Thank You, PDI

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In grad school studying Organizational Psychology, I wrote many-a-paper about the magic that is PDI/DreamWorks.

I wanted to understand and dissect what makes (now, made) that 600-person studio so special.

It was a “dream” work place in so many ways: a place where everyone knows your name, co-workers are family, there is no visible line between the creatives and non-creatives, and everyone is a storyteller. I won the lottery when I joined in 2005, and again when I came back in 2010.

The sudden news of its closing on Thursday hit me quite hard, and of course hit those who still call the studio home much harder.

It’s where I along with so many friends saw their dreams come true, met mentors and heroes, formed life-long friendships, and not only built a career, but a calling.

I’ll be forever grateful to have been a PDI’er – and know that those of us lucky to call it home will carry the magic with us to new adventures.  Whether you experienced PDI or not, know that a work environment so welcoming and inclusive that many of us returned over and over like we were coming home to visit family doesn’t have to be a dream.

Thank you PDI, for setting the bar so high… and for inspiring everyone who walked through your doors.

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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.

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.

When failure is a part of the business…

Let’s, for a moment, equate a new employee to a new television show.

Every Fall around this time, we’re introduced to a new lineup of sitcoms, dramas, and other assorted programming meant to inspire, entertain, educate, enlighten and solve a Network’s programming problem.

We, the audience, get invested in a new show, and excited about the characters. But many times the show is canceled before Fall turns to Winter. Its success hinges on a mix of quantitative data, and really… who knows what else. Shows get a quick hook, or a long life and syndication depending on a somewhat elusive and magical mix of elements: timing, support, great writing, execution, and advertising potential.

There is no magic formula that sets every show up for success. In fact, the TV business is one where most shows fail, instead of succeed. Failure is built into the business. You try something hoping you will succeed, but knowing the odds are actually against you.

This might be where the analogy ends. Or is it? True, we’re in the business of developing people instead of a television show, but how do we really know if an employee will succeed or gasp… fail?

Maybe the analogy continues. A few questions to consider for those who develop people, and ideas…

  1. What are the stakes? And how does that change our patience level?
  2. What does failure mean in these different industries? Does the definition change when the failure rate changes?
  3. What is the development plan for this character, this idea, and this person? To get them from Point A, to Point B, do we know what they need and can we support them through it even if it takes a full “season”?
  4. When it comes to development, are you in it for the long haul, or to fill a gap, to ignite real change, or for this persons “star power”? Depending on your choice, what does that say about pressure and expectations?

We hardly start a new job expecting to fail. And, we hardly throw our ideas and our work around hoping it will fail. But depending on our answers to each of these four questions, we may wish to give ourselves and our teams a gentle reminder that there is an audience of people (sometimes large, sometimes small) rooting for this person and this idea to succeed beyond its wildest dreams.

What’s the Drill – Sep. 29th: Foundation or Decoration?

There are many metaphors we can use when talking about organizations.

My new favorite? Organization as a house.

When you’re implementing Learning and Development into your organization consider whether you are merely decorating, or building your foundation. Sometimes it may seem like you’re doing both, at the same time.

Some initiatives are simply there for decoration. We’ll add some nice curtains and we’ll paint the walls. They are nice to have, but not always necessary, and wear over time.

Other initiatives are foundational, but treated as decoration.

Learning and Employee Development is a strong lever to pull towards change, but it rarely sustains its impact when done in isolation, or when looked at as merely decoration.

A strong L&D program is built into the foundation of the company, and that foundation is squarely in place before the decorations are added.

Building that foundation takes time and care and deliberate choice.

If you are the “architect” or “contractor” of your company, learn to both acknowledge, advocate for, and understand the difference between foundational initiatives and decorations. Learn why your client is asking for each and help them understand these tradeoffs as you navigate it together. Build a house you want to live in and are excited for others to visit and call home.