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Posts tagged ‘Organization Learning’

A vision is not a destination

Last weekend, Jon and I visited the Osa and Martin Johnson Museum in Chanute, Kansas. They were explorers who used photography and early video equipment as a part of their experiences. They were not photographers and videographers who went exploring.

The difference? My observation is that too often organizations overlay a vision on what they are already doing. The vision is seen as defining the straight line from the present to a desire future. It assumes that managers can outline a strategy and action steps to reach the future. The vision is held up as a map for certainty and survival. The vision is the destination, the promised land.

For Osa and Martin Johnson, the vision was exploring – having adventures. As they encountered people and cultures, they wrote, photographed, and filmed. But above all they explored and interacted, often immersing themselves in cultures for years at a time. From the vision and intention to adventure, relationships and business opportunities emerged. From the intention to adventure, supporting methods and processes emerged. The vision was about a life-long intention, not the details of the next destination.

What is your vision, your life-long intention? What is the vision and intention of your organization?

Stories we tell – three

The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.
Werner Heisenberg, The Uncertainty Relations, 1927

Stories we tell – two
Uncertainty as opportunity
The unexpected snowman

Do what I say – not what I do

If you’re not modeling what you’re teaching,
then you’re teaching something else.
  – Roger Schwarz, The Skilled Facilitator

 Idea for reflection – 29

My teacher got rid of my imagination…

Last night I was working with a class of kindergarten and first graders. Walking around the table, I observed that one of them had taken the coloring picture page, turned it over to the blank side, and was drawing his own picture.

I commented, “That is a very interesting picture. You’re really using your imagination. Will you tell me the story that goes with the picture?”

Immediately, we were interrupted by a sixth grader, who was working as an assistant. She stated matter-of-factly, “My teacher got rid of my imagination.”

I absorbed this amazing statement and asked, “How did your teacher do that?”

“Well – first semester, he told us we could only write about facts and to get rid of our imaginations.  So I did.  But now (second semester), he told us we need to use our imaginations to write stories; but I can’t seem to find mine anymore.”

I’m still reflecting on this interaction, seeing implications on many different levels …

Orbiting the Giant Hairball – Thought 3

Visual meetings

Tom Wujec gave a short  TED talk: 3 Ways the Brain Creates Meaning. His point is, “We make meaning by seeing.” Here is a summary of how the brain makes meaning with the brain subsystem activated in parentheses:

  1. Use images to clarify ideas. (ventral)
  2. Interact with images to create engagement. (dorsal)
  3. Augment memory with persistent and evolving views. (limbic) 

Using images to create shared mental models leads to better communication, learning, thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. He uses Visual Strategic Planning as an organizational example of the idea that we are all visual developers and learners.

As I consider what this information means for organization development, I go beyond his example to considering how we run meetings, communicate information, and deliver training. How can we increase the visual component of what we do in order to increase the building of shared mental models and shared meaning?

The value of mistakes

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of living out of the ordinary. Today, I’m going to take the neuroscience a step further by applying it to learning environments. To review:

Neuroscience research demonstrates that when we break out of the routine and enjoy something new, our brains reward us with a dopamine flood.  We essentially give ourselves a pat – not on our head, but inside our head. If we continue to do the same thing over and over, the dopamine flood recedes and eventually dries up – the routine deadens the response.

The research shows that the same reward response – dopamine flood – is produced when we make mistakes and errors. Why? Because our brain is stimulated by surprise, by the unexpected. Our brains are built to detect errors; they really go nuts when something unpredictable occurs. We are immediately motivated by the dopamine surge to seek out new solutions and ways of understanding. As Stephen Hall says, “Success breeds habit and failure breeds learning.”

In a learning environment, this is an argument for the importance of actively engaging participants through a variety of methods – including learning from mistakes. The dopamine system fires in surprise not only at new information, but at any moment when information doesn’t fit our existing patterns of understanding. Our brains drive learning when we encounter the new and unexpected – and make mistakes.

In practice this demands that the facilitator or instructor be well-prepared. Pre-tests or pre-course surveys can stimulate participants brains with questions before the session begins. Dividing participants into small groups to brainstorm stories and ideas stimulates their thinking through encountering others’ patterns and solutions. Using a variety of media, activities, and props can make the experience memorable as brains sit up and take notice. When mistakes are made, use critical thinking questions and techniques to further stimulate the brain’s drive to make new connections.

What other ideas do you have about creating an environment that wires participants’ brains to learn?

Out of the ordinary

About a week ago, I got up at 4:00 a.m. to go with Jon on a photo shoot at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. The site of mist over the refuge, the Rocky Mountains glowing in the background, and the noise of hundreds of birds taking flight at dawn was awe-inspiring.

How important is it for us to have new experiences, to break out of the routine? Neuroscience research demonstrates that when we break out of the routine and enjoy something new, our brains reward us with a dopamine flood.  We essentially give ourselves a pat – not on our head, but inside our head. If we continue to do the same thing over and over, the dopamine flood recedes and eventually dries up – the routine deadens the response.

For me, this is a significant argument for the importance of life-long learning. If I am intentional about experiencing and learning new things each day, I will benefit consciously from the new knowledge, the memories of the experience, and from increased well-being.

Creatively breaking the routine in organizations can work to build innovation and organizational energy. For example, want to improve customer service? I can imagine individuals being asked to go out and observe at a variety of retail and restaurant locations, then coming back to discuss their experiences and how they could be applied internally. Or, want to build leaders? I can imagine having individuals interview each other about when they’ve experienced exceptional leadership, then sharing the stories and characteristics of great leaders, and together designing strategies for integrating those characteristics into their own leadership style.

What are you doing to escape the routine as individual? As an organization?

The discipline of learning through education

“A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” – E. Digby Baltzell

This quote appears inside of an article about the Bell Telephone Company’s experiment with educating executives in a broad range of topics.  The executives attended a 10 month program designed to expand their horizons by reading a wide range of books, engaging in discussion with leading thinkers, and listening to guest lecturers.  In the end, even though the graduates better understood the world around them, were more interested in the workings of society, and could see more than one side of an argument, Bell ended the program. The unexpected outcome was that in expanding their confidence and critical thinking capabilities, the executives  were more likely to put their families and communities ahead of the company’s interest in the bottom line.

Katzenbach and Khan in Leading Outside the Lines write that today’s formal leadership programs can create a “self-reinforcing system” when they are based on templates designed to reproduce more leaders like those already in place. Choosing formal leaders is usually based on a process defined by degrees and certifications, alongside demonstration of increasing responsibility and delivery of bottom line results. Many training systems have been adapted from the Bell experiment to better serve the company interest in the bottom line.

Or do they serve it better? I would suggest that both are needed. The discipline of learning through education should be broad as well as deep. People need to be well-trained in technical skills. And, people need to be educated in a wide range of subjects and how to be critical thinkers. No company stands alone. Each is part of larger systems that include families and extended families, communities that are connected to schools and housing, and the global community.  We need leaders who can debate and consider all sides of a question, but most importantly, “know what questions are worth asking.”

Leading through Empathy and Teaching

I’m excerpting a quote from Bob Sutton’s blog, Work Matters because it applies directly to my last several posts about feedback and how to promote learning, growth, and transformation. 

“Life is a lot better when [I] think about my job as one of helping everyone be good, helping everyone learn whatever they need, and teaching where I’ve got experience and expertise. When I think in terms of helping people learn to be even better, it automatically puts me into an empathetic mode (because teaching, fundamentally, is about understanding where the learner is coming from), and that sets up the interaction really well.  I can’t always stay in this teaching mode. Sometimes there are real pressures and things I need to deliver on.  Sometimes external stressors in my life cause me to forget to be empathetic. But usually now I can notice when it’s happening and correct it.”  

Read the entire post and comments here.

Feedback: When performance is poor

If feedback when performance is positive or somewhat less than 100% is challenging, giving effective feedback when someone has done poorly or failed is even more difficult. I suspect that the reason for this is that the emotional tension goes up dramatically – for the person delivering the feedback and the one receiving it. In my experience, the difficult work must be done before the encounter by the person delivering the feedback.

Let’s look at what doesn’t work so well first. To immediately access the emotional charge on both sides of the conversation, try starting the conversation with, “Well, why did you do that? What happened?”  Neuroscience tells us that both people will create a physical and mental reaction to the emotional charge. One way of thinking about it is fight, flight, or freeze. The delivering person will be in fight mode, which does not allow for clear thinking let alone good processing of incoming information. The receiver of emotionally charged feedback may fight back directly with anger or frustration, fight back indirectly with self-recrimination, freeze in fear and distress, or run from or avoid the encounter.

As with challenging feedback, the question I ask is, “What am I trying to accomplish here?” As I suggested in a recent post, if the answer is learning, growth, and change, then a frustrated, critical response will not provide success. This requires planning for meeting when both people are fresh and less likely to be reactive. Again, it is important to begin by acknowledging that the conversation might be uncomfortable and that you appreciate the person’s willingness to take time out to talk. Be clear that your goal isn’t to dissect what happened, analyze the problem, or put their job in jeopardy. State that your goal is to help them do their best, learn, and build their potential.

Follow with a good opening question that asks them to reflect, “How can we discuss what happened in a solutions-focused way?” Or, “I’m interested in how you think you did in this situation. On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate work?” You can follow with some other questions and statements, making certain to keep the conversation at the learning level – not in the details. Remember, avoid the impulse to suggest a solution, give advice, or tell your own story. Your role is to lead the person to their own “aha” moment of insight.

Some example questions and statements were listed in the recent post. Here are a few more that can help guide the conversation:

  • What is the biggest insight you’ve had about yourself from what’s happened? About your team?
  • What have you learned overall from the situation?
  • How committed are you to working to create a new approach?
  • Are you clear about what needs to happen next?
  • What resources or training will assist you in creating the new approach?

The bigger the emotional charge for both people, the more important it is for the person delivering the feedback to allow the other person to discover their own solutions and answers. Not only does learning take place, but the potential for ongoing growth and transformation increases. It’s time to consider eliminating “constructive feedback” and begin intentionally creating a climate of open communication and learning by asking people what they are thinking and discovering. This shift has the potential to deliver value to the organization and to the persons involved in the difficult feedback scenario.

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