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?

Facilitation Work as a Cover-Up

img_5403I was shown in a facilitation learning event a short video clip.   It is about a retreat for 50+ people in an organisation design and facilitated by a facilitator   It is the kind of upbeat video with delightful music which showed the smiling faces, colourful wall-charts, fun activities, etc.   There were captions indicating how much the participants happily connected, enjoyed the event, praised about the organisation, etc.

A big question mark came to my mind after I watched the clip – “What really did the event do to the organisation?”    I asked for the objective statements and have to say that the event seemed to meet the objectives e.g. ‘to have a fun, engaging, high energy day’    There were probably also ‘practical outputs’ contributing to the organisation’s strategy and purpose.

But from the clip (and in particular its mood), I questioned whether the event is actually a cover-up to any organisational issue.   Is it actually a dis-services to the organisation?

This post is not a critics to this piece of work.  In fact, if it is a critics, it is a critics to myself.    I have done similar events producing lot of fun and energy, and lot of flipcharts with long list of bullet points.   Well, those events produced what the sponsor wanted…  sometimes perhaps exactly a layer of cover-up.   But is it what the organisation needed?   How much I should and can push the sponsor to spend the resources on addressing the issues under the cover-up?

Well, this is very much related to my last post re my reflection on collusion.

 

 

 

What is really Reflection? (Cont’d)

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I have further thought on this.   Reflection is actually a few layers of ‘What does the experience mean to me?’    We asked ourselves this question a few times.   Or the coach / facilitator probes the learners a few times with this question….  probably in different forms though.    Taking a 1 on 1 coaching scenario reflecting on a people management issue

Ch = Coach; Ce = Coaches

  • Ch: ‘So, now you have completed the re-structuring work.   Shall we spend some time to reflect on it?’
  • Ce: ‘Sure’
  • Ch: ‘What does the experience mean to you?’
  • Ce: ‘It was tough.  Frankly, I found it particularly in delivering the news to the individuals’
  • Ch: ‘What have you learnt from your experience in handling such difficulty?’
  • Ce: ‘Well… hm…  I realise that for me it is better to be as open as possible….’

Take an experiential activity as another example in a 1 to many setting.  Let’s say, the marsh mallow activity.

Facilitator = F; Learner = L

  • F: ‘So, what does the last 30 minutes (of activity) mean to you?’
  • L: ‘We find it difficult to get people to listen’
  • F: ‘What does it mean?’
  • L: ‘We so drawn by the ‘doing’.   They just could not wait to work on the material.  Once it started, they do not listen.   Well….  In fact, since the others did not listen, more people switched into the ‘doing’ mode as well’
  • F: ‘What does this observation mean to you at work?’
  • L: ‘Similar things happened at work.   For example, people are drawn into the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’ in meetings… ‘
  • F: ‘What does it reflection mean for you in the future?’
  • L: ‘Perhaps we could allocate specific time duration to ‘not doing’…..’

In a way, these layers of ‘What does it mean’ question is like the 4F in activity debrief:

  • Feeling = How did you feel?
  • Fact = What happened?
  • Finding = What did you learn?   What stood out for you?
  • Future = What do you plan to do differently?

The Art of Enrolment – Topic

Here is what I see as the third key reason why enrolment is difficult.   It is the nature of some topic.

For some topics, its name is confusing to start with.   ‘Leadership’ (or ‘Leadership Development’) is one of these.    You pick any 2 people in the workplace and ask them what leadership is.   They probably have very different answer.     In addition, there is one understanding of the term ‘Leadership Development’ which particularly confuses the communication i.e.

Leadership Development = Any developmental intervention for those in the leadership position.

This could really mean anything, even how to ensure policy compliance in China.   See my earlier post on ‘Leadership Development’.

With such a diverse understanding on what the topic it is, no wonder we would have ‘wrong’ participants in workshops / interventions.

Jumping ahead a bit into the ‘So What’, perhaps we should do away the term ‘Leadership’ and ‘Leadership Development’ in describing intervention.   Specifically, we should avoid workshop names like ‘The Essence of Leadership’, ‘Advanced Leadership Skills’.   Instead, we can consider to be more specific in naming them and use terms like ‘Transition’, ‘Influencing’, ‘Feedback’, ‘Visioning’.   If we are mindful to keep the name short, we can add a 4-5 words 1 liner to describe.

(Yes, most organisations have course factsheets already in place. But in my experience, people tend to judge by names rather than the content of the factsheets)

 

The Art of Enrolment

‘Magic happens before and after’ – What a great quote I learnt from the others.   The same applies to the business of developmental work. For example, whether a learning workshop succeeds or not is at least 50% ‘determined already’ before it really starts.   And one of the key pre-workshop work is to get the right participants into the workshop.

I was once in a workshop in Hong Kong with quite a few challenging participants.   They were either:

  • Not knowing why they were put into this particular program (one asked me whether he has done something wrong and thus got sent to this program!!)
  • Not having time for the workshop.   Some were actively working on deals
  • Not seeing the need to develop their leadership at all
  • Not even supported by their boss to spend time in the program

The workshop turned out to be very challenging as we had quite a few of the above and their dysfunctional behaviours influenced others a lot e.g. late-coming, working on mobile devices during sessions.   Having said, there were often 1 or 2 of these ‘prisoners’, ‘tourists’ or even ‘terrorists’ in the workshops I experienced.

Well, that is why I always prefer to work on Just-in-Time learning with intact teams.   See previous posts like this.   Since the intervention itself is real work, the participants will naturally have the will and time for it.   Unfortunately, we got to work on Just-in-Case learning as well and the risk of having ‘wrong’ participants is there.

Let me first reflect on why ‘wrong’ participants will end up in a learning program.   Organisationally, I think the root causes are size, time and topic nature.   First, when there are too many people in an organisation, there will be very different views on what a talent should develop on.     The talent development team in the headquarter believes an individual (let’s say John) should develop on networking skills but John and his boss see hard skills like credit analysis to be more important.   The situation becomes more complex when there are more parties in the picture e.g. local HR, business HR, local talent development, business head.

Ideally, such difference in view can be reconciled if there is time.   Specifically, John comes up his own individual development plan.   He discusses and agrees with his boss.   They then further discuss and agree with their HR partner.   And that HR partner ideally should have liaised with the other various HR specialists and business heads, and thus understands perfectly well the top down agenda on talent development i.e. what competency is needed for the organisation or a particular business.   John can then adjust his individual development plan which by then takes care of his own aspiration, the immediate business and the overall organisational need.   Yet, how often does an organizations have time for such alignment work?    Especially for the listed ones which need to respond to short-term-ism!

Let me elaborate on the third factor – topic nature – in the next post.

Learning Sustainability

Coincidentally I entered into the discussion in separate occasions with others on how to sustain the impact of learning interventions.   Whilst achieving 100% learning transfer all the time is not possible, I think the question is more about ‘How to sustain learning impact to a larger extent?’   Among all the ideas we discussed, it seems to me the ARL (Action Reflection Learning) practice is still the key.   (Yet, it is not without implementation challenges)

I may have written some of the following points before.   Allow me to refresh my thought (to myself) by possibly repeating some.

I think ARL, or the practice of ‘Learning whilst Earning’ is the future.  I once was asked a question ‘What do you think the future of leadership development will be?’   Ideas came to my mind and I said:

“I think we will not have any traditional openly-nominated classroom-based workshop.   We will not have a fixed schedule and thick binders for the learners.   We will not do Just-in-Case learning anymore.   In the future, we will do Just-in-Time learning.   Our facilitators will go into business meetings, perhaps those annual strategy planning meetings. We facilitate their real business discussion.   More than that, we will pause the leaders to reflect on their behaviors in the meetings and if necessary we will introduce some concepts or tools for them to use on spot.”

There are a few reasons why this is probably the future:

Learners’ Commitment – There are lot of problems in the Just-in-Case setting.   I become more and more skeptical of ‘prisoner’ type of learners. They are in the learning event because they are asked to.   Everybody suffers – themselves, the fellow learners and the facilitator.   Time is wasted.   However, if the event is a real business meeting, everyone will be much more engaged.   Things are relevant and real.   And if we can introduce tools and concepts to be immediately used in the on-going situations, learning retention is high by definition.

Sponsors’ Commitment – No matter how well one learns in a workshop, learning retention will drop a great deal if he or she is not supported to apply the learning back in the workplace.   And the line managers are the most important factor determining whether there is enough support.   A typical example – one learn the GROW model to coach.   He applies it back to the workplace but is challenged by his line managers on why he asked so many questions instead of just telling.   And the line managers in fact always just tell.   This will kill his learning on coaching skills right away.

On the other hand, if we install learning in a real business setting, the sponsors are likely involved and in fact become learners as well.

Effectiveness Measurement – Learning professionals have been struggling how to measure effectiveness on leadership development initiative.   There is no perfect solution yet.   However, in the Just-in-Case setting, the intervention effort can possibly result in better business result e.g. cost saving / attrition rate, on top of developing leaders.

Cost Pressure – Given the more and more difficult operating environment, learning resources will likely be cut ……. unless we can prove the effectiveness.   When the next financial crisis comes, it is not unlikely that corporations will further either cut down the stand-alone learning department or outsources majority of the work.   It will however be a different proposition if the so-called learning department can facilitate both earning and learning.   I wrote more about this idea in my previous blog post Forget about ‘Training’

Despite the above, the move from traditional practice to ‘Connecting Earning with Learning’ is still a big paradigm shift for most organizations.    Essentially, it is ‘safe’ to run traditional classes.   And there are often stakeholders with vested interest to the traditional practice.

To me, the key outstanding questions are:

  • How to balance the need for consistency in learning across the organization in adopting Just-in-Time learning approach?
  • Should we adopt a higher balance of conformity for more junior learners i.e. less Just-in-Time?   And if so, how much and where to draw the line?
  • What kinds of quality are needed for the facilitators or Team Coaches to be able to conduct Just-in-Time learning?
  • How to build the initial success in order to influence other stakeholders?

Is Training (alone) a form of Work Avoidance?

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‘…  Beyond selection, leadership development is a line manager’s daily responsibility.   Training and development processes like those we design in our consulting services are no substitute for regular on-the-job debriefing….’  

From The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

This is so true.  It is such a common illusion held by managers (me included) that sending people to development interventions (mostly training course) is THE answer to develop people.   The managers in fact are the most important teachers as we can role model, coach, give feedback, reward etc on timely basis…  frequently.   This is more the case for soft-skills capabilities e.g. leadership, managerial skills, presentation, but also applies to technical skills to a certain extent.

Some more reflections on this:

1. Our contribution – L&D practitioners actually help create this illusion.   We are eager to help, sometimes, by doing more and better at what we know i.e. running workshops.   Sometimes we could unconsciously convince the managers that attending workshops is the magic pill.   Politically, in order to justify the existence of a training department, we make ourselves busy.   The immediate answer is more workshops.   We are promoting technical fixes to an adaptive challenge.

2. Reward – In most organisations I know, managers are not rewarded for developmental work.  At least for most managers I know, they do not see it this way.   Even though some companies measure managers’  developmental effort, the norm is that such effort can be ‘sacrificed’ in the name of quarterly business result.

3. Organisational Collusion – Somehow, simply putting people into workshops is easy for the managers as well.   We (in fact the whole system) do not need to face the pain in adapting ourselves to be people developers.   In a way,  is training a form of work avoidance (from the organisational perspective)?

See my related previous posts

How much does training matter? (2008)

How much does training matter? Cont’d (2008)

Be careful about L3 and L4 (2014)

 

 

Lucky Me

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This post is a bit dated.   But I still want to post it here since it is rather significant to me.    The photos were taken in Gazipur, Bangladesh – the outskirt of Dhaka.   I conducted a team development workshop there for 2 days.    The event is significant to me in a number of ways:

 

  • The workshop went very well.   The sponsor and the participants were apparently satisfied and more importantly their relationship seemed to start changing.   In the final 1-word check-out, one participant said ‘change’.   He further elaborated that he now saw people differently.  In addition, we arrived with very concrete Requests and Offers between leader and the team, with specific person and date for follow-up.
  • It was the last workshop with my previous employer.    It nicely marked the end.    I am particularly happy that I end it with a piece of ‘real’ work.   As I mentioned before here, I believe more and more that learning happens much more effectively when we get the learners do real stuff.
  • Most importantly, I felt very grateful during the event.    I was absorbed with what I did there.   I felt like time just passed by so quickly.  I was in the flow.   People say everyone is borne for reasons.   If that is the case, I really feel like I am borne to facilitate group work.    Not that I am very good at it.   Just that I like to do it so much.

 

 

 

I guess I am lucky.