How do we develop a continuous learning culture?

“Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization’s makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like… I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game.”

— Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., Former CEO of IBM

The foundation of any organization equipped to succeed in today’s environment is a culture that supports continuous learning. However, the term culture can be somewhat ambiguous and difficult to get a firm grasp on. What is culture exactly?

One definition offered by Merriam-Webster states, “culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution.”

Four Elements of Culture

We’ll make the case here that these elements are mutually reinforcing and should be addressed simultaneously in any campaign to develop a culture of continuous learning. However, we’ll also argue that the foundation of any culture is its shared values—while the other elements are bound to change over time, a strong set of stable, guiding values is necessary to sustain change in a coherent direction.

This brings us to our second principle of leading continuous learning:

Principle #2

The foundation of a culture that supports continuous learning is a shared set of values.

The 5 Cs

There are many values we could link to a culture of continuous learning, yet there are a few core values that are worth highlighting and presenting in way that will help others stay mindful of them as they go about their daily work. The 5 Cs were developed to do just that:

While communicating these core values on a consistent basis will play an important role in embedding them within the hearts and minds of team members, building a culture of continuous learning requires far more than just words. As Daniel Coyle writes in his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, “While successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not. Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

How do each of the 5 Cs translate into shared goals, practices, and attitudes to support meaningful action? What opportunities exist for us as learning leaders to contribute to this shift?

As we begin our exploration of the above questions, we can keep the following in mind: one of the most effective ways we can contribute to this cultural shift is by modeling these values ourselves for others to see. While there are plenty of complimentary strategies and interventions possible, they will rely largely on a core team of committed advocates of continuous learning who are really walking the talk.


“Learning is by nature, curiosity.” – Plato

Anyone who has spent time around young children knows: human beings are naturally curious creatures. However, as Sir Ken Robinson famously highlighted in the most popular TED Talk of all time,  this curiosity tends to get “educated” out of us. We learn to stop asking so many questions and we begin to protect ourselves from exposing our ignorance. In other words, we have come up in cultures that have valued other things over curiosity.

Making a shift in our hierarchy of values is no simple task. We all have some deeply ingrained habits that need to be unlearned and replaced with new ones. For example, we may have the habit of keeping our mouth shut when someone says something that we don’t fully understand. We let it pass without asking for clarification because we’re afraid of being seen as unintelligent or uninformed. We may also have the habit of becoming annoyed by others who are asking questions that seem obvious to us.

In the Harvard Business Review Article, Is Yours a Learning Organization? , “psychological safety” is identified as a key element of developing a supportive learning environment. Team members must feel safe to admit when they don’t know or don’t understand—to ask questions when coming up against gaps in their current knowledge.

As curiosity primarily shows up in the form of questioning, we could say there are curiosity-friendly attitudes on both sides of the equation: for both the asker and the receiver of questions. The asker’s attitude should be one of curiosity and humility.

The receiver’s attitude must be one of openness, non-judgement, and a willingness to help others learn. When this attitude takes hold throughout the organization, especially within managers and senior leadership, people begin to feel safe to expose their own knowledge gaps to others. With the willingness to expose these gaps comes the opportunity to organize support and close them.

As learning leaders, we can help equip our teams to cultivate such attitudes by supporting the development of relevant communication skills and practices, such as asking the right questions at the right times, active listening, and showing empathy for others. Developing mindfulness and emotional intelligence is also highly relevant here as individuals need to be supported to unlearn reactive habits that may contribute to a lack of psychological safety, such as reacting to the curious questioning of others with irritation or judgement.

At the same time, individuals can be supported to develop resilience so they are less paralyzed by the fear of judgement. A skilled continuous learner prioritizes their own long-term competence over the short-term opinions of others.

These are skills that require deliberate practice over time. We can begin cultivating such abilities by creating “safe” spaces where they are modeled and reinforced, as well as providing support for individuals to practice strategies and techniques in their daily work, afterward reflecting on their experiences to generate insight and direction.

Curiosity is also fundamental in our reflective practice, which centers around asking ourselves questions. What is working well? Where are there tensions or opportunities for improvement? What might I do more, better, or differently next time? Becoming curious as individuals about our own performance gaps and how we can close them to add more value is a key driver of continuous learning. Just as with asking others questions, we can see this as a habit to be established which will feed our curiosity in a positive feedback loop.


We are all bound to experience some degree of fear when it comes to living and working in a rapidly changing environment. For better or worse, it’s the way we are wired. A team that embraces continuous learning is a team that is willing to face this fear of change and the uncertainty it produces. For those bound to succeed in such an environment, it is a form of courage that is rooted in a sense of confidence in our ability to figure things out and find our way—despite the complexity and volatility we are facing.

In his recently published best-seller Think Again, Adam Grant presents the attitude of confident humility as an optimal way to relate to our current abilities. When we possess confident humility, according to Grant, we are confident in ourselves while remaining uncertain about our tools. In this sense, we can think of our tools as including our skills, knowledge, mindsets, mental models, etc.

With this in mind, we can frame our campaign to instill the value of courage by cultivating two primary guiding beliefs: one, I am naturally capable of figuring this out, and two, doing so will require that I continue to update my toolkit.

In other words, a healthy form of courage is rooted not in the state of our current toolkit, but rather in our ability to expand that toolkit in the ways we will need. This prevents us from becoming paralyzed by the understanding that we lack what we need to proceed, as well as prevents us from moving forward foolishly without the awareness of what we need to learn.

As learning leaders, we can help to instill an attitude of confident humility by supporting our teams to become skilled continuous learners. As we’ll explore in more depth in a future post, there are tangible “meta skills” that enable us to effectively update our toolkits. These meta skills are underdeveloped in most of us, as they have been largely absent from our past formal education and training.

As we develop our meta skills, we simultaneously develop what Grant refers to as the “confidence sweet spot.” It is from within this sweet spot, characterized by confident humility, that we find the courage to not only take on new challenges despite the unavoidable uncertainty that exists, but to skillfully navigate our way through the process and come out more competent on the other side.


“Training often gives people solutions to problems already solved. Collaboration addresses challenges no one has overcome before.” – Marcia Connor

An important characteristic of the modern world is that it presents more complex challenges than in the past. In his article Overcoming Complexity Through Collaboration and Follower-Based Leadership, Gary M. Klein writes:

“In these [complex] environments, organizational success depends on the organization’s ability to identify cause-and-effect relationships and learn from its actions. Whereas leaders can solve complicated problems by leveraging resident experts to dissect problems and propose solutions, complex problems are circumstantial and rarely have predefined solutions. To succeed in these environments, leaders must be comfortable operating beyond the realm of best practices and subject matter experts. Decision-making researchers in a number of different fields believe that experimentation and collaboration are keys to success  in the complex domain.”

Complexity guru Dave Snowden characterizes solutions to complex problems as emergent—they come to light through an inherently collaborative process where ideas are tested in groups and clarity emerges through a filter of multiple perspectives. This is in contrast to solutions in the complicated domain, as Klein describes, where the process centers around the expert analysis of existing solutions.

We might think of the difference as collaborative experimentation vs expert analysis. As our environment becomes more complex, the greater the role of collaborative experimentation becomes for collective sense-making and problem-solving. For many organizations, this highlights some critical skill and knowledge gaps that learning leaders must work to address.

We can also see how this challenge aligns to widespread shifts in ways of working and managing projects: from a mostly linear, “waterfall” approach that is heavy on up-front analysis, to a more lean or agile approach which focus on collaboratively running series of experiments to generate new knowledge. 


There is a common belief which translates into a dangerous practice within many organizations: the idea that some people are creative and others are not. This way of thinking threatens the sustainability of any modern enterprise because to keep up in the modern world, teams need to tap into the creative intelligence of all members, from top to bottom.

While there can be some parallels between certain personality types and highly creative roles, it is also true that all of us can learn to be more creative. Nurturing creativity relates to the other values described here. It takes curiosity and often begins with becoming intrigued with a certain question. What else might we do here? What other possibilities exist? It also takes courage to share ideas, which is helped along by an environment where ideas are accepted with respect and gratitude—even if they don’t prove to be great ideas.

It requires collaboration and an experimental mindset: if an idea resonates with others enough to test it, that’s what we’ll do. If it passes the test, we’ll use it. If not, great: we learned something useful through the process. If it doesn’t resonate, no problem—we expect a lot of ideas for every experiment, and a lot of experiments for every solution. Taking lots of shots at the target and mostly missing the mark comes with the territory in a complex environment.

Of course, some will struggle with this if they have long-standing views of themselves as non-creative, or don’t have a lot of experience sharing ideas in this way. As learning leaders, we can help them to let go of this belief and to see creativity as a skill to be developed. It takes time and practice. Consider this quote from Steve Jobs:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

Supporting individuals to reflect on their own experiences is a fundamental part of growing a culture of continuous learning. Following Jobs’ insight, it is also a fundamental part of unlocking creativity and innovation. This can be facilitated by asking thought-provoking questions, equipping team members to ask each other certain types of questions that encourage reflection and learning, or supporting individuals to establish a regular reflective practice. Reflection may happen formally within workshops or meetings, or informally in the flow of work.

Creativity is very much at the heart of continuous learning—it is the practice of continuously asking ourselves: how can this be better? 


In his highly influential book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, two of the disciplines that Peter Senge describes as fundamental for building a learning organization are personal mastery and shared vision. Building a culture that generates deep commitment requires the close alignment of these two particular disciplines.

As learning leaders, we may or may not have the opportunity to influence the organization’s stated mission or vision. However, we can support individuals to clarify their own personal mission and vision in the context of those of the organization. When there is a sense of shared purpose across individual, team, and organizational levels, there will be higher degrees of engagement and commitment to the larger goals.

A common source of a lack of commitment comes from top-down cultures: this is the way it is, get on board or get out. In these cultures, there is little or no attention given to the individual’s personal goals or values. In contrast, a continuous learning culture is both top-down and bottom up: it is the integration of these two sides of the coin that creates the alignment necessary for individuals to commit to a shared vision, without neglecting what matters most to them personally.

This alignment happens largely as a result of personal reflection. What are my personal goals and values? What are my career drivers? How do they relate to the organization’s goals and values? We can support individuals to dig in with these kinds of questions and generate the clarity necessary to connect the dots. We might also see this type of reflection as an ongoing practice, as these elements may shift over time—we can support people to develop this practice, periodically re-orienting themselves and realigning their own goals with organizational goals.

Another way to think about commitment as it relates to culture is that in a top-down culture, commitment is largely measured one way: the individual’s commitment to the organization. In a top-down/bottom-up culture, on the other hand, commitment is a two-way street. It is expected from individuals, but it is also reciprocated: the organization is also committed to its members as individuals. There is a clear sense that the individual’s personal values and goals are also important and that the organization is there to support them on the journey that is their life and career.

With this in mind, not only is it important for individuals to reflect on their personal goals and values, but it is important that they have the opportunity to make these known to the organization. Many organizations, for example, are beginning to offer support around career development that helps to attract and retain talented and committed individuals. We’ll explore this type of initiative in more detail and explore how it fits with a continuous learning strategy in a future post.


Establishing a culture that effectively supports continuous learning is a primary challenge for organizations around the globe and across industries. Not only is such a culture a key part of attracting and retaining talent in an increasingly competitive marketplace, but it is necessary for supporting that talent to succeed in a rapidly changing and complex world.

At the heart of a continuous learning culture is a set of core values, illustrated by the 5 Cs: Curiosity, Courage, Collaboration, Creativity, and Commitment.

These values combine to inform goals, practices, and attitudes that support individuals, teams, and organizations to adapt to continuous change by asking the right questions, exploring possibilities, sharing ideas, and working together to create solutions through a shared sense of purpose and vision.

An important insight is well articulated by Frances Hasselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America: “Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.”

In other words, we shouldn’t see developing culture as a precursor to taking action to change the way people are working together in practice. Rather, we can see that culture co-evolves with our ways of working—it is integrated into everything that an organization does. We can, however, lay the foundation by communicating core values and supporting individuals to reflect as they are making decisions about how they are developing new ways of working: how does this practice align with our core values?

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Tom Palmer