From nothing to something: How to create learning experiences on the fly

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Creating learning experiences on the fly is one of the many talents of Master Facilitator and Performance expert Thiagi.

Here’s just one example of an experience he recently created, and highlighted in his monthly newsletter. What you’ll find is that facilitating meaningful discussions on leadership, communication, and teamwork doesn’t necessarily require a 50-page slide deck or months of instructional design time.

What it does require, is a willingness to a) use what’s in the room (not just the materials, i.e. chairs… but the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of your participants) to co-create a meaningful and impactful learning experience.

Here, Thiagi recounts a recent training session where he walked into the room to see the chairs arranged in a single line.

I took one look at the room set up and thanked my lucky stars for providing the perfect arrangement for an experiential exercise. I told the participants to organize themselves into four groups of six. I asked one person in each group to act as a non-participating observer. I assigned myself the observer’s role for the group that had only five members. I asked each group to spend 7 minutes to plan how to rearrange the chairs in the room to permit teamwork and small-group discussions. I called the observers and gave them specific suggestions on what to watch out for.

After the 7 minutes of planning, I asked members of each group to hold one-on-one conversations with the members of the other groups. After about 5 minutes, I asked the groups to revise their original plans to please the members of the other group. Each group presented its final plan. The plans included removing all the chairs to the hallway and conducting a stand-up session, arranging the chairs in six clusters of four, arranging 24 chairs in a large circle, and letting each participant own a chair and carry it around whenever a new configuration was required. We conducted a poll to choose the best approach (which turned out to be each participant lugging his or her chair around) and spent 5 minutes implementing the plan.

This activity provided valuable experiences related to communication and leadership. I conducted a debriefing discussion with these types of questions: Who assumed the leadership role? Who talked the most? Who came up with the best ideas? How did you listen to the others in your group? To the people from the other groups? How did you attempt to persuade the others? Who kept track of the time? Who took notes? What would have happened if I assigned the leader’s roles to specific participants?

These questions and the responses from the participants and the observers formed the foundation for leadership and communication principles and procedures that we explored for the rest of the day.

Instead of lecturing about leadership to begin the session, Thiagi designed a simple experience for his participants to learn by doing – and to guide the debrief towards specific learning outcomes.

Simple, yes. Effective, yes…  if we can create the conditions and ask the right questions to pique curiosity and spur reflection, then we have more tools already at our disposal than we realize.

The story secrets of organizational change

In the world of Storytelling and Organizational Consulting, similar mantras are drilled into us – different words, similar meaning:

1. Make the audience the hero

2. Meet the client where they are

Both of these mantras speak to empowering people and companies, to help them feel, think, do, and see things differently so that they are called to action to enact change.

What this boils down to is – I see you (the client, the character, the company), where you are, for what you are…and I believe in you.

What this requires of us (those who lead change efforts and write the words to inspire) is patience, and a bit of scaffolding.

The best example I’ve seen of living out both of these mantras was Columbia University Professor William Duggan. I write about him often, and, nope, I probably won’t stop.

He had important words say, to teach, and to share. He drew us in carefully and artfully, by speaking the audience’s language (read, mostly MBA students), and skillfully partnering with them to help students come to important realizations themselves. Three acts. Small steps. A slowly built narrative balanced with equal parts logic and emotion at just the right times, each chapter asking for a bit more of us as we went.

In awe of his art, I asked him how he crafted his semester-long class. What was his secret?

Make the audience the hero. Meet them where they are.

He was teaching a slightly unconventional topic and wanted his students to come along for the ride. How often have we too had a great idea, something we care deeply about sharing, and want others to join in on? Hands up, everyone! I see you.

His reminder – you can’t do that by forcing an idea. That’s all head, no heart. He metaphorically held the idea and the a-ha out for his students in his out-stretched arm. And carefully crafted a sequence of steps where they’d be encouraged and motivated to keep reaching. One class after the other.

It’s not too much of stretch to equate this art to leadership.

But how often does our desire to push and prod instead of join and co-create take over our best impulses – especially under stress and threat?

How often does our desire to be seen as the hero and to not quite understand or empathize with where the client could be force us to push too far and stop the story? I’m certainly guilty.

To meet the client, the student, the reader where they are and to help them see that they are the hero is to recognize that we aren’t writing the story by ourselves. It’s not our story. It’s theirs. It’s not my change effort. It’s ours. Or, in many cases… it’s just theirs. And that’s a happy ending.

How Learning can become celebrated instead of neglected, via HBR

Imagine the scene – it’s a Friday afternoon at Awesome Company. Your CEO stands in front of you and your colleagues at the company all-hands meeting. In addition (or, instead of) chatting about company milestones, sales targets, and tasks accomplished, he/she takes a different approach.

Your CEO sits down and shares what they are learning as a Leader, how he or she has changed over the past year, and how they are working to modify how they work and why. Here, learning is consistent, never complete, and very much out in the open.

In this all-too-rare but important moment, company leadership focuses on process instead of task. When transparency and learning meet and marry, conversations change. Learning also becomes seen as a continuous process and not a box to check. Perhaps, more energy is devoted to work on and explain how the company works together and not just list off what they’ve accomplished.

Yes, leadership might come forward and share these learnings in a ghost-written book or in close dinners with friends – but there the focus is still on what was learned – in the past tense.

The act of consistently learning, in that messy and un-defined and wonderful way that isn’t always tied to clear-cut results is one that doesn’t often get talked about. 

We want others to learn and we help them do so, but are we too focused on learning as an outcome (as task) instead of learning as a process? If the latter were the case, we’d help people learn how to learn, i.e. to be more curious and to reflect.

All too often, says Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri in his latest post from the Harvard Business Review , we’re only focused on a specific outcome, even when it comes to organizational learning. “People care about what you have learned. They care about your results. Learning is great as long as you do it quietly, in your own time.”

When the pressure to deliver results instead of learning takes precedence, “the pressure to keep up and prove oneself all but overwhelms the aspiration to step back and reflect.”

Those who are in the business of life-long learning know that transformational learning, and deep, important change can often look like a cycle, or spaghetti, or two steps forward and one step back… instead of a one-way road.

If we change our expectation, and perhaps alter how we view our learners and we what believe to be true, maybe we can reward others for the act of learning… and not just the end result.

How Adults Learn

“If you’re looking for someone to give you the answer, you’re in the wrong place”.

I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.  Fall 2012 was turning towards Winter as I walked down Broadway crunching leaves with my boots on my way to the 1 train.  My evening class of “How Adults Learn” had just finished and I called to debrief (okay, to complain) with my friend and mentor Cheryl.

In between breaths spent exclaiming how much I loved being in New York City, I was having a hard time with the way my Grad School classes were being taught (note, I didn’t frame it as having a hard time with my role as learner — although that self-knowledge came later). This was my first semester, and so not how I expected it to be (unmet expectations, cue disappointment).

I had a lot of questions I wanted answered by experts in the field, I wanted to feel I was getting my moneys worth.  I wanted content, slides, frameworks, solid answers, lots and lots of sage in front of stage moments.  I was curious and thirsty, yet impatient. I wanted to be taught with a capital “T” and to sit back and take it all in.

In a class called “How Adults Learn”, this struggle seemed quite ironic.

The ever-wise Cheryl gave me a virtual hand slap: “if you’re looking for someone to give you the answers, you came to Grad School for the wrong reason”.

I continued to reflect on what Cheryl said on the subway ride home, the next morning, in the next class session and throughout the rest of my two years in Grad School. I think about what she said most days, when I spend my days creating and delivering curriculum to curious, thirsty, impatient adult learners in corporate settings.

By the time I reached my final semester in Grad School the uncomfortable-ness of not knowing the one right answer hadn’t lessened, but my confidence and ability to figure it out had increased. I learned that experience was my best teacher, and that the best teachers were educators instead of lecturers.

As we grow up and continue through school many of us are institutionalized to believe that learning should be a certain way. At many points in our life we want to be told what to do. Anything that strays from that expectation feels uncomfortable and unnatural.

There is power in feeling uncomfortable, yet safe. Know that in some situations or subjects you might not get an answer, or the one you were expecting. Know that when it comes to teaching and learning, your educators are as curious, and sometimes more impatient than you. But … they know you have the answer, and you can count on them to help you unlock it.

Learning, and the importance of personal relevancy

“See them first” is a phrase I learned several years ago from an incredible, kind, mentor of mine.

I admit, when she first shared this phrase with me, (and others, in her book) I didn’t really understand how to put it into practice when facilitating or designing an experience for others.

To her (and now, to me) “See them First” is a critical piece of gaining psychological safety, trust, and clarity with a group or an individual up front, whether it’s in a coaching, training, or leadership capacity.

So what does this phrase mean? Do I just need stronger contact lenses? Perhaps. Ask your doctor. But also:

At the core of it, I need to ask myself these questions:

  1. Do I, as a Leader, a facilitator, or a coach understand my learner? Have I made this understanding clear to them?
  2. Have they given me an opportunity to share something that matters to them? Read: Have they shared a learning objective, or told me something that I’m missing knowing about them at the start of a session? When a professor who was absent for the first day of a 2-day workshop walked into the class she asked, “what do I need to know about you, as a group of learners?”. Perfect example.
  3. Do your learners have “skin in the game”? I see this time and time again. Give them an opportunity to make the learning personal. It needs to matter to them. Framing and context matters, but more so is an opportunity for the learners to identify and latch onto something personally relevant to help them make meaning of the material. Seeing them first means encouraging personal relevancy.
  4. Have I started with where the learners are instead of where I want them to be?
  5. Have I made it clear I’m listening? And do I incessantly tie back to what I heard, and what I’ve promised?

Turn your learners, clients, and mentees into collaborators immediately by making it clear that you have listened and allow space for personal relevancy. Open the door to allow and encourage them to join you in co-creating the experience.

Show them that you “see them first” and then let your learners have a peek inside your process by allowing them to see YOU too. Show them the roadmap for the learning and continue to make your thinking visible as you progress, (“here’s what we’re going to do today, here’s how we will get there, and let’s talk about why”).

After all, everyone deserves an opportunity to be seen and heard.

Leadership Development via subtraction

Doing more with less.

Doing more by doing less.

No these aren’t faux business article headlines, but they might as well be. In an increasingly fast-paced, hectic work environment, learning professionals are working to create learning opportunities that are relevant, applicable, and personal.

But one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received on creating leadership development experiences in particular adds one more piece to the puzzle:

Many leadership development experiences identify what a leader should be doing more of. What if instead we helped them focus on what they should stop doing? 

Learning experiences can sometimes leave us feeling bogged down by new behaviors we should be incorporating, or knowledge we should be applying. It can become so additive that its hard to focus or feel that we can apply it all. 

To help ease the transition from learning to application we can work to remove some of the barriers that are keeping others from doing great work. We can do this by shrinking the change, helping others identify what they should be doing less of (or stop), and getting really clear on what is getting in the way of the change we seek.

Chances are your learners will breathe a huge sigh of relief when behavior change efforts become crystal clear, tinier, more specific, and hopefully more manageable.

In these busy times our focus for programs that stick can be on removing whatever it is that is getting in the way, and what we could stop doing, instead of piling on more.

The Role of Educator as Storyteller

The role of storytellers and educators (who are masters at storytelling) isn’t all that different: help your audience see that they are the heroes of the story you are telling, the change initiative you are working on, or the learning program you are facilitating.

Leave space for the audience to be a big part of the narrative, so that they can see themselves in it,  believe in it, and themselves.

The best facilitators, professors, and change practitioners  I’ve seen can tell great stories, but they always find a way to point out the audience / client / learner as the hero in the story.

“It’s not me, it’s you”.

The more we can help others see and feel that, the better equipped others will be to craft more powerful stories and have the confidence to go after the challenges, opportunities, and allies that they need for each chapter of their narrative (or, lives).

Learning and teaching as art: The best, most inspiring example of this I’ve seen recently was as a student in Professor William Duggan’s class at Columbia Business School. All semester long we studied the hero’s journey of ‘famous’ businessmen and women, military leaders and cultural icons.

We were inspired by them but their stories of personal and professional triumph never felt out of reach. Their stories were not fairy tales.

We can study and learn from the quests, obstacles, and successes and failures of others and their stories – but none will be as powerful as putting ourselves and those we help in the driver’s seat of their own hero’s journey.

 

What’s the drill – April 14: A new approach to problem-solving

If I were to write a country music song, which, let’s be honest might never happen.. I’d call it:

“Focus on the person, not the problem”.

It seems like it could be a catchy song, if only people would listen to it.

When an employee comes to you with what you see as an unsolvable problem, it’s time to dig deeper. As an Improviser, I’d ask you what the “offer” is. What is the employee really asking for? Furthermore, what does your employee need right now?

Our basic human need is to be heard. When managers respond to an emotional need with rationale data, an employee is not truly heard. Besides, chances are it’s not about the data. There is something else going on.

Get clear on the issue.

Our goal is not always to problem-solve. It’s to build relationships. That comes from noticing the offer in the room, accepting, and building off of it. We can’t “yes, and” if we aren’t fully paying attention to the other person.