Organizations Should Optimize for Employee Learning, Too

March 5, 2019

Many job hunters, new and mid-career alike, are familiar with the idea of “optimizing for learning“.  We agree with this!  However, organizations and employers don’t match that – whether they’re in OKRs (objectives and key results) or in dreaded annual performance reviews, organizations measure their employees’ success – and their possibility for increased responsibilities, pay, or promotions – on results.

We at Braid think that’s a mistake.  We believe that organizations should hold their employees accountable for what they’ve learned instead of successful outcomes.  This has a number of benefits:

  1. It allows space for failure, especially around stretch goals
  2. It aligns employee development and corporate objectives in a more natural way
  3. Employers have a responsibility to keep employees; employees owe no duty of loyalty to their employer

Space for failure is critically important – it’s why larger organizations become gun shy and end up disrupted or sidelined over and over again.  If employees can only do stuff that everyone agrees is reasonable, then organizations end up in local maxima – which leads to the inevitable decline over time.  Instead, if everyone is aligned around learning, then failures are correctly framed as successful as long as employees and managers learn new things that then can be applied to the next task, project, program, or experiment.  Collect enough new insights and any portfolio of projects is going to be more successful over the long term.

Aligning employees and corporate objectives can be hard; in many organizations, OKRs flow down the organizational chart like so many Russian nesting dolls.  In these cases, employee goals are set based on perceived corporate needs, instead of taking into account each employee’s experience, expertise, and interests.  Instead of forcing duties on employees, organizing groups around employee learning ends up putting each employee in the best possible situation to succeed, meaning that overall corporate goals are more likely to be met and employee output is higher, as individuals are self-motivated to fulfill their own learning goals.

Lastly, it’s common knowledge that 25 years of service, a full defined benefit pension, and a gold watch are antiquated.  But organizations and managers continually express disappointment when promising new hires leave after just 18 or 24 months.  And many recruiters and hiring managers put too much of a premium on this antiquated need for loyalty, leaving them to discard candidates who may be perfect for the positions they are hiring.  By flipping the outcomes that are measured to be around learning objectives, organizations can concretely make sure that they are providing the opportunities to their employees that encourage them to stick around – with loyalty being an outcome, instead of an input.


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