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Four Ways to Think About Workplace Learning

15 Jun

I’ve been talking lately to people who are charged with supporting learning in their business, as part of a new (to me) genre of professionals sometimes called Directors of Learning, or Chief Learning Officers. I’ve asked myself how I would go about designing support for learning in an organization, if I were in their shoes. Here are the results. I would think about four things: kinds of learning, location of learning, the activity continuum, and the zone of learning.

1. Kinds of Learning

Technical Learning

Of kinds of learning, I think of three: technical, adaptive, and systematic. Technical learning constitutes all those fixed skills, knowledges, procedures, and competencies in which what you are learning is relatively fixed and known. You have to learn a discrete set of information or to do things in the right way. It could be about facts, steps, or cultural norms. A particular equation. A software program. A way of participating in a discussion. The knowledge particular to your profession. It’s content you master. Stuff to add to the “container of you.”

Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning, drawing on Ronald Heifetz, is different. It’s learning in which you yourself grow or change. The “container of you” gets bigger, better able to handle complex, ambiguous phenomena. In adaptive learning you discover and rewrite your assumptions about the world. Adaptive learning focuses more on the “you” part of you, or what’s there underlying the technical knowledge. Adaptive learning is more difficult, messy, and personal, and makes you acknowledge and address all sorts of anxieties, tensions, worries, and self-limitations. I would guess most workplaces are thinking about technical learning. But I would be impressed if many go beyond technical to embrace adaptive learning.


Just to show you how important adaptive learning is, I note that innovation is usually adaptive learning. That is, we’re not hardwired to innovate, and it’s not a technical skill (though it has some technical components); to be able to innovate, we have to change the way we see the world to allow it to be an ok, and not deathly-scary task: we have to learn to be ok with taking risks, failing, ideating like crazy, restraining evaluation, etc.

Systematic Learning

Systematic learning is when you attempt to understand things at a systems-level: as complex and recurring processes, like ecosystems or steam engines. On one level, just trying to see what is going on in your workplace as combination of systems–financial systems; systems of time and investment of time; systems of feelings, emotions, trust, or morale; decision-making systems; environmental systems–is already using systematic learning. The even more interesting application, though, is to the learning processes themselves. This is where you understand individual and collective learning (and their interaction with performance) as interlocking ecosystems, each with natural laws, growth, change, inputs, outputs and so on. This is probably the ultimate goal of any learning officer in a company: to have the learning systems of the company be as visible and as well attended to as well as are, say, finances.


Under systematic learning, I want to mention learning assessments, or the ways to know what is being learned. Without them you can’t “see” how you’re doing, so that you can make adjustments. If you can’t see and make adjustments, you don’t have a system that you can manage or understand. (It’s there but you have not found it yet).

2. Location of Learning

Location has two values or poles: Engaged and Disengaged.

Disengaged and Engaged Learning

Disengaged learning is learning outside of the context in which it is meant to be applied. Engaged is learning in the context. For example, you can read Ted Williams’ book about hitting a baseball, you can get someone to throw you a ball so that you can take a few swings, and you can play in a real game. Those are three steps along the path from disengaged learning to engaged learning.

The traditional view of learning is that it is disengaged. And much is. But engaged learning can be some of the most effective. If you cast your mind back over your life of learning, and you dig out one or two examples of where you feel you learned the most or the best, the chances are they will favor the engaged end of the spectrum. Engaged learning can take a lot of forms: apprenticeships, internships, mentoring, debriefs, just-in-time learning, difficult conversations, “gamified” work.

Doing and Learning

You may think that engaged learning just sounds like work, or like “doing.” Well it is. It’s a false dichotomy to think that learning isn’t doing. You have to do to learn. Yet there are also ways you can “do” that aren’t requiring much learning, where you’re essentially repeating things you mastered long ago. In my opinion, as an individual and an organization, you want your “doing” to have as much learning in it as you can. If you’re not learning a lot in the doing, that particular doing is probably ripe for automation.

3. Activity Continuum

Your learning will fall somewhere on a particular continuum I call the activity continuum. At the left end of the continuum is a kind of traditional, reductive, linear, conduit way of thinking about learning. On this end of the continuum we see learning as a kind of passive thing: we are transferring fixed discrete “things” to the learner. At the other end it’s active: the learner is understood to be doing or reflecting or making-meaning or becoming in some new, meaningful way. The poles can be seen to cohere across technical, adaptive, and systematic learning.

In the realm of technical learning, at the left pole, you will have a kind of simple, old-school lecture, or a handout. At the right pole you will have much more engagement, and probably less traditional content, more meta-cognitive thought going on, and more game-like or real-world structure. You can read a book about how to play Worlds of Warcraft or you can work through the tutorial. The tutorial falls towards the right pole. Similarly, in adaptive learning, you can learn about yourself, or you can actually work on your own behavior change. My favorite adaptive learning method, Immunity to Change, famously includes both poles. Also, systems can be understood to fall towards the passive or the active side of the continuum. There can be systems that are reductive and conduit-like, like the basic use of a learning management system (as a document repository). And systems that are dynamically changing, like something in a virtuous cycle of improvement, such as bamboo. The bamboo plant gets sun and nutrients and grows; the larger plant gets more sun and nutrients and grows more.  Eventually it’s a forest, an ecosystem.

I recommend inching towards the right pole wherever you can, but a few instances of left-pole thinking are ok. The problem is that our default is overwhelmingly left-pole, and that is an issue. (Why do we favor passive learning? Probably because it’s easier for the teacher . . . but I digress).

4. Zone of Learning

Thinking about the “zone” of learning is inspired by Vygotsky’s idea that there is a space, like a sweet spot, where you will learn best–a particular growth edge that, if you find it, will be simultaneously most compelling for you, encourage your best learning, and give you the most positive feedback, resulting in you wanting to learn even more.

This idea argues for designing learning that is tailored as much as possible to where the learner is. It requires we be able to assess where people are, and be able to adjust the learning content and experience to fit their needs. Of course the challenge in the workplace is that we will be unlikely to have the kind of master teachers, curricular experts, learning designers, and psychologists who can really make this kind of thoughtful analysis and then design learning activities to it. There are new sorts of automated assessments that can begin to help us, so some hope exists that we’ll be able to do a little bit along these lines soon. And, in any event, it is still worth asking, for any learner, what is the appropriate “zone” for their learning? If we tend towards one-size-fits-all (which is often the case), does this work for everyone? Are there basic things we can do to start to accommodate differences? What are the differences?

Another way to come at this challenge is to trust the learner. Oftentimes a self-aware learner knows best what they should be studying next. I give a personal example: I am an intermediate trombone player. I am actually more interested at this point in hearing people just a step or two ahead of me play, than I am in hearing virtuoso performers, as much as I like the latter. Why? Because the top edge of my learning zone at the moment is advanced intermediate, not virtuosity. I will learn better, grow more, and have more positive feedback with the more relevant goal.

Having Feelings and Saying Things

17 May

Let’s talk about vague feelings, specific feelings, and messages, and let’s think of these three things as steps in a linear process. My thesis is that mastery of this process helps you understand yourself better and create a better workplace.

Moments of discomfort are to be seen as Delicious Gifts

Interacting with people will make you regularly feel uncomfortable in some way. Very regularly: multiple times a day. Maybe even every single interaction we ever have leaves a little bit of unresolved ickiness of some kind or other, usually low-grade, though sometimes quite powerful. Oftentimes we just sort of bury this residual ick, for a variety of reasons, but primarily because we sense that dealing with it will be inconvenient or disruptive. Sometimes we sit and stew on it forever but do little more than stew.

I propose here that we should do neither: not bury these feelings, nor stew on one forever and do nothing about it. Instead I say we should choose a feeling now and then and drill into it to see what we can find out, and then think about what we can do about it.  Far from being inconvenient, I have come to see these little moments of discomfort as openings, epistemological opportunities, learning vectors, ways “in” to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the relations between us and others. But it does take a bit of work to unpack things, so you can’t do it every time you feel something. (But you could do it once a day, through the use of a diary, perhaps! I digress.)

Step One: Pick a Moment of Discomfort

Let’s not just talk about it, let’s try it out. Select a feeling from the feeling waiting room of the veterinarian’s office of your mind and let’s see where we go. But which should you pick? It really doesn’t matter much, as long as it is a feeling of vague discomfort arising from an interaction. Sometimes the feelings pick you: some kind of discomfort sticks with you and doesn’t seem to be going away. Maybe you’re having a hard time not thinking about it. Ok, work with that one, then. But maybe you don’t have a particular moment of unease rising of its own accord to the surface. In that case, do a lightweight scan. Cast your mind back over the last day or two, be on the lookout for things that felt slightly weird, and see which events and interactions pop out. Your mind will serve up something, and there usually is a reason for it, if it does. Go with that. Maybe you’re having a hard time coming up with something, though? Cast your mind back and find nothing? In this case, just wait, but pay attention to how you’re feeling as you go through the day. It is only a matter of time before you have something to work with.

Step Two: Define your feeling

Now you have a feeling. It’s probably vague, or ambiguous, or a combination of a lot of feelings. Your job is to try to sift out what is going on. What you are really feeling? It may take a moment or two, or even a few days or weeks, depending. But if you stick with it, eventually you will get a sense of clarity about what you’re feeling. And it will likely change as you understand it better. Where you thought at first you were mostly mad, you might discover, upon further investigation, that you are also feeling some sadness and, say, shame, or fear, or embarrassment (all common at work, sadly). One way to figure out what you’re feeling is to sort through a mental rolodex of common feelings and ask yourself if they apply. Am I nostalgic? No. Am I feeling betrayed? No. Am I feeling indignant? Yes. Am I feeling anxious? Yes. Etc. One of my mentors uses a “feeling deck,” a stack of playing cards each containing a separate feeling. You sort through them and pick out the ones that apply. You will likely discover things about yourself as you do this. Naturally, you will wonder, “why am I feeling this particular feeling,” as which point a realization about who you are or what you care about may occur or recur to you. Don’t be surprised if you are amazed at your own depths or shallownesses. Also don’t be in a rush. As in step one, if you aren’t able to get a sense of clarity about the feeling right away, don’t worry. Put it aside and come back later; you’ll eventually feel like you’ve got it more or less pegged.

Step Three: Think about your message

Now comes the part when things get interesting. The more your feelings come into focus, the more you’ll likely see that there is an opportunity to talk to somebody hidden in them. There is a sort of message in a bottle in embryo woven in among them, and if you so choose, you can pluck that letter out and drop it in the mailbox. As your feelings originally arose from an interaction with someone, that someone is probably still involved in some way. And as your feelings were uncomfortable, then there is probably some lingering issue or tension that can be addressed or discussed or acknowledged. (Note: I say can be, I don’t say has to be). It’s worth asking yourself for whom you might have a message, what the message is, and how you would say it, if you were to chose to say it. Another helpful question: what do you want or need? Yes, you probably do want or need something, and that’s ok to articulate, especially to yourself. Finally another helpful question: what would be a good outcome? As you imagine yourself talking to whomever it is, and you think about what might come of such a conversation, what end state would feel right to you, or right enough? (Hint: that’s what you should aim for, if you ever get around to discussing things with people).

Step Four: Really do think about your message

I say “if you ever get around to discussing things with people,” because you will likely not want to deliver your message. You will likely even try to avoid thinking about your message. I’ve noticed this often in myself and others. Analyzing our feelings is kind of fun; you find out more about yourself and what’s going on for you. You discover nooks and crannies you never realized you had. But as soon as you turn your thoughts to saying something, it gets real. It’s not just about you; it now implicates how you relate to others. Delivering your message will affect the world around you, alter your relationships, change things, threaten the status quo. That’s so scary that you may sort of shut down, or enter into a self-protect mode, or, like the famous danger-sensing tomato, jump out the window of the car of your thoughts. All to avoid simply thinking about talking to someone. This is quite normal, and to this I say stick with it. You don’t actually have to talk to the person, but thinking about talking to them is very helpful. Almost as good as doing the thing itself. And, after all, sometimes it might actually be best not to deliver your message; it may legitimately be too risky. I’m not in your context; I can’t know–but people who are in your context can help you decide what your message is and whether it is a good idea to deliver it–a trusted colleague, a coach, a mentor. Regardless of whether you do deliver the message, planning out what you would say is an important step. It has benefits. It’s a natural closure; it trains in you a bias for action and communication; you’re learning not to quit on the feelings until you have carried them through to a productive end; you’re more able to respond in the moment the next time something happens; and, perhaps best of all, you become more adept at talking about your feelings and needs in all circumstances (and inviting others to do the same). Why is this last point important? See below.

Epilogue: This is how you create a learning organization

I will just add a tantalizing bit at the end. All the while you’ve been reading this post you have perhaps been imagining that what we’re talking about is a kind of personal growth exploration, or a relationship-development method, or some kind of couples counseling thing. Important, perhaps, but touchy-feely, and maybe not appropriate to the hard, mean, intellectual, bottom-line focus of the workplace. But to that I say, nay! This is the most appropriate thing you can be doing in a serious workplace. A workplace that wants to survive and flourish (which investors expect, I think), has to be able to learn and grow in a changing world. Learning and growing in an organization looks just like this blog post: somebody takes stock of their feelings, and delivers a difficult message. That is the elemental component of which the molecule of learning organization is made: in fact, you might say being about to normalize this activity defines a successful organization.

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?”

The Learning Picture and The LOA Way

12 Jul

We held the second successful incarnation of the Learning Organization Academy this week.  A second wave of feedback from our participants and speakers is coming in. More than ever I’m reconfirmed in my sense that LOA (as we call it) is a wonderful, necessary, unusual professional development program. What exactly do we do there? Here’s what I think: we try to paint a picture of what a learning culture looks like, and we try to empower people to seek that culture, using our “way.”

The Learning Picture

What does a learning culture look or feel like?  It’s seeing people not as individual units but as a complex adaptive system, a kind of hyper-complexity of interconnectedness interwoven with a sense–an ethical call–that the parts and the connections between the parts and the overall system can and should continuously improve, develop, evolve, adapt, become more capable, understand more, see more, be more, do better, do more good.

It’s a feeling you’re with people who perceive you deeply and care about your development. It’s chatter, it’s movement, it’s connectedness. It’s a fascination with information or idea flow and with sharing and with perspectives. It’s information residing in between and among people. It’s a suspension of the individual and the group. It’s a hyper-individualism suspended in a bionic group. It’s icky and wonderful and true and healing and difficult to hear and necessary and life-changing like support groups and Alcoholics Anonymous. But it’s also intellectually challenging, mind-blowing, inspiring, visionary, like great keynotes or Ted Talks or moments of wonderful brainstorms or getting, say, Spinoza for the first time. It’s a kind of platonic intimacy. It’s also mindful, calm, reflective, consolidating, simplifying, like the presence of a great meditation teacher.

It’s not superficially happy, as in the avoidance of bad feelings from fear of them; because it involves a desire to improve, it requires a constant grappling with discomfort. Because it’s learning, it involves real, meaningful, true feedback. You’re supported in the grappling, though. It asks you to re-evaluate or put in context a bunch of existing structures you’ve absorbed and perhaps not really considered, that we use to make sense of the work world (and life), like production, power, authority, efficiency, limits, boundaries, success, rules, norms, the bottom line.

It’s a delight in the awareness of yourself improving, as you had when you were a kid, and a happiness in being able to help people improve, as you have when you are a parent or a teacher or a coach. Mixed with the joy of doing what you love or the simple wonder of perceiving the natural world. All this with the kind of sense of collective achievement you would have from, say, working on the crew of a winning America’s Cup yacht.  It’s Maslow’s idea of a society of self-actualized people, plus the feel of the classroom in Alfie Kohn, plus the lab-like discovery in Eleanor Duckworth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas, plus the fascination and love and being-with-people that the humanistic psychologist Carl Rodgers models, plus the mindfulness of the Buddha, plus the curiosity and intellectual stimulation of, say, Richard Feynman. Plus the fun of learning to whistle. Plus the crinkly-eyed humor of a whimsical anecdote. It’s learning and being with people the way you wish you could.

The LOA Way

So that’s the picture. So how do we help people get there? What’s our “way?” Well, we do share some tips, tricks, techniques, approaches, projects, perspectives. But I think the main part of what we do is not so much to give technological or instrumental advice or answers but to model or encourage a way of being or a disposition or an attitude.

This didn’t quite come to me until I reviewed the website of another professional development program shortly after LOA had ended. This program struck me as embodying a kind of industrial-masculine-skills-fixed-knowledge-surgical-breathless-mechanical approach. It was about learning discrete things and applying them. Cause and effect. Focused-intellectual-logical-IQ stuff. Intensely individual. Maybe I picked up a sense of underlying anger or conviction or intensity. It was a closing trap. Fixing, fixing, fixing. Driving. Mechanical.

The LOA way is the opposite. It’s perhaps more feminine, organic, slow.  It’s about perception, appreciation, spaciousness, and joy.  It’s about the context, replacing the parts in the whole, resolving dualities, healing divisions, not rushing to solutions, yet embracing spontaneity, thinking, being mindful, sensing, sensing, doing less, questioning certitude, imaging other possibilities, sloughing off a veneer of sophistication or adulthood or responsibility for a cultivated youthfulness or naiveté. It’s perhaps primarily about seeing and understanding the richness and beauty of things as they are as much as it is about gentling nudging them along.

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.