I’m going to tell you the secrets of the universe

But first, a story…

I even remember the bench. I had walked out of the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park in a trance, in need of a seat. I immediately texted my friend Kelly but the exclamations points didn’t do the experience justice. Though we had just finished watching famous actors recite Shakespeare, my mind was fixed on the “performance” that followed; Harvard Professor Michael Sandel brilliantly facilitated an 1,800 person conversation on morals, ethics, and morality. A few microphones, some well-placed questions, and just the right amount of context created a beautifully moving piece of art. That night, I had found real inspiration and possibility for my work.

People often label what I do as training. Though I want to correct them I hardly ever do.

Instead, my mind races back to that night, almost four years ago, and to other work I’ve studied and borrowed from, from great musicians, to comedians, professors, executives, religious figures, and performers.

We seek to bring groups and people together around a common goal.

Though their vehicle is different, the greats I admire have a few things in common that apply back to the classroom:

  1. They have the reigns: 
    • People want to feel that you’re in control. A professor once advised me on the perils of Improvisation. “Yes, leaders need to be in the moment and often improvise…but “improvisation on the spot” can be seen as insufficiently thoughtful and attention seeking”, he said. Safety is important to learning, and providing your students with some certainty quiets the brain enough to help them feel safe and pay attention to what matters. People don’t just want to know when the breaks are – they need a sense of the path, and confidence that you’ll help them get from A to B.
  2. They build community: 
    • The beautiful thing about live theater, live training, live…anything, is although we all experience it differently, everyone in the room is sharing in something similar. Great craftsmen and women use this to their advantage to create a strong in-group sensation that binds a group of people together in time. Words fuel emotion which fuels connection and a sense of relatedness and togetherness, contributing to powerful dopamine spikes that open up the thinking centers of our brain with lasting positive effects.
  3. They are experts in motivation: 
    • The key to “pull” learning is to draw in people who want to learn or experience what you have to offer. Master teachers expertly play upon the gap between where students are and where they want to be. They play with suspense, and scaffold the learning in such a way that you want to stay on the journey until the end. A professor once described how he taught a subject that was often met with early skepticism and cynicism: “there is a golden ore I’m holding out for them the entire semester. But I can’t force it on them, I slowly reveal more and more of what it is until they can and want to reach out and grab it”. 
    • At a recent show, Comedian Mike Birbiglia appeared on-stage with a journal in his hand and carefully set it down at the edge of the stage without explanation. The audience didn’t forget it was there, but when he picked it up and read from it 45 minutes into the show, the build-up to that moment was so satisfying. By putting the journal on the stage, he was signifying an implicit promise to his audience and delicately toying with our curiosity.

Trainers and teachers who promise the moon-and-stars, guarantee perfect performance, and the secrets of the universe may truly want to do these things, though I am weary of the ones who declare a guarantee. Those whose work I admire most seek to create a genuine connection with their audience and leave them changed for the better. Sometimes that change takes months, weeks, or years to transpire, but if you’re like me, you remember its lessons forever. 

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Context is king, content is cheap

As much as I enjoy learning, I’ll be the first to tell you that my go-to solution is hardly ever “training”.

When I share that perspective, I often worry I’m disappointing people as if I’ve taken the air out of their balloon. People want help, and I want to honor that.

In some organizations training is viewed as a checklist item, a perk, or a catch-all. I’m sure the intent is good. Though the idea of sticking people in a classroom and “fixing the problem” hardly ever works in unison or in isolation.

Why? Learning is change and change brings with it a whole host of sometimes covert and sometimes explicit difficulties. People are complicated, and learning is emotional.

It doesn’t mean training isn’t important or that people shouldn’t be given learning opportunities. But, without the right structural support, incentives, motivation, and environment, we may be leaving our employees more disengaged than intended, especially if they can’t apply what they learned. It’s critical to get the context right and understand what’s getting in the way of the intended behavior.

You want to roll out a manager training for your organization? Great – first let’s make sure that we know why people either are or aren’t currently exhibiting these skills, and line up our incentives with what we’re teaching. These are crucial steps for success that actually help programs scale, though they involve a larger up-front investment. We must spend equal or more time on what happens before and after training than on the class itself.

Learning done well takes time and often more than we are comfortable with. Why? Because we know that context is king and content is relatively cheap. Why and how and when is often more important than what. People don’t often respond well to the idea of slowing down or delaying, especially when they see a need and are motivated to help. It’s hard to say no, it’s hard to hear no, too.

I know this because this month I’ve been the person “pushing” for learning, seeing the need, and hearing “not yet, slow down”. I know that this is actually a good sign – that people realize though we have the motivation and the need, we’ve got to line up the incentives, and get the environment right to support the learning. This can be hard to swallow, especially when you have hungry learners who you want to satiate.

Learning programs that create and ignite lasting change come with their share of resistance, delays, questions, conversations, and challenges. This process brings with it its own learning – and that can’t be learned in a classroom.

 

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.

Twenty questions for every learning program, give or take a few

As learning facilitators we know that questions matter. They spark reflection, spur divergent and convergent thinking and help learners and stakeholders process and apply learning.

Often, the type of question that we ask is fueled by the type of reflection or measurement we are after. Reaction? Learning? Behavior? Results? What do we really want and need to measure?

We can guide and facilitate the conversation about the impact of a learning program by putting some attention on the types of questions we ask in the room, and the type of questions Leaders ask themselves and their team as a follow-up.

We can scaffold our questions throughout each Kirkpatrick level, in a variation of this sequencing:

  1. What did you notice? What stands out? What’s confusing?
  2. What did you learn?
  3. What will you do differently as a result of what you learned today? (How will you apply what you learned to something concrete, actionable, measurable, and specific)?

Many times, we stop at question-type 3. We stop before we get to “results”. Sometimes it is because our learners lack context or understanding of the business case or the results that matter most. Sometimes this is because it’s quantifiable, and trying to qualify it in an open-ended question seems difficult.

This doesn’t have to be the case – especially if we kick off our learning programs by stating up front the results we are after, and continually linking our learning back to these desired outcomes.

  1. How will applying what you learned today positively affect our team, our performance, and our business?

But, let’s not stop there. Ask empathy and motivation driven questions like, “What will be the impact if we don’t apply what we learned?”, or “what could get in the way?”

We’ve got questions. They do have answers.

Learning with the Head and the Heart

In my previous life as a screenwriter, there was a note a writer would see quite often on their screenplays: “Make your character more like-able”.

Why like-able?

Well, a protagonist (the main character, often the hero) had to be at least a teeny bit likable (yet flawed) so that the audience would stay invested in the character’s journey. A like-able character means we’ll likely root for them and care about what happens.

An audience wants to be emotionally invested.

This is normal and natural, whether your audience is in the theater, a movie, or in the classroom. The audience want a reason to care beyond a rational, logical reason to. In the example of screenwriting, working to make our character a little more likable increases the chances that we as an audience will find something in ourselves that bonds us with this person on-screen. When we’re emotionally invested, we pay attention and don’t fast-forward or tune-out. Hopefully we’re changed by this character’s journey as well.

Turns out, this note extends beyond screenplays and creative projects. But in learning and development we’re focused on the learners journey, not the characters.

In my experience it’s common to see learning or change initiatives that stay at the rational-only level. We may assume participants will pay attention because they are there physically. Too often though, students, employees, and stakeholders often lack that emotional connection to the material. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t invited to, or this isn’t given nearly enough thought in the design process.

This often happens when we teach classes or put forth plans that teach the logical steps, but lack the mental or emotional thinking behind it. 

I’m not necessarily advocating to make our work more like-able. But, we can’t assume our students have a reason to pay attention, even if they signed up (or the equivalent of buying a ticket to a movie).

More than just paying attention we want our learning and change programs to stick, to spread, and for our students to be changed by the experience. That rarely happens on a rational/logical-only level.

They need a reason to care, a personal one that ideally comes from intrinsic motivation and a personal connection to the material.

Encourage them to use their experiences, share them, connect to the material and to each other. Then you’ve got a room full of editors, writers, directors, producers who are taking the material and making it their own because they believe in it.

Shrink the Change

Let’s be specific.

Let’s say you’ve just finished an all-day learning program and leave with the following: two frameworks, packets of great information and five new behaviors to try on and practice.

The question becomes, where do I start?

To borrow a phrase from Chip and Dan Heath, we need to Shrink the Change.

Spend some time in this learning program examining and discussing the 2 or 3 most important places to use this new behavior or new tool that you’ve learned.

Shrink the change between what we’ve just learned and exactly where and why we can apply it.

Where could trying on this new skill get you the biggest bang for your buck and generate enough small wins to keep you moving forward into building a new habit?

Tweaks like this help learners lessen the cognitive load that comes from many of these experiences. Try it in the next two weeks and let me know how it goes!

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.