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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.

Innovation

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.

Assessments

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.

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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.

 

B-Cognition

21 Jun

Abraham Maslow studied self-actualized people–highly evolved people, you might say, advanced in their thinking, sophisticated in their humanity, expressive, expansive, generous, loving, confident, healthy, gifted, alert–and what made them special. In particular he focused on the way they perceived.

He thought they knew things in a different way, which he called B-Cognition, short for Being-Cognition. In B-Cognition, the individual perceives the object as if the individual were part of the object. A loving, universalizing, interrelated way of knowing. Knowing the object so well that you discover in it yourself, or links to yourself, and through those links, you intuit more links–to everything.

A way of looking or knowing that encompasses the object’s existence and your own existence and so is also a kind of being, hence the name. A way of knowing that radiates love, joy, contentedness, acceptance, appreciation, forgiveness to those in contact with the individual.

The great people manage to exist in B-Cognition; the rest of us get in there now and then: in the process of artistic creation, listening to music, in meditation or in mindful moments, walking in the woods, in a moment of “flow,” or generally, in moments of being teased out of routine cares by things.

Maslow distinguishes B-Cognition from D-Cognition, which we all use all the time, to my everlasting chagrin. This is Deficit-Cognition, perceiving in a way that separates the looker from the looked-at. Judging, categorizing, assigning relative value, assessing relevance, bracketing off, determining usefulness or beauty, investigating logical truth, etc.

D-Cognition is the lens through which we see each other and the world: “To what extent is this thing useful to me?” we are asking at some level every time we perceive anything. Or perhaps the question we ask ourselves has another form, too, coming from a position of anxiety: “Will this thing impede or injure me? Expose a vulnerability?”

If you pay attention to the flicker of thought in your mind and in the faces of others as you meet them in the street or in the office (imagine doing this!), you’ll see D-Cognition at work. Instantaneous judgements and rankings and assessments and associated thoughts and anxieties well up with every glance, no matter how fleeting.

I think D-Cognition is basically the only perceptory apparatus of the workplace, which is logical, I suppose, because the prevailing idea at work is that we are practical, efficient, and attuned to the bottom line, and we need to judge, judge, judge, judge. Or be judged. 

In aesthetic and academic circles I think there might be a little more room for B-Cognition. A scholar writing about Wordsworth, for instance (I picked him on purpose!), I hope, is (or was at some point) motivated by a B-Cognition-like experience of (or with) the text. Of course she then writes about it and has to defend her writing against other scholars and other interpretations and in creeps D-Cognition.

Maslow’s study of perception connects with other similarly-oriented ways of thinking. My personal saint and philosopher, Henri Bergson, always sought “pure perception,” for instance, which was to be achieved by intuition, a penetrative, organic, knowing-from-within, like B-Cognition.  I remember writing in my Master’s thesis decades back about the experience of using intuition on a text and hypothesizing that at some point down in the trenches of that perception you were seeing yourself or seeing an interplay between yourself and the text that changed both. Some kind of quantum effect.

B-Cognition is also a good way to describe the goal of mindfulness and meditation, very popular now (and deservedly so) in our frazzled, overloaded, hyper-material, people-argue-with-each-other-on-TV, tabloid-y culture.  These activities, coming out of the Buddhist tradition, focus your attention to your inner experience of life in the moment; and one of the key points, as you come to know yourself, is to come to know yourself as existing in a kind of suspension of selves, one big oneness. Mindfulness chips away at the unhealthy personal and interpersonal effects of D-Cognition and aims to get you to the place where you can radiate in all directions the kind of contentedness and love that Maslow’s modern Buddhas did.

B-Cognition and mindfulness also align with Constructive Developmental Psychology, which I’ve mentioned a few times, and in particular with the fabulous 5th stage of Robert Kegan’s hierarchy of epistemological sophistication.  This is the stage where your interest in being a “self” fades and you begin to take very seriously other selves and relations between selves. You laugh happily at your own fallibilities, which you would never do if you were trying to keep your you-ness intact.  And of course they align with all those wonderful, inscrutable, contradictory, healing messages from thinkers and artists working along the same lines. Walt Whitman, of course. Maybe something in the Cubists. Etc.

I like the path Maslow took — starting with a psychological investigation more or less according to the way of Western science (although feeling perhaps more like archaeology than psychology?), he ended up confirming what he was seeing by drawing similar connections to thought in non-western-scientific containers: religion, philosophy, aesthetics, literature.

One last point that I think is key. In B-Cognition, we have the data of D-Cognition, plus much more. It is not that we suddenly lose our ability to discern or to think; B is not intellectually inferior to D. Those D-data are all there, but contextualized, re-membered, put back together, held together with contradictory information, resolved, understood in a different way by an epistemology at a higher order of complexity. A small piece replaced in a big puzzle.

For myself I’m about getting more B-Cognition to the people. At work, in life. On a personal level, on a local level, on a national level. B-Cognition of others, and maybe more importantly, of themselves. Appreciation of B-Cognition. Restitution of wholeness and relatedness in the deconstructed and compartmentalized lives of people.

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.

Being Creative Together

12 Jun

Have just read Min Basadur’s article “Leading others to thinking innovatively together: Creative leadership,” in The Leadership Quarterly 15 (2004). It’s interesting!

Basadur suggests that the big task before all of us in this global, fluid, disruptive age is to manage our organizations for adaptability rather than for efficiency (the traditional focus). Adaptability requires being creative together. We’re not good at being creative together, however; says he: “the attitudes, behaviors, and skills necessary for creative thinking are underdeveloped in many people” (106).

There is fortunately an easy-to-understand creativity life-cycle or process that’s made of four stages, each with its own kind of thinking, and people, it seems, orient to one of these stages by preference (111). The stages are Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing (112). (Which, I note, seem to generally correspond to the Learning Cycle and areas of brain processing; see my previous post on the topic.)

The problem is that, not knowing the different phases of creation, nor their preference for one or the other, people generally jumble all the phases together, achieve naught, and annoy each other.

Basadur describes the kind of meeting this leads to as “undisciplined discussions where facts, ideas, points of veiw, evaluations, action steps, and new problems are interjected randomly” (110). The person oriented to optimize, which calls for “rational, systematic, and orderly analysis” of a project-moving-towards-implementation, for instance, is not open to the incomplete and weird ideas unleashed by the person oriented towards generation (I have that orientation, for the record), who uses engagement with the world, emotions, empathy, and other unpredictable things to concoct “problems, opportunities, and projects that might be worth solving” (112, emphasis mine).  This of course, leads to the famous “how to kill ideas” situation, which Basadur describes as an insufficiency in the basic creativity-thinking skills of “deferring judgment, keeping an open mind, and thinking divergently” (106).

On a side note, Basadur aligns with Chris Argyris in seeing defensive reasoning as another block to creativity: people, says Basadur, “wait for others to find problems for them to solve,” (108); avoid “unsolvable” or cross-functional problems (108); desire to be seen as “practical and economical above all things,” and thereby tend to shut down strange new ideas (106); and “get mired in arguments about functional issues to protect their ‘turf'” (110)–all different ways of prioritizing political safety over productive thinking and creativity. Not good in an age of change.

The way to slash through all this is simply to help people with process.  A leader who knows the phases of creation can act as a creative “process coach” (111) making sure the group knows and honors the phase they’re in and uses and appreciates the particular cognitive skills the phase requires (106).  A good process-focused leader can even go so far as to predict the kinds of help individuals would need based on their orientation, and be prepared to supply that. Such a leader helps the strong optimizer, for instance, “discover new problems and facts.” In my own case, my creatively-oriented leader would help me (the generator) “convince others of the value of [my] ideas and push [me] to act on them” (116).

Importantly, Basadur notes that the highest-performing teams include a representative mixture of people orienting to the four phases of creation (115). But he also notes that people tend to gravitate towards people of like orientation, such that work teams and even professions tend to be made up of one dominant orientation (117). AND he notes that people report higher satisfaction in teams where they’re with birds of a feather (115). So there’s some natural resistance to be overcome: the leader has to consciously combine people with different orientations and help them work together; the diverse team “may experience more frustration initially” but “will achieve more breakthrough results as they learn to mesh their styles” (117).

There are some work-related processes that probably don’t fall under creation (maintenance of existing functions), but these seem less important now than in static environments of years past; Basadur’s model seems helpful for a wide breath of challenges we face at work, and should make up part of any workplace’s ethos. Thinking about the normal flow of creative–or cognitive–process  in the development of ideas and initiatives, and seeing our own orientation towards phases within that process seems particularly helpful.

The Box, The Trellis, and the Marketplace

8 May

We invited community members to come talk about about IT Governance and help us figure out the right way to go about it in our school. As I was listening to the conversation, it occurred to me there were two ways to look at it.

For the record, IT Governance refers to a structured process for campus-wide decision-making about IT policies and services. Like what your LMS is, or how long you should wait before your desktop computer is refreshed, or whether your department or a central unit pays for your copy of Chem Draw Ultra 12.0. When governance works, everyone knows what the campus IT policies are and how decisions are made, and everyone feels she or he can have input into the decision-making process. Even if a particular decision didn’t go your way, you at least know the reasoning behind the decision.

IT Governance as a Box

When you first hear of things like “governance” or “committees” or “organizational structures,” you might tend to think of them as restrictive, top-down organs of control. Your lizard brain throws up images perhaps of misty, star-chamber-like, inscrutable rooms and byzantine processes issuing strange unilateral edicts that are action-oriented and constraining, and focus on products, stress “implementation” and “projects,” and use mysterious jargon that makes you feel like there’s something you’re supposed to know but you don’t.  Things that seem safely removed from the more organic ebb and flow of your daily life, yet there’s a nagging anxiety in the back of your mind that the decisions might sort of pop up at the 11th hour and disrupt what you’re working on—you might discover, that is, that a new presentation software became the campus standard the night before you’re set teach using your well-tried PowerPoint deck, and it no longer works, and now you look crazy in front of your class, etc.

This dread vision is what you might call IT Governance as product-oriented instead of people-oriented. As a system that limits decision-making for efficiency’s sake to a few people, doesn’t include everyone, doesn’t allow for a lot of input, and doesn’t really seek to understand what people do on a daily basis and what their needs are. It’s not about helping people grow; on the other hand, it constrains, no matter how well-intentioned it is, as a box might. I have to admit such an image popped up in my own head at one point, but there’s another way to view IT Governance.

IT Governance as a Trellis

As part of our conversation, we looked at such other IT Governance processes as were easily available on the web. Some systems of decision-making out there are (as you might suspect) amazingly complex; some are less so. Significantly, though, many have features that do not fix the star chamber model. For example, Western Carolina University calls IT Governance an ongoing conversation, that “will occur not just within the governance meeting structure.” Salem State University’s IT Governance web site takes the time to explain the various “sources” of project ideas, which can come through formal channels or even “casual conversation between department heads” (and hopefully other people, too . . . ). The University of Texas at Austin lists the six cardinal values imbued in their governance process, and “transparency” and “communication” top the list.

A conversation? Something that allows for sharing of ideas between equals, that could happen in a formal setting, or in an informal setting? Among anyone? Emphasis on the messy beginnings of new ideas, lurking on the edges of existing projects, that might come from anywhere? Unabashed promotion of communication and transparency? This all suggests a desire to admit a constant stream of destabilizing novelty (or what I call an Information Sluice)! The opposite of the bureaucratic sublime. That’s a governance process that includes people as they are, in their actual walks of life, and invites their input. That’s a governance process that has change and growth built into it, a structure like a trellis, that allows for a plant to bloom in the new, vertical dimension. Not a black box.

IT Governance as a Marketplace

My local community is headed in this direction, too. When we talked about what we want to achieve with our IT Governance structure, the primary idea expressed was “more communication.” “We don’t know what’s going on,” “there needs to be a better way to talk to each other than email,” and “we need people who can serve as nimble liaisons negotiating agreement between areas of disciplinary knowledge and areas of technical knowledge,” were the kinds of things we said.

And we decided that to help with this communication we need a “marketplace,” or an easy way to know what everyone else is doing and see what solutions and problems other people are creating and dealing with. So that we can better build on and integrate our various local initiatives, instead of creating new, parallel, redundant, isolated projects. Such a marketplace, we thought, should be easy to search and easy to add to.

This marketplace sounds a bit like the kind of “ideation platform” or “idea stock market” I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Sounds a bit like the Internet itself, in fact, used as a metaphor of facile connectedness, of grass-roots, horizontal, non-bureaucratic engagement, with low-threshold entry requirements, applied retroactively unto the world itself, the child teaching the parent.

IT Governance as Email Fixer

Just a thought about email, which we thought was the kind of thing IT Governance could help us change. I think it’s a commonplace that our current use of email is less than satisfying, seeing that it is co-opted by everyone for every kind of communication: official institutional pronouncements, lightweight invitations to lunch, your mom to check in on you, your department to remind you about an upcoming talk, to let you know your water bill payment went through, to ask you to come to the PTA meeting that night, to share the project management charter, to ask your boss for time off, to tell you to check in for your flight, not to mention the inundation of unsolicited business-related emails, spam, etc. There’s so much crazy stuff in there opening the inbox is like our own personal version of Fibber McGee’s hall closet gag.

Email is a social problem as well as a technological problem. One where we have to talk to each other and agree on the parts to fix and try things out and adjust those things and ask ourselves to honor new conventions of behavior and give ourselves feedback on how we’re doing and so forth: pieces both mechanical and behavioral, individual and communal. Now if IT Governance can help that to be fixed (as we seem to think it can), that’s a different kind of governance. That’s not about circumscribing behavior. That’s a way to identify and heal problems that go deeper and broader than technology, that’s a meta-view on the way we live life and talk to each other, that’s about finding well-being together wherever we can, that’s about community, that’s about getting issues out into the open, that’s about being vulnerable and trusting each other, that’s the kind of thing that makes life worth living. That’s the kind of IT Governance we need.