Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Mental Model Trap in ‘Experts’

One of the workshops I conduct has to do with learning. In fact it is about a particular theory of learning that Chris Kenyon and I developed in 2000, and that has gained some traction, particularly in Europe and the USA. If you are interested in following it up on Dr Google, it’s called heutagogy or self-determined learning. What the theory does is to challenge some education orthodoxies. It does this by virtue of some very convincing research and neuroscience evidence that sheds new light on how the human brain learns. http://heutagogycop.wordpress.com.

One of the tenets of self-determined learning is that the focus should be on the needs, motivations, interests of the learner, and contextually relevant. Thus, it is learner-centric and the focus is very much off the teacher as a guru regarding the delivery of content. This is aided and abetted by the fact that you can get most of what you want to know via the internet and social networking (phone a friend or guru if you need to) as long as you know how to filter the wheat from the chaff. And, indeed, that is a central skill that people in this day and age need to learn. 

So, in my workshops, which are based on self-determined learning principles (it is good to avoid the label of hypocrite if possible), participants are invited to access specific content themselves in groups rather than listen (or not listen) to me talk.  Then we discuss about what they have found and apply what has been learned. I won’t go into details but the idea is to make the process learner centred, enable them to learn from each other by sharing experiences, and to provide an opportunity to pursue a particular area of interest.

What I have found is that ‘expert’ groups, that is people who are experienced trainers and educators, are more likely to be non-compliant compared to the less experienced. On reflection, this is also true when I conduct leadership or organisational development programs that involves people who see themselves as already ‘expert’. Instead of opening themselves up to something new they use their existing mental models and just do what they have always done.

Peter Senge talked about the restrictive nature of mental models in his book ‘The Fifth Discipline’ and psychologists call the same phenomenon ‘Schema’. They are the result of our values, attitudes, beliefs and experiences. The result is a pretty formidable driver of behaviour that is quite difficult to change. Hence, the tendency to revert to the default position when one sees oneself as an expert.

Those who do not see themselves as expert are much more likely to open themselves up to possibilities. Vulnerability may indeed be a key to learning.

So, is it possible to engage in some personal reflection when confronted with the possibility of learning something new? Can we put our previous experience, what we know, aside for a while and explore? Afterwards we can then integrate the old and the new into something that we can understand and use. It seems to me that this is a very mature and powerful thing to be able to do for anyone who sees themselves as ‘expert’, whatever that is.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Influence 101

I’ve just spent a wonderful week talking about learning, leadership and organisational behaviour in Brussels. It’s a tough gig but someone has to do it. A very full week and now it is time to head to the Netherlands for a couple of days of much needed R and R.

After my very last session, which involved mainly managers from a variety of departments I was asked a very challenging question. In fact I was asked many challenging questions during the week, which is no bad thing.  This one involved why I spent time at the beginning of the session showing slides of Australia, such as a beach near our house that is empty, snaps of me with a big fish, kangaroos on a golf course, snakes and crocodiles, that sort of thing. Then I had an activity that involved a lot of participation by the group, although there is a specific learning point at the end. He said that people come along to get to the point not look at pictures of Australia. After all they are busy people.

This was a good point. It also strikes at the heart of two issues. One is the power of influence, as opposed to compliance. The other is process in relation to task.

One of the major factors in influencing other people is the quality of the relationship. In a group setting, and this was my answer, it is important to invest some time in creating a relationship, a bond, between myself and the audience (that I often don’t know) and that doesn’t know me. Sharing stuff about me with which people identify, smiling, eye contact, moving around, using humour and getting people laughing, being relaxed and being open, creates a more positive atmosphere in which people feel more comfortable in opening up. In this particular case, the result was a very lively session where the process ended being taken over by the group. Wonderful! And it seems to work consistently when I take the time to do it.

The same applies to influence with smaller groups, such as meetings for example, and with individuals. Taking a few moments to chat about the weekend, the family (theirs and yours) and so on is an important investment. As is creating a positive relationship with one’s employees in general. Do it and watch the results.

When I run activities with leadership groups or teams in workplace training programs there is a constant. Groups and individuals when given a task will universally forget process and try to solve the probelm without planning, without establishing communication and so on. You know the leadership theory as well as I do. It seems there is a human predilection to want to go straight to solving problems rather than using all the so called ‘soft stuff’. And some people are very tasked focussed and get frustrated if there is not immediate application.

And so that is the second reason I spend time to create this relationship. It is a lesson in process that needs to come before task for the participants. It fosters engagement.

Finally, it is also vital to close with the ‘soft stuff’ too With reward and recognition. With warmth and gratitude. It doesn’t cost much and may prove to be a powerful investment.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Big Picture

I spent the best part of today wandering the expansive corridors of the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. In fact, it would probably take at least another day to absorb all that it has to offer but off to the Louvre tomorrow. Hopefully, tomorrow will be as inspirational as today which provided me with a great psychological metaphor.

The Musee D’Orsay has a great collection of impressionist artists such as Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Pissarro and, of course, Renoir. Apart from the pure genius of how these guys used a paintbrush and their paints, there were a few other takeaways about human behaviour as I peered closely at each brush stroke on the canvas and then slowly backed away to look from a distance.

The first thing to notice, particularly with the work of Monet, who was a master of this style, is that the devil is not in the detail. There is no detail at all when you look closely. The picture is a bit of a blur and, in some cases, you no idea what you are looking at: just daubs of paint going this way and that with apparent randomness. It is only when you retreat that the picture makes sense and your mind gasps. Another thing is that these blokes were not afraid to use colour. Again, close up the shades of purple, green, blues and reds don’t seem right. But it all changes when you step back, sometimes onto the toes of some poor soul who is behind you. There is no such thing as white in these impressionist paintings. White for them is a mixture of all sorts of colours but it looks perfect from a distance.

You’ve probably guessed at the metaphor in all this for human behaviour, leadership and for organisational life. That it is the big picture that matters not so much the detail. We can get so caught up in just getting everything just so, the ducks lined up that we miss the real purpose and the important outcome of what we are doing. This is particularly true in a climate of change, which we seem to be in constantly these days. Great painters are able to translate what they see for others in magical ways. Good leaders know how to do this too and make sure everyone is on the same canvas. Knowing where you are going, being a part of something bigger, purpose is a basic human need and motivator

As the old aphorism states, ‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’. A friend of mine in the UK used to point out that you can have all the right ingredients for a pudding but there is tremendous variability in how the pudding turns out. No-one could make apple crumble like my grandma using exactly the same ingredients. I’ve tried.

Another interesting thing about the impressionists is that when they started showing their work the public was not at all impressed. One critic even when so far as to suggest that wallpaper had more to offer than their paintings. The work of Monet and company was such a departure from previous art, from what the people were used to, that they were unable to appreciate it. Instead it was dismissed as not being real art. Not only did they paint outside in real light so that their work was vibrant with bright colour but the subject matter was different. They portrayed Parisian daily life and were not frightened to make bold statements with their choice of subject.

And now their works are worth zillions of dollars. Who wouldn’t mind Springtime at Giverny or Wild Poppies instead of wall paper in their lounge room?

It sometimes takes huge persistence and resilience to get a great idea accepted, to get enough adopters to get to that magic tipping point: to manage the naysayers and survive the criticism. And it takes passion and the ability to see an even bigger canvas than what currently exists. It is a future canvas.

Think of the excitement of painting something that is invisible to everyone else but you. And the challenge of getting others to see it.

Now that’s leadership.