Tag Archives: organizational learning

Leadership Development Part 2: Supporting Flat, Vertical, and Growth-edge Learning at Minimal Cost

21 Dec

This is the second part of a two-article series on a way to support Leadership Development that is radically effective, gives any organization an instant competitive advantage, and costs little.

In a previous post I described the difference between “flat” learning (shorter-term, skills-based, cognitive, discrete, disconnected) and “vertical” (longer-term, deep and unifying, all-encompassing). I noted that vertical learning leads you to form increasingly sophisticated understandings of yourself and the world, which in turn help you handle complexity. The world is complex, it goes without saying. And leadership challenges get increasingly complex as you move up the ladder, so to prepare people for them, investment in vertical learning makes sense. I also noted that we’re all slowly growing on this deep, meaningful level, anyway–especially if we’re in challenging roles–so the trick is not so much to conceive of and shoehorn a wholly new and foreign way of learning into a workplace ecosystem: supporting vertical development just means you find ways to amplify, reinforce, improve, intensify, or engage healthy processes that are already there.

What would it look like to improve vertical learning at work? Here’s a recipe.

Assess in a Topic Area: Decision-Making

It’s a principle of improvement that if you can see how you’re doing, you can improve faster: this “seeing how you’re doing” is, of course, assessment. Advanced assessments emerging in recent years can give us a sense of where we are on the life-long track of vertical learning; known as “developmental” assessments, these tools feel different than other tests: they use open-ended questions, or a guided conversation, to lead you to talk about the world, and they look for deep structures in your thinking that are visible through the way you talk about things. One of my favorite of these assessments is the Subject Object Interview, which can tell you your level of development according to Robert Kegan’s scale of ego development. But the assessment I am thinking of for leadership development is a different one: it’s the Lectical Decision-Making Assessment (LDMA), created by a spunky nonprofit specializing in developmental assessment: Lectica. The LDMA uses open-ended questions to measure your vertical level in the context of decision-making, according to the much-researched “Lectical Scale” of hierarchical complexity. Why this particular content area? There are other ways to approach leadership: through ethics or reflective judgment, for instance. The advantage of decision-making is that is it as once practical and deep: decision-making is perhaps the most important facet of leadership; after all, making decisions is what leaders do. So getting better at it pays dividends immediately; but it is also a rich terrain of philosophical inquiry, drawing on a complex expanse of ideas, concepts, and frames of meaning, so it’s a fruitful context for working through the layers of ambiguity and complexity that you will encounter as you progress on the vertical dimension.

Make that Assessment an Embedded, Formative Assessment

So now we have a way to assess your vertical level in the topic area of decision-making. But we need to do more than assess your level; we need to think of that assessment as part of a regular, ongoing learning process. We need to commit to working on improving in vertical learning over a long term period (say, of years). For one thing, that’s the time scale of change in vertical learning; for another, if we can commit to investing a little time, then we get two special gifts: first, we can use the assessment regularly to show us how well we are progressing; that makes it an “embedded” part of the learning process. But more importantly, we can use the data from the assessment to directly help us progress. The LDMA, for instance, tells us how we are thinking now, but it also tells us how we are about to think. Because it is built on a scale of increasing complexity that extends well beyond anyone besides Einstein, the LDMA knows what’s coming for us. Importantly, it doesn’t obscure this knowledge: it openly describes the next step on our path in a way that’s accessible to us, and even intriguing. Using an assessment this way is “formative.” The LDMA makes its formative use particularly easy by going one step further. It offers individualized learning recommendations targeted to our learning level, from articles and books to specific hands-on activities.

Add Back Some “Flat” Learning

So we have a long term commitment to learning, and an assessment that both tells us where we are on the level of vertical development in decision-making and helps us see and work towards the next step. That’s a lot already; but we can add more. We started this article by making a distinction between “flat,” skills-based, short-term learning, and vertical development. But in truth there is no real reason to exclude flat, shorter-term learning just because we’re working on vertical; in fact, the two go together. In whatever context we work in, there is a constellation of key skills used on a regular basis that you might reasonably want to work on as you gain in experience–and you might address these skills in a sequence of short bursts of learning. This, in fact, is the approach of most Leadership Development programs. The LDMA recognizes the value of a combined approach and identifies a handful of skills important in decision-making, among them: communicative capacity, perspective taking, perspective seeking, perspective coordination, argumentation, and decision-making process. It assesses them at the same time it assesses your vertical level: this adds an additional dimension to the assessment; now we’re not just assessing your growth at the deep, vertical level, but we have some focused, practical skills related to that growth that we can also work on simultaneously.

Identify your Growth Edge and Design Activities to Engage It: In Your Workplace

So now we have a lot of data: in the domain of decision-making, we’re looking at how we’re doing at deep levels of vertical development, and we’re tracking how well we do in a variety of relevant associated skills, any one of which might have been the centerpiece of any other leadership development program. We also have a list of resources and activities we might undertake as part of our learning. The challenge now becomes mining the data for the parts that are most relevant to us, and thinking about what to do. We’re looking, in other words, for our growth edge: the individualized, deeply personal part of our learning that seems most compelling and rewarding to us. How we frame and think about this will be different for everyone; but the point for everyone is to design some activities that would activate or instantiate or explore that learning edge: research, real-world engagement, experiments, conversations. These activities we will frame as short term, iterative learning projects. Lectica’s way of modeling these is helpful: they use the acronym “VCoL,” or Virtuous Cycles of Learning, to describe the components of successful learning activities: for each, you should make sure you’re engaging in a fully-formed process that starts with a goal, seeks information, applies it, reflects, and sets a subsequent new goal. We’re creating a process, that, if it works, can continue indefinitely; in fact, a Lectical assessment is designed to give you a year’s worth of data to unpack and explore in this way.

One key point: the design and implementation of these individualized learning sequences happens in the normal ebb and flow of life and work–it’s not something that requires an off-site–it therefore avoids the well-known problem of learning transfer, and it’s immediately effective. The workplace effectively becomes the place of learning, supported by the use of the assessment, and under the guidance of a coach. Which brings me to my next point.

Use a Coach

Does all of this sound like a lot? It is. Processing the rich data from the LDMA, considering how it reflects your life and work, comparing what you’re learning there to what you’re seeing elsewhere in your life, looking for central themes that can evolve into your growth edge, identifying ways to design VCoLs that instantiate the learning in meaningful and practical ways, implementing and following up on those VCoLs: that’s a lot to do on your own, while you still have a job to do and a life to live, and an even bigger job if you you’re new to the ideas of vertical learning, VCoL design, decision-making, formative assessment, and so on. For that reason, I think you’ll do better with a coach: someone ideally very familiar with the assessment you’ll be using, expert at identifying growth edges, comfortable with designing personalized learning around those growth edges, familiar with what it takes to implement an iterative sequence of personalized learning activities, and able to help you make sense of everything. Fortunately, coaching with the LDMA is similar to other developmental coaching (like Immunity to Change, for example), and Lectica provides coaching certification training, so there is a rich pool of coaches available to draw from.

Instant Competitive Advantage: But at What Cost?

Assessing regularly with a developmental assessment; using that assessment in an embedded, formative way; mining the data to develop and implement personalized learning activities in your context; and working with a coach: these are the key components of what I think make a remarkably robust and, really, revolutionary way to support vertical development of leadership. There is very little extant in the workplace that can compare in terms of the learning enabled: this approach has such dramatic potential to increase an individual’s ability to lead, I see it as an immediate competitive advantage for any organization that undertakes it. But what is the cost? Let’s think about that for a minute. The cost of the assessments is minimal; Lectica is a nonprofit committed to keeping costs low; so the investment is essentially the time invested and the cost of the coach. If we imagine a coach working with you every few weeks for a year; at, say, 20 sessions of an hour each, we’re looking at something like $2,000 – 3,000 per person; at scale it’s cheaper. A coach working full time might manage 40 or 50 program participants, for example, as well as perform some administrative and reporting duties (reporting on the progress of the program, for instance).

Alternative: Use A Developmental Assessment With Your Leadership Development Program

Maybe hiring a coach full time or paying $2,000 as in individual feels like a lot. Maybe you already have an active, successful leadership development program that you don’t want to throw out! If this is the case, there are alternatives. One is to continue to use your program to focus on the identified skills you deem important to leadership in your context, and to supplement it with the LDMA, or other developmental assessments, to begin to add a component that supports vertical learning. Doing so has a lot of advantages. Among them: you’ll only be paying the price of the assessments themselves; they can serve as objective assessments of what is being learned in your leadership program; and, because they are designed for a variety of contexts and topics, one or more of them will likely touch on whatever skills you are specifically targeting, and so help reinforce those skills in a formative way.

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Talking about the Rules

24 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Ideas on Improving Learning Transfer

12 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Make it look like work

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

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

  1. Make it happen at work

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

  1. Make the hidden workplace “rules” discussable

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

Schein on Dialogue

23 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

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.

The Sluice

4 May

There’s a thing I’ve found that a lot of people want in their lives but don’t have. Today I’m calling it the information sluice. Other times I’ve called it an epistemological entry vector and other, even sillier, names.

The idea is that in an age of change you need lots of data about your environment and your options, and these data have to be a kind of stream or flow rich in nutrients that is both constantly regenerating but also getting processed, evaluated, the good stuff noted, and pulled out, and built upon. Like an oyster filtering specks of food out of the ocean or a classic newspaper clipping service on a massive scale. Or the baleen of all the whales together, or some kind of moisture collector system perched on outcrops of rock in a romantic desert on the planet Dune, or, in my new way of looking at it, as if it were a sluice.

You can pan for gold painstakingly in the stream alone with your hole-y overalls and your one little pan that doubles as your complete set of table china, and you can might pick up a little gold dust. That’s the analog grammarian’s way of prospecting, maybe.

But you can also build a living channel to direct a big onrush of water to slowly wash the hillside away and you can create some filters in that sluice to net the fish, as it were. Put a weir in your sluice. And you can have some people watching and tending and regulating the flow and adjusting the filters, or the stakes in the weir, learning which size mesh to use, etc. That’s the Corpus Linguistics gold mining method. That’s gold prospecting at volume.

The bad part of this sluice metaphor is of course that in the real world this kind of mining destroys the earth. The good part of the metaphor, though, is that there’s a flow and it’s constant and refreshing and it generates a lot of dirt, but wondrous good stuff, if you tend it, and you’re attentive in your tending, comes out of that dirt. And you wouldn’t get that wondrous goodness by just sitting around camping or watching TV or panning in the old way, staying on the surface, that is. And of course this is not real earth we’re talking about but rather the hillside is of ideas, an inexhaustible mound, and the gold is not gold but the invaluable, discomfitting idea, the game changer, the second idea that adheres to a first and makes a connection, etc.

A workplace with a sluice has a group–or everyone–involved in the process of gathering and sorting and sharing info. This gathering could be conducting primary research, it could be reading other people’s research, it could be reading blogs, it could be site visits and talking to people, it could be taking notes at community meetings, it could be listening to feedback when you give a talk. It’s probably a smorgasbord that combines formal and informal kinds of knowing across disciplines, mixing the sublime and the ridiculous, and mixing now and then, because the good ideas are not going to be in the places you’d expect. You have to look where you don’t want to look. The ideas that change the way you think about things aren’t going to pop up comfortably pre-categorized within an existing system. They’ll misbelong, like jokers in the card deck, and they’ll have been discarded or ignored by people playing according to Hoyle.

A key part of all this is the conversation between the sluice-tenders. For one, no one person can filter as much as three or four or five, so more learn faster over all than their individual parts, if they share. For two, the other people serve as the necessary feedback on your own filtering: confirming whether your mesh is set correctly, etc. For three, it’s more fun when you learn with other people. This conversation and sharing requirement is important to talk about, because it’s hard. It’s relatively easy to have a one-person sluice. But it’s hard to build it up between several people, and it requires more investment in communication and willingness-to-be-affected-by-others than I think most people expect to make except in their personal relationships, if even there.

Which may explain why it it seems most people don’t experience work as a sluice-tending, weir-adjusting, gold-gathering process. Some people seem to want anything but a flow of new, possibly discomfiting data (although they probably wouldn’t mind if someone else managed the data and delivered them in safely wrapped packages like a lamb chop from the butcher’s). They are happy to simply camp by the creek (and maybe not even prospect at all). But many people do want the sluice, and often they feel alone in the wilderness, intuiting that there’s a limit to their pan-prospecting, but not knowing where to find the partners to aid in the construction of the torrent (and maybe even a little afraid of that torrent themselves).

But I suspect that sluices are on the way. I talk too much about what age it is. I’ve said it’s the Age of the Gums, the Age of the System. I’ll do it again and predict that this will be the Age of the Sluice. In a recent post I noted the trend in the business community to see people’s ideas as a thing to cultivate and grow and tend and respect, as a forester loves a forest of pine–that’s a pro-sluice mentality. At an IT Governance meeting on campus the other day I was delighted to hear a broad-based outcry for a kind of “marketplace of ideas,” through which everyone could know what everyone else was doing–that’s a pro-sluice idea, too (I’ll blog on this particular event later).

Before I leave you, three additional thoughts.

1. It’s Recursive. A weird thing about this sluice — when it really works, what comes out of it changes the people using it, and changes how it works itself. Or you might say, the person-sluice hybrid evolves. On a simple level you can see that happening when people adjust the filter mesh for better results. But this kind of double-loop learning has infinite possibilities for spiraling evolution into unknowable complexities. So we have to see the sluice as a thing to some degree turned back upon itself and always in the process of becoming something else. What would that something else be? A sluice that evolves into a sluice of sluices, a meta-sluice? A sluice that fills the mound of ideas back up, that discovers, evaluates and creates? A sluice that takes away its need to be there, like self-absorbing stitches? I am not sure. Let’s find out.

2. This is what all those smart people do. You know those Ted talkers and Steve Jobses, people who are always popping up with wisdom and new ideas and opening your mind to something–they have found a way to have a flow of ideas pouring through, they are looking for good ones, and when they find them they hold them and start to layer others on as they come in. Doing it makes you better at doing it. This is how they are able to keep generating their Ted talks.

3. Having ideas is an artistic skill. Alan Kay says learning to have great ideas is a mastery skill like any other, like playing an instrument, say, and if you put in 4 – 5K hours, you’ll get there (this from a NITLE talk I summarized in a recent post). As he said, “A good idea is really improbable, but you won’t have any if you filter too early.” The trick is learning to adjust the filter and increasing the probability by accelerating the flow. The fine arts reference is meaningful–artists know all about this sluice idea. What does a painter do, sit around waiting for an idea to pop up and only then get out her paints (the gold-panning method)? Or does she paint a lot and consistently and every day, and discover in her flow and volume the nuggets that become the elemental matter of her personal periodical table? Ask Stephen King or Anthony Trollope: it’s the second option.

4. In another way the sluice is a replacement of school. Your formal education is kind of like a sluice that someone else filters, pointed at you. You wake up every day and have ideas dumped on you; isn’t that the general experience? That’s bad in ways–as in it’s a kind of teacher-centric focus on content that the progressive pedagogy movement has decried for a long time–but in others it’s not bad. Having the intuition or habit of what a flow of ideas is, learning to feel a passionate need for that flow, sense that that flow is related to your personal growth, that’s all good. For many these feelings are lost when they shift to work, and they desperately want to replace them, and I think that’s a salutary impulse. The trick is, of course, to see also that you need to be the sluice-tender, not just the passive recipient, because the thing you’re changing is your way of knowing, not the cumulative amount of knowing you do.