In an individualistic society, most of us would rather be extolled for making a winning sports play than for merely making the block that set it up — or playing the role of an opponent in practice that prepped a star player to fake her out. We struggle to value the importance of tightly integrated team play over personal attention. Even in academics we usually give individual grades when coaching people to work in problem-solving teams.
But collective work is necessary in complex learning organizations. For example, few scientific papers now have lone authors; some have six or more. The same is true of developing complex new products or processes. One person may spark a key idea, but bringing it to fruition is a collective experience, testing it and refining it from many angles. Radical, complex innovation must derive key ideas from many sources and integrate them into a highly reliable package. Some of the contributors work for suppliers. No one is apt to personally meet them all. Most members of such a team toil in relative obscurity, and cannot hope to be inspired (or flattered) by fawning adulation. Indeed for some, their important contribution advancing the total effort was to learn what ideas did not work.
Both continuous improvement and innovative improvement are collective learning. To do it well, everyone has to concentrate on the objective and on the problems at hand rather than waste time demonstrating superiority, contending for attention (the art of cutting other people off in a meeting), or worrying about being put down as a fool. Lightening this emotional baggage is key to superior performance using a rigorous, structured learning system.
Learning how to learn in this way is an acquired discipline that involves emotional development as well as intellectual development. For example, just learning how to regularly use “A3 paper” logic is practice learning how to think through issues and problems, not how to fill out a form. We have to learn how to overcome human egotistical instinct.
Even more difficult emotionally are “wicked problems,” those for which our own biases are a big part of the problem. For a definition and overview see: http://cognexus.org/id42.htm. Leadership to create and sustain this kind of learning organization is very different from that which was advocated to get ahead in 20th century work organizations.