Emergent Learning

As part of the conversation around agility, innovation, and transformation – I hear more discussion around adult learning and how to create a “learning organization.”

Unfortunately, the term “learning,” for many people, triggers thoughts of classrooms and teachers.

“Learning” is seen as separate and apart from what we normally do.

It isn’t.

We are learning all of the time. Mostly unconsciously.

We are learning what is acceptable and not acceptable in our environment.

We are learning what is rewarded and what is punished.

We are learning whether our adaptations to that environment are providing the desired results.

And, yes, occasionally we spend time in the classroom or in apprenticeship trying to (or being strongly encouraged to) “learn something new.”

What if we thought about learning as a constant and talked about ways to be more mindful around what we are learning and want to learn?

What if we considered “learning” as embedded within the environment?

What if we consciously thought about what we want the people within our domain of influence to learn about us and about the environment we are in?

What if we provided the means and the environment to encourage this education within the day-to-day?

  • Will you provide time for reflection?
  • Is it safe for them to have a generative conversation with you? Are you open to diversity of thought?
  • How stable is your personal foundation? (Uncertainty and Ambiguity)
  • Do you personally have a functional framework for sensing and sensemaking? Can you share that with others? Can you integrate their framework – or help them find their own?
  • Is the journey that you are on leading you to where you want to go? Are you leading others on a journey to where THEY want to go?

Each of us learn from others and our environment constantly.

Instead of thinking about “learning” as something you do on the side – consider it part of your moment-to-moment existence.

That shift is a game-changer.


Resources:

Six Enablers of Emergent Learning (article) – A discussion of Emergent Learning vs. Continuous Learning vs. Intended Learning. I believe there is a place for all of it.

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (Amazon affiliate link) – Robert Kegan and Lisa Lachey’s research applied to organizational design.

Association for Talent Development (site/blog) – The primary US association for corporate trainers and talent development professionals.

Why Stability is Important

In the discussions around “digital transformation” and “innovation” and “agility” and our “VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world” – we forget that safety and security is a significant human need.

Instead, the discussion centers around how we all need to be more innovative, agile, flexible, and better able to cope with chaos.

I think we are missing the mark.

I also think that we can’t currently rely on organizations, of any sort, to provide any sort of stability.

They are too busy being “digitally transformed,” “disrupted,” “agile,” “innovative,” etc.

The only place we can establish stability is in our individual centers.

The best gift we can give is to help each other develop their individual centers.

Stability can be found within our selves and through the development of healthy relationships.

From there, we can pivot and flex to adapt to environmental demands.

We can also mindfully choose which demands we intend to address.

“Stability” has gotten a bad rap of late. And I would agree that leaning too far in that direction is not helpful.

However, we may have swung the conversation, and our actions, too far in the other direction.

We have a much better chance of being agile, innovative, and flexible if we have a solid platform to work from.


Resources:

HBR: If You Want Engaged Employees – Offer Them Stability (freemium article) – Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Organizational Development specialist. She argues that providing employees with a sense of stability will improve performance and culture.

Human Capital Institute: How Leaders Can Manage Organizational Stability to Inspire Loyalty (article) – This article includes some interesting questions around the ROI for the employee and being clear on whether loyalty is an important value for your company – or not.

Forbes: What It Means to Have a Culture of Stability – A more traditional perspective on “stability” and its benefits and hazards.

We All Need Leadership Skills

Agility, Holacracy, Digital Transformation, and other trends demand that EVERYONE develops leadership skills.

What does that mean?

Flatter organizations result in more authority being given to those of us in the trenches – by necessity.

An increasing customer focus forces organizations to look to line staff for accurate information about the customer.

A greater emphasis on teams and agility means that decisions need to be made on-the-fly by those team members.

The sum of all of this = we all need “leadership skills.”

What does “leadership skills” mean, exactly?

For many of us, “leadership skills” look like a lengthy laundry list of things we need to be good at to be a “leader.”

I don’t think it needs to be that complicated.


I would argue that we are all leaders, in our own domain.

Our attitude, our actions, and our choices shape our environment.

The question isn’t “Are you a leader?”

The question is “What is the quality of your leadership?”

You can find clues in the quality of your life and your relationships.


Since we are all leaders, it’s important that we develop “leadership skills.”

A good start is this list from the Center for Creative Leadership.

They list the following skills as key to leadership development:

  • Self-awareness – To me, this includes Integrity and Honesty, as well as a healthy measure of Emotional Intelligence. It’s not simply knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Communication – I would emphasize Listening and Asking Questions here, not just the ability to communicate in multiple media in ways others understand.
  • Influence – I would change this to Collaboration. I believe that it is more important to be able to work well with others, including respectful confrontation. I have found, at least for myself, that influence stems from the ability to develop strong relationships.
  • Learning Agility – The ability to focus your learning, to learn quickly and pro-actively, and integrate those lessons is key to succeeding in today’s world. I include focusing your learning because you are always learning something. Each time you talk to someone, or engage in media, or try something, you are learning something. The trick is – focusing your efforts. Learn more consciously.

We are all leaders.

It’s time we work to be great ones.


Resources:

Top 5 Skills for 2019 (blog post) – This is my argument for key skills we all need to develop and practice this year. To me, these skills go a long way towards developing “leadership skills.” We need to be leaders in our own life.

Deloitte’s 21st Century Leadership Trends (article) – Deloitte’s perspective on the C-suite. They note that there is not just a change in needed competencies, there is also a change in context. It’s becoming progressively clearer that old ways of working, and “leading,” aren’t working.

Deloitte’s Leadership Competency Model (article) – The big consulting firms drive the conversation around leadership. Deloitte has one of the more robust Human Capital consultancies. This article contains their perspective on leadership and the competencies required.

Those Who Wish to See You Fail

There is always one stakeholder who will be happy if your project fails.

Peter Bregman and Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, Harvard Business Review

I wish this maxim wasn’t true.

In my experience, it’s often who you least expect.

Something about your project or change effort threatens them.

To your face, they may tell you all of the right things.

How they will support you.

What they will do to help.

The proof is in their actions.

Are they doing what they said they were going to do?

Or are you hearing rumors and back-talk from third parties?


It gets stickier when the saboteur is a key stakeholder.

It’s at this point I start questioning whether I am in the correct environment.

Is there any sort of hook that I can use that will help?

Can I clearly articulate how it will help them in a way they understand?

Do I know what the threats to them (real OR perceived) are?

Can I avoid the stakeholder while the idea is still nascent and fragile?

Are there any other supports in the environment that I can leverage while I create quick wins for this change?

Or is my timing bad? Or am I in the wrong environment?

Do I need to abandon the change or walk away from the environment or get away from that person?

None of this is easy.

Yet, having a key stakeholder play saboteur is one of the biggest risks we have to any project.

What are you going to do to mitigate that risk?

Can you?

Do you have the supports you need to deal with it?


I’ve been reflecting recently on dealing with executive saboteurs.

I’ll admit, I don’t have a great answer.

At a high-enough level and in a conservative-enough organization, the only option is to attempt to find supporters with that person’s ear OR who are high-enough that the saboteur is almost forced to listen.

We have to recognize that there are some people who just won’t listen because we don’t have the right title or we don’t look “right” (sexism, ageism, racism, other-ism all rear their ugly heads here). We are the wrong messenger.

We also have to recognize that there are some people so focused on their own agendas and power issues that no amount of logic, sales skills, or empathy will help.

Prioritization, fundamentally, has to be a team sport.

You can’t just ask a fall-guy to do the dirty work for you.

And you can’t take sole responsibility – especially if you are working at lower-levels in a traditionally hierarchical environment and have been told that you are “empowered” to make decisions with no (or limited) evidence that those decisions will be abided by upper management.

If you are placed in a position of having to say “no” to a high-level executive that won’t take “no” as an answer, make sure you are clear on the impact of saying “yes” and start recruiting allies.

You are going to learn how strong your support structure is very quickly.


Resources:

Mark Goulson: Talking to Crazy (Amazon Affiliate Link) The best book I can think of for this scenario. That and recruiting help + air cover.

Are Your Leaders Supported?

What does the support system for your organization’s leadership look like?

Who is their “boss?”

  • Activist shareholders who are trying to make their 10x investment and get out in the next year?
  • A University Board of Directors wishing to put their college in US News and World Reports Top College and University rankings? Or just survive?
  • A long-tenured senior executive counting the days to retirement?
  • A new boss who is trying to “make a mark on the organization?”

During my time spent among organizational designers, particularly the Responsive Conference and Conscious Business communities, culture change can only happen with the support of the leadership.

Those who try to change the culture bottom-up will eventually hit a ceiling.

At its worst, traction towards a positive change in culture among the line staff and line manager can be squashed quickly by a senior executive or two if there is no support above and among them – demoralizing the line staff and managers for the long-term and harming future efforts.

Furthermore, if you are ASKING your line staff and line managers to change the culture, you need to make sure you are in a position to provide “air cover.”

All it takes is one senior executive to challenge your line staff and you caving in for that culture change initiative to fall apart. And for those who have been trying to create a positive culture to start heading for the exits.

If you have a change you wish to see in the culture, and you want your line staff and line managers to implement that change, what supports do YOU have when they (and you) are challenged by your peers and above.

  • Do you have a strong mentor and/or coach to lean on?
  • Are you clear on your vision and the advantages to your peers and boss if they support you in this change?
  • Are there other areas of the organization and peers that have already planted the seeds of the change you wish to see?
  • Is it clear that the “powers that be” understand the value of the long-game?

In organizations with strong traditional hierarchies, you can be certain that as you, your employees, and your allies try to create positive culture change – a noisemaker is going to escalate up the chain and work to sabotage your efforts.

In a strong traditional hierarchy, asking your line staff to take bullets without PROVEN support from YOU is asking for failure, and for the disappearance of your line staff.

You need to make sure that you have the support YOU need to support those who are helping you with your culture change effort.


Resources:

Resistance to Change: Overcoming Multilevel Cynicism (Article)

HBR: Culture Change that Sticks (Article)

HBR: Changing Corporate Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate (Article)

The King’s Indian: Why Corporate Culture Change Fails, and How to Succeed (Medium Post)

Michelle McQuaid: Can You Create Change From the Bottom-Up? (Blog Post)

The Step Before the System

Perks are great, but they are detached from the day-to-day.

Often, perks are a way to “shield” managers and executives from the sticky task of creating a healthy, humane, and sustainable day-to-day environment.

“We have a wellness program, what’s your problem?”

What if you have me on so many disparate projects that I don’t have time for your “wellness” program?


There is a need for a deeper conversation about work, what an organization is and its role in our world, how we decide what activities to pursue, and the relationship between customer, employee, and organization.

We have wellness programs – yet the disengagement, burnout, anxiety, and depression statistics are frightening.

We have wellness programs – yet only 1/5 – 2/5 of employees use them, even with incentives and punishments.

I’m not saying that wellness programs are bad. Not at all.

They are a tool in the toolkit and evidence that the organization is at least thinking about the importance of employee health and its importance in achieving organizational goals.

I am just asking for a deeper conversation.

One where we stop talking about workplace wellness as something separate and apart from the work itself.

Much of our issue with workplace wellness is, in my opinion, an issue of prioritization and trying to do too much at once.

Much of our issue with workplace wellness is, in many people’s opinion (most notably Gallup), an issue of management and leadership (or lack thereof).

The wellness programs are helpful.

But if your employees have no time to use your wellness program resources, or, even if they ARE able to use those resources, they work in an environment that doesn’t reinforce their attempts at self-care, the wellness program becomes a shiny, expensive pink elephant.


Resources:

Harvard Business Review – What Wellness Programs Don’t Do for Workers (Article). This article got me thinking further about the workplace and why working conditions for knowledge workers seem to be deteriorating even though we have tons of research and writing about employee engagement, employee health, and the importance of both for creativity and innovation.

World Health Organization – Stress at Work (Article). When workplace stress and burnout catches the attention of the World Health Organization, you know it’s bad.

Personal Observations on Burnout (Blog Posts) – As you know, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. We can do better.

The Evolution of Workplace Learning

Back in 2009, Dr. Tony Karrer predicted that Workplace Learning Professionals would morph into “management consultants”.

At the time, my reaction was “I dunno – that term seems so charged.” 

I think of the overpriced “consultants” that have invaded more than one of my corporate environments because decision-makers won’t listen to people from within the organization. (It means more if they are spending thousands of dollars for the same advice.) 

I think of the management gurus who tell us how to play nice with others, climb the corporate ladder, and win friends and influence people.

Dr. Karrer talked about how the definition of “management” will change.

11 years later, much of what Dr. Karrer wrote about is still true.

We’re still grappling with push vs. pull.

We’re still grappling with the notion that learning is always happening, not just in the classroom.

For those of us with time in the Workplace Learning trenches, our bread-and-butter is making change stick. Or…it should be.

It is NOT the development of courses – classroom, blended, online, or any combination of such.

It’s not even in the implementation ceremonies that mark projects.

11 years later, I find myself as a Change Management consultant.

It doesn’t feel like a very dramatic change – That’s what we (Workplace Learning experts) should have been doing this entire time. Behavior change.

Our jobs are changing and it is becoming progressively clearer that we are becoming “knowledge gardeners” and change managers.

Thinking about the tools I’m building and the programs I’m developing today – 11 years later, this is how my career has evolved.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but in all of the places I’ve worked the training department(s) have been in the unusual position of being able to touch and connect across all departments in an organization. As a result, training departments are in a great position to connect people, synthesize disparate processes and share information.

We talk about creating learning environments.

We talk about breaking down organizational barriers.

Maybe that’s where we need to focus our energies. Creating and cultivating learning environments. Not just tools – LMS, tutorials, courseware, etc. The material remains of information. The “activities” of learning.

We also need to help create a cultural environment. All of our materials are (supposedly) built with attitude and behavior shift in mind – why not direct those skills towards broader cultural purposes?

I’m still helping people get the information they need. Encouraging people within any organization or group I work with to talk to each other and share what they know. Facilitating learning when they need and want it (preferably in much smaller chunks than they are getting now). 

Those things have not changed over the years.

Those of us in the trenches of change – the project managers, developers, designers, business analysts, and trainers – need to gain familiarity with all of the tools that will help make change stick, not just the ones specific to our specialties.

We’re being asked to enlarge our toolkits – and determine wise and best use of our tools.

We’re being asked to combine what works across specializations to find what most effectively creates the results we want in the context we are in.

Using whatever our favorite tool is across all problems can only take us so far.

I don’t have any prediction for how my career will change over the next 10 years. I’m somewhat shocked (and partially dismayed) that much of what Dr. Karrer and I wrote 11 years ago has proven to be so evergreen.

What I do know is that today’s environment requires me to learn personal agility, discernment, and vision-setting. I need to learn and practice relationship building and safe space creation.

I need to continue being a catalyst for change.

What about you?

Fast Zebras

Almost 10 years ago, Harvard Business Review introduced the idea of “Fast Zebras.”

A fast zebra is someone who is singularly focused on achieving performance results, knows how the organization can both hinder and help, and charts their course accordingly. In particular, they are wise about when to use the formal and rational elements of organization (such as hierarchy, processes, and monetary rewards) and when to use the informal and emotional elements (including values, networks, and feelings about the work).

Jon Katzenbach, How “Fast Zebras” Navigate Informal Networks

I’m somewhat surprised that the idea of “fast zebras” didn’t get more traction.

My suspicion is that “Fast Zebras” threaten organizational hierarchies and, ultimately, leave hostile environments.

Environments often have effective antibodies to rogue elements like “Fast Zebras.”

The concept was also marketed towards organizational leaders. In my experience, most “Fast Zebras” can be found lurking within your line staff.

The project managers, organizational trainers, senior engineers, and business analysts who have worked on many projects, have cultivated strong relationships throughout the organization, and know where the bodies are stashed.

People in hierarchical positions of power, particularly in deeply conservative organizations, often need to maintain the hierarchy. Middle and senior managers are often hamstrung by having to “keep appearances” among their peers and seniors. These individuals are quickly reminded about their “place” and attempts to go around the formal hierarchy are ruthlessly punished. The punishment is often covert and long-lasting.

Individual contributors have a great oppotunity.

We are not entirely beholden to the structure.

We are beholden to results and getting the job done.

In many instances, we need to work around the structure to get work done.

As one of my project management colleagues not-so-gently reminded the Mucky Muck as he wrongly chided the line staff about not working across silos, “If I don’t work across silos, I can’t get anything done.”

Every other line staffer in the room nodded in agreement.

One of the engineers chimed in – “Your problem with silos is with the management. We work together all the time. Heck, half the time we don’t even talk to our managers because then we’d have to wait for the silos to work.”

The project manager and engineer are the “Fast Zebras.”

Are you?