Principles: Great Work ∞ Great Learning Part 2

This is the second post of a multipart series about the relationship of work and learning and how it goes together for individuals and for companies. I recommend starting at the beginning.

Act 1: Big Co #

Entering the working world with a mental model based on maximizing my own learning, I was enamored by my initial experience in a large engineering company. There was so much to learn and absorb! However, this faded as I got up to speed and quickly, I became frustrated. I loved the initial steep learning curve. Once it leveled off, the work didn’t continue to evolve at a high rate. I wanted to keep sprinting up the hill but found that it had plateaued.

Why was this daily rate of growth so slow? Companies need to innovate and evolve to be competitive. To my dismay, I found my company’s ability to innovate was not based on the desire or ability of it’s most earnest employees to learn. Shouldn’t these employees be encouraged to drive innovation and evolve? Apparently not.

Reflecting now, I see that in many larger companies, the rate of learning is limited by the organization’s systematic rate – which is set by the company’s lowest common denominator (or at best, average) and not by its most talented people.

These large companies have become a series of 3-legged races. You have to work together, but you are also dependent on whomever you are tied to. Just like a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, an interconnected engine will only operate as quickly as it’s slowest sub-component.

How does this happen? Does it have to be like this?

As a company grows, speed and innovation become secondary to consistency. Consistency enables strategic decision making and efficient resource allocation. Consistency also makes the future more predictable, which creates market reliability.

The least resistant path to consistency is scaling “what we know already works,” which means replicating successful processes. As process begins to dominate, individual learning suffers. Learning is an unnecessary side product, left behind for more efficiency. An increase in process reduces the need for an employee to learn on their own.

The result of this is that BigCos get reliable output and employees get a reliable job with a set rate of personal growth1. Bureaucracy, the collection and centralization of process, increases and begins to direct the culture2.

The culture might not be entirely dysfunctional, but it’s not a hotbed of collaboration either because the overriding system discourages risk taking. For an employee, the culture will fit if it aligns with her values, but if her primary goal is learning she’ll become frustrated by spending her time learning BigCo’s particular flavor of process and bureaucracy; not fundamental truths. Sometimes policy/process appear to defy logic, and an employee feels helpless to fix it. “That’s just the way it is around here” you might hear - which only reinforces the lack of autonomy for individuals and demoralizes those who want to learn.

You can see why BigCos may not be able to retain the most talented candidates who are optimizing for their personal learning and growth.

I began to fear a future where I would be a cog in this inefficient machine indefinitely. I was struggling to find faster paths of learning within the system, to no avail.

The moment I realized I wasn’t learning as fast as I wanted to, I started looking towards the door. I had no idea what I wanted to do next. Even so, I took the plunge, trusting that I’d figure out something just like my entrepreneurship professor had…

To be continued

  1. Dictated by the initial learning curve and then the rate of learning dictated by the limiting sub-component of their immediate organization. 

  2. Culture is what is perceived to be rewarded and punished. At BigCo, following process is perceived to be rewarded and vice-versa. 


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