The Good Old ‘Training Activity’

I came across recently a clip about an experiential learning activity around the topic ‘understanding the others’.  It makes me re-examine my own view on experiential learning.

First, I really felt moved when I watched the video.   When I imagined to be one of the kids there and followed one instruction after another, I pictured myself among the kids in the front.   I believed that I would have a big ‘aha’ as I turned and looks face to face to those at the back.  I would particularly be shocked when the host said ‘…everything I said has nothing to do with what you have done…’   The resulting visual impact was huge.  In addition, when the front kids were really running, the feeling of excitement and mixed feeling about those at the back would probably enhance learning transfer a great deal.   It is such a well-designed activity – simple and to the point.

Yet, I still have my usual doubt on such activity which is designed and run with an intended (or even imposed) conclusion.   In particular:

  • In a way, the activity was like a ‘set-up’ e.g. to embarrass those kids in the front. In the video, they all seemed to follow the instructions with enjoyment.   But I cannot help imagine some would guess mid-way what the activity was about already, and became resentful.   In short, the host was not exploring together with them but in a way tricking them into some specific experience / sensation.
  • This would impact not just this activity but also the remaining event. The participants may trust the host less.
  • The experience would be quite ‘dark’ for those at the back. I believe those some containment afterward is needed.

On the whole, I think it is probably less a concern for teenagers than experienced executives.   The latter is likely to be more sceptical about things and others.

Love Art in Yourself

I happened to hear on a radio show this quote – ‘Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art’ by Konstantin Stanislavski who is a prominent theatre practitioner.   In particular, he is widely recognized by his theories on actor training and preparation.   Though this quote is more for the actors in the theatre business, I felt it super relevant for coaches and facilitators.   Specifically, the quote is a great reminder to us.

One of the biggest challenges (probably THE biggest) in the business of coaching and facilitation is the practitioner himself / herself.     (Of course, equally, it is the biggest asset as well)    It is a challenge often because we often unconsciously focus on ourselves rather than the work, especially when things does not go well.    For example, in coaching, when the work actually needs us to keep silence to provoke thinking, we keep on talking in order to ‘appear’ helpful.    Another example in facilitation / group coaching, when the work actually needs to allow productive conflict, we say something to pre-maturely harmonize the exchange.

Often, we take care of our own psychological need rather than doing the work.

I also recall an exchange with my fellow coaches in a program.   This was basically a condensed action learning program.  We were pondering when we should intervene as the coaches.   I said probably we should only intervene if we have YES to the following two questions:

  1. Are the participants STRUCK enough to have emotional attachment to the experience?
  2. Am I sure it is not my own anxiety that drives me to intervene?

‘Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art’ (or in Chinese愛你心中的藝術,而非藝術中的你)

 

Dancing with the Surprise

Less than 12 hours before starting a 2-day Leadership Development workshop, the client told me that they need to take the first 1 hour away from the workshop.  The new country head as the sponsor will introduce an ‘Action Project’ to the participants.  The first thought came to my mind was that it may not be a good idea because:

  • The ‘Action Project’ means demanding work for the participants in the coming few months. Introducing it in the beginning would probably take away the participants’ attention from the workshop
  • The country head is new to most in the room. We have little idea how his speech and his project will be in the line with workshop
  • Last but not the least, the participants did not know in advance that they need to work on an ‘Action Project’ at all!

Yet, on second thought, I found myself curious to let go.  I chose to experiment with this unpredictability.   After all, my client could not do much about it at that time.   I was very much in the state of ‘Be prepared and prepared not to use what you prepare’ in my previous blog post.

At the end, it turned out to be an enhanced learning experience for the participants.   Basically, I leveraged the participants’ strong attention towards the project to land the learning for the workshop content.   For example, a piece of workshop content is about the notion that people have different behavioural preferences.    I challenged the participants to apply the learning to prepare for the Q&A session with the sponsor on day 2.   The driving questions are ‘What behavioural preference did XXX demonstrated and why?   How would you engage him better tomorrow given your preference?’   I also facilitated them to talk about the possible dynamics within their respective project team using the behavioural preference language.

The underlying learning philosophy is very much the ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL) I mentioned before.   Learning retention is higher for ‘Just-in-time’ rather than ‘Just-in-case’ learning.    See ‘ARL approach’, ‘Learning Sustainability’ and ‘Action Learning in Action’ .

The more important reflection is that I can let go better.   It is driven by my rising inclination to work with ‘what is in the room’ rather than ‘what I prepare’ or even ‘what is on the PPT’.   The fact that I have spent majority of my time on executive coaching certainly contributes to this inclination.

I am curious how else I could be different in the future….  Let the learning continues.

Why coaching?

‘… Coachees frequently come to the coach not in order to change, but as a last resort in order to stay the same… ‘ Erik de Haan and Yvonne Burger

Dilemma between Learning and Performance in Action Learning

[Regent Park in London, May 2017]

I am an advocate on action learning, or more specifically the practice of ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL)    I believe we learn most effectively when we reflect on real work with real consequence.   A recent experience pushed me to think deeper on how to put this philosophy into practice. To be more specific, the question is ‘how much should the coach intervene?’

I was one of the coaches for an action-learning type workshop.   In short, the learners have some 24 hours to work together as teams on a real challenge faced by their organisation.   During the event, I felt odd when I heard expectation to help the learners do better in their project.   It seems to me that we care more about (immediate) performance than learning.   The problem is that making things easier for them can compromise their learning.

I realise that my philosophy towards action learning has shifted over the years.   This is probably because of the work in business schools in the last 2 years.  More at ‘Rethinking Experiential Learning’.    The new paradigm is that I better just observe rigorously, let them fail and then help them learning from the experience (including the possible anger towards my ‘not-helping’)  Participants can still learn something even if their projects ‘win’.  But the learning from failure (with reflection by facilitation / coaching) can be deeper and better retained.

A further reflection then came – When I worked as an in-house L&D years ago, I cared a lot about the learners’ performance in the projects.   I also did things to enhance their performance.   Why?   I wanted them to look good so that I or my department look good in front of the CEO who was present with the project outcome!    After all, it is much easier to show case project outcome than learning.

If I were an in-house today, even though with the ‘business schools’ experience, I honestly could not claim that I am 100% prepared for the participants to fail in the projects.

So, how to reconcile the dilemma?   Or again, how much should the coach intervene?   As one can imagine, there is no straight-forward answer.   On reflection, I think the better we address the following factors, the more the coach can let them fail and learn from the experience.

Sponsor selection – From the learning perspective, the function of the sponsors / judges is basically to create consequence to the projects.   In general, the more senior they are, the scarier the action learning becomes.   The global CEO whom the participants can rarely meet will put them into the ‘Panic Zone’.  On the other hand, using peer as judges will leave them in the ‘Comfort Zone’.   We can thus dial up and down accordingly to pursue the ‘Learning Zone’?   In addition, we can module-ise the challenge e.g. first round with the country CEO and so on.

Sponsor relationship – Sometimes the tendency, if not obsession, to show case learners’ performance is out of sponsor’s impatience as well as HR / L&D own sense of insecurity.   (I have it myself)    A learning-oriented action learning thus requires mutual trust between the sponsor and the HR / L&D.   From the latter’s perspective, this means continuous effort to nurture the sponsor on the reality of learning and build own creditability.

Duration – Learning and performance are more likely to co-exist if the action learning is long enough.   Say, if the program can last for 6 months, the learners can transfer the learning from previous failure into enhanced performance in subsequent modules.   On the contrary, if we just have, say, 2 days, learning will easily be compromised assuming the need to show-case.

Reflection space – Related to the last point, a short action learning program may not allow enough time for reflection.   This hinders deep learning (from failure).   First, there is literally no time to talk.   Second, coaches would hesitate to challenge too much since there lacks space for the participants to ‘recover’.   I would say in general one day of action will need half a day of reflection for a small group (4-8) of participants.

Coaches – For action learning to yield deep learning, we need coaches who are at least conscious about own anxiety.  They also need to be skilful and resourceful in facilitating just-in-time learning.

What do you think?    How else or what other factors to consider in order to produce a great action learning program given the organisational realities?

10 Years Old

Like what I said in the 5 years anniversary, I would not imagine that this blog would last for 10 years when I started it in 2007.

I reflected on my professional development journey for the first 5 years of blogging.  See ‘A New Look’.   Along with ‘A New New Look‘,  it is now a good time to do the same for the 2nd 5 years through my blog posts.

I have continued my interests.   On technical aspects, my reflection on questioning continued.  For example, I reflected on various powerful questions I came across (see ‘A question to draw questions’ in Sep 2013 and ‘Useful Questions’ in Feb 2014)   But the reflection on questioning extended into more the executive coaching context (see ‘What story would you like to tell?’ In Dec 2015 and ‘A question on question’ in Sep 2015)

Another development is in the facilitation domain.   I reflected on particular technique e.g. ‘Sit on your hands and shut up’ in Oct 2014, physical set-up in ‘Physical Conditioning’ in Jun 2013, and even learning from a french teacher in ‘A facilitating French teacher’ recently in Mar 2017.   A particular aim of facilitation emerged as my new interest – a very pure form of facilitation for the purpose of collective wisdom (some called Hosting).  See the few posts on ‘Intended Messiness’ in Sep 2016.

Learning / Learning Design is a key theme all along in this blog (see ‘More about learning… from the french class’ in Feb 2017 and ‘Rethinking Experiential Learning’ in Oct 2016)   But I find myself taking on more the organisational angle in the last few years instead of focusing on particular interventions (see ‘When a program has a life of its own’ in Oct 2013 and ‘Be careful about L3 and L4’ in Feb 2014)    In particular, this angle reinforced my inclination towards the ARL approach (see ‘Learning Sustainability’ in Apr 2012 and ‘Action Learning in Action’ in Jan 2014)

Another new development across my interest in coaching / facilitation / learning – I notice myself shifting gradually more from the technical i.e. ‘skill-set’ towards the ‘mind-set’ perspective.   For example, in ‘Rethinking Facilitation’ in Dec 2013 and ‘Never Perfect’ in Apr 2013, I examined the assumptions I was having when I facilitated.   Looking back, such interest actually started earlier, like in the post ‘Be prepared, and prepared not to use what you prepare’ in Oct 2011.    This was probably triggered by a few Leadership Development programs I started to facilitate in 2000 (see ‘Adaptive Leadership’ in Dec 2013) and some external learning experience (see ‘Immunity to Change’ in Sep 2013)

Along this path, I find myself losing interest in talking about highly technical domain like presentation skills, and definitely topics like using visual aid.

Another new area of interest in the last 5 years is ‘Leadership’.   ‘Leadership’ is a big concept like ‘Love’ i.e. can mean completely different things for different individuals.   To me, I am interested at a particular interpretation of ‘Leadership’ (see ‘Really…  what is leadership?‘ In Feb 2014) and ‘Leadership Development’ (see ‘Leadership Development’ in May 2014)    Like facilitation, this angle of ‘Leadership’ is more about mind-set rather than skill-set.   It can be illustrated by ‘Leadership’ on a gravestone’ in Mar 2014 and ‘The Paradox of Confidence and Vulnerability’ in Feb 2013.

I notice another interesting trail when I review my blog – scepticism on some training and facilitation work, including my own previous work.   I have highlighted in the 5 years anniversary my critics on training (see ‘Forget about Training’ in Jun 2011).  But it continued to other area like some kinds of meeting facilitation (see ‘Facilitation Work as a Cover-Up’ in Nov 2016)

What would be some emerging new path of interest going forward?   I mentioned above my shift from the technical to the adaptive perspective.  It started to extend into some deeper works as I moved to Switzerland.   The journey was highlighted by the Tavistock GRC (see ‘Tavistock Experience’ in Jan 2015, my own psycho-analysis (see ‘Drawing out thoughts and emotions’ in Jul 2016) and work in psychodynamics approach (see ‘Unconscious Collusion with Learners’ in Nov 2016.   This post did not exactly describe the work but gave some sense of what it is like)     Pondering on the crossroad between depth psychology and performance at work is definitely one of my on-going interest (see ‘Individuation, Abstract Art and Corporate Learning)

Having the above journey in front of me, I cannot help ponder on a question – To what extent does the blog name ‘Ask, Not Tell’ capture my growing areas of interest?   Or it no longer does?    Probably another blog post to reflect on…..

A New New Look

Time for a change!   Here is the fresh look for Ask Not Tell.  It has a new layout and in particular a starting page containing photos open to various associations.     In memory of the old look (the 2nd version) which has been in place for a few years, let me put up the print-screen here.   The last change was here for those who are interested.

In the next post, I will reflect on my professional development journey through the blog posts.

A facilitating French teacher

Further to my last 2 posts, here is about the teacher.   The French teacher is a great (learning) facilitator.   She can easily get a CPF from IAF!

From the technical perspective, she is very resourceful.   She used a ‘talking piece’ to direct attention.   She sat at different place in the circle to dilute the ‘teaching’ sense and encourage conversation among all of us, and thus self-discovery.  She fully utilized the space in the room e.g. conversation space in the circle, reflective / writing space on the desks.   She asked questions and threw back questions to the floor.   She paused without appearing impatient.   She knew when to use the blackboard to slow down discussion and give clarity.   And she wrote very clearly with structure.    Of course, she can do the above because she is technically competent with the language.

From the adaptive (mental) perspective, she impressed me with a strong inclination to work with the emergence.   She often started a session by inviting questions from the learners, and then she will build the entire session from it, instead of sticking to the pre-arranged material.   She always worked with ‘where the learners are’ rather than ‘ where she is with the material’.     Another indication of her ‘emergence’ mind-set, she was never disturbed by the learners’ late arrival and sometimes she even used the incident as resources.   For example, whilst we were making sentences using different verbs, someone came into the room.   Without sounding offended, she invited us to describe the action of someone entering the room.    She also stayed playful all the time.   She smiled and was ready to be amused by the learners’ remarks.

How did the institution manage to develop teachers like her?