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.

 

 

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.

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:

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.

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.

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. 

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.

 

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.

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.