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No learning, no change

No learning, no change
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Real change requires real learning.

Is it me or are the endless lists of ‘top tips for working remotely’ or ‘seven things to do to stay productive whilst working at home’ etc. etc. all starting to grate? It feels to me that writing lists of what other people should do is too easy.

Here’s mine, just in case you feel the need for another list on how to manage yourself at home (I’ll limit mine to three items so as not to bore you to tears):

  1. Stay productive by maintaining a schedule
  2. Take care of your mental health by talking to friends
  3. Exercise regularly to keep active

Got it? All good? These kinds of lists are easy to write because they are all obvious and don’t just relate to our current remote working situation; they are relevant for everyone at all times.

But if it were that easy then we’d all be productive, mentally resilient and super fit. Of course, some really annoying people are all of those things all of the time, but I am not one of them, and, I venture to suggest, neither are you. How do I know? Because you are a human being, full of humanity in all its rich, frustrating, energising, confusing, brilliant, exhausted and emotional complexity.

The unexamined assumption behind the endless popularity of ‘top tips’ lists is that a single little gem of wisdom can change our lives forever. This assumption speaks to our insatiable desire for a ‘quick win’, the need to identify the ‘low hanging fruit’ and find that obvious shortcut. Such assumptions deny the obvious but difficult human reality: making change is hard; changing ourselves is really tough; changing other people is impossible.

Unfortunately, we take our assumptions about the power of top tips to change us for the better into how we think about changing our organizations. It isn’t working for exactly the same reason that these tips don’t change our lives.

Changing our organizations in the face of intense competition, technological revolutions, pandemics, and a climate emergency is both vital and insanely hard to do. But we still want the shortcut – the quick win. We want the result without the hard work. This is the imperative of that shouty manager that wants action (‘let’s just do it’), and who definitely doesn’t want to embrace difficult questions that lead to lots of ‘unnecessary’ talking.

But we know in our hearts (the place where the hard truth sits) that real change requires real learning. We know that the scale of the challenge and the scale of the response need to be the same. We can’t take big problems (how do I change the productivity of my team? How do I become a better leader? How can I stop being a shouty manager?) and fix them with little solutions or ‘quick wins’.

We know that our organizations will only change if the people within them can learn at the level needed to make a difference. We know that learning matters. But the big problem is that our learning systems in organizations have become overrun by the desire for quick wins. We design our learning systems for speed and narrow definitions of efficiency. We want bitesize learning: training videos that run for 10 seconds, or micro-learning libraries designed to be mobile-first (so that employees can get some additional screen time).

As a direct quote from a recent conversation I had with a company about their learning system demonstrates:We want a just-in-time personalised training system that delivers the key learning messages exactly at the point of need’. In other words, we want the best top tips available 24/7.  We assume that real change will happen if people are able to find the right content – those nuggets of wisdom – at the right time.

We know that learning matters; but we think and act as if it doesn’t. I think this is exactly why we are largely failing to change our organizations at the speed and scale needed. And it has never been more important that our organizations are agile, adaptive and innovative, as we try to respond to unprecedented change and lead in the face of huge uncertainty.

Here’s a practical example of where I think we are going wrong. A year or so ago I was consulting with a client designing a sophisticated learning journey process for 1,500 leaders of leaders. It was experiential, it was social, it integrated learning into the flow of work by connecting our learning application, air with Microsoft Teams (and therefore connecting the learning with the everyday work).

The design propelled people away from the screen into real-life interactions, conversations and reflections with colleagues as they all grappled with the challenges of creating change in an organization that was struggling for market share. The screen acted as a guide, a coach, a teacher asking great questions, a facilitator of the learning. We used air to suck content in from the organization’s vastly underused libraries and utilised them as part of the journey.

The programme was designed to run over 12­–18 months. It was adaptive (we would learn alongside everyone else and adjust the design of the programme as we went); it was consequential (we were using real business problems as the basis for the learning process); and it was open-minded (part of the programme had the participants meeting other companies outside their industry to contrast different approaches to tackling similar problems). I was very proud of our work and confident that we could deliver real change.

We presented our final design and plan to a very senior leader who held overall budget responsibility. After listening to our proposal, he countered with an alternative. ‘Why waste all this time?’ he said, ‘What we can do is organize a two-day conference, get everyone in the room, get some brilliant speakers in that are experts in the field, job done’.

They ended up running a 1.5-day conference with a galaxy of very expensive speakers. The leaders of leaders sat in theatre-style rows and got through 26 PowerPoint presentations (some of which were amazing) and went back to implement what they had learned.

Did it work? No. How do I know? Because we can’t solve big problems (how do leaders of leaders create a new innovation culture that can win back market share) with little solutions (here’s a professor with his entertaining take on top tips for creating an innovation culture).

Unless our approach to learning and development in organizations shifts from an increasingly reductive approach to knowledge transfer that preferences content over context, then organizations will fail to adapt, learn and grow because their people are not adapting, learning and growing.

The more our industry colludes with the idea that we can respond to the complex learning needs of an organization with libraries of video material that can be watched alone on a screen, the more we are actually disabling our organizations and making it harder for them to respond to a world that is rapidly changing.

In most of the organizations I work with, I find them stuffed full of smart, competent and expert people who are not lacking knowledge or the capacity to find it. What they are short of is experience and practice in doing things differently, applying what they know and adapting it to the current situation confronting their work, their teams and their organization. What they need is to integrate learning with work in a new and profound way.

It’s time we embraced a new global movement of experiential learning designs that move people and move organizations.

Let’s ditch a ‘top tips’ mindset to organizational learning. Instead, let’s get on with creating experiential learning programmes that help employees to apply what they know and build their experience of working, leading, managing, and innovating in new and novel ways that will actually make a sustainable difference to the future of their organizations.

The more we look to find simple solutions to complex problems, the more we will fail our organizations and our collective future. And we are running out of time.