Tavistock Experience – Learning Design

Further reflection on the Tavistock experience – As said, it is a very uncommon learning experience. To the extreme, for some parts, I could not help comment them as bad learning design.    On the surface of it, there were things looking like ‘shallow debrief’, ‘loose instruction’, etc.    On the other hand, I questioned myself on ‘What am I missing?’.   In sharing these thoughts with others, I was challenged with a question ‘So, what does good learning design mean to you?’

I think this is a good question to ponder on.   Given how unusual the Tavistock experience is, the question can really uncover and challenge my assumption on learning design.    I think there are a few elements which a good learning experience should consist of (not meant to be a prescriptive answer to good learning design).

A good design should create an environment which generates more learning around the topic as agreed with the learners than environments otherwise experienced by the learners.   What such intended environment should look like thus depends on what the topic is.    By environment, it includes the process, facilitators, the physical set up, the material, the learners mix, etc.

In order to achieve the above, a good design should take into account the Adult Learning Principles.   To me, the key ones are WIIFM, variety in learning styles, repetition, a balance of realness and unfamiliarity, learning transfer, effective use of pre and post experience.

In particular, a good design should enhance learning transfer as much as possible so long as it does not crowd out learners’ own responsibility and compromise learning depending on the nature of the intended learning topic.   To be more specific on experiential learning, a good design should provide space for learners to make sense out of the experience individually and collectively with fellow learners.

In that sense, my Tavistock definitely create an unique environment to learn about group relations which the participants would not experience otherwise.  In particular, it is very successful to create the learners’ mix – the size, the willingness to learn and the variety.   Re the Adult Learning Principles, being an open program, the Tavistock conference has limitation on repetition and ‘pre & post’.   I think it did well on variety in learning styles and realness.   Yet, i think there is missed opportunity in WIIFM and learning transfer.

For those who have been to Tavistock experience, what good learning design means to you and what do you think of Tavistock from the learning design perspective?

Tavistock Experience

I attended a Tavistock Group Relations conference last Dec. It is a very unique experience to me.   It is a weird one as well.   There was a lot of ‘stuck-ness’, ambiguity and sometimes emotion in the conference.   It is ‘empty’ (in a neutral sense) where each participant can make different senses out of the experience.  I have been asking myself how I would summarise the conference.    In reflecting with another alumni, here is what comes to my mind:

The conference is about surfacing the assumptions I have on how people interact in group by putting me in groups without specific tasks.

So, what assumptions have been surfaced so far?   For me,

– I assume that groups should have a common purpose.  Otherwise, it is not a group.   I become irritated when people gather despite lack of common purpose or the pursuit to have one.

– I have natural tendency is to be of service to the others (or the common purpose) above.   Even when I consciously tried to suppress it, I fell back into the default role from time to time.

– I assume that ‘there is THE right answer to things’.    This leads to my another strong assumption that ‘I need to pursue to the right answers’      Whilst intellectually I understand that sometimes there is NO right answer, I find myself acting or being on the assumption that there is one.

I have a sense that more ‘learning’ will come after the conference as I contrast this unusual group experience with daily one…

‘If I could choose again, would I go to the conference despite its weirdness?’    Yes, I would.   In relation to my summary statement above, I think the conference gives me very unique opportunity to see myself in group.


Power of Facilitation

Michael Sandel 2I talked about Professor Michael Sandel before here.  See the post ‘What’s the Right to do?’   I am drawn to his works again recently given what is going on in Hong Kong around the ‘Occupy-Central’ initiative.

Putting the content aside, I am amazed again how his facilitation has helped the debate. As mentioned by him in his interview with BBC, his work is basically to enable public debates though there may not be agreements at the end. I think it makes sense and he has done a great job.

Moreover, he has been enabling debates in different countries like China, Japan, etc. In one of his forum in Japan, the comments from the audience speak for the power of facilitation. See the news report here.

“We tend to shy away from these debates, worried that we might hurt other people’s feelings. But with the help of a good facilitator, Japanese people, too, can have an active discussion.”

And perhaps the biggest attraction of the “Sandel Theater,” as Hayakawa Publishing President Hiroshi Hayakawa called it, was that the professor demonstrated an exceptional ability to put people at ease, treating everyone equally and with respect — as seen in his policy of calling everyone by their first name.

In fact Kan, who said he found Sandel more inspiring than U.S. President Barack Obama, confessed he was “almost in tears” when Sandel called his name. Kimiko Morinaka, 38, a volunteer counselor from Hokkaido, was likewise thrilled.

“When I saw the NHK program, I felt very strongly that I wanted to participate in such an outstanding course,” Morinaka said. “Coming here tonight was my dream come true. I had long dreamed of being asked, ‘What’s your name?’ “

PS See his recent talk on ‘What Money Can’t Buy’.   Amazing examples and arguments!

Sit on your hands and shut up

I heard a veteran facilitator talking about Open Space earlier this month. Great wisdom. She said that there are 3 necessary conditions to make Open Space work. First, there are burning issues which the participants care collectively. Second, all participants join the event voluntarily. Third, the sponsor (who calls for the event) is really interested what may emerge from the process.

If these are in place, after giving the instruction, the facilitator should just sit on his / her hand and shut up.   It is so true but not exactly easy to do.

To the contrary, an Open Space will surely fail if the participants as a community do not see any burning issue, some (if not all) of them are ‘forced’ to join the event and the sponsor calls for the event just for sake of doing it. For the last point, the worst is that the sponsor in fact has his / her solutions in mind already.



Is Training (alone) a form of Work Avoidance?


‘…  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)