LEARN OR DIE: Using Science to Build A Leading-Edge Learning Organization


Edward D. Hess


To compete with today’s increasing globalization and rapidly evolving technologies, individuals and organizations must take their ability to learn — the foundation for continuous improvement, operational excellence, and innovation — to a much higher level. In Learn or Die, Edward D. Hess combines recent advances in neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics, and education with key research on high-performance businesses to create an actionable blueprint for becoming a leading-edge learning organization.

Learn or Die examines the process of learning from an individual and an organizational standpoint. From an individual perspective, the book discusses the cognitive, emotional, motivational, attitudinal, and behavioral factors that promote better learning. Organizationally, Learn or Die focuses on the kinds of structures, culture, leadership, employee learning behaviors, and human resource policies that are necessary to create an environment that enables critical and innovative thinking, learning conversations, and collaboration. The volume also provides strategies to mitigate the reality that humans can be reflexive, lazy thinkers who seek confirmation of what they believe to be true and affirmation of their self-image. Exemplar learning organizations discussed include the secretive Bridgewater Associates, LP; Intuit, Inc.; United Parcel Service (UPS); W. L. Gore & Associates; and IDEO.


“The AI Revolution Will Humanize Businesses” Forbes.com (12 Jan. 2015)

“Maybe HR’s Focus Should Be Less Human” HR Magazine (1 Dec. 2014)

“Innovation Requires Humility and Courage” Forbes.com (19 Nov. 2014)

“In Today’s Business Environment Learning is Not Optional” Inc.com (19 Nov. 2014)

“The MBA of the Future Needs a Different Tool Box” Forbes.com (1 Oct. 2014)

“Growing Your Business Requires LOVE” Inc.com (8 Sept. 2014)

“When Robots Comes for Our Jobs, Will We Be Ready to Outsmart Them?” Wired.com (28 Jul. 2014)

“Why is Innovation So Hard?” Forbes.com (4 Aug. 2014)

“Is Your Business Ready for Smart Robots and Artificial Intelligence?” Inc.com (20 Aug. 2014)

“Will Your Children Be Able to Get a Good Job in the Age of the Smart Machine?” HuffingtonPost.com (22 Aug. 2014)

“The Next Business Revolution Will Be a Learning Revolution”

We live in a fast-paced globalized and technology enabled business environment characterized by volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity (“VUCA”). Coming technology advances, such as artificial intelligence, smart robots, big data and IoT are only going to increase VUCA. To stay competitive requires continual adaptation and that requires learning — individually and organizationally — better and faster than the competition.

In today’s world of all of us have to become better thinkers, innovators, experimenters and collaborators and that requires that many of us become more emotionally and socially intelligent. Our challenge is to become expert learners. The next business revolution will be a learning revolution. “Learn or Die” brings the science of learning into the business world in an applied manner.

1. What is the purpose of Learn or Die?

The book uses the science of learning to answer two important questions:

First, how can we individually become a better and faster learner?

Second, how can we as a manager/leader build a team or an organization that continuously learns better and faster than the competition?

Another purpose of the book was to review and synthesize across academic disciplines the developments in the science of learning that have occurred since Peter Senge’s 1990 landmark book on learning organizations and put forth a new blueprint of how to build a learning organization based on the current science of learning.

2. How should readers approach this book?

Readers should read this book with an open mind. A natural reaction will be “that is not me” – “I don’t think that way”. Well, the science says it is highly likely that you do. To get the most from the book, one has to accept the science of learning and that paints an unflattering picture of how most of us think. Many people who have read the book and have communicated with me found it personally a “wake up” call.

3. Aren’t most of us good learners?

Yes, many of us are good learners but it is highly probable that we are suboptimal learners. We know from research that cognitively we are fast reflexive thinkers who seek to confirm what we already know. We are confirmation machines. Emotionally, we tend to be defensive thinkers protecting our views and ego. Emotionally, we defend, deny and deflect. The saboteurs of learning are ego and fear. That is our ‘humanness”. To be a great learner requires one to overcome those natural proclivities. “Learn or Die” puts forth a blueprint of how to do that.

4. How did that research impact you personally?

I have been working on this project for years and it had a big impact on me. I realized I had to take my learning game to a much higher level. Even though all the feedback from my schooling and my work life in the business world and academia had been very positive, I had areas that I needed to improve in order to really be a great learner.

So, I started working on those areas: managing better my thinking and emotions, quieting my ego, redefining what “being smart” means, actively listening with a non-judgmental open mind to others and treating everything I believe as being conditional subject to stress testing by new data.

I had to define myself (my ego) not by how much I knew or by having the right answer but rather by how well I use best thinking, listening and collaborating best practices. I created checklists that I use daily to grade myself and reflect on my learning performance. Overall, I am a better thinker, listener, and collaborator today than I was before writing this book – but my work is not done.

5. What does a great learning organization look like?

First, the organization must accept the challenge that it has to create the right learning environment, model the right leadership behaviors and put in place the right learning processes to enable employees to overcome their “humanness” and become faster and better learners.

The right environment is not a command and control environment. It is not a culture of fear. It is not Theory X leadership as defined by Douglas McGregor. It is a people-centric emotionally positive work environment. High employee engagement is necessary – something that is missing today in many companies. The organization’s culture, structure, leadership behaviors, HR policies, measurements and rewards have to be designed to create learning mindsets and drive best learning behaviors. Companies have to change their mindsets about mistakes especially with respect to innovation and experimentation. The book describes companies that have done this and are leaders in their industries.

6. Why aren’t more organizations great learning organizations?

The purpose of almost all organizations is to produce standardized, predictable, reliable, and low variance results. Organizations by their inherent nature are anti- change. That drives one to view mistakes as bad and something to avoid. Well, that inhibits innovation, experimentation and learning. Mistakes and failures are a necessary part of innovation, experimentation and learning. Most learning comes from mistakes – fixing things or trying things and learning by iteration.

Fear of making mistakes can become a dominant emotion in a company and fear diminishes the quality of cognitive processing, creativity, innovative thinking, judgments, and decision-making. That is why the concept of a learning culture is so important. Learning underlies both operational excellence and innovation. The difference between operational excellence and innovation from a learning perspective is the tolerances for the amount of variance and risk necessary for success. Learning is the unifying theme that can allow an organization to be both operationally excellent and innovative.

You can also add leadership ego, arrogance, complacency, laziness and hubris to the answer.

7. What does it mean to take one’s learning game to a higher level?

It means becoming a better critical and innovative thinker, more emotionally and socially intelligent and a better collaborator. That requires using best processes, having a learning mindset, managing one’s emotions, quieting one’s ego, being open-minded, fair minded, a non-judgmental listener – all of which require managing self, empathy and humility.

8. In the book you talk about the learning power of “surprises”. In doing your research what really surprised you?

Let me give you some context – I have had prior educational experience in the fields of cognitive and educational psychology. First, I was surprised by the recent research in neuroscience that shows that our emotions are intertwined in every step of our cognitive system. I had undervalued the impact and importance of emotions in our thinking. Rationality is a myth. Managing our emotions is as important as managing our thinking. The power of positive emotions– the research in positive psychology is quite compelling.

Second, I found the congruity between a high engagement learning environment and a high employee engagement business environment fascinating. Third, I found the congruity of the research findings on building trusting relationships in business, education and psychological counseling settings interesting. They drove me to focus on foundational enabling learning behaviors in the book.

The BIGGEST surprise was Bridgewater Associates, LP., (“Bridgewater”) the largest hedge fund in the world and one of the most successful. I was very fortunate to have been invited inside to experience and learn how they have created a learning system that helps people overcome their natural cognitive and emotional proclivities that inhibit learning. Bridgewater was the most advanced learning organization I discovered in my research and I devote 50 pages – 25% of the content – to describing in detail how and what they do. The time spent working on each person’s learning inhibitors at Bridgewater is unique. I believe that the organizations of the future will be those that focus on developing the best learners. I am most thankful to Ray Dalio the founder of Bridgewater for allowing me to take public for the first time so much of their “secret sauce”.

9. Who are other great learners organizations?

I am highly impressed by the work being done inside Intuit; IDEO; Pixar; W.L Gore & Associates; and the Special Operations Forces of the United States Military – all of which are discussed in my book. I am sure there are more great learning organizations out there and I encourage readers to send me names of organizations that they believe are great learners.

10. Taking everything you have learned in your research and taking into account the coming technology advances would you be willing to make some predictions about the future of business organizations?

Well, here are some ideas and remember all ideas are not good:

(i) While technology will displace many human workers, technology will also humanize many organizations. Why? Because the human workers remaining will likely be engaged in activities that require higher order learning and highly developed emotional and social intelligence. Most people come to the workplace needing lots of developmental work in those areas. To do that developmental work inside the business will require many businesses to create a positive emotional work environment that drives high employee engagement and will require many leaders to change their attitudes, mindsets and behaviors. Hierarchy and rank will be devalued. Structures will need to change. Many organizations will need more candor, humility and empathy. Many organizations will have to become more people-centric and positive emotional places to work. They will have to be humanized in order to become better and faster learners.

(ii) Assuming (i) is correct, that will require the transformation of many HR functions into a world class professional personal human development group that provides individual customized personal development experiences with mentoring to thousands of employees. The time spent on such personal development will likely exceed in amount, intensity and depth of engagement anything the HR group is currently doing. The Chief HR Officer will become the Chief Human Developmental Officer reporting directly to the CEO. The mindset will change from “managing” human resources to really developing learners. It is a HR game changer – which many HR professionals will probably welcome.

(iii) At the same time, business management education will likely have to change to meet businesses’ needs for business managers who have strong foundations in critical and innovative thinking, experimenting, collaborating and who have begun the personal developmental work to advance their emotional and social intelligence. Those types of educational experiences are experiential, done in small teams, highly personalized and require high engagement faculty competencies in counseling and mentoring. That will likely require major changes in many business schools.

(iv) The management practices at organizations like Bridgewater Associates, W.L. Gore & Associates and Pixar will likely become more common – they are “organizations of the future”, assuming they continuously improve and do not become complacent or lose their learning environment or rigor in the pursuit of growth or in leadership successions.

(v) The required humanization of many business organizations and the increased importance of “soft” skills such as empathy, humility, emotional and social intelligence, mindfulness etc. could be challenging to many men. Men can learn these skills – but many men need to learn to “lean out”. I predict the upcoming learning revolution in business will propel more women into C-level positions and that will likely accelerate in many cases the humanization of organizations.

Technology advances could change the business world in some interesting ways.

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Click here for Amazon Reviews

“The Top Leadership Books of 2014” December 2014
Leading Blog

“How to Keep Learning and Still Have a Life” November 2014
Lisa Burrell, Harvard Business Review

“The Culture of Learning as the Ultimate Competitive Advantage” 5 Oct 2014

— Tropical Value Investing Blog

“As digital technologies race ahead there is a growing need for creativity and innovation. But how can we build organizations that foster the highest levels of creativity and innovation? Learn or Die is a blueprint for creating such organizations.”

— Erik Brynjolffson,
Co-author, The Second Machine Age

“This book does a beautiful job bringing together the most important ideas in organizational learning, established by academics and practitioners over the past thirty years or more, into one place.”

— Amy C. Edmondson,
Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School

“I read Learn or Die and found myself intrigued and frankly, a little uncomfortable. So I read it a second time and found that it made me rethink many aspects of my own management style and the guidance I provide our portfolio companies. What hit me like a ton of bricks from Ed’s research was the realization that the current approach based on traditional management techniques and performance metrics was unlikely to be both effective and sustainable in the rapidly changing, Darwinian world of venture capital investing andtechnology innovation. His vision of the learning systems and cultural commitments that define a truly high performance organization is a must read for any business that wants to prepare itself to meet the challenges and succeed in todays business environment- before its too late.”

—Frank H. Foster,
Managing Partner Draper Fisher Jurvetson Frontier and the Gideon Hixon Fund

“An excellent book. In Learn or Die, Edward D. Hess captures a central element to enhancing and sustaining success as a business organization or as one of its leaders—being a high-performance learning organization. This book is a thought-provoking study of the technological advances making this need ever more relevant and provides a comprehensive roadmap of the culture, leadership, employee learning behaviors, HR policies and other organizational processes necessary to build and lead such an organization.”

— Roger Carlile,
Executive Vice President and CFO, FTI Consulting

“The smart money is on innovation, which depends on personal and group learning. Ed Hess combines a tour d’horizon of what is known about individual learning and about conducive environments for organizational learning with fascinating case studies of companies who use learning to win. Any leader who needs to encourage innovation will find information and reflections that will be both humbling and inspiring.”

— Michael Balay,
Head of global strategy, Cargill, Inc.

“Learn or Die allows the reader to not only to visualize the future, but also, and more importantly, to create the future by unleashing the power and potential of building a learning organization. It has been demonstrated that strategies, systems and processes can be copied by others, yet a company’s people, and the way they learn, are true differentiators. Ed Hess captures the essence of a high performing organization and shares his “secret sauce” through an actionable blueprint for becoming a leading-edge learner and creating a high performing organization.”

— Jeffrey S. Shuman,
Senior vice president and chief human resources officer, Quest Diagnostics

“Ed Hess is doing some of the most interesting and important work in management today and his newest book, Learn or Die, is already my personal favorite. This book is characteristic of all of Ed’s work—providing wise but straight-forward and pragmatic advice on finding the right people, creating the right environment and installing the right processes to embed learning. In a globalizing world, where adapting to and learning from difference is likely to be the most critical source of competitive advantage, Learn or Die is a must read for any manager interested in solid, research-based advice on how to survive the increasingly unpredictable, chaotic world we live in.”

— Jeanne Liedtka,
Coauthor of Solving Problems with Design Thinking

“This is by far the best book I’ve read on the subject of learning.”

— Shane Parrish,
Farnam Street Weekly

“In Learn or Die Ed Hess knits an impressive fabric of insights from widely disparate strands of thought, experience, research, and real cases. Hess harnesses new evidence to challenge old nostrums. Practical and provocative, this book ranges across vital issues such as learning, innovation, team-building, and leadership. Read this book and prosper; read it before your competitor gets to it.”

— Robert Bruner,
Dean, Darden School of Business

“Learn or Die makes a compelling case for the need to create high-performance, human-oriented learning organizations—and for the remarkable degree to which we are all capable of succeeding as leaders by following a path of ongoing, integrative learning. Combining fascinating behavioral research, actionable advice, and superb analysis of real-world business examples, Ed Hess has crafted essential reading for those seeking to prepare their organizations—and themselves—to thrive in a global marketplace characterized by rapid change, fierce competition, and a desperate need for leadership based on principles that are smart, sustainable, and, above all, humane.”

— Ming-Jer Chen,
Former president, Academy of Management

“Learn or Die in a masterful manner makes it clear that consistent business growth can only be achieved through learning—there is no other way—and that the pace of business change today requires a scientific approach to building a high performance learning organization. For those responsible for leading, Learn or Die should be mandatory reading.”

— Terry S. Brown,
Chairman and chief executive officer, Edens Investment Trust

“To achieve and sustain real business success in the 21st century—individual and organizational—you need to understand and leverage the new science of learning. Fortunately, there’s Learn or Die by Ed Hess, who explains the ‘why’ and ‘how’ better than anybody. This deeply informed, yet practical book provides the new road map for a better “you” and a better company. Read or miss out.”

— Andy Fleming,
CEO, Way to Grow, Inc.

“Learn or Die is a thoughtful and easy-to-read synthesis of the leading thinking on organizational and individual learning. Not only does Hess neatly summarizes what a savvy business person needs to know, but he also provides practical suggestions that will allow the reader to take action. This book contains essential lessons on an important topic—I highly recommend it.”

— Joe Timko,
Chief strategy officer, ADP

“Learn or Die is a tremendous look into the requirements of high performance individual and team learning. Ed Hess does a masterful job of conveying that learning happens best in a humanistic work environment, enabled by leaders who in reality are great coaches striving to serve others. Learn or Die will help anyone who wants to improve themselves—it changes the game.”

— Sam Presti,
Executive vice president and general manager of Oklahoma City Thunder

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“Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization (With Edward Hess)” 19 Jan 2015
David Burkus

“Ed Hess on Building the New Age of Learning Organization” 22 Oct 2014
Bennett Voyles from CKGSB Knowledge interviews Edward Hess

Smart People Podcast 13 Oct 2014
Interview with Edward Hess

“Rising Executives Flex Learning Muscles; Be a Scholar” 3 Oct 2014
Sonja Carberry from Investor’s Business Daily interviews Edward Hess

“The Importance of Making Mistakes” and “Overcoming Ego Defensives” 1 Oct 2014
Edward Hess appears on CNBC’s Squawk Box

“Will Robots Take Your Job?” 30 Sept 2014
Maria Bartiromo from Fox Business interviews Edward Hess

“Bridgewater: Inside the Secretive World of the World’s Biggest Hedge Fund” 30 Sept 2014
Joanna Campione from Yahoo! Finance interviews Edward Hess

“Nearly Half of American Jobs Risk Being Automated: How to Fight Back” 29 Sept 2014
Yahoo! Finance interviews Edward Hess

“Real Money With Ali Velshi” 25 Sept 2014
Ali Velshi interviews Edward Hess on Al Jazerra

“A New Approach to Business: Learn or Die” 23 Sept 2014
Simon Constable from the Wall Street Journal interviews Edward Hess

“The Hays Advantage” 23 Sept 2014
Edward Hess is a guest of Kathleen Hays on Bloomberg Radio