How learning beats clever

In the first of this series of short articles, I outline a key book or article that has shaped my thinking on learning at work, and show how it informs my work with clients on how to create the most effective learning and alignment programmes they can. This article is on The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich, one of my favourite books of all time.

The “our” in the title refers to us, humans. We are the ecologically dominant animal species on earth: 98% of all animal mass at the start of the 21st Century is either us or animals we have brought into existence. How have we done this?

Well, it’s not, as you might think, because our brain power is greater. It’s not because of our particularly dextrous hands (all big apes have dextrous hands – but given that most of them are at risk of impending extinction that does not appear to be the critical thing).

In fact, our success is because we have an ability to learn from each other, an ability unmatched by any other animal. So while a 2 year old human has roughly the equivalent brain power to a 2 year old orangutang and chimpanzee (e.g. sorting, spatial awareness etc), a 10 year old human will be on a different plane compared to their equivalently aged great ape, and what is more, this gap in cognitive ability continues to grow with age. The difference? The human’s ability to learn.

Henrich brings this to life with some powerful and gruesome stories of when humans trusted in their cognitive powers instead of in their learning powers: the attempt to break through the North West Passage in the 1840s which ended in freezing cannibalism especially sticks in the mind. He explains how human evolution has orchestrated a beautiful dance between our mental and physical evolution, for example, mastering fire meant we could cook food which in turn meant we could develop a shorter gut than other apes, meaning we could cover greater distances and hunt more successfully.

Franklin disaster
What happens when you don’t learn

Learning is the secret weapon that has made this all possible.

He also shows how we have developed an extraordinary array of shortcuts to help us learn faster: social taboos, being attracted to people with prestige (because we learn that those people are the best to learn from) and of course, extraordinarily sophisticated communication. Along the way there are some great snippets (why do we have grandparents? Why do some people have blue eyes? How can a human hunt down a kudu on foot?).

This is such a great book if you want to understand humans, but it also has lots specifically for the world of learning at work. In particular, it explains how and why we interact with each other in the way we do, how we approach tasks collectively and how we defer to certain people and why.

There is one particular insight that I love: when we are young teenagers, who do we listen to? (as in, really listen to?) It’s not our parents, or even a ‘wise’ adult (even if we respect them). No, it’s our big siblings and cousins. Why? Because they are most like us, but a few steps ahead – so we think they are the ones most likely to have knowledge that is relevant to us right now. So when we are setting up mentoring programmes at work, we are mistaken if we think getting the chief exec or head of marketing is somehow a real ‘catch’ for the mentoring programme. Instead, we should be pairing people up with people who are just a few rungs ahead of them. By the way, the same should be true for reverse mentoring too!

A key element that Henrich only covers by implication, but that is crucial for understanding learning and how to get the best out of ourselves at work, is that the ability to learn is only as useful as the ability of people around us to teach. Organisations should be investing in their teaching as much as they are in their learning.

There is a simple lesson for senior leaders and managers in every organisation from this book: human beings are only successful when they are learning. So if you are spending the bulk of your time and energy on the things that senior folk usually spend their time and energy on – proposition development, strategy, structures, systems, processes, hiring ‘the best people’, even customers – then you are missing a huge trick: your focus, instead, should overwhelmingly be on creating the conditions in which your people can learn and ensuring that they are.

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