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…..

Secondary Source of Income

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A recent conversation with a fellow coach came to something rather interesting.   Our argument is that in order to the job well, a practitioner (on people development e.g. coach, OD consultant, facilitator and even therapist) need to have some kind of secondary source of income. He / she cannot rely solely on such developmental work e.g. coaching.  The side-business could be something like trading of marker pens, workshop venue rental, etc.  Ideally, the business is not face-time dependent and generates relatively stable income across the time.

The alternate income source is not only to diversify risk, but also to make the developmental work better.  There are 3 other reasons why so:

Helping by Not Helping – Our work is a lot about pushing people out of comfort zone.  Real learning (especially on self-awareness) comes with some pain.   Yet, if our living relies solely on the work, we are vulnerable to collusion.   It is well illustrated by a quote mentioned in my earlier post ‘Unconscious Collusion with Learners’– I’ll say nice things about your workshop / coaching if you spare me the pain in learning about myself.    Or when we are not finally desperate, we can turn down facilitation work which is actually a cover-up to deeper organizational problem.   See another post ‘Facilitation Work as a Cover-Up

Capacity Constraint – From the business perspective, the only asset is ourselves.   The scale of this business is constrained by nature e.g. there is only 365 days in a year we can work.  It is not scalable.   On the other hand, there is a huge key-man risk.   I knew a facilitator who suddenly lost his voice.   The problem lasted for a few months.   He got to cancel all his workshops, arrange substitutes, negotiate against possible compensation…. without jeopardising client relationship…  and his voice!    And at least equally important, he did not have income during that time,

Time Out – This is especially important for those practitioners doing deep psychological work like therapists.   When they are going through life trauma e.g. divorce, loss of important person, it is not useful for them to continue the work.   A secondary source of income can definitely help here.

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.

 

 

 

Unconscious Collusion with Learners

“I’ll say nice things about your workshop / coaching if you spare me the pain in learning about myself.”

I was reading an article, and there is a line like above (I modify it a bit).    The collusion we can get into unconsciously….  e.g. probably simply with an exchange of eye contact and smile.   The question is ‘Am I colluding?’   Or I should say ‘To what extent I am colluding?’    I think it is an important question to reflect on from time to time.   This is for everyone who is in the business helping others develop.

Rethinking Experiential Learning – Part 2

img_5073(Continued from my last post of the same topic)

I was involved in running an outdoor experiential learning activity recently in an Executive Education event.    Interesting insights – First, it actually can be run in a way that works for certain learning objectives.   Second, I possibly ‘contributed’ to the limitation of such learning approach.

Learning Objectives – The event was about to learn about group dynamics and own unconsciousness.   So, the outdoor activity was meant to be stretching in order to surface the dynamics and assumptions.    Instead of aiming for nice-nice feeling of accomplishing a task, the participants will experiment frustration and failure.   In fact, the underlying thought is that the more struck the group experiences, the more the participants can learn.   Unlike project work, the outdoor can add a dimension of physical memory e.g. muscle fatigue to reinforce the learning retention.

Given the intensity mentioned above, we spend a lot of time in advance to contract with the participants.   We also a distance in order not to ‘collude’ with them e.g. making the activity easier which the coaches / consultants can unconsciously do so.   [I can elaborate more on the ‘how’ later’]

My ‘Contribution’ – This is probably deeper realisation.   I feared that the participants will not be serious about outdoor.   It may be the case, but I had such fear because I was not serious about outdoor.   I alienated outdoor possibly because unconsciously I did not want to experience the physical challenge and failure.   I projected such unconscious excuse to the participants.   It is already relieving and amazing to hold this hypothesis.

Rethinking Experiential Learning – Part 1

img_5074I gained some new perspectives on experiential learning recently.   In the last few years, I had growing skepticism on this learning approach.   Experiential learning approach has its merits.   First, it takes the participants into unfamiliar context, both conceptually (e.g. climbing the wall instead of finishing a powerpoint) and physically (e.g. in the wood instead of meeting room).   This can better set them free from the assumptions or automatic responses associated with their familiar contexts e.g. projects in the workplace.   They can then more easily try out new behaviours or examine existing ones.   Second, the activities are normally engaging or fun in nature.   For a learning intervention of a few days, we need variety in the learning experience.    There are other benefits which however are not really for learning.   For example, the approach can often make the participants feel more like a team e.g. through overcoming some outdoor challenge together.   This is particularly useful for intact team.

On the other hand, experiential learning has its downside.   First, it is costly and potentially dangerous to run especially the outdoor ones than other learning approaches.   More importantly, participants often remember the fun rather than the (intended) learning points.  Most facilitators / trainers have experienced the laundry list (e.g. communicate better, take ownership, plan more) produced in the debrief.

To me, the root cause is that the participants will unlikely take the activity seriously.   After all, who care whether they can find all the treasures in the hunt, and win the champagne from the CEO?    If one does not really put effort in the process, he / she will likely learn less (if any at all)

In short, I would rather get the participants to learn from real life project (e.g. ARL) than experiential learning activity.    It is less costly and safer in running the former.   And it is more likely that the participants will take the real life project more seriously.

My thoughts changed…..  (to be continued on Part 2)

Intended Messiness – Part 3

The 2nd question to reflect on is ‘What are ‘good’ odd moments and what are those ‘bad’ ones to avoid?’    By ‘bad’, I mean those odd moments which are not conductive to the learning objectives.   As such, the answer to this question is really ‘it depends’.   On one extreme, if the learning intervention is about topic like group dynamics or self-awareness, I think all odd moments are learning-friendly.   In fact, the odder, the better.   A classic example is the Group Relations Conference which basically provides white space for assumptions to be surfaced.   See my earlier posts – Tavistock Experience and Tavistock Experience – Learning Design.

How about the workshop I mentioned in the beginning i.e. learning objective around collective wisdom?   Most odd moments are still good for learning so long as the learning transfer mechanism is in place.   See my thought on question 1.

On the other hand, though messiness can help learn collective wisdom, it is probably not a good idea to start a workshop by saying ‘Welcome to the workshop!   We the facilitators have prepared nothing and let’s see what we can learn together in the coming 3 days.   By the way, we only booked this room till 10am.  [silence]’    It probably forces people out of the Learning Zone into the Panic Zone.

Your thought?