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The 3 Keys To Designing A Business That Learns

After crafting user experiences for Facebook and Microsoft, Shelley Evenson is looking to transform her new home from the inside out.

Today you run a cracker factory. Tomorrow, a fad diet makes crackers obsolete. What do you do now, and how could you have seen this coming?

You might want to ask Shelley Evenson. She’s clocked in at both Facebook and Microsoft, where she worked in user experience and design. And before that? She was a researcher on these topics at Carnegie Mellon.

Now, she’s at Fjord, global specialists of service design. But her first job isn’t tackling projects for clients; it’s for Fjord itself. She’ll lead organizational learning and development, tasked with transforming the company into an adaptive, forward-looking learning organization. Recently she shared with Co.Design just how she’ll make that happen at all three levels of the company.

The Organization Level
Constantly Evolve Through Self-Assessment

For better or worse, the world moves faster today than it ever has in history. Evenson stresses that at the structural level, companies need to be constantly reflective, assessing their relevance in an ever-evolving marketplace. And they should expect to constantly change without fear of their own identity—because it’s better to be an adaptive company than a well-recognized fossil.

"I think one of the old-time examples was IBM," she says. "They saw the constraints in the environment where they had to get out of the product business and become a service organization. Today, the best one is Amazon. What I think is fascinating about what they’re doing is they’ve consciously looked at themselves and transformed themselves. They have this cloud-based system now where I don’t have to think about their products anymore, they just come to me!"

IBM was once synonymous with cheap desktops. Amazon was once synonymous with mail-order products. As odd and risky as their shifts may have seemed at the time, what would each company be if they didn’t adapt?

The Individual Level
Teach Employees Fast, But Unteach Them Faster

If companies are expected to move quickly, the individuals inside those companies have to be free to move just as quickly themselves. That’s an easy point to make on paper, but employees are real people with day-to-day stresses of their own. They want to come to work, do a job, and get paid. They want to leave at 5 p.m. and eat dinner with their kids, not worried if some wild proposal they put on their boss’s desk will make them look loony.

"People don’t like change," Evenson acknowledges. "We need to find ways to say, ‘I’m playing the flute today, and tomorrow, I’ll play something else.’"

The best way to promote change is to constantly challenge talent. And the only way to do that is to never act like the learning process is done.

"We want to turn the head on the notion of ‘training,’" says Evenson. "Usually what you do is you take people and put them through training. What we want to do is bring just-in-time training to the teams. People shouldn’t feel like they’re in an environment where they don’t have the support."

In other words, yes, by all means ask a team to do something new. But right when you do, make sure to call in experts for roundtable lunches to answer questions. People will be less afraid of change if they know it’s expected, and if the company provides the right resources to enable it. And those old habits? Let them die.

The Ecosystem Level
Respond Faster Than The Competition … By Predicting The Future

If any of us could really predict the future, we’d all be sipping mai tais while playing the lottery on a beach somewhere. So how can a company do it? The key is to identify the marketplace trends that affect your organization and respond, while simultaneously using the response to help predict the next trend that will inevitably follow.

"One of the things we’re going to be doing is working with clients, taking a specific trend and saying, ‘if this trend affected your organization, what are the new kinds of things you might see?’ Really mapping them against the white stick of their competitors," Evenson explains. "You take the trend, see how it applies to us, and see it in the competitor’s mind—it’s often really challenging—but often times you can see where the next opportunity is going to be … especially if you consider it against all the trends, and the broad economic and cultural issues that are going on."

A good example of this idea? Google’s Android operating system. Everyone was dusted by Apple’s iPhone, but Android considered mobile trends—the needs of consumers and other businesses in the mobile ecosystem. They adopted the same open software model that allowed Windows PCs to beat Apple in the first place. And then they just kept firing away, update after update, eventually offering a slew of features that even iPhones would be jealous of.

[Images: hieroglyph, blackboard, and tarot cards via Shutterstock]

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  • Robin Helweg-Larsen

    I agree with Paul. The answer to developing flexible proactive thinking is to let people drive the operations that you want them to manage better. We use simulation-based learning (Income-Outcome business simulations) where teams compete against each other to win profitable orders and be the most successful business. To do this, they have to not just learn business finance terminology and concepts in order to make good decisions, but in the process they develop an understanding of what business information they need, where that information comes from, the value of other departments, and the impact that their own department's decisions have on the operations of those other departments.

    In other words, holistic business understanding, increased teamwork and respect, and a more rapid flow of accurate and relevant information are all part of developing the business acumen to respond quickly and appropriately to a changing environment.

  • Paul H. Burton

    But "How?" is the question: I delivered my The Waterfall Effect keynote today to a group of municple finance executives. One of my favorit parts of this keynote is asking the audience how many people have driven a car (and making a side comment someting to the effect of, "Only three?" regardless of how many people raise their hand). The next question is, "How many people have been a passenger in a car?" Now that the audience is engaged, I ask the zinger, "Who learns the way to a new restaurant better, the driver or the passenger?"

    So, back to my question - How can we help our employees learn faster? The answer is to let them be drivers more often than passengers. You can read more about this particular Principle of Productive Leadership in my book: The Waterfall Effect which is available at Amazon.

  • Leandro Incetta

    I think it's always hard to convice and old headed boss to do something new. Most of them just want to do the same as their competitors. Taking a leap of faith is always risky!