Do (some) people truly want to learn?

I was recently discussing the intent and impact of learning (building the capability of people to think and act more productively) with a prospective client.  They were reluctant to move away from traditional learning approaches for fear of “failure”.  My experience is that failure to learn is far more prevalent in traditional teaching practice than in alternative creative approaches.  I then challenged myself and the client with  these reflections…

Creativity is too often underestimated by (left brain dominated) detailed/logical business people (I was there too myself in my distant past, before evolving through learning).  My recent research (very applied not theoretical) and that of others shows creativity, conversations and humour were significant stimulators of learning outcomes. People who want to learn “facts”, actually don’t learn (and often don’t remember facts later, or worse, they facts become obsolete).  A key to true learning is to being exposed to content in creative, left field ways and then applying the concepts in out of pattern approaches.  This ensures their right brain is engaged in a creative way which allows the new patterns to enter rather than be rejected (because logically they “don’t fit the known pattern”).

That is, we hear what we want to hear and reject the rest when “thinking”. However, we are susceptible to new ideas when having fun (like being involved in a creative activity that is unpredictable and emergent).  Such activities engage both sides of the brain simultaneously and have us both thinking and feeling, whilst out of our comfort zone.  When introduced to new clients, I find people who “know exactly what they want” are unlikely to get the value without considering why they want it and what way it is likely be be achieved (see conversations that matter).  If they are not prepared to have a divergent conversation first before converging on an approach, they limit in their thinking  as they do not know what else is out there.  Unknowingly (unless they are just “ticking the box” to pay lip service to appease), they limit their own performance and potential achievements because of a closed mind to alternative ideas (although this is often subconscious).  If one truly wants to change and build capability, one must be open to trying new ideas (absolutes are rarely true, but this one comes very close!).  Whilst some experiments may not work, they still lead to cultivating an open mind and learning outcomes.  There is plenty of research that shows we learn more from errors than we do from getting things right (mainly because when things go right, we don’t reflect on whether it could have been so much better – something intelligent people do when they make have a “learning experience” stimulated by mistakes).

One assumes potential clients seek expertise to help them learn what they don’t already know, otherwise why bother to pay for something you already have?  Putting tight constraints (time, formats and areas of content) around what they want is very limiting for (and by) them and also limits what we can achieve for/with them.  You can’t truly learn if you control the limits so you remain within your comfort zone!  This will just reinforce what you already “know”.

Life is not a formula (or at least an enjoyable and fulfilling one isn’t).  Giving away a little control allows you get greater ROI and learn so much more.
Let go! You may even have some fun in the process whilst you build greater relationships, confidence and trust among your team members.

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Metaphor for Mentoring

Although I have actively engaged in mentoring throughout my career, I have proactively increased my mentoring efforts since leaving the “big corporate” world.  This increased interest and activity has resulted from a number of emergent opportunities:

"The Eternal Mentor"

Mentoring is experienced guidance, not teaching

Firstly, my association with many young people from a range of cultures through coordinating courses for RMIT University’s MBA, which led me to revamp and lead the student mentoring program in which volunteer business leaders offer their time to invest in conversation with MBA students.
Secondly, my interest in the influence of behavioural awareness through my PhD research leading to the concept of behavioural environment optimisation to enhance trust and team dynamics and
Thirdly, my personal desire to “give back” something to the professional and social communities though which I have enjoyed being part of, such the Melbourne Knowledge Management leadership Forum and Organizational Zoo Ambassadors Network and some other on-line communities that share knowledge and expertise.

Talking to a number of the mentors and mentees over time about what they do, why and the outcomes they achieve has been very rewarding and revealing.  The importance of conversation and metaphors as tools to engage and share complex concepts so that the mentee can gain a richer understanding of what is being said within their own experiences has become a common theme.  Conversations that Matter form a useful framework for mentees to elevate their awareness to a new level and gain deep insights into how the experiences of their mature mentors can help then in their own contexts and situations.  It is not about “finding a solution” to their problem, it is more a process to discover a range of options. Reflection with others helps to “bounce ideas” and adapt the mentors insights into something that will work for them and their own situations.

When metaphor is added to the conversation a new dimension of understanding can be shared and lead to more creative generation of options. The process of reflecting on your your thoughts with others provides greater perspectives and triggers ideas and emergent opportunities that you may not have considered without this process.  My recent research highlights that there are synergies gained by combining metaphor and conversation in that the two together, combined with reflection are creative provide a more creative environment for insightful exchange (and is more fun).

Business students involved in the mentoring process often write highly reflective articles of their personal and professional development expressing their gratitude towards their mentor. A few examples of such statements follows:

“I found out that speaking about me and listening to peers were an incredible and mind opening experience. It was enriching to learn what fellow classmates were thinking in terms of job perspectives as well as gain global industry insights from my mentor.”

“I gained a lot more than these expectations and realized an extension of skills and work choices that I was not aware of.” 

“Without mentor guidance, it would have taken me a much longer time to answer the career questions of moving vertical or horizontal in my career.  In future, I do anticipate looking for life coaches as well as mentors to routinely keep my work and personal goals in direction.”

“I became comfortable and confident to discuss my professional developments with my mentor towards the later sessions. I learnt that an active mentoring relationship with regular communications and a two-way exchange of ideas was much more effective than a formal lecture student relationship.”

Both personally and professionally, seeing/hearing such statements is the ultimate reward, especially when they contact you several years later and describe how they attribute elements of their success to application of their learning from the mentoring.  Knowing that one’s efforts and guidance have made an ongoing difference for the mentee is satisfying far beyond “just teaching” (although the value and responsibility of this too is not to be understated).  I can only encourage everyone to invest a little time in being involved in mentoring at some stage (as either mentor or mentee or through group peer mentoring) to experience the exhilaration of making a difference for someone else and watching them prosper as a result.

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Metaphor to assist knowledge transfer

Participants define behavioural profile for a specific context

Over the last few months I have been involved in a number of workshops using the Organizational Zoo metaphor character cards to engage people in conversations on how behavioural interactions impact knowledge sharing and relationships. These fun interactions draw on the diversity of behaviours, experiences and cultures in the room to generate shared insights that i believe would not have occurred if it were not for the creativity and “out of the box” interactions.  Participants have said that having the metaphor character cards enables them to depersonalise the conversation about behaviour and create a safe environment to exchange perspectives (Watch 3 minute video summary of the research: ).

In the last workshop at KM Asia (Singapore), there were people from several cultural background involved in the dialogues. Participants in small groups categorised the behaviours into “expected”, “desired”, “tolerated” and “not tolerated” within a self selected context (example being: forming a community of practice, being a parent, in a crisis, as a project manager and building high performance teams). Each group then explained their choices of “animals” (behaviours) to the whole group which immediately stimulated a rich conversation about different perspectives on which behaviours were in which category.  People brought out their values in the conversations showing how people can constructively discuss differences of perspective and still be involved in a constructive dialogue. Entertaining and insightful!

It was interesting to hear the exchange of values when the group were discussing the “correct” was to be a parent.  Some were heavily supportive of strong discipline and others for more invest in fun with your children. The  most important point was that they were able to have this exchange of views both constructively and deeply through using the relationships between the metaphor characters to come to a point where they each understood more deeply, rather than trying to argue about who was right. When was the last time you had a positive and constructive conversation with a group of colleagues?

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Career Path Metaphor

People often ask me about the origins of the cover image on The Organizational Zoo.  

Although it is a LONG story, in short it took several drawings over several months to get the message right.  We wanted to portray the behaviours people encounter on their career path through a typical organisation.

You can see the kid (naive recruit) about to enter the front gate of the zoo (organisation) and as one would expect the Owl (eternal mentor) ready to greet them at the gate.  Many of the basic tactical behaviours are more heavily represented at the early stages of the career path (central walkway) whilst the the more mature and strategic behavioural styles dominate the top of the zoo.

The highly political rattlesnake can’t decide if they want to be in or out of the zoo, the change resistant triceratops has found a corner to mope about the good old days whilst the pestiferous insects clearly are trying to bust in. Quercus (the majestic Oak) is creating energy from outside and providing shelter for the inhabitants.  Each animal finds their optimal niche (except the unicorn, that is “perfect manager”, which of course doesn’t exist). Ultimately, the culture of the organisation is governed by the types of animals you have, where they are in the hierarchy and how they interact.

A good leader manages is aware of the behavioural interactions and leads the environment rather than being a victim of it.  It is possible to enhance your performance (individuals, teams and organisation) by proactively choosing which animals get to impact the environment through active conversations about what behaviours are appropriate for each context.  It is OK to be critical (vulture, piranha)  in a risk management analysis, but not in a brainstorm.  It is not about which is right and wrong animals – it is about being the right animal in the right context and being constructive about the animal interactions.

An astute person manages their own animals to interact most productively with others animals to generate more value and desired outcomes.  Consequently they flow more quickly up the hierarchy and generate greater trust and stronger relationships.
How proactively and consciously do you think about which animals you should be in each situation to achieve your desired outcomes?

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Is your culture fruit salad or amorphous fruit pulp?

The recent media debates on multicultural societies and leveraging diversity stimulated my thinking about metaphors that fit this debate. As a lover of fruits, I thought when do I want and apple versus an orange or fruit salad? Why (or perhaps when) would I choose these individual fruits rather than simply blending them and get all together?  In many ways a culture is a blend too – some with a dynamic mix of many recognisable behaviours and values operating in harmony and others a highly “pure and individual strain” that does not like to mix with others.

Societies are the composition of what is welcomed, what is tolerated and what is rejected.  Some draw others in to increase the range of compatible flavours  and appreciate this new addition without trying to blend them into the amorphous pulp.  However, others only allow similar fruits into THEIR mix and quickly adjust the newcomers flavour to suit their environment.

On vacation, we often visit other countries to immerse ourselves in something different and enjoy those differences, BECAUSE  they are highlight a new perspective on how others are.  More often than not though, we then return to the warm and comfortable “same” feeling that is “home”.  But home can be a bit amorphous like completely blended fruit pulp – one overall mixed flavour with bit of many, but representative on none. Is this truly how we want our cultures to be when we can have a fruit salad mix that still has elements of individual identity from many cultures each augmenting the others?  The pineapple is still recognisably pineapple AND has influencing hints of orange and kiwi and a dash of passion fruit making it more interesting, tasty and a point of conversation.

Organisations and teams that have a specific consistent cultural norm forced upon them become boring, navel-gazing, prone to group-think and stifle conversations.  However, those that genuinely cherish a range of behavioural styles, differences in values and perspectives and actively/respectfully engage these differences to leverage situations are happier and more productive.  Drawing upon the variety available to them stimulates emergent conversations, increases creativity and drives innovation and productivity. A “Fruit Salad culture” provides a new unique blend of excitement with each mouthful and keep us interested in participating.  An amorphous fruit blend is completely predictable and does not offer the spicy variety many of our most talented colleagues thrive upon.

What kind of culture are you leading or participating in?
Can it be different to what you now and and what impact would this have?

For me it is mostly fruit salad, but in some specific circumstances a single piece may be best, and on very few occasions in a simple context with a known desired outcome, perhaps the blended juice will suffice.  Behavioural choices to best leverage the mix need to be sculptured to suit the context. Be the one to choose before someone else makes a choice which is not to your taste!

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