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.

Avoiding the quick fix

How many times have you said, or heard someone else say, “So-and-so is such a problem. If we can just change person “X”, our lives will be so much easier”.

Let’s just come clean, shall we? We’ve all thought this at one point or another. In an attempt to taper or avoid conflict, blaming the problems of a work team or family on “Person X” is one popular avoidance tactic.

And, because we don’t like conflict, and because we think “X” and only “X” is the problem, we zoom in on this person and their faults, or we hope the problem will go away with attrition.

Whether we’re part of a family or a work team, it’s easy and natural for many of us to pinpoint the problems of the group on one specific person or cause. Let’s admit it, blaming another person is a reflex, and sometimes that behavior is even reinforced or rewarded.

Often there is something else brewing.

When it comes to change (at the individual, group, or organization level), …the person that we think is the problem…? Well, they are sometimes (read: usually) merely a symptom of something larger.

We call that something larger “the system”.

Successful change interventions take into account a system-wide view. We know that changing one part of the system will often (and must) result in changing something else. It’s about pulling the right lever at the right time and understanding that a change in one person or lever, doesn’t happen in isolation.

If your work team is blaming one person as “the problem” and that person leaves, chances are another “problem” person will arise because the group needs that “problem person” in order to function. Sometimes it’s a scapegoat, sometimes it’s a different role. The group will re-create that conflict and dynamic until it no longer needs it.

The person and the environment work in conjunction, not in isolation. We all contribute to the culture, the dynamics, and the “problems” of a team.

What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine.

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!

Upcoming Public Workshop, September 10th

Join me in San Francisco on September 10th for a workshop on navigating ambiguity, geared towards Organization and People Practitioners…