What "we've always done it this way" really means

When you’re a leader, regardless of whether you have the title or not, your goal is oftentimes simply to learn. Learn what someone else understands, what they hear, think and believe about a specific item or project.

Often there are surprises waiting for you within that learning; concepts, ideas, beliefs or barriers that you didn’t even know existed; in other words things you don’t know you don’t know.

You can’t do this if you’ve already decided you Know everything about the project already.

Physically, learning and knowing activate very different parts of the brain.

There are three areas of the brain involved in memory (ie Knowing);

  • the hippocampus

  • the neocortex

  • the amygdala

Alternatively, the cerebrum, the large, outer part of the brain, controls learning.

The distinction is vital, positioning yourself as a learner engages a very different part of your brain.

Instead of heading into a meeting or conversation convinced you know the outcomes, engage the more dynamic and growth focused cerebrum to learn what you know you don’t know and, more importantly, discover what you don’t know you don’t know.

To do this, you have to stop Knowing and switch your mindset to Learning. Last week I wrote about Mindset studies Carol Dweck spent 20 years + conducting around Fixed and Growth Mindsets. If you haven’t read that post, I would suggest doing so now.

While you are developing the ability to Learn keep in mind why you were hired in the first place; to build a building or help build a building. To accomplish this you must build or be part of an amazingly dynamic team, which also means, it’s not all about you, it’s all about the team.

If you are a “Knower” both the Process and Outcomes are known to you. Because both are rigidly set, your job becomes controlling and policing everything so circumstances play out exactly the way you want.

If you are a “Learner” the only known is the Outcome. The Process remains hidden and must be discovered with your team, thus your approach is adaptable and flexible. Often different team members bring varying degrees of expertise, viewpoints and strategies to the table. Why wouldn’t you utilize them? That is why you hired them after all.

So depending on the circumstances and conditions, which we know can change daily in construction, the team's process starts to emerge as they start working together and engaging with the project.

Unfortunately, the Learner model is not fostered in many construction companies.

Knowers believe they already have all the answers that address every situation they come across. Often this is verbalized with “we’ve always done it this way.”or “this is what works.”

This may instill confidence with bosses or ownership, but it takes a great deal to manage so many people. The very idea of managing people, instead of managing the Process, is wrong-headed and leads to interpersonal breakdowns, often pitting individuals against each other. This manifests up and down the chain of command, when two different processes that have “always been done before” clash. Instead of adapting and taking the best from both, one is tossed out, usually the ideas from junior level team members, and replaced with the more senior team member ideas, which are often outdated.

At an even deeper level, knowing becomes central to a Knower’s identity, sometimes projecting an image of knowing something they don’t, to the detriment of the client, the company, the project, and team. Often the Outcome is sacrificed to the Ego.

Fred Kofman, author of “Learning, Knowledge and Power” defines a knower as “someone who obtains his self-esteem from appearing to be right.”

Knowledge is important as is the ability to produce desired results through effective actions. However, being Knowledgeable is not the same thing as being a “knower”. Knower and Learner are mindsets, not related to knowledge previously learned, but to how one engages with and acts when presented with a project and a team.

The difference between a Knower and a Learner, very simply, is that a Learner is willing to be influenced by their team. Knowers are not. Both Learners and Knowers have knowledge, they just use it differently.

Knowers effectively apply their knowledge to situations that are static, definable, and knowable, they tend to be rigid in their thinking and in how they manage.

The hallmark of a Learner is the ability to flex and adapt to new situations which, in turn, engages the team to help develop the process towards the desired Outcome.

Learners effectively use their knowledge and expertise not by applying autonomous, unilateral solutions but by asking questions and digging into the situation.

Attempt to understand the variables first, often in a team meeting, discussing what they understand to find out whether or not what they know is applicable, they assume they don’t know all of the variables so they continue to investigate past the known unknown into the unknown unknown. To do this you must ask Probing Questions.

A Knower does their best to bury the unknown unknowns, unable to contemplate how much is unknown and what could go wrong. It’s overwhelming, so Knowers restrict their circle, keeping it very small, controllable, and tight. The following are other, prevalent habits of a Knower. See what if you recognize any in yourself before you start slapping the Knower label onto others in your team. True change starts with yourself after all.

5 Habits (or traits) of a Knower:

  1. Rubber Stamp Solutions: Generally derive self-satisfaction from opportunities to immediately apply their Knowing to every situation. There is no attempt to fix fundamental problems, instead a great deal of energy and time is spent solving the myriad of “little” issues caused by the systemic problem.

  2. Compliance: Knowing that groups work best when all members operate from the same page, all energy is given to convincing others that the Knower has the “right page” and that all they have to do is follow. Alternative suggetions are generally dismissed as impractical, far fetched or shows as naive. Manipulation of teammates through rewards, punishments, bullying, policies, memos, and so on to instill a culture of compliance at all costs is common.

  3. Always Winning: Being seen as right, rational, and consistent is the overarching aim, because of this a Knower is not responsible when things go wrong. Their Outcome is successfully protecting the image of a competent person. Any conversation that points out inaccuracies, flaws, or having contributed to the problem are stopped immediately. Using conversational strategies that counter such threats, Knowers defend beliefs and conclusions at all costs. Any chink in the self-created armor could cause extraordinary stress and threaten the core beliefs upon which their self worth is based.

  4. Insular: Because the aim is to control things as much as possible and to make things predictable, stable, and steady, the focus remains directed inward. This ensures blame can be dispersed on areas outside of their control when problems do occur. Internal workings, team dynamics, and protocol are secret, closely controlled, and measured.

  5. Direct & Control: Playing out predictable, consistent, static roles, which are reinforced by directing interactions and controlling meeting agendas; teammates are treated as disposable and replaceable, cogs in an ever-enlarging wheel. The objective becomes keeping people in little boxes, controlling the process, and the outcoming objections. When plans are challenged, knowers draw battle lines and the conversation turns into them vs us, if you aren’t with them you are against them.

On the opposite side of the same coin, Learners operate from a curious, questioning stance, here are 5 Habits of a Learner:

  1. Adaptable: Comfortable with fluid chaos and messy problem solving that comes with dealing with humans who are evolving, learning, striving and adapting towards the Outcome. They know that the amount of information is too dynamic and ever-evolving for one person to know and empower their team to hold responsibly across the board. All ideas are discussed, assessed, picked apart and discarded if necessary.

  2. Engaged: Knowing the processes that worked in the past may not produce the desired results, they welcome continual review of existing actions to discover new paths leading to the desired Outcome. Heavily influenced by their team’s previous experiences, knowledge base, and engagement they know that the best ideas come from the engagement between teammates and don’t belong to one person, but to the group.

  3. Always Winning: The definition of what “winning” looks like to a Learner revolves around discovery, curiosity, strategy, and problem-solving. They embrace the ever-evolving dynamic of the Process to manifest the Outcome.

  4. Accessible: Aware of the ebb and flow of cycles of information along with the internal team, external team, and outside forces, information is shared openly with all parties. Ideas are welcomed, shared, developed, and discarded from external sources as well. Personal dynamics and diverse approaches to the Outcome emerge, melding, and merging with others. There is a natural tolerance around brainstorming, idea development, and innovation.

  5. Take Ownership: Errors and omissions are dealt with directly and resolved. They take responsibility for addressing any unsatisfactory results and not only resolve them but learning as much as possible so it doesn’t happen again. Teammates who are open and engaged are less likely to hide errors from team members when they feel the problem will be solved together.

Being open and engaged around errors, omissions and issues alone would make the conversation from the Knower to a Learner hugely successful for any Contracting, Engineering, or Architectural firm.

Unfortunately, seeing errors as exposing your company to “risk” stems from Knowing instead of Learning, which in turn pushes it down the pecking order and generally is the least sophisticated Sub Contractor that bears the brunt of the learning curve on any project.

To avoid this fate there are a few areas I would suggest thinking about your own team;

Look at your previous projects, were there areas where the 5 Habits of a Knower emerged with your team or yourself?

Instead of rushing to make these habits “bad” start digging (discovering the unknown unknown) into what you don’t yet understand about the actions.

What are two Learner strategies you feel comfortable exploring with your own team right now?

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