Knowing vs. learning in an age of uncertainty
We learn a lot about ourselves when we are put under pressure, when we are taken outside our comfort zone, or when our familiar routines are disturbed, interrupted or completely transformed. Discovering that our assumptions about the world are neither helpful nor accurate is a very eye-opening experience.
This is what experiencing things does to us; it invites us to change.
Of course, it isn’t always easy. In fact, it is never easy – that’s rather the point. Learning important stuff is hard. As I am fond of saying: ‘the reason why something is hard to learn is exactly the same reason why that learning is important’. The deepest, most meaningful changes we make in our lives (and in our organisations) come as a result of testing experiences.
And here we are, living collectively through a very testing experience. What are you learning? What are you changing? Or, to put it another way, what are you denying? What are you choosing to leave unexamined about your experience right now?
Your answers to these questions depend in part on how well-disposed you are to learning in the first place. One of the things I have noticed as we have retreated into home-based virtual working is that some people have embraced the experience and some people have not. Those people that haven’t I refer to as mitigators.
Mitigators have tried to recreate their work routines, familiar patterns and behaviours within their new circumstances. These are the people that have set up a home office. They get dressed for work as normal, go to their home office at the usual time, close the door and work. They break for lunch (trying to recreate the sandwich they normally buy), and return to their home office, before closing the door behind them at the end of the day and starting ‘family time’.
Mitigators approach learning opportunities in the same way. Their approach to learning about how new technology works is simply to focus on how this technology can help them do what they have always done. Once they have learned how to do that, they stop learning about the technology.
These people remain completely immune to the regular updates, improvements and innovations offered by their smartphone, email client, communications software, word processor and so on. For example, when I suggested to a coaching client that they bookmark a particularly useful web page in their browser they asked, ‘what’s a bookmark?’ This was only slightly less dispiriting than the client who asked, ‘what’s a browser?’
Of course, these are somewhat extreme examples of mitigator behaviour. It’s also important to recognise that there is a mitigator inside all of us, one that wants things to remain the same, and finds comfort in the familiar and fear in the unknown.
The problem is that we are now sailing fast into the unknown on a global scale, and many of us are called upon to lead in the face of this uncertainty. Giving in to our inner mitigator is not going to be our best strategy.
The alternative approach is taken by the embracers, who have welcomed the experience of working virtually, examining and exploring new ways of doing things. Embracers welcome the new porous boundaries between home and work and are busily testing what these might mean.
For example, embracers might be getting up super early, getting a productive four hours in and then spending the middle of the day exercising, playing games with the kids and dusting off those recipe books, before returning to the laptop later in the day to tick off a few more things and prepare for tomorrow. They may be setting aside portions of the day to speak to friends, read, or do an online learning programme.
Embracers are also becoming more and more expert in their use of technology. For example, they are the ones who know that the dictation function in MS Word is actually brilliant and can save huge amounts of hunt and peck time, or who got their basic typing speed beyond four words a minute using ‘Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing’. They are also the ones that everyone else goes to to ask how to do something with their computer, software or printer. They aren’t trained experts; they are curious, embracing what technology offers and integrating new features into their lives.
Another way of thinking about the distinction between mitigators and embracers is the difference between knowers and learners. If we have ever needed a global community of learners, it is now. If ever organisations needed to be full of embracer behaviour, rather than mitigator behaviour, it is now.
I suggest that we think of Covid-19 as one huge experiential learning exercise. As one of the world’s leading experiential learning companies, at Impact we can see that many leaders are now waking up to the power of experiential learning, which can fill our organisations with learners, embracing the possibilities of change in the face of huge uncertainty.