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Trust and Learning


Two key themes in my work have been trust and learning. Trust and learning are intimately connected. The challenge we face is that the erosion of trust is undermining our ability to learn and, in a world of accelerating change, the ability to learn will be the key to success.

The need for learning

We’re in the early stages of a Big Shift that’s transforming our global economy and society. The Big Shift creates mounting performance pressure and exponentially expanding opportunity. The only way to move from pressure to opportunity is to find ways to learn faster.

But, let me be clear, when I talk about learning, I’m not talking about training programs that are focused on sharing existing knowledge. I’m talking about learning in the form of creating new knowledge through action and reflection on impact. This form of learning is key to accelerating performance improvement.

But this form of learning also requires taking risks and improvising as one addresses unseen problems or opportunities to create more value. It’s scary – we’re treading on ground where no one has been before.

We can certainly engage in this form of learning on our own as individuals. But, no matter how smart we are, we’re going to learn a lot faster if we come together in small groups that are committed to achieving higher and higher levels of impact – I call these “impact groups.” These impact groups can then accelerate their learning by connecting into broader impact networks that bring together a growing number of impact groups.

The need for trust

But, here’s the rub. Coming together in a quest to create new knowledge requires trust. This form of learning requires much deeper trust than more conventional learning in the form of training programs. If we’re taking a training program, it helps to trust the teachers – do they really have the expertise required to transmit the knowledge? But we don’t really need to trust the others in the training program. And training programs are usually short with a defined end.

To create new knowledge together requires acknowledging to ourselves and to others that there are many things we don’t know and it requires us to be willing to ask for help and to take risk together as we pursue action in unknown territory. That requires deep trust sustained over a long period of time – the learning journey is endless.

The erosion of trust

But, here’s the challenge. Trust is eroding in our institutions and society globally. We’re much less willing to trust each other.

Everyone seems to acknowledge this fact of life, but few appear to want to explore why this is happening and, more importantly, what to do about it. I’ve been exploring this for many years, with my most recent contribution in my last blog post, The Pyramid of Trust.

To really understand the erosion of trust, we need to address it at two levels: the institutional level and the individual level.

At the institutional level, trust is eroding because we increasingly see that there is a growing disconnect between the way that our world is evolving and the way that all our institutions have been designed and operate. The scalable efficiency institutional model that was so successful for more than a century is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Scalable efficiency is also very inward focused, and we are increasingly realizing that these institutions are not really focused on the interests of those of us who are outside the institution. The institutions that we thought we could rely on are failing us.

At the individual level, trust is also eroding. We’re increasingly feeling isolated and having a harder time building trust with others around us. This is a natural human reaction to mounting performance pressure, a fundamental force in the Big Shift. While this is completely understandable, it’s also increasingly dysfunctional.

At its roots, this erosion of trust among individuals is driven by fear. When we feel fear, we’re much less willing to trust others – it’s too risky. There’s a vicious cycle at work here. The more we feel fear, the less willing we are to trust others, and the less willing we are to trust others, the more fear we are likely to feel . . .

And there’s another level of vicious cycle at play as well. The less we trust each other, the more challenging it will become for each of us to learn faster. The less rapidly we learn, the more pressure we will feel and the more fear we will feel and the less trust we will have in each other . . .

Small moves to re-build trust among individuals

Escaping this vicious cycle will not be easy, but it can be done. It requires embracing an approach that I have been advocating for years: small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion. Let’s start at the level of the individual.

Re-building trust can’t be done overnight, but it can be done quickly with small moves. Start by reflecting on what really excites you – is there a really big opportunity out in the future that has the potential to motivate you to learn faster?

Then work on finding 2 or 3 others who appear to share your excitement about that opportunity. Bring them together and focus the conversation on what you can do together to achieve more impact in addressing that opportunity. In evaluating initiatives you could take, focus on which initiatives have the most potential for meaningful impact, but also which of those initiatives could deliver tangible impact quickly (yes, it’s a two by two matrix). Seek agreement on the most relevant metrics for impact and then embark on efforts together in a quest to achieve that impact and learn through action.

Give each other encouragement and support as you run into the inevitable unexpected obstacles or roadblocks along the way. Make it clear that you’re in this together and that you’re going to stay together to find ways to overcome the challenges. That will help to deepen trust and to overcome fear – we’re in this together and we can count on each other to be there.

As you begin to achieve tangible impact together, trust in your collaborators will grow. The trust will become even deeper as you begin to reflect on the impact achieved and challenge each other explore ways to achieve even greater impact. It will become clear that you’re committed to a long-term quest shaped by an inspiring opportunity, and not just participating in a short-term sprint.

Stage your way into more and more challenging learning initiatives as your trust deepens. Begin to reach out to others whom your group feels share your commitment to learning and accelerating impact relative to the long-term opportunity that has brought you together. Invite them to join your group.

Chances are these people will be inspired by the trust they see within the core group already there. But the key is to challenge these new members to demonstrate quickly their commitment to impact and learning with others.

As the group reaches its limit of 15 participants, spin out other impact groups and find ways to connect the groups so that they can learn from each other.

Small moves to re-build trust in institutions

The small moves approach also works at the level of institutions, even very large institutions. In fact, the larger the institution, the more important the small moves become as a way to overcome the resistance to change that will inevitably be encountered within the institution (driven by people who are afraid).

As I’ve written about elsewhere, start with data that you already have about your customers and find ways to deliver meaningful value back to customers based on that data. As customers start to see the tangible value you are delivering back to them, they will begin to trust the institution more and be more willing to share more data about themselves. A virtuous cycle can be unleashed by pursuing a “staircase of trust” with small moves at the outset, but a commitment to rapidly increase value delivered over time.

While I’ve framed this in terms of re-building trust with customers, this same approach can be used with all stakeholders of an institution, whether they are commercial enterprises or other types of institutions.

But what does customer trust or stakeholder trust have to do with learning? Ultimately, the success of any institution hinges upon delivering more and more value to these customers and stakeholders. The most powerful way to do that is to engage with customers and other stakeholders to build a deeper understanding of their unmet needs and the approaches that are most effective in addressing those needs. To gain deeper insight into those unmet needs and the most effective approaches, we need to have access to more information about these stakeholders and ultimately engage with them in co-creating the value that can have the greatest impact – and that requires deeper trust.

Bottom line

We live in a world that will require accelerating learning in the form of creating new knowledge, not just sharing existing knowledge. That kind of learning is intimately linked to trust. That’s a challenge because we live in a world where trust is rapidly eroding. The best way to address this challenge is through small moves, smartly made, that can set big things in motion. As individuals and as institutions, we need to craft the small moves that will help us to build trust and learn faster together. If we get this right, we’ll unleash exponential learning and accelerating performance improvement. Let’s get started.


Dr. Willy A. Sussland

July 4, 2020at 8:31 pm

Thanks for your inspirational thoughts. Trust is a key both inside the organization as well outside. Agile Management, the 4th management generation, and the business ecosystems, he 5th generation, rely on trust. In the c<se of the former, trust is leveraged by cutting down the organization in small teams that have to cooperate with other teams. P.S. Please to hear from you. I used to follow you and John Seeley Brown, as I remember you were a think-tank of Delotte. Kind regards

Jim Spohrer

July 2, 2020at 9:36 pm

Thanks again – I am sharing this with my IBM colleagues – it is an important message.

Jim Spohrer

July 1, 2020at 4:38 am

Thanks key themes in my life and work as well. Learning and trust set the stage for value co- creation Interactions (AKA service).

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