Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Fireflies of Change versus the Rest

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, virtually and in person, a number of exciting people. Revolutionary thinkers in fact when it comes to how we think about things like learning, education systems and leadership.  At the same time we have a politician in Australia who wants more ‘chalk and talk’ in schools and less of the fancy stuff. I suspect he also thinks that the birch works. It is this chasm between expert and someone with an opinion that has stimulated this blog. The fireflies versus the rest.

In fact, I have to admit that it has been a source of great irritation to me that people with absolutely no expertise in an area are allowed to either determine policy, channel funding or practice. The field of education and learning is just one example. The other that comes to mind is management/leadership. But let me stick to learning since that is on my mind right now, although what I am about to say also relates well to the other.

I want to omit school teachers from what I am about to say. They are at least required to achieve accreditation after acquiring a body of knowledge and a set of competencies as well as, hopefully, capability in their profession. I also think that teachers are grossly undervalued and underpaid. We should be attracting the brightest and best to entrust our next generations.

Notwithstanding that, most of the assumptions that underpin learning and educational systems are deeply flawed and I have recently written about this in a post at: So I won’t labour the point except to say that there is scientific evidence to back up an issue that has been made by countless others such as Russell Ackoff, Fred Emery, John Dewey, and Kozol, to mention just a few. There are numerous current thinkers who are active in the world of studying learning who have come to the same conclusions and are seeking to make radical changes to our educational systems. They are bright lights in a sea of darkness, however.

What gets up my nose is that opinion and belief about learning and education, held by people who do not know the field at all, is allowed to hold sway over evidence. Outside of school teaching, it seems that anyone is allowed to ‘teach’ at university, technical schools or to run training programs in the public and private sector. Politicians with no understanding at all, other than their own schooling, seem to know all there is to know about how people learn.  No qualification or demonstrated competence is required. And, as I mentioned above the same can be said for management, where the main requirement is to convince a selection panel or your boss of your ability to manage. Mostly great practitioners (engineers, educators, accountants, whatever) are promoted on the basis of their ability at their craft, not management competence. They are also allowed to teach for the same reason.

If Bob or Mary wants to become an electrician or plumber it is expected that they will obtain the required competencies to practice, to sell their wares. The same can be said for a host of professions or jobs. It is unlikely you would let someone operate on your water works without having undergone the right sort of training and achieved a high level of ability at the craft. Many professions are regulated and registration is dependent on keeping up to date in the field. Demonstrated incompetency is punished.

There are some obvious assumptions that can be made from this observation. One is that learning or education is not seen as worthy of requiring competence or knowledge. Presumably it is not a profession. Another is that there is no body of knowledge underpinning how people learn that is worth obtaining. In other words, anyone can do it. Anyone can drive policy. Anything goes.

This is clearly nonsense to those that care and that is the rub. There are major changes needed in the way in which education is conducted in our universities, our technical colleges, and in our organisations. We need a major rethink about schooling and how we stifle creativity and capability in our children. That governments are insisting on testing children throughout their schooling to measure the effectiveness of schools and teachers is an outrage and based on not one ounce of decent evidence that it will make a positive difference.

Educational systems are deeply conservative and driven by politicians and bureaucrats who are conservative. They find innovation offensive. They are frightened to death of evidence that demonstrates that common dogma, long held holy cows, their beliefs are in fact wrong. So they ignore it. Conservative people inherently do not like change and, sadly, they are found in the places that drive and implement policy.

I suppose the innovators and those with liberally wired brains should get themselves into positions of power and make the changes needed. When this does happen we see dramatic things happen and there are wonderful examples of this in the literature and in most people’s experience. Sadly, though the liberal minded are less likely to find themselves in positions where they can make a difference. This is out of preference and also the difficulty that they find climbing the slippery slope in an inherently conservative world of management.

So, the enlightenment remains a steady drip with the promise of eventually reaching the tipping point that is needed for innovation to diffuse more rapidly. In the meantime we struggle on with dysfunctional educational systems and organisations, with a smattering of bright lights amid the gloom. The fireflies of change.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Recent Forays into Motivation

I have been conducting, over the past 10 days or so some workshops in Prague and it has been a great experience. A magic city and great people. A frequent question was about how to motivate people. Of course, this is a question that many managers ask especially in relation to poor employee engagement, which has well known negative effects on productivity and quality.

There are a couple of nuances regarding this question that are interesting. Clearly the problem is seen as the unmotivated person and, somehow, there is something wrong with them. This may, of course, be true. It constantly astounds me how people will stay in a job or relationship for that matter even though they are clearly unhappy. It is just too hard for them to make the choice to change, to move on. Why would you want to work at anything if you are not engaged to a reasonably high level?  Time to move on.

We, as a species, are notoriously bad of taking control of our emotions. There is some great evidence from positive psychology and cognitive behavioural psychology that we can improve how we feel, and therefore our motivation. This involves making a decision to change how you feel and then following some simple steps: getting out of bed is a good start, putting on nice clothes, grooming nicely, holding back the shoulders, smiling (even though you don’t feel like it), responding to people enthusiastically, and talking positively to yourself. In short, fake it! The evidence is that you start to feel better after a while and you no longer have to make such an effort. Importantly people start responding positively to you, which creates a positive feedback loop.

This is a skill that some managers could learn too in order to apply, purposefully, the skills of transformational leadership that are pretty well known.

Which brings me to the main point in this blog and that is that motivating someone or a team requires a more long-term effort. One of the things that directly creates disengagement in an employee is a negative relationship with their manager. Thus, building positive relationships with employees is critical to motivation. This doesn’t mean we all have to be best friends. But it does mean doing things like not micromanaging (enabling autonomy), providing purpose and being at least a little inspirational, and providing the opportunity for developing skills (see Daniel Pink on TED). We also need to be empathic, to listen, to try and relate from the frame of reference of the other rather than self, to keep control of our emotions, to be optimistic and enthusiastic, to be self-aware, be assertive, and to provide opportunities for growth and the future.

This requires a good deal of hard work and will not produce results overnight. But it will work. If you have employees who cannot seem to get motivated then it is time to have a meaningful conversation. This requires another set of skills around coaching and finding a way to help people to change. If this is unsuccessful then perhaps this job is not the one for them: perhaps there are other horizons to seek. This should be the last resort but not seen as failure but the inevitable consequence of a bad fit.