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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.

Conviction, Assertions of Truth, and Legos

12 May

Chris Argyris was rightfully annoyed by what he called “conviction,’ a word he used to describe what he saw as the (misguided) approach of most students in business school. Faced with a business decision, these students were expecting to exert influence primarily by conviction. That is, by feeling more strongly or passionately about whatever approach they were advocating, or by looking more fixedly into the eyes of their fellow deciders, or by being more furious or menacing, they were planning to get their way.

Of course there are problems with this. Not that it’s bad to believe in yourself. But if your plan with respect to guiding an organization is about how you’ll project your feelings, you’re not really thinking with sufficient complexity about the various and necessary components of a group decision-making process. You’re not thinking about: how you’ll gather and share data; how you’ll evaluate that data and the inferences you make about the data; how you’ll frame the problem; how you’ll develop options to solve that problem; how you’ll select from among those options; how you’ll set some expectations for success; what you’ll do if your first option isn’t working out; and so on.

In short, you won’t have a process around working with people to get to the truth and do the right thing. You won’t be building a thinking culture. You won’t be thinking with others. You perhaps don’t plan to engage others at all. You plan to influencecoerce, control others before they do it to you. This is, sadly, the essential theory-in-action behind many human engagements. It’s not a good method. Among many problems with it, you can’t build a longterm relationship based on coercion. And a longterm relationship is the point.

What I propose is, on the other hand, to spend your time figuring out how to put aside conviction. To not see yourself as a salient army emerging from a fortress to assault others and instead start to make yourself a thing that connects with others, a thing that serves as the ground for the connection of others, a thing that doesn’t need a fortress in the first place.

How do you do that? One ideaL avoid the assertion of truth. If you’re in a context that requires group decision-making, don’t say “x is true; we need to do y.” Instead say something like “I think x may be true, and I suggest we might try y; what do you think?” The semantic change is minor; the effective difference is huge. You’re still important, still telling people what you think the group should do, being forthright, etc., but you’re intentionally constructing the expression of your thought so that it invites the thoughts of others to snap on to it, as if it were a Lego brick. That’s the trick: make your shared thoughts be shaped like Lego bricks. Two bricks make a better thought than one.

Why should you not assert truth? Here’s why: it sets up a vicious pendulum of control flips. When you assert a truth as absolute you add a kind of social charge to it. Your ego is attached. I, your colleague, know that I can’t disagree or complicate or change or add to that idea without confronting your right to assert a truth, without challenging your existence. I have to make a calculation: is adding my information worth pissing you off, or insulting you, and all the drama that entails? In most cases people won’t want to deal with the fallout; so they let things slide. Until things get so bad that it costs less to confront you than to continue the course you imposed; at which point they assert a contrary truth, and control flips and you find yourself in the position they were in, and so on ad nauseum. You can imagine the crazy strategic moves and counter moves that would arise from leaders doing this, your organization careening all over the map like a car oversteering on an icy road. Conviction fuels this vicious pendulum.

But! Simply Lego-bricking your thought short circuits all these bad things. If you invite my thought at the beginning, there’s less social charge, I feel more comfortable adding my thoughts to yours, we get an idea that’s broader in perspective, and I buy in. We’re less wedded to a particular course. Our individual egos are not linked 1:1 to any action path. Instead our group ego is linked to a decision-making process. We’re more comfortable changing course more quickly, because no one person will lose face. We might make mistakes, but we recover more quickly, we don’t oversteer, and the car careens less. Instead of a crazy zig-zag, we might inscribe an elegant curve across the landscape of business glory.


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.


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.


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.

Deciduous Scissors

11 Jun

We recently made up a game called Curly Cravings for our grandmother for her birthday.

Here’s how it works. You make three teams. Your team is given a noun, an adjective, and a problem randomly selected from hats filled with pre-populated items of the respective categories written on slips of paper by players in advance. You’re required to conceive of a solution to the problem you draw that makes use of the noun and the adjective you draw. You then give your solution to another team, who draws a picture of it, and then to a third team, who dances it. All the while, you’re drawing and dancing other people’s ideas, too. At the end you have a “Curly Craving,” which is the 3-part combination of an idea, a picture, and a dance.

For more information, here’s a link to the instructions; and the “Picto-Instructions” image from those instructions is below. Note: the instructions make intentional use of alternate English spelling conventions adapted by our game-development team.

By way of example, in the legendary first game, one team was asked to solve the problem “Keep People From Killing the Animals” using the adjective-noun team “Slippery Eyeball.” The solution involved a rapidly moving eyeball keeping watch on all would-be animal killers, and flashing them to sleep with a powerful wink method immediately prior to the act of killing, at which point the animals would escape. We’ve lost the remarkable picture drawn of this solution, but we remember still the actor in the role of an wild, but gentle, animal grazing contentedly, the actor playing “Eye” and his dramatic wink, the actor playing a hunter overwhelmed by drowsiness even while in the very midst of aiming his rifle.

Some things I like about the game:
  • It’s an exercise in constrained problem solving. You inherit problems and try to solve them with components you have no real control over the selection of. In this way it’s like life.
  • It makes you creative. You put together things that generally don’t belong, which is the essence of creativity. “Deciduous Scissors,” one such unlikely combo, was a favorite noun-adjective pairing from another past instantiation of the game. There’s a mad-libs-like, surreal quality to the combinations and the solutions developed from them that helps people escape, as it were, from the dictatorship of conventional psycho-realism and its social restrictions, fixed attitudes, beliefs, group think, anxieties.
  • You care about other people’s ideas. You receive the ideas of other people, and you interpret them by drawing. You interpret someone else’s interpretation by dancing. This has a funny way of making you feel like the solutions are part of you, too. In this way Curly Cravings draws on the core power of other idea-sharing structures, like World Café facilitation methodology.
  • Memory is engaged. You’ll never forget a Curly Craving once you’ve drawn it, danced it, or seen it danced or drawn. Something about seeing my friend Richard (name changed to protect her identity), for example, embodying the role of a Deciduous Scissors as it “healed” a Rusted Combine-Harvester (played by me) will never allow itself to be forgot.
  • It’s inclusive. Curly Cravings uses verbal, visual, and kinesthetic thinking. As such people of almost any age and learning style can be involved.
  • Nobody wins. Even though the instructions say “vote on best” at Step 6, everyone essentially wins, because they’ve contributed part of each solution or its representation. Also, by the time you get to voting, everyone has had to dance, which serves as a kind of positive cathartic moment. After the dance, the voting is an emotional denouement and nothing more.

But the thing I like about it the most? It’s very much unlike work.

In the average workplace we generally don’t dance, draw, or combine unusual things. We generally don’t hand off our naked new ideas to others for safekeeping, nor do we act as stewards for someone else’s thoughts. On the contrary: new ideas are more likely seen as destabilizing threats to our status quo that we mush squash or commandeer.

The world, however, is slowing realizing that workplaces which overly reinforce a status quo are at a disadvantage in a context of change, when learning, experimentation, and risk are all to be foregrounded. We’re realizing we need more ways of developing new insights, creative solutions, and unexpected combinations, as silly as they may at first seem; and we need to treat these insights and sometimes-crazy thoughts, these Slippery Eyeballs, as carefully as we might treat babies, because they might just grow into the bold strategic plans that reinvent our work and reshape our industry, etc.

Use Curly Cravings at work? That sounds crazy . . . until, that is, you imagine yourself replacing the random problems like “Keep People from Killing the Animals” with an equally difficult problem that’s relevant to your work, or until you imagine replacing the randomly-chosen nouns and adjectives with resource components you have in place at work or skills your staff happen to have, etc. Then you begin to see that the solutions people playing this game might develop could be the kind of thing that helps you rethink the way you do work. It might even be the kind of place you would think of adding the “repeat” to lather and rinse (to refer to a famous case of creative problem-solving in the shampoo industry).

So maybe we won’t see Curly Cravings itself, but I suspect we’ll see a proliferation of similar kinds of simple processes designed to help us conceive of and honor new ideas. And won’t they be fun to play? I hope they keep the dancing part.