Embracing Change through Exuberant Learning

Blog

July 07, 2016

Embracing Change through Exuberant Learning

Annah Thuto Tshwenyego and Prscilla Kihara of FHI 360, showing their exuberance at an InsideNGO workshop in Johannesburg earlier this year.

By Tom Dente

President and CEO

I've been thinking a lot about learning cultures as we prepare for next week's annual conference—our largest learning event of the year. Creating and sustaining a learning culture can be difficult. Even with effective processes for monitoring, evaluation, reporting, and knowledge management, we may need additional ways to integrate learning, given the changes we are addressing in our sector. In an environment of greater transparency and increased scrutiny, the forthright acknowledgement not only of successes, but also of failures as part of the learning process can be seen as risky—and potentially something that undermines the overall good results achieved.

In InsideNGO roundtables, forums, and workshops, it is always inspiring to me how our community embraces the risk of learning. In many ways, our community exemplifies the growth mindset explored by Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. A growth mindset assumes that our talents and abilities can be developed through effort and persistence. It recognizes that setbacks or failures are normal and are opportunities to learn and develop. By themselves, setbacks are not necessarily damaging, but our inability to learn from them may make them so. In a fixed mindset, however, situations are zero-sum or win/lose. Not surprisingly, a growth mindset lends itself to the confidence to take more thoughtful risks, where a fixed mindset creates a risk-averse environment. A positive learning culture requires individuals and leaders to embrace the growth mindset.

Even in challenging times, we all have the opportunity to shift from a fixed mindset to one that embraces growth. We can do this by remembering what Dweck calls our natural "exuberant learning." She writes, "What on earth would make someone a non-learner? Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it's too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don't worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward. What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset."

It is always tempting to pull back after a setback. But some of the greatest successes have come from pushing through—based on the learning that came from the setback or failure. Forty-seven years ago this month, the success of Apollo 11 landed human beings on the moon for the first time in history. Before returning to their spacecraft, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind a memento from Apollo 1. Two-and-a-half years before the moon landing, the launch of Apollo 1 had been a deadly failure—with three lives lost on the launch pad during a pre-flight test. Some leading voices in the US Congress wanted to cancel the program. But wiser minds prevailed, and through the intense learning from that failure came redesign and renewed efforts. Ultimately, history was made.

Though our stakes are different, our challenge is the same—to learn from our mistakes. A few of our sessions at this year's annual conference will explicitly highlight learning from setbacks and failure. On Thursday, July 14, I'm looking forward to seeing leaders from FHI 360, NPOKI, PATH, and Plan as they present a session called "Fail Fest: Failure is an Option." This session will celebrate—yes, celebrate—failure as a mark of leadership, innovation, and risk-taking. A follow-on session will explore how to increase innovation and reduce risk when trying new things.

So I invite you to bring your spirit of exuberant learning to the conference and to the broader learning community that is InsideNGO. Join your colleagues in workshops, roundtables, forums, and individual discussions as together we walk, fall, get back up, and "barge forward" on our learning journeys for the betterment of our organizations and the sector.

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