabbit hole?

👉 Start here with a step-by-step tutorial on how to deploy CLXs for your team or company.

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