Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Learning for Organisational and Individual Change: A Process for Real Outcomes

In previous papers and blogs, I have banged on a bit about the difference between the acquisition of competences (knowledge and skills) and what, for the want of a better term just yet, real learning. Competencies are essential for being able to function but may or may not be applied, synthesised into our repertoire of cognitive and emotional functioning. Real learning involves this synthesis and results in change. Learning involves understanding the world in different ways, in being able to apply competencies in novel circumstances rather than just the familiar, and there are behavioural consequences. Learning is a dynamic process and more than the sum of its parts.

On the face of it this may seem inconsequential, perhaps, but in my world it is a serious distinction. Most of my work with organisations and individuals (as a coach or therapist) involves the need for change. As you would know changing behaviour, ingrained habits, is no easy task for a whole host of reasons, which I can go into another time. At the heart of change is real learning, it is beyond knowledge and skills.

Didactic, teacher-centric approaches, just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to change and real learning. Again, I won’t go into the details because the evidence is overwhelming that didactic teaching does not lead to learning except in rare circumstances-certainly if it is the main modus operandi.  I need to reassure you that this approach is alive and well in training rooms and in educational institutions around this vast globe of ours.

Enter stage left, self-determined learning or heutagogy. Competencies, knowledge and skills are important, it is the content that provides a basis for action. But the learning for action involves a more complex process.

Based as it is on the idea of human agency, the approach to change has to be learner focused, problem focused, intent on the questions that the learner has and subsequently develops. Coupled with a search conference approach my change designs collect information about the needs of the learner first. Then the workshop is shaped around a conversation, a dialogue. The sand continually shifts as the learner learns, is baffled, fails and finds themselves. This is a flexible adaptable curriculum.

But the baby doesn’t go out with the bathwater. Resources are provided either directly or through links to the Internet. Content and skills come up, and I have a clear list in my mind of what is essential and I build it in as we go. As one participant said to me in a workshop, ‘You said you don’t have an agenda, but you do because we covered all the competencies by the end even though we meandered everywhere today’.

And there is a list for the learner too, so they understand what competencies are required. But like all learning experiences there are always content and skill gaps that the learner fills for themselves in the face of need. The key is to ensure the inquiring mind is able to find what it needs. Most learning occurs later, outside the formal training/education experience.

This is no approach for the faint hearted. You need to know your stuff and need to be able to facilitate. There is no Powerpoint to use as a cheat sheet and no program times except for morning tea and lunch. You need to be able to work in an ambiguous environment that the ‘classroom’ becomes. Control shifts to the learner and to change rather than revolving around the myth that if I tell somebody something then they will do it or be able to do it.

These are dynamic experiences and great fun. You can go to to see what heutagogy or self-determined learning is all about or to and look at the blogs about heutagogy. Or just check it out by searching on heutagogy in your browser.

Or we can run a workshop for you on how to design exciting and real learning experiences for change at

Monday, July 4, 2016

Change: Swings and Roundabouts You Cannot See

Finding it hard to change your behaviour, get rid of a habit or get someone on your team to change their behaviour? Finding change to be akin to teaching a pig to sing?  it annoys the hell out of the pig and is really, really hard work.

A lot of learning in adults really involves behaviour change. This is particularly true if we are talking about eh so called ‘soft skills’ such as getting on with people, teamwork, leadership, negotiation and so on. Most of what I do in workshops is more about helping people shift from one set of ingrained habits to another, hopefully more useful set. That’s one of the reasons that didactic teaching is ineffective for adults: telling someone they need to change and presenting information to support it just doesn’t work. It is much more complex than that. As I’ve written about fairly extensively, there is a world of difference between obtaining skills and knowledge (competencies) and actual learning: the latter involves real change.

There are several human factors that get in the way of change and they all operate at an unconscious level:
  • we are hard wired to be habitual because it conserves energy;
  • change causes a stress response in the body and so we avoid it;
  • changing attitudes and beliefs requires behaviour change first (not the other way around as  most people think-happy to discuss this if needs be);
  • emotion usually plays a big part in habits; and
  • changing a habit takes concerted effort for around 3 months (not 21 days as some snake oil salespeople tell you).

 There are exceptions to this, such as change associated with intense emotional experience.

Efforts to change behaviour need to address these factors and psychologists pay them a lot of attention when designing change.

There is one other factor that plays a role in making change difficult that is of great interest to me, particularly when tyring to help someone change. This has to do with rewards or ‘payoffs’. This factor is also unconscious most of the time.

I used to wonder why to was that people who were in tremendous emotional pain would still not change their behaviour. They’d go back to their abusive partner, keep working at a place that was killing them emotionally, not stop smoking or lose weight after a heart attack, or fail to use strategies that would make a difference to their behaviour and how they felt. As well as the other factors mentioned above I discovered, mostly by reading Milton Erickson’s work, that payoffs are a critical factor.

There are some payoffs that are really subtle. One example is dieting. Let’s say we do some exercise as part of our program and burn up a few calories. Our body will then trick us and make us feel hungry and drive our thoughts towards food. Unless we have great control over our impulses we automatically eat more food and of the wrong kind. This is based on a primitive but still working survival instinct in which we preserve fat for times when food is not available. We are driven to eat when it is available and when we have lost some of our current weight. We are hard wired to maintain our current body weight, no matter how big we might be. So, dieting is really, really hard work and humans are not that good at ignoring unconscious impulse: particularly if the habit is addictive (addicted people release dopamine in the brain that makes us feel good, feel rewarded).

Less subtle but still difficult to see payoffs can be:
  • the bad feeling I get when I give up smoking/drinking/using drugs is worse than the prospect of dying young or getting sick (seen as a remote prospect);
  • the toxic relationship that I am in is better than the fear of being alone;
  • if I change my behaviour that means he/she wins and I’d rather lose my job than be proven  wrong;
  • being angry or negative towards people keeps them at bay/gives me power and is less painful than being close to people/being less powerful;
  •  the belief that this thing that is happening to me is what I deserve (based on our self image);
  • the loss of control I feel when I relax (sleep/meditate/don’t do anything) is worse than the intense anxiety I live with; for example.
Payoffs are idiosyncratic to the person, are many and varied and not easy to understand. I still shake my head at some people’s behaviour even though I know that there is some purpose behind it: that it is not just random.

I remember a psychiatrist who, in 1970, was discharging a woman, Mrs Jones, from a psychiatric hospital. She became very fearful and said to the psychiatrist that she couldn’t possibly go home because she was so depressed. The psychiatrist responded by telling her that she wouldn’t be happy unless she was depressed.

So, the payoff to change has to be greater than the payoff not to change. That is why I am such a fan of clearly stated consequences. Having said that it’s not easy: change is a lot more complex than we think and needs to be well thought through and well managed.