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Talking about the Rules

24 Apr

I was reflecting on a social media post by a successful IT leader the other day; it was a list of his rules to live and work by. He had talked about them enough over the course of his career that people had asked him to write them down. (As an aside, I’ve found other cases of people asking leaders to codify their life instructions; it seems to be a fairly common event.)

These particular guidelines were very good; the work of a thoughtful, caring, dedicated colleague and leader. Things anyone wise would take to heart. My own reaction centers not on what the guidelines said but on the way the guidelines came about. Upon their genesis, which seems arbitrary.

In any group of humans working together a set of rules develops over time that define who we are and what we do. How we talk to each other, who gets more authority, what skills are valued, what behaviors are off-limits, etc. You might say these rules exist on a kind of consciousness continuum. Some are visible: talked about, written down, and even posted on a wall, like an office sign that says “no smoking.” But most rules are invisible. We don’t talk about them much, nor do we write them down, and they may not even be thought about consciously. These hidden rules are perhaps the more powerful and meaningful rules, and they are not always pretty. They might contradict more visible rules, or otherwise be something you aren’t particularly proud to say out loud. For example, one deeper rule might be “we actually do smoke; we just do it when the boss is out, and we open the windows and turn on the fan to hide the fact.”

One of my interests has long been to help make these deeper rules visible, discussable, and changeable. To give people the conscious tools to acknowledge and adjust (if they wish) their workplace culture, improve their interpersonal relations, even revise their own deeply personal decision-making.

That’s why the IT leader’s list caught my eye. His list is his way of saying “these are the rules I think we should follow” or “let’s change the rules to these.” This move is good in a lot of ways: our leader is perceptive enough to sense what is going on around him; he is reflective and imaginative enough to think about how things ought to be; he sees the world as a place that can be improved (plastic in the original sense, of “moldable”); he thinks he and his colleagues have the power to make changes; his proposed rules are in the service of improving the lives of others; by making a list, he shows that he knows there are rules; etc. All good.

And what would be better still, although admittedly harder, would be to engage the other members of the organization in the creation of such a set of rules. To invite them into a space where they could contribute in the perception, acknowledgement, and adjustment of the way they worked together. If one person on their own has good ideas about how to fix things, wouldn’t more people have better ideas still? If you could get your colleagues productively engaged, a lot of benefits would accrue, among them two key ones: you might get their buy-in to helping you enact the new rules thereafter, and you might empower them to keep on talking about and improving cultural rules forever. Which is probably the ultimate goal: to leave behind a culture that has the tools to continually improve itself.

Getting more people involved is easier said than done, I admit. Why? Well, one of the most important rules is like the movie Fight Club: we don’t talk about the rules. Our identities and social status are wrapped up in them as they are. If we mess with the rules, it’s not clear what will happen. If I am to start being honest about what needs to improve, for example, things might come up that I don’t want to change. Maybe I will be asked to get better, and maybe I won’t be able to! Very scary. Power dynamics also have a rule-reinforcing effect: we are, in general, famously reluctant to tell our supervisors what we are really thinking and feeling, and vice versa. Easy to get a group of reports to talk candidly about the rules of their relationship with their boss if she is not in the room. Harder to get to the same level of honesty with her there. But a level of semi-radical openness is what you need to surface and rewrite the rules.

The IT leader might be the only person in his organization who can safely produce a list of rules as he did. The worst case scenario for him is that his staff may politely ignore his list. There is rather more risk for a person at a lower organizational level to spontaneously propose changes like these.

Having said all this, it’s not too late for this leader’s list. You could use it, once made, to open up a conversation, even if you hadn’t involved people theretofore. It could itself be the entry into engagement; if you could get interested staff in a room, put them at ease, and build some trust, you might ask them what they felt about the IT leader’s guidelines. Which resonated with them, which didn’t, etc. You might get them to articulate one or two rules they felt were important in their own lives and work. You might get them to think about what role unspoken rules play in their organization. And so you might have the start of an effective rule-changing conversation that could both help you improve things in the short term and build the skills in the staff to continue improving things in perpetuity.

Language Shifts and The Snowplow

14 Apr

I was thinking today about the influential book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Lisa Lahey and Bob Kegan. It suggests ways that slight shifts in tone or nuance or perspective can more or less instantly transmute a difficult or problematic context into a productive one.

The shifts come in the realm of language. Lahey and Kegan suggest you can move easily from a way of talking that’s less productive to one that’s more productive. There are multiple pre-fabricated language movements you can make. My favorite example? Complaint.

With very little effort, the language of complaint (limiting) can be modulated into the language of commitment (inspiring). How? Well the leverage point or hinge is to know that both languages have buried in them a sense of values, a longing, an ethics, a desire for a certain way of life, a need to be connected or valued. In the language of complaint these virtuous components are kind of hidden or implied, but in the language of commitment they are the message itself.

For example, let’s say I don’t feel like my boss gives me enough opportunities to take charge of a project, to show what I can do, to stretch, to lead. If I focus on how bad that makes me feel, and if I don’t talk to her about it directly–“My boss won’t let me try anything new, she doesn’t value me, etc”–that’s the language of complaint. But the point here is that wanting to be trusted with leadership roles, that’s a positive thing, that’s a virtue buried in the complaint–and that’s worth talking about. It shows a path towards a different kind of relationship with your boss, one your boss might even like. Or at least be willing to try out with you. Rephrasing in terms of commitment would look something like this: “Hi boss! I would really like to have a chance to lead a project. I feel I can do a good job for the organization, and it would feel good to see the organization supporting my growth. I realize there’s some risk here because I’ve not led a project before. Can we discuss it?”

The second option, though it has the same, as it were, problem-DNA (not getting to lead a project) as the original phrasing, has a different solution-DNA: it posits a completely different world view. One where organizational and individual growth are both possible. As opposed to one where the organization is seen (by the complainer) to proscribe the individual’s development possibilities.

The shift is as simple as using different words! Ok, it’s more complicated than that. Of course, you’re thinking, there is a different way of thinking going on in the two languages. A different way of thinking, a different way of being with people, a different comfort with risk, a different role for the self, a different assumption about what should happen at work . . . a lot of things. It is a language shift, because you are changing the words you use. But much more is shifting, too. In this way it reminds me of downhill skiing pedagogy. When you learn to downhill ski, you are often taught (among other things) to just look where you want to go–that is, you turn your head to face the place you want to go–whereupon your legs and feet and hips and skis and the slope all align as it were magically to get you there. This language shift is like that. You shift your words, and the rest clicks in. The point is you get there.

I will speak to one other point, which seems important, if tangential. One of the things governing the language of complaint is fear; the language of commitment exposes fear to sunlight, and that can be scary. When we complain, something is bothering us. We don’t feel good. But, importantly, there’s the potential of a worse feeling resulting from any action that keeps us from doing anything about it. In our example, the complainer doesn’t like not being trusted to lead. But if he talks about it with the boss, he might find out that the boss really doesn’t think he’s capable. That would be hard to bear. Worse still, if he asks to lead, he might get to lead! And then there’s a chance he might publicly fail. And that would be the hardest to bear of all. Hard enough to bear that even the specter of the possibility of having to experience it keeps the complainer comfortably tucked in his language of complaint, even though it’s no fun either. It’s a known and manageable discomfort.

It would take quite a little bit of introspection for our complainer to catch himself in this loop and work his way out; Lahey and Kegan’s “language” shift offers him an easy get-out-of-jail-free card. He can look back from having successfully led a project and wonder how he got there.

 

3 Ideas on Improving Learning Transfer

12 Apr

Ever run into this problem: you find yourself energized by a workshop, seminar, or retreat, but when you get back to work, the energy fizzles, and the things you committed to do never happen?

Part of this could be an adaptive learning challenge, akin to the famous New Year’s Resolution phenomenon—that is, there might be a part of YOU that doesn’t want you to make the particular change. To the extent this is the case, you’ll need some kind of process to surface that part of you, so you can convince yourself that it is ok to change. Immunity to Change does a good job of this.

But part of this falls into another thorny, perennial, ubiquitous challenge: Learning Transfer. When you have a Learning Transfer problem, you are learning things in one context that don’t carry over to another. Much of consciously-designed, work-related learning falls into this trap.

I think a lot of traditional learning has learning transfer issues, too, but you can’t see them as easily because time elapses between school and job, or because the things you are learning in school don’t correlate to work experience directly, or because you don’t expect them to correlate directly. You’re not necessarily thinking, as you’re in an English Literature course, “this can help me at my job (which I might not yet even have) in these particular and discrete ways.” You would be thinking something like that in, say, a management seminar.

I digress. The point of this post is that three thoughts occur to me as ways to come at the Learning Transfer problem. I offer them for your consideration.

  1. Make it look like work

You can reduce the tendency for a learning transfer problem by making the learning look like work. The more it resembles work conditions, the less likely there is to be a kind of surface tension between learning in one place and doing in another. You might call this the “transplant” analogy: the idea that the “body” of work will less likely resist a new organ that it recognizes.

Questions arise, of course. If you’re at an offsite retreat, part of the point is to be away from work. How do you make that look like work? Right, I get that. I suggest you might focus on the outcomes. Make the things you produce in the learning dovetail smoothly into work. If, for example, coming out of the learning you decide to take on some new project, have your plan developed so far that it can be implemented the second you’re back at work with no obstructions. Have the people, their roles, their next actions all worked out. Have the people BE at the learning session. Make sure whatever other things they are currently doing are moved out of the way. In other words, reduce the various things and thoughts that can come between the learning and the application of the learning. To say it in another way, have the foreign language of the learning outcomes be articulated in your comforting work dialect.

  1. Make it happen at work

To take the above idea one step further, you could just design the learning to happen at work, right in the thick of your actual work conditions. After all, the body won’t reject an organ that never had to be transplanted in the first place. Instead of designing a learning opportunity as an external, stand-alone event (or accepting events conveniently designed by third parties), you could do your best to make of it something that organically arises within your own work ecosystem. On your campus, taught by your colleagues, outcomes clearly integrated into the work activities you intend them to affect. Perhaps the best way to do this is come at it this way: instead of thinking “how can I take this external thing and insert it in my work,” you might ask “how can I change work so that learning as powerful as these external events is a routine and ongoing part of normal operations”? In answer to the second question I think you will quickly imagine a variety of things, like making learning a discrete and measurable part of the job description, listing it as part of the the work team’s charge, hiring and supporting dedicated learning staff, honoring people who are learning, allowing what is learned to change what you do and how you do it, and so on. You might be thinking “but we learn all the time at work, what about that?” This is generally true, but do we acknowledge, honor, or scaffold it? Or align it with organizational goals, as if learning were really one of our main outputs? Do we think of learning as a core currency of our work, a reason we are together, the primary justification for the enterprise? We could.

  1. Make the hidden workplace “rules” discussable

Perhaps the best way to address the learning transfer problem, though, is not to make the learning less noticeable to the workplace’s immune system, or to change work to make it a natural and organic learning environment, but, a contrary angle: to make the learning, or, more specifically, the hidden workplace reactions to it, more visible. Part of the reason what you learn won’t transfer is that people don’t want it to. The workplace is a society, and it has a status quo. And in the status quo there are rules for what you do and don’t do. They control much of what happens, but they aren’t, usually, a topic for conversation. But they could be. Let’s say you’re up for a managerial role for the first time. Your organization sends you to management training. You’re ready to be a manager, and have lots of thoughts about how to get going. So far, so good. When you get back, however, your peers have to be willing to accept you engaging in your new managerial behaviors for you to be successful: there’s role for them in your learning transferring to the work environment, which they are a big part of.  In other words the rules for what you personally do, and how people interact with you, have to be rewritten.  My point is simple: you can make these rule changes more likely if you make it permissible to talk about the hidden rules. If in some safe, trust-building way, you are able to surface the rules and get people to acknowledge them, that’s a start. If you can get them to be open to making changes, that is even better. You might say something like this: “I want to try out being a manager. I know I’ve never done this before, and this changes whom I am at work and how we will interact. I will need your help making this work. You need to be ok with it. Are you ok with that? Do you have concerns? Can we talk about it?”

Schein on Dialogue

23 Aug

I am enjoying Edgar Schein’s “On Dialogue, Culture, and Organizational Learning” (Organizational dynamics 22.2 (1993): 40-51). My summary.

Dialogue in the general parlance means conversation. But dialogue, for Schein, is different. It starts from a change in mental approach–the use of a somewhat unnatural “suspension”–instead of reacting when we hear discomfiting information that triggers us, we pause for a moment, and evaluate what we’re thinking. “Is this feeling I have true? Or is it based on a mistaken perception?” we ask ourselves, and wait a bit for additional information before we decide how to act. Dialogue means bringing a kind of mindfulness, or cognitive self-awareness as we talk–“knowing one’s thought as one is having it,” says Schein.  Thinking about a thought rather than being the thought. Leaving the animal-like, mechanical push-and-pull of a conversation, and watching, as it were, partially from above.  As Schein says:

I have found repeatedly that if I suspend, I find that further conversation clarifies the issue and that my own interpretation of what may have been going on is validated or changed without my having to actively intervene.

“Not having to intervene” feel unfamiliar? Probably because conversations where people are practicing this at first feel different than other conversations. There is no debate. Instead there’s a feeling of a “disjointed . . . random conversation.” The point is not to “convince each other” but to “build common experience.” People think of the process–at first–as a “detour or slowing down of problem solving,” but Schein notes such dialogues are necessary. And he says people come to want them, once they’ve got the feel.

Why?  Why focus on building experience instead of problem solving? Because it heals the miscommunications, misunderstandings, and problems caused by clashing mental models that are a bane of organizational subcultures. For Schein, our continual problem is that we form tacit and private understandings, beliefs, norms, assumptions, languages in our different contexts, teams. or hierarchical levels, and without work at getting these on the table, we won’t understand what people in other teams or at other levels are saying. And they won’t understand us. We also won’t say we don’t understand, because we are socialized “to withhold information that would in any way threaten the current ‘social order;'” so the misunderstanding remains until the cross-functional project we’re working on stalls, and we point fingers.

But if we’re using dialogue, we’re watching ourselves thinking as we simultaneously listen to what people are saying, we’re seeing and assessing our built-in assumptions as they pop up, we’re thinking about what language means, we’re holding multiple possibilities in mind simultaneously. Because we’re suspending our reactivity in favor of listening to the modulations of the group thinking, it’s less about individuals talking to each other (as happens in traditional feedback, for instance) and more about the group as a kind of network or hive mind. A good group-think, where the group thinks and learns at a higher level than the individuals could on their own, rather than the opposite. Through the meandering dialogue process we form a new understanding of how the group uses language, how it conceives of its work, what mental models it uses, and, perhaps most importantly, we create a psychologically safe space where we can efficiently develop new languages and new models. Not to mention we also get better at using dialogue itself, until it becomes an efficient tool we can put to use whenever we feel the need.

In any event, without dialogue, says Schein–and this is the kicker–you can’t do much at all. Dialogue is “at the root of all effective group action,” it allows groups to “achieve levels of creative thought that no one would have initially imagined,” and, finally, without it, you can’t learn, you can’t change, and you can’t adapt:

Learning across cultural boundaries cannot be created or sustained without initial and periodic dialogue. Dialogue in some form is therefore necessary to any organizational learning that involves going beyond the cultural status quo.

The Hopper and the Innovation Pipeline

30 Jan

I want to talk a little bit about something we’ve done recently in the Northeast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP). NERCOMP, like any organization, is faced with a tension between doing things now and doing things later. We’re trying to direct our energy and attention to existing, operationalized activities, while still making sure we save a little bit for new ideas that may one day become wonderful and important activities in their own right. This is trickier than it seems, because it takes a different quality of mind to keep things going than it does to recruit and envision and cultivate new things to do. But you need to do both, because you need to be successful in the present, of course, and you also want to be successful in the unpredictable future.

There are two basic knots of problems you face when you try to both have new ideas and maintain existing services. One relates to the new ideas: How do get them? Where do you put them? What do you do with them? How do you turn them into something real? The other comes from the antagonistic relationship between new ideas and existing operations. How do you keep the crazy, zany, emotional, fad-like, breathless quality of new ideas from disrupting the staid, responsible, serious work of operations, and vice versa–how do you keep the harsh noon-day realism of what exists from prematurely scorching the delicate nocturnal tendrils of the new thing being born?

The solution, in my mind, has two parts: first you need a place to put ideas, and second, you need a process that tells you what to do with them. NERCOMP, I’m proud to say, is working on both.

The Hopper

How do you get these ideas? Who knows when an idea is going to pop into someone’s head, and who knows whose head it will pop into? Apart from those rare people who continuously sprout ideas regardless of how they’re received (I’m one of them), how do you make people comfortable even saying their ideas out loud, given that new ideas tend by definition to sound somewhat crazy? How do you create a culture that says proposing ideas isn’t just OK, but expected?

Well, we’re not totally sure about the answers to any of these questions. But here’s what we did: we thought we might at least lower to the minimum the work someone had to do to get an idea from their head into ours, such that while they’re still in the thrill of the moment, and before they’ve thought better of it, they can dash it off, and we can capture it. We took a simple, one-text-box Google form, put it online, and tested it with our board members, by having them pull it up during board meetings and other NERCOMP activities. Anytime they had a thought or suggestion, they could put it right into the form. We called it the Hopper, because that name made some of us envision a kind of rotating tube full of crazy ideas, like the cylinders of ricocheting ping-pong balls used famously in lottery drawings or bingo parlors. And it worked. We gathered over a hundred ideas in a matter of weeks; too many to process, really, so we stopped encouraging it for a bit while we come up with a way to regularly review and process the contents. Now we have such a process, so we’ve made the Hopper open to all NERCOMP members (here, if you’re a member) and are poised to announce it beginning with our upcoming annual conference.

The Innovation Pipeline

Getting the ideas is the first part of the battle. But then you need to know what to do with them. Here we were influenced enormously by the work of Dr. Min Basadur, whom I’ve written about before. He breaks creative problem solving into four stages– Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing. In the first step you think of the idea; in the second you flesh it out, as it were, in theory; in the third you begin to take that theory and make a plan for its implementation in the real world; in the fourth, you implement the plan.

We took Basadur’s stages as a kind of growth chart for our ideas, if you will, and let the stages tell us what we should be doing for and with ideas as they evolved. We added transition points or firewalls between phases–places you have to check in with the board to move on to the next phase. We made these check-ins progressively more difficult. Moving from having an idea to developing it (or “conceptualizing”), we thought, really only required an interested person willing to think it through. But moving from development to optimizing (which we renamed “testing”) required a legitimate plan for the test. And moving to the final phase–implementation–required data from a successful test as well as some clear ideas about where the resources would come from to operationalize the activity. We called the whole thing the “Innovation Pipeline,” and you can see one of our early (somewhat silly) versions as we were developing it.

The Innovation Pipeline has a lot of great benefits. Most importantly it addresses aforementioned problem knot number two: it protects new ideas from operations and operations from new ideas. It trains us to modulate our expectations and behaviors and feelings towards ideas as they grow–we’re gentler on the new ideas, and we ramp up the prosecutorial rigor as they come closer to operationalization, as is only appropriate. We delay, as they say, our evaluation of ideas–we don’t burden them with premature expectations of perfection. By the same token, there are three check-in points that an idea has to get past before it can really be considered operational and thus rightly become part of our routine activities, and, effectively, force us to drop or reduce some other activity to allow for it. These three check-in points are like police road blocks. Nobody gets by who shouldn’t, thus protecting our fragile operations from the threat of disruption by frivolous novelty. A secondary benefit of the pipeline is that, surprisingly, it helps people get along better. A key flashpoint in every organization is between what the creativity researchers call the ideators (people who generate cascades of possibility and love brainstorming meetings) and the evaluators (people who say no to everything new in order to continue to say yes to what they are already doing): in our pipeline the ideators get their space to think of and develop ideas before they hand them off (at stage 3) to the testers and implementors, who are ruthless. But the ideas by then are ready for reality.

In any event, there you have NERCOMP’s approach to the age-old problem of new vs. existing activities. We’re implementing it now, and we expect some iterations and tweaks before it’s perfect. A key test will be when our rank-and-file members embrace it and put ideas in the Hopper that really challenge us to grow, be creative, and innovate. Will we be able to rise to the bold new vision they propose? Only time will tell. It’s a start, and we’ll report along the way.

As a P.S. let me give a shout out to the Learning Organization Academy–NERCOMP’s intensive new professional development program. It was LOA thinking (“how can we learn better as an organization?”) that led us to tackle the problem in the first place, and research for a LOA workshop that pointed us to a solution.

The Disruption Percentage

16 Oct

I’ve been thinking about the right balance of learning and performance at work. Or the balance of disruption and consistency of action, or of painfully self-aware norm-forming and happy living within established norms.

I say disruption because I think significant learning–adaptive, as opposed to technical–is disruptive. Especially at work. At some level you are re-thinking an assumption, a rule, an understanding, a belief, and while you are in between the old rule and the rule you replace it with, you are uncomfortably aware of two alternate interpretations of the world, and you can’t float along with autopilot engaged, as we all prefer.

This disruption isn’t that big a thing when you’re in school. On the one hand, you’re used to it, because you’re reforming rules constantly. On the other, you’re not that far away from your early years, when your whole existence was a messy and constantly discombobulating attempt to understand what was going on around you. And the school environment reinforces you. You’re learning things with a peer group. You’re helped by an expert who’s led people your age through the ideas you’re facing time and again. All your time is essentially set aside for you to learn, and society is happy with you doing it. But perhaps most importantly, there’s a certain philosophical remove from what you’re learning. It isn’t yet you. Whether you really get Moby Dick or Astrophysics isn’t going to deeply affect what you think about yourself and who you are and threaten whether you can pay your mortgage and send your kids to school.

Not so at work. Here learning is harder and more disruptive, because what you’re learning is a sapper’s tunnel to your identity. The rules and norms and behaviors and beliefs that are changed in workplace learning are linked to our image of ourselves as professionals, to our sense of belonging to a social group, to our belief in our power to influence people, to protecting ourselves from shame, and then through the transverse theory of the paycheck, they’re linked as well to our sense of financial and familial stability. Our workplace norms in a sense pay our mortgages, put food on the table, get us a Bosch dishwasher, etc. These thoughts are all connected in one big constellation of dark matter stars, and it’s a way we deal with living in an uncertain world.

If you start to question workplace beliefs and rules, you trigger this system. “If what I have been doing,” people will think to themselves on a certain level, “and what people around me have done for years, and what I painfully learned the hard way to do, etc., isn’t totally right, then . . . uh oh . . . I might not be able to do the new thing expected of me,, I might loose face in the workplace, I might loose influence over the world around me, I might be exposed to shame, I might not be able to pay my mortgage, I might not be able to get food, and there goes the Bosch dishwasher, etc . . .”

That’s what I mean when I say learning is disruptive, especially at work.

But of course we have to learn. To change, to adapt. As individuals, as teams, as organizations, as a society. In a world of constant flux, that is the one constant, everyone is agreed. You can either figure out a way to activate or initiate your own learning and change in some controlled and regulated system, like a prescribed burn, or you can wait and have external change, which you can’t control, wash over you like a tsunami, or wildfire.

The idea of the learning organization is basically the former–instead of thinking that we can achieve a stable state, to refer to Donald Schon’s book Beyond the Stable State, we accept that our context is always changing, and we try to find and bake in ways to help ourselves constantly and consistently learn and change. If external change obligations come along, fine, we’ll take advantage of them; if not, we won’t sit around eating pistachios, we’ll concoct our own internal change obligations.

So given that learning and change at work are disruptive and highly anxiety-provoking, how do you do that? How do you manage to do them regularly, consciously, intentionally? Clearly you can’t change everything everyone is doing or question everything everyone is believing all at once. Without some amount of consistency of behavior and expectations, the organizational identity dissolves. We don’t know why we’re here and what we’re doing. Chaos ensues.

I like Edgar Schein’s idea. The leader of the learning organization, he says, in my beloved chapter 20 of Organizational Learning, has to simultaneously assuage his team’s anxieties and prompt people to learn and change in some particular area. “We’re ok in general, but in this little bit, we need to do something differently,” she would say. We have to, that is, finesse a kind of propping up of the existing norms, while we rewrite some of them. It’s about a balance, or a percentage. We have to reinforce our status quo in, say 80% of our work, while we help people deconstruct and reform the status quo in the other 20%. It’s like a rolling blackout, but it’s not a blackout, it’s a spotlight.

But what would the right percentage of learning–the disruption percentage— be? I think the 80/20 rule probably works just as well as any other. I come at it from the opposite angle–If you take the reciprocal of work, when we’re learning full-time, in college, say, and you look at the ratio of learning to performance, you come up with something close to the 80/20 rule reversed. The average college student, say, works 10 hours a week, and has four classes, each roughly 10 hours a week, when you add up class time and homework. That’s a 20/80 work/learn rule, and we can induce from it that full-time work could be the opposite and do OK. In addition, it’s the percentage Google has seized upon in its famous workplace learning initiative.

Of course you’ll ask, percentage of what? Of time, of units worked, of number of work “categories”? I think you can use whatever metric you settle on with your team to organize what you do. It’s a rule of thumb, after all.

The point is to be humble in the breath and scope of your norm-changing initiatives, but be bold in the consistency and continuousness which which you inexorably promote them.

Chris Jernstedt on Learning

12 Jul

Chris Jernstedt, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, spoke Monday at the Learning Organization Academy. My summary of key points:

Learning Organizations Should Map to the Brain

If we really want to build learning organizations, they should of course take into account how the brain works; fortunately, we might already be heading in the right direction: chris notes that the literature on organizational growth and change is remarkably consistent with how the brain operates.

Learning Should Include Thinking, Feeling, and Interacting

The brain’s major regions focus on three key areas: social (watching what other people do, emulating it), executive (making decisions, plans, interpretations), and emotional processing (feeling and dealing with how we feel about things). All three are integral to how the brain works; all three should be a recognized part of a learning organization (consider to what extent cognitive / executive thought is privileged now in most organizations and higher education).

Memory and Learning are Active

“Memory and learning are something you do,” said Chris. Rather than files retrieved from an efficient archive, the process of remembering is more similar, for Chris, to an archeological dig (!). Each memory is a product of reconstruction and re-interpretation (!) of a bunch of scattered bits. And the same for learning: rather than receiving knowledge as a jukebox might receive coins, we’re actually building the things we know association by association.

The Brain is Not Neat

“The brain is built to be sloppy,” Chris said. There’s a trade-off between the kinds of mental structures and processes that make for efficient memory and the kind that allow for creativity; the brain allows some sloppiness and inefficiency so we can make new connections, associate unlikely things, invent our way out of a tight corner. But in exchange we’re imperfect warehouses.

Engage or Forget

The most important thing in remembering or learning something new is to use the information actively. Engagement is even more important than overall time spent. Talk about it, write about, do something with it. Otherwise it’s gone in 24 hours, says Chris; 60 to 80% of your learning should require you to be engaged, he said; and he therefore suggested we use symbols to capture the key points of his talk (writing or images). He also stopped every few minutes to challenge us in groups with a provocative question or two. “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning,” he said.

Prompts

The brain uses prompts and incentives to help it learn. Prompts relate to its powerful predictive ability: to survive we need to know what effects follow from what causes; we’re so good at associating effects with causes that after even one highly-charged cause-effect sequence, the brain will subsequently predict the outcome of any similar cause and feel and act as if the effect had happened, even if it hadn’t. Every time you see a certain person, they frown at you? After a while you start to feel frowned-at just by thinking of that person. Good learning understands this strong promptability and tries to unpack and discharge prompt-associations that impede learning, and kindle positive ones that encourage it.

The Three Rules of Feedback

Incentives work on the other end of the cause and effect sequence–a positive outcome makes the brain feel good, and it remembers what it did to get that; then it’s more likely to do that thing later. This process is what makes feedback work so well; as long as feedback is useful, consistent, and rapid, you can effectively learn just about anything. Including to control anything the body does–even lowering high blood pressure certain degrees at your will, slowing down or speeding up your digestive tract, or keeping sperm (if you have them) from swimming. These body-related learnings require a biofeedback monitor of some kind and are done in the lab, but still: if you can control the speed at which food passes through your intestines, you can make all sorts of changes in any of your behaviors.

Transfer Requirements

For learning in one situation to be called upon in another, thus achieving the famous holy grail of “transfer,” Chris notes that the first situation needs to be as simliar as possible to the second. And practicing it three times before the transfer helps, too.

Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Work; Neither Does “Espoused Theory”

No change will come of telling people what they should do, says Chris. Rather, you have to “give them what they want when they do it.” A useful and speedy reward or some kind of feedback that tells their brain that what they just did was good. A second problem with extrinsic motivation is that the brain isn’t fooled by rhetorical positions, claims, values statements, plans, that are different than the real behavior of the individual who promotes them (see Chris Argyris’ famed “espoused theory”). People’s brains will “see” that a given leader isn’t listening to them, even if he or she espouses an open-door policy (and maybe even if they consciously believe that policy).

Stories are Important 

According to Chris, the story you create is more powerful than truth. If you’re given some pictures and told to tell “false” stories about them (that is, stories that don’t truthfully reflect the contents of the pictures), you’ll remember the stories and not the pictures themselves. Which suggests how important it is that we include stories and narratives in our understanding of the workplace environment.

The Unconscious is Powerful

“Most of what you do,” says Chris, “is unconscious.” As much as 98% (!).  Chris referred to research that shows our brain can solve math problems well before we actually know it. The conscious mind, driving to a speedy conclusion, or incapable of processing all the data, can even impair the whole brain from working: Chris noted a study that showed people who were given some minor task to occupy their conscious mind actually solved complex problems faster than people who were consciously thinking about the problem, showing that the brain has a way of drawing on problem-solving capacities we don’t know about. “The brain knows,” said Chris. The way you tap into this power is to give yourself time. Add periods of unscheduled time into the routine; places for reflection, etc.