Learning is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be insular

It was like our little secret, but I wished it didn’t have to be.

I sat with a colleague just a few weeks prior talking about the learning experiences we both had over the summer. I spent it researching and writing a book about “Gathering”, and he rode his bike across the United States.

“So, what did you learn?”, I asked him on a walk in search of a cool drink on a sweltering New York City day. He talked about his growth, and who he was becoming because of his adventure. He asked me the same. I talked about a deeper sense of purpose, a revived confidence, and a clarity of my future.

We both concluded, each of our experiences were just tools for a similar outcome. It wasn’t the bike ride or the number of miles or pages written that was most significant, it was what it led us each towards. “Do you think anyone will understand that?”, we wondered. We surmised that when we returned to our normal life, this would be hard to explain.

Though well-intentioned, I was met back at work with a repeated question, “so… did you finish the book?”.

In many moments of defensiveness I answered with “no, but that wasn’t the goal!”. I went on to share the number of pages or chapters I’d written, literary agents I had sent it to, or hours logged. It was as if I felt the need to prove that I did ‘something’ worthwhile.

The truth was, I really wanted to talk about my summer – I could talk for hours about it. But, in that moment, I wanted to be asked different types of questions.

Transitions, whether it be at the end of a learning experience, a promotion, or a change of any kind are when we are all at our most vulnerable. It’s when learning can be cemented or siphoned.

So when we, or our colleagues, or friends have a new experience, especially one that takes them out of their comfort zone, we can support them by carefully choosing the questions we ask. We can also educate others about what we want to share or be asked.

Learning is personal, but it doesn’t have to be private.

It’s ultimately a choice. We can choose to keep learning private, singular, and isolated to one moment or one event. In this check-the-box mentality, learning is either something you did or didn’t.

Or, we can view learning as a process instead of a task.

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

To help others, we can start by adjusting our questions.

Learning that sticks with us is personal, and therefore emotional. One way to invite this is by asking questions and framing experiences as ones that connect to our identity – who we are now and who we want to be in the future – and not just an isolated experience. These questions, like “how do you see yourself after this?”, “what do you now see as possible?”, aren’t limiting, they are limitless.

Does learning in your organization feel like you’re putting on more armor, or shedding layers to reveal who you are and who you want to be?

While we can’t assume every learning experience will provide such clarity or layer shedding, these different questions pull at our intrinsic motivation and can connect the dots between what we do and the deeper meaning behind it. This is deep transformational learning at its best. Multiply this by each person in your organization and we can only imagine what it unlocks.

Learning is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be insular.

More is not always better

When it comes to learning and development, a dream scenario is one in which your employees are hungry. They want to learn. They want classes and resources and opportunities. When this is true, how do you decide to feed them?

Though there are many options, let’s start by comparing two common approaches:

The Zoo Mentality

Often times I see learning and development groups function like zookeepers. In this scenario, there is a set number of courses and opportunities and they are rationed out on a schedule.  Here, learning is metaphorically thrown over a fence for employees to grab. While it seems generous to be providing these opportunities, it takes the power away from the ones who should be in control of what they learn and when. They can become so dependent on the zookeepers that learners don’t learn how to search for, source, or determine what’s best for them.

The Grocery Store Mentality

We can also view learning and development like a grocery store. Often times it is very tempting to stuff more and more content into our classes, decks, or learning experiences. We believe more is better and while we have people’s attention, why not just feed them more?

Here there is no grocery list, people want the whole store.

Though we might be tempted to, we don’t purchase everything in the grocery store when we go shopping. We may want to consume all of the food, but we can’t. There are limitations to consider from budget to freshness, storage space, usability, etc. We also know the store will still be there next week, and we can go back for more.

These same limitations exists for our learners, from cognitive capacity, to transfer ability, relevancy and application.

It is great to be hungry. We don’t want to let our learners starve. But hunger is only one part of the equation to sustaining a learning culture.

Just because content is at our fingertips doesn’t mean it’s ready or right for our learners.

We can teach people to not just to consume, but to create and share what they are learning with others.

 

 

Destroy the Distance

No matter our upbringing, beliefs, culture, or daily routines, we’re never completely alone. Throughout the course of our days, years, and lifetime, we all find ourselves in various forms of gathering.

We gather at our workplaces to achieve a common mission. We gather into classrooms, lecture halls, and institutions to be inspired, enlightened, and provoked. We gather in a theater to share a piece of art with people we might not know. And, if we’re lucky, we gather together a set of individuals to achieve something spectacular.

Whether we gather in an office, a classroom, or a theater, we look to others to lead us somewhere, from point A to point B.

This experience brings with it all sorts of familiar dynamics and expectations between an audience, and those on a proverbial stage.

After all, a leader needs a follower. An educator needs a student. A comedian needs an audience.

Though both roles need each other to be successful, we tend to assume one has higher status than the other. With this assumption comes certain choices about how we lead a gathering. For example, we often over index on our expertise, or our content.

This becomes the speech that doesn’t land. The lesson that doesn’t stick. The song that doesn’t connect. Messages without meaning make the audience seem even further away.

When we gather others, we can instead make deliberate choices that destroy the distance between the gatherer and the audience.

We can do this by focusing not just on the material, but on how we deliver it. It starts by changing our assumption about who our audience is and what they are gathered for.

When we consider that our audience, whether it’s our followers, students, etc, is of higher status than us, we work to more directly connect our work with their intentions instead of ours.

Though we need an audience, it is too easy to view them as replaceable or invisible. The best gatherings know that not only is the audience of high importance, they are the hero.

If our gatherings are meant to move people from A to B, they require more consideration than slides, a syllabus, or a set list.

We choose to gather in-person rather than another medium to see and feel the impact of our message. If this is true, our focus need to take the needs of our audience into account. We can make them feel needed and nurtured, so that they won’t just gather once, they’ll come back.

What 618 million hits can tell you about how to lead

A Google search for the term, ‘leadership training’ pulls up 618 million results. ‘Good leadership training’, 274 million. ‘Useful’, 146. ‘Effective’, 67 million.

If you’re looking to become a better leader and confused as to where to turn, you’re not alone.

What separates good from the rest, or effective from not?

To narrow our search we often turn to those we trust, whether it is the advice of experts or like-minded friends and colleagues.

As a learning and development professional, I am often asked to help match employees with learning opportunities. Though, more often, my job involves hiring and bringing leadership training into my organization.

Just like the words we type into a search field, we can learn much about the quality of our investment by the questions we ask.

Often times our questions stay at the rational-only level. They focus on content. What is the class about? What will we learn? Can I see the slides? Here, what we are often looking for is a guarantee that money in equals learning out.

But, in an age when content is at our fingertips and on-demand, a trainers role becomes more than sharing information.

What makes some learning opportunities more effective than others depends less on the material, and more on the context in which it is received and used.

That is why friends and colleagues often recommend learning opportunities not only because of the material, but because of how and if they personally connected to it.

Content is only one component. But if all we have is a hammer, then everything is a nail. And, we’d be failing to ask the carpenter about the other tools in their toolbox and how they use them.

In order for an in-person learning to be ‘effective’, the material needs to match the moment.

“What separates you from everyone else?”, is a question I always ask. Furthermore, I want a story. Rest assured I’m not looking for unique and different. Here I’m focused on someone’s understanding of not only the content, but the context they’d be teaching in. It is the science, and the art.

Yes, if we want ‘good’ training, it is possible that any of the 618 million results are right for you. But we’ll narrow and improve our search by focusing more on ‘who’, ‘why’, and ‘how’, than ‘what’. Content is cheap. Context is worth paying for.

Can People Change?

“Can people change?”

A great learning experience, like a memorable play or an important book asks a central question.

And this is the question I’ve been mulling over for the past 15 years. Though this notion of ‘change’ has always been a central theme in my work, it has bobbed and weaved through several different creative pursuits: from the behavior of television characters to the behavior of organizations.

What propels someone or something to change either alone or with another? What magical forces of power, will, circumstance, emotion, or luck get us from A to B? (Hint: it’s not a gantt chart). Whether we write the experiences to propel change for others, or face it head on ourselves, change is constant but never comfortable.

Having just led a major change initiative in my organization I was reminded of what it takes to hurl yourself into the middle of a ‘change’ tornado and the high-stakes risks you face when you take the lead. When you’re no longer just the writer behind the scenes, but the writer, producer, director, actor, and editor too… how can we ensure a fairytale ending?

We all want to belong

Groups are powerful players in the change game, often much stronger forces than individuals alone. At the end of the day, we crave belonging. A sense of belonging and of not being alone is often overlooked in why we do or don’t change. Yes you can pull on someone’s heart-strings, but a pull towards being a part of the in-group is often an even more powerful motivator. Relatedness is your friend, not your foe.

Make it universal

There’s a reason why we remember fables and the morals of our favorite films – they are relatable, digestible, and universal. How can we lower the risk of change or translate jargon into something meaningful? Use a metaphor, analogy, or a story. Like attracts like, and our brains attach to what we already know.

Be wary of the resistance

Who said change was easy? Change that truly transforms a company (or a person) demands that people give up something they care about (habits, ways of working or thinking, etc). Movies have villains (or the change resistors that will get in the way), but at work we have equilibrium to go up against. It’s natural for people to resist change – this reaction keeps us safe, whereas the new invites discomfort. Thwarting tactics may appear, but it’s only done out of aversion for the new, loss of the old, and a desire to maintain what’s familiar. As the saying goes, it’s (usually) not you…it’s them.

But just like the classic Hero’s Journey there will be someone who comes along at your low point to remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing (Thank you Adam Grant).

Use your voice

As a writer it was easy to hide behind a laptop and let my characters say the hard things. But when you’re leading change the risks don’t disappear – instead, you learn to say the hard thing and to be alright (over time) with others not wanting to hear it. The more visible we are, the more we open ourselves up for unwanted feedback or projections. If leadership is about taking risks, bolder choices come with the territory. So does criticism.

Being able to understand change for what it is, with all of its intricacies and dynamics allows us to be both observers and participants at the same time.

Change can be incredibly rewarding. Whether you’re the one going through it or helping facilitate behind-the-scenes, it is a process of asking people to move to a place they are often frightened to go. But, there is a more promising future on the other side and it is that hope that reminds me that yes, people can and do change with the right amount of support and challenge.

The Readiness Factor

“I’m ready! Let’s change. It’ll be easy, welcomed, and very smooth for everyone.”

This is rarely (ok, never) how change happens, whether it’s personal, interpersonal or organizational.

How it usually happens: good-intentioned people whisper in our ear, give us data, ask meaningful questions, tell us what’s coming, or hint at the need for change and patiently wait for someone or something to click. It’s the old, ‘know better but don’t do better’.

This year I’ve witnessed and experienced my fair amount of change and it got me thinking about the so-called ‘readiness factor’.

Aka, when does change happen, when do people and organizations decide, “I’m ready!”. Why is now the time – how did we finally move the needle?

Enter the Gleicher organizational change formula: C = (abd) > x

  • C = Change
  • a = compelling, vivid, vision of desired future state
  • b = Dissatisfaction with status quo (pain message)
  • d = Practical first steps, strategies or action plans that can close the gap
  • X = Perceived costs of change (personal / organizational)

Everyone loves a good theory. But, here’s what experience has taught me:

  1. Make it real – The need for change has to be specific and baked into the work. Abstract picture painting of the future rarely works because blank slates and ambiguity are almost as scary. We’d rather hang on to what we know.
  2. Don’t do it alone – change may start with one person but it takes an army. Find your soldiers. Remember you’re not the hero – they are.
  3. It was their idea – speaking of, it’s hard to change minds. Remember that friend who has told us the same advice for years, but we only act on it when it was our idea? Same thing in organizations.
  4. Don’t be a threat – change feels safer when it comes from someone in our in-group. If you’re in the out-group (foe, not friend), bring others with you who aren’t.
  5. Utilize momentum – change happens in small bursts and people need a sense of progress and small wins. But, once we (or our organization) have let go of something that doesn’t serve us anymore it is transformational.
  6. Change is everyone’s job. So, be wary of a scapegoat – spread the ‘pain’ around so that one person in the group isn’t holding it, or the problem, or the solution by themselves. Change is easier (not harder) in groups, but only if everyone does the work.

Ready. Set. Change.

Sometimes people complain to me

As a Learning and Development professional I am lucky to be able to help support people and organizations through growth.

Another way of phrasing this is, “sometimes people complain to me”.

They are often frustrated by someone else, by a policy, by a decision, by a lack of progress, or by not knowing the answer.

I know that their confusion and frustration signals that growth is right around the corner… if they choose to recognize it. I know this because I’ve been there too.

If people were apathetic, growth would be stagnant and stuttering at best. And that’s no fun.

Change (and learning) comes from feeling just enough yearning, a slightly wider gap between now and what could be, and a way forward, to be motivated to do something different.

But, frustration met with inaction makes for an admittedly tough situation.

And through hundreds of these conversations, and some of my own with close friends and family I’ve realized a few common themes pop up in nearly every growth conversation and opportunity:

  1. Learning what you want
  2. Learning to ask for what you want
  3. Learning to be alright with not getting what you want

There is usually something holding us back from each of these levels. Sometimes the growth is chronological – we have to learn who we are and what we want before we can ask for it.

We often don’t ask for what we want because we’re afraid of how it will look, or we want others to like us or agree with us. We can’t make everyone like us, but we can earn the respect of others by respecting ourselves first enough to speak up.

Sometimes we are masters of the first two, but can’t let go of our expectations to recognize we are holding on to them too closely. Or, we expect too much of someone before they themselves are ready.

Our expectations fail us when we know exactly how we want the story to end and then are displeased it didn’t turn out how we’ve written it in our heads. You can’t force growth, you can only model it for others.

Growth, like anything else good that appears before us or our company happens first when we are patient with ourselves and with others. It comes from letting go of our expectation to change anybody else, and instead notice, and maybe modify ourselves.

When we care about something or believe in something or someone it can be even harder to do one of the 3 above.

There is a power, confidence, and a steadiness that comes from being masters at all three – one that lets us ride the wave of uncertainty and volatility much easier than forcing change or controlling the uncontrollable.

The best lessons, the deepest learning, and the most growth whether as individuals or parts of a larger system happen with patience, support, and readiness.  If growth were easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding.

The Beauty of the Blank Page

Resistance to change shows up in many different ways. Many want to know the steps it’s going to take, the path we should expect, the guarantees of success.

It’s often when we’re the most nervous, impatient, or feel like we have the most to lose that we want to flip to the end of the book or the last few minutes of the movie, and skip the muddling middle to know with certainty, was everything “ok”, did things go as planned, did this work. Tell me now.

We’ll do the “tough thing” if we’re sure it will go alright, we’ll say how we feel if we know the person will respond well, we’ll… you get the point.

But we know, life is hardly this certain and stable, this linear, and this accepting of our desire to control.

If we look back at our most important experiences, and look to favorite stories or improv scenes, they are the ones highlighted by change.

The best improvisers, and often some of our best leaders look for opportunities to be changed every day and in every interaction. They find a few pillars to keep them stable (read: values, principles), but also find comfort in the certainty of knowing that change is constant. And, by being open to it themselves they allow space for others to enter the scene or the story, and for that change to trickle, to transform a person, a group, a company.

In times of transition or when something is new (read: uncertain), the default is often to hold on tighter. 

When we transition to a managerial role we have to learn to let go of much of the work of the past to make room for others to learn. The easier choice is to retreat back to the familiar for the quick fix and hit of certainty and safety.

We can also choose to let go of our status, or our desire for someone else to change instead. Because, deep down we know that other person has their own story to tell and uncover.

The truth is control narrows our focus and could keep us and those we lead from greater adventures, bigger stories, and profound and lasting change.

Because learning and change are synonymous, this letting go of old habits, frames, and ways of working are what deep, transformational learning looks and feels like. Change is rarely about taking on more – we can instead view it as letting go of what we no longer need.  

Letting yourself be changed doesn’t mean letting go of caring about what the change produces or who it affects. It just means not being afraid of the blank page and the story that has yet to be told.