Tag Archives: learning organization

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.

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.

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.

Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (Part A)

15 Mar

Colleen Wheeler, Gina Siesing, and I presented the “Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research” this week at NERCOMP 2012; an excerpt of our presentation begins below.

If you agree with us that the time has come to cultivate learning in our organizations in a systematic, holistic way, as a kind of cognitive enterprise infrastructure—you may be interested in some other opportunities:

  • The Learning Organization Academy (LOA). We have been researching organizational learning as we build out NERCOMP’s new, intensive professional development program, designed to support you as you design and implement projects to improve learning in your organization. LOA premieres this July in Wellesley, MA, at preposterously low cost to you: if you’re interested, the enrollment pages will be opened on the NERCOMP site any moment now.
  • The Workplace Learning Survey: You may also like to take our provocative, associated Workplace Learning Survey; results of this survey will be reported on in the near future, stay tuned!
  • The Workplace Learning Road Show. For those who want to start to apply the lessons of workplace learning immediately, Collen, Gina, and I will come to your workplace and conduct a half or whole-day program with you and your colleagues that includes an introduction to the Organizational Learning literature, your own results on the Workplace Learning Survey, focused sessions on understanding your own culture and targeting areas of improvement, and sessions on surfacing individual and team-based belief systems. Write to me if this sounds fun.

Top Ten Lessons of Organizational Learning Research

10. Learning is key during times of change, yet organizations don’t learn well.

Everyone agrees that during times of change, the way to stay relevant is to learn, adapt, evolve. And we more or less have a sense of what it takes to do this—to significantly change our organization and its performance—it’s a big deal, yes, a three-year process, emotional, etc., but it can be done. That’s for changing once, though: retooling the production line to produce a new model, then just producing that model for a while.

The trick is that we’re now in an environment of constant change, so we need to forget the idea of alternating between periods of change and stability and design our organizations to be in a constant state of learning, of intentional, self-directed learning, and not just waiting for the world to intermittently force us to learn. It’s about managing a self-renewing learning ecosystem, not a factory.  This kind of always-learning organization is a higher order of learning, a much more complex structure, involving sophisticated management that we don’t really know how to do.

Complicating the problem is that we’re not particularly good at even the old change-once model of institutional learning. People by default come to act in organizations according to Argyris’ “Model 1:” they protect themselves from vulnerability, defend their teams from external destabilization, they don’t share, and they don’t trust. Which all means they don’t learn well.

9. People develop

We used to think you stopped learning at around age 21, and that after that point (when formal education generally stopped, too), you pretty much just coasted. This idea has fallen from favor; recent leaps in brain science let us see that the brain is constantly linking neurons to neurons right up to the end; Robert Kegan’s research also shows that adults can grow in cognitive sophistication over their lifetimes, changing the way they see the world in deep, meaningful ways, becoming increasingly able to deal with complexity and ambiguity. Which is good, because we’re talking about the need to teach ourselves how to grow and manage sophisticated learning ecosystems.

The catch here is that many of our behaviors and cultural structures still assume you don’t really develop. Things that focus on changing behavior rather than mindset or belief system (like performance reviews or New Year’s resolutions) are an example: they assume you can consciously decide your way through life, while the truth is that to really learn you often need to grow your consciousness itself. Another example is the cookie-cutter way we tend to understand each other and our organizations: more as changeless and rigid caricatures and less as subtle ontological and epistemological structures in constant state of flux and growth. Don’t we often identify a job and then look around for who can do it? In a learning organization we’d probably do something more like identify a job and ask what we need to do to help someone to grow into the ability to do it.

Carole Dweck’s work is telling. Her research reveals that if you think of yourself as “fixed,” say, as in “good” at something, you will avoid situations that challenge you, because you fear you’ll discover that you are not good. However, if you don’t worry about whether or not you’re good, but you focus on getting better, and if continuous improvement is your identity, you’ll crave any situation, especially the challenging ones, that can help you improve. Succeeding at getting better is of course better than failing at remaining good.

Even an institution built on improving people sometimes misses the point. Take the university. Here we dump enormous resources into the development of students, but nothing (relatively) goes to develop the staff or faculty.  But in an ecosystem every part influences every other part—investments in faculty and staff will help create a virtuous circle that lifts everyone.

8. People learn with loops and groups

Two very basic elements of learning can be summarized as “loops” and “groups.”

By loops we mean feedback loops. The basic learning cycle made famous by Kolb involves some planning, some action, some reflection, and then it starts over; this little sequence basically repeats itself in learning at a myriad of levels microcosmic and macrocosmic, in individual learning, and in team learning.

By groups we mean groups of people. Learning is a social happening (whether we think we’re alone or not). On the theoretical level Vygotsky’s famous Zone of Proximal Development sees in the social context the maximum growth potential of the individual. On the mundane it makes sense, too–clearly you can protect the vulnerability of learners and foster great conversations (important in forming loops!) when a small group of like-minded people are learning together.

An organization thinking about how it can improve its learning will thus likely spend a lot of time looking for places it can create feedback loops and add reflection to the ubiquitous planning and action cycles in the workplace. And when it’s not thinking about loops, the learning organization will be looking at its teams, how they function, how learning happens in them, and thinking about creating new learning teams or reinforcing existing teams.

7. Learning makes you vulnerable

One of the difficulties of learning in the workplace is that (as we saw above) we learn fast not to be vulnerable in the workplace.  But learning requires you to be vulnerable. On a basic level in any cognitive domain you have to be a beginner before you can be an expert: yet the workplace is obsessed with expertise and the appearance of expertise—to be thought of as less than expert, or incompetent, is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to you.

The problem is compounded for a team learning to do something new—in what we call the “double incompetency” problem, if you’re shifting resources from the old thing to the new thing as you ramp up to produce the new behaviors, there will be a point where you are insufficiently doing the old and not yet expert at the new. You’ll be liable to be called incompetent in both areas. From a traditional production perspective you should be fired.

But from the learning perspective the incompetence is required, and not welcoming that incompetence would be more or less immoral. So a learning organization will have to deal with this tension—protect the learners by retooling their expectations and the environment’s expectations, etc. And a learning organization that is in continuous dynamic development will have to learn how to also be in continuous dynamic insufficiency.

6. Learning makes the unconscious conscious

The reason we hinted above that structures that expect you to change your behavior by willpower don’t work is that we all have deep belief systems—both on an individual and social level—that govern those behaviors.  And if we want to behave differently (that is, if we want to learn), we have to adjust those belief systems.  This is the thinking behind Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work, and it emerges in Schein and Argyris as well.

You can change these belief systems, fortunately, and that is indeed the way we evolve through life: but to change them you need to “surface” them. You need to “see” the frame through which you saw the world, and in so doing you can make a new frame capable of handling more complex information.  It requires a king of penetrating self-examination and honesty in conversation that we don’t normally see in the workplace, though. Kegan and Lahey evolved a process, “Immunity to Change” that can guide you and your team in this journey; for Schein, protected conversations in safe “islands” are required to get at these deep beliefs. In either case looking for places you have conflict with the expectations of others is not a bad starting place, and fortunately, that sort of conflict is rife in work, where all our assumptions are basically thrown together and jostled about daily.

(continued in Part B)