Is there a measurable benefit to be realized when managers take a class together versus participating as individuals? According to Kellogg Professor Leigh Thompson, when managers learn in pairs, trios or more, the learning benefit can increase by nearly 50 percent. Thompson calls this the Noah’s Ark Method, based on the idea that to maximize the classroom-to-boardroom impact, companies should send at least two executives.
“The whole point of having people take programs is to have them return with best practices and put those to immediate use to improve everything from the bottom line to customer relationships,” said Thompson, who teaches in such Executive Education offerings as the Negotiating in a Virtual World online program, Leading High-Impact Teams, High Performance Negotiation Skills, Constructive Collaboration and Navigating Workplace Conflict. “But do people, particularly managers, actually put into use what they’re introduced to in the classroom? Under most conditions, the answer is a depressing ‘no.’ And it’s not because they failed to learn it.”
Participants flying solo in a program may well find that their time was profitably spent, Thompson noted, but when they return to their workplaces, they often come up against what’s known as the inert-knowledge problem. When that comes into play, managers and leaders who’ve learned the information will oftentimes fail to retrieve key insights when they most need them. “However, we’ve found a learning hack,” she said. “The most impactful way to ensure managers put best practices to immediate use is to engage in experiential learning, ideally with a teammate or partner where they can actively analyze and discuss business cases and situations and derive common understanding. It's even more impactful when they relate the in-class business simulations to their own business problems.”
Thompson’s conclusions are based on several research projects she conducted with her colleagues, including Jeffrey Loewenstein and Dedre Gentner. In one study involving negotiation teams, some teams were instructed to share and compare several relevant business experiences in order to come up with a common denominator among those experiences. Other teams were provided with the same business cases but were told to analyze them separately.
“Then we put all the teams into an actual negotiation,” Thompson explained, and we found that those who’d had the share-and-compare experience with their teammates had really crystalized the best practices and were able to put them to use in a completely different situation at a later point in time. In this situation, the teams realized 30 percent more profit. The key is identifying best practices that apply across industries and contexts. No matter whether people are negotiating deals involving candy bars or phones, there are often core principles they have in common. The superficial context is irrelevant. The people who were told to compare two cases are much more likely to recognize the principles the two situations share. This is the way to break through the inert-knowledge problem and make the insights come alive.”
Why do teams succeed in making sure what they’ve learned doesn’t just stay in the classroom, tied to the idiosyncrasies of each case on a superficial level? “Taking the program with multiple people from your company creates conversations,” Thompson said. “We do exercises in teams and provide fertile ground for managers to become negotiation pros because we’ll challenge them with different types of scenarios to help cement these best practices.”
|Leigh Thompson is the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is the director of the Kellogg Team and Group Research Center, the Kellogg Leading High-Impact Teams, High Performance Negotiation Skills Executive programs, and co-director of the Constructive Collaboration and the Navigating Workplace Conflict Executive programs. In addition, she is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Northwestern.|
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