‘Are we learning yet?’ (John Connor to the Terminator)
‘History never repeats itself. Every single historical moment is distinct from those past.’ (Angela Johnson). That said, we can and do well to learn from the past to help inform our decisions for the future. This is a core principle of Learning Reviews. Some years ago, Learning Reviews were a key part of knowledge management (KM). The idea of KM was to capture, distil and disseminate learning from projects, to save others in future from having to start from scratch or re-invent the wheel.
Things became quite complex if, say, project participants had a vested interest (e.g. for competitive advantage) in retaining, rather than sharing, what they had learned from experience; or hidden factors that had influenced success in one instance or arena were subtly different to those in a new situation. Against this backdrop, KM evolved into wisdom management (WM), where those engaged in the process would critically-evaluate insights and ideas rather than simply re-apply them.
I ran lots of Learning Reviews with international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), where I developed and practised an appreciative approach that I will share here. Imagine a grid with ‘What Went Well’ (WWW) and ‘Even Better If’ (EBI) as column headings; and ‘Why’, ‘What’, ‘How’ and ‘Who’ as separate rows. ‘Why’ focuses on purpose; ‘What’ on content; ‘How’ on methods; and ‘Who’ on people and relationships. I would give each key stakeholder a copy of the template in advance.
At the start of a Learning Review meeting, I would invite participants to decide on key questions (e.g. ‘What are the questions that, if we were to answer them, would enable us to draw out key insights?’). Then, I would facilitate the group to engage in a process of critical reflexivity, addressing blind spots (e.g. ‘What assumptions are we making that could prevent us gaining deeper insights?) and hot spots (e.g. ‘What issues may we be tempted to avoid in case they feel too difficult or painful?’).
This groundwork with a group at the outset often proved vital. It enabled participants to contract with me and with each other around issues such as trust, vulnerability, humility and courage, as foundations for the Review itself. We would then explore the Why, What, How and Who dimensions using the WWW and EBI philosophy and approach, working rigorously to identify the conditions (e.g. personal or broader contextual) that had contributed to what had been experienced.
I would end the Review by inviting participants to identify and crystallise, out of all that had been considered and discussed, the top 3-5 critical success factors for initiatives of this type. The final challenge would be to articulate and publish the resulting discoveries as tangible, transferable recommendations that would be easily understandable and accessible to other leaders and participants in future projects, along with details of who to contact if further insight is needed.
What have been your experiences of Learning Reviews? What have you learned through doing them?
'To err is human. To blame it on someone else shows great management potential.'
That made me laugh! It’s a fun variation of Hubert H. Humprey’s, ‘To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.’ But wow – how easy it is to deflect and project our own faults and failures outwards onto others. We see it happen all over the place, from interpersonal relationships to international relations. It’s a way of defending ourselves; of trying to avoid or escape the costs of responsibility; of promoting ourselves; of appearing innocent or superior. It’s about helping us to feel good about ourselves and-or wanting someone else to feel good about us.
It's quite tricky if we don’t know we’re doing it – and it can lead to potential high-risk consequences. ‘Self-deception is like this. It blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the solutions we can think of will actually make matters worse.’ (Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-Deception, 2000). This poses a difficult question: how to deal with our blindness if we don’t know we’re blind? And what if, if we’re honest – for whatever reason – we don’t want to know? An old adage goes: ‘There are none so blind as those that won’t see.’ Ignorance is bliss?
I’ll start with the last question first. If I’m working with a person in coaching or a group in action learning and I sense resistance in this area, I won’t push too hard. It could, for instance, trigger repressed trauma or suppressed anxiety. Instead, I may pose an invitation, e.g. ‘Is this something you would find useful to explore further? What, for you, would be the potential benefits of exploring this, or the potential costs of not exploring it? If you were to explore this, what support or challenge would you need from yourself, me and-or others?’ It’s their call, their choice.
Next to the first question. This touches on a field known as critical reflexivity. It’s like holding up a mirror to ourselves rather than fixing our gaze elsewhere or onto others. We can think of it as something like this: ‘What within me – e.g. in my own past, culture or world – is influencing what I’m thinking, feeling and doing now?’ This could include, for instance, our beliefs, values, hopes, fears and expectations. It could also include hidden vested interests; that is, things we want to protect or preserve and-or to acquire or achieve. Such influences act as subconscious filters.
In coaching and action learning, I work with people and groups to help them learn to pose searching questions to themselves in a spirit of open curiosity and discovery, e.g. ‘Who or what is holding my attention in this relationship or situation? How am I feeling? Who or what am I not-noticing? What assumptions am I making? How is my past influencing my present? Who or what matters most to me now? How might I be evoking this response in the other party? What am I willing to take responsibility for? What do I want or need? What am I willing to stop, start, change or compromise?’
The outcomes and benefits of this approach can be truly transformational. It calls for humility, courage, authenticity and a willingness to exercise personal leadership and agency, yet can open up all kinds of fresh possibilities – and hope. Imagine, for instance, to approach an adversary, prayerfully, in the midst of conflict: 'We are in such a mess. I'm sorry...and, as I look at how we got here, I could have handled my part in this better...' It’s a stark contrast to avoidance, accusation and finger-pointing. What a possibility to co-create a different relationship – and a different future.
(See also: Spots; Art of Deception; Stealth)
'Management speak is the strangling of language. It is the wringing out of any meaning from once-beautiful words.' (Chris Huet)
Research published this week by the UK communications firm, Enreach suggests that, in the UK, management-speak still annoys and irritates. Expressions such as: blue sky thinking; thinking outside the box; low hanging fruit; and touching base appear to provoke particular disdain. Yet what is it about these phrases that triggers such strong and cynical reactions? Duncan Ward, author of the survey, proposes two principal reasons: that jargon conveys inauthenticity by presenting: (a) a smokescreen – an attempt to hide shortcomings; or (b) a façade – an attempt to impress others.
Ward also reflects that, given that many people are now not working face-to-face partly owing to the residual effects of Covid restrictions, clear communication is considered as essential. My sense is that, in an egalitarian social media era where soundbites and short-sharp messaging are the norm, people are also impatient of any language that comes across as pretentious or waffly. Against this backdrop, management jargon is disliked at work because it creates a fog factor: clouding rather than clearing. It blocks – rather than builds – relationship, meaning and trust.
Viewed through a cross-cultural lens, the UK sometimes looks down on language it perceives as imported. It likes to see itself as culturally sophisticated; using simple, clean language. Management-speak is perceived as originating in the United States and with that, for some people, it carries an underlying (and, I hasten to add, unfair) judgement of superficiality. This is one possible reason why I believe Scott Adams' satirical Dilbert was so popular in the UK. We were able to smile at a phenomenon ‘over there’, whilst also to recognise its growing influence ‘over here’.
Ward added that most respondents use jargon, in spite of disapproving of it. I can add my own name to that list of offenders. I worked with Peter Robson, a great leader who came from a very different background. At my first appraisal, he said, ‘When you speak in OD language, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.’ He also added, in generous spirit, ‘Yet I have seen and felt the impact of what you do. It’s like magic. Whatever it is – keep doing it!’ Ward concludes simply that: ‘people would prefer to understand more clearly what their colleagues mean.’
What jargon phrases do you find yourself using? Which wind you up most – and why?
In my first encounters with the Philippines, I was surprised by how often people asked me about my meals. ‘Have you eaten?’ This included during conversations online. I learned, over time, that the question arises out of an economic context in which food is often scarce owing to high levels of poverty, and a cultural context in which the health and well-being of one’s neighbour is considered important. It means the question is literal and it calls for a literal response. If I answer ‘no’ while I’m there physically, I’m likely to be offered and given a meal; even if the person who’s asking is poor.
Rudo Kwaramba, a Zimbabwean colleague, explained a similar dynamic whilst working together on an assignment in Uganda. I had been invited there to help an NGO address a key challenge: that managers in rural community-based projects were, apparently, bad at addressing poor performance. Rudo reflected: ‘In wealthy countries, if you can’t earn an income or lose your job, your government provides you with financial support; if you become injured or unwell, your health system or insurance covers you. In poorer countries, people can only look to each other for support.’
It means that, in such contexts, to establish and maintain positive relationships with one’s extended family and neighbours is essential for survival. It also means that to support the health and wellbeing of one’s neighbours is critical too. There is a sense of radical interdependence, a pragmatic-ethical need, that drives cultural behaviour. Against that backdrop, we discovered that managers who were living and working in the same communities as their staff felt unwilling and unable to address poor performance – in case it damaged the network of relationships. It was the core issue for them.
This insight moved the culture-shift question in the work from a simplistic-transactional, ‘How to change the performance management system’, to a deeper-relational, ‘How can we hold honest conversations that don’t harm community?’. It proved transformational. As I focus back on South East Asia, I notice that as some countries have grown in wealth, they have experienced a corresponding shift towards individual-orientated cultures. It's as if: the richer I am, the less I need you. ‘Have you eaten?’ is often retained, yet as a simple greeting, not as a literal inquiry or as an invitation to a meal.
So, I’m curious: what have been your experiences of working cross-culturally? What have you learned?
‘Every McDonald’s is the same, except that it isn’t.’ (Shirley Moorse)
Nothing beats a dazzling encounter. The global Mc-giant prides itself on brand consistency, yet the actual customer experience is influenced as much by what she or he encounters in real, individual members of staff as whatever is on the menu. The same is true for any organisation or business that depends on interpersonal interface between people. One stroppy glance or unhelpful remark and you’ll hear the door clunk/phone click as the person leaves. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
A boss can’t instruct staff or team what mood to be in any more than a person can herd cats. A supervisor can’t maintain a constant watch for any slightest shift in facial expression, subtle gesture or tone of voice that could result in delighted customer on the one hand, or one lost to the eager competition on the other. The tighter the grip, the higher the risk of rupture. A stranglehold always suffocates. Positive spirit can be invited and influenced but never managed or controlled.
Apple guru, Steve Jobs remarked, ‘It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’ That’s about releasing magic, human, talent and potential. I had a dazzling encounter with Emma this week, an estate agent from Harper & Co in the UK. Bright natural smile, listening ear, creative ideas – and a stunning personal and professional style that lives and breathes passion, integrity and effectiveness. You can’t order that with fries.
What have been your most dazzling encounters? How do you release this talent and potential in others?
‘I like to deal with things in the order in which they are going to kill me.' (Rita Cooper)
In response to Rita’s satirical note (above), we could imagine prioritising in simple form by posing a question such as: ‘Is it going to kill me? a. Yes. b. No. c. Maybe.’ Sorted. :) A different question, orientated around vision and values, could be, ‘In 5 years' time, what will make me feel proud of the decision I take now?’ It brings existential-spiritual ethics and wisdom sharply into view.
A recurring theme in leadership, coaching and organisation development (OD) is how to prioritise, especially when faced with an array of options and each with its own implications. The challenge is compounded if a context keeps shifting, or if different stakeholders value and demand different things. It can feel like being caught in a bewildering, exhausting, push-pull, tug of war.
Common prioritisation tools include a map of urgency against importance; or value against cost (or risk); or probability (or difficulty, or effort) against impact. The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the most significant outcomes arise from 20% of actions or resource investments. A critical path analysis can help to determine what should take precedence at different phases of a timeline.
Useful as they are, a limitation of these methods is that they are, essentially, tactical management techniques that aim to enable us to navigate from point A to point B. A transformational approach calls us to reflect broadly and deeply. A question of what B may represent and how I may choose to get there from point A draws vision, values, identity, meaning and purpose into the frame.
What criteria do you use when choosing priorities? How do you decide who or what takes first place?
‘You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.' (Simon Sinek)
Richard looked for spirit, talent and potential. Perhaps surprisingly, this wasn’t first and foremost about knowledge, skills and experience. It was about attitude, character and engagement. Get the right people on board, the right team in place, and almost anything becomes possible. This made interviews intriguing. One person would try hard to impress based on what they had done and achieved. Another would convey humility and courage: ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.’ If the spirit was genuine, the sentiment was real, the latter person could leave with a good job offer.
It made performance conversations interesting too. Rather than ‘I’ve done this, or that’, it focused on spirit and contribution. ‘This is what I’ve made possible, including for others. This is what I’ve learned, including from others. This is how I aim to develop, and to enable others. These are the steps I’ll take, alongside others.’ People took ownership of their own performance, recognised their interdependence with and impact on others and proactively sought authentic feedback: ‘What do I do well? What would most improve my contribution in future? How can I do this better next time?’
This Richard took a chance on me too and invited me into his leadership team at a global Christian non-governmental organisation (NGO). He gave me a gift – Stephen Covey’s ‘The Speed of Trust’ – to signal his trust in me. That small gesture inspired me deeply and challenged me to reflect critically on my own spirit and practice. I created a simple grid with ‘can do/can’t do’ on one axis and ‘willing to do/not willing to do’ on the other, as a tool for honest conversations with myself, God and others. It reminds me to fan the flame of the Spirit within and not to become jaded, fearful or complacent.
What part does ‘spirit’ play in your life and work? How to you spot, nurture and help sustain it in others?
‘If one door closes…kick it down.’ (Adrian Hawkes)
Patience isn’t my greatest virtue. Some of the most pain-inducing words for me are ‘wait’ or ‘let go’. I have learned patience at work, yet in my personal life, now often feels nowhere near fast enough. Instinctively, I’m with Pastor Adrian Hawkes who had a graphic way of challenging apathy, passivity and fatalism. His focus was on agency and dramatic leaps of faith. Do it. Do it now. Action man.
Yet, years have passed by and I’m older now. I’ve faced closed doors that have stubbornly refused to re-open no matter how hard I have pleaded, pounded or kicked hard at them. It could have been a person, a relationship or a cause. For some, it could be a bereavement, an illness or a redundancy. It’s someone or something over which we have no power or control to change. An ending that really is the end.
Against this backdrop, I read a very insightful and inspiring piece by Helen Sanderson-White this morning: Celebrating Closed Doors. In it, she describes the transition between letting go of one door and waiting for a new door to open: ‘The hardest part of this journey is the corridor of in-between. Sometimes we can stand in the corridor waiting for a long time before another door opens.’
(Cf: ‘Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.’ (Rosabeth Moss-Kanter). ‘It’s not (necessarily) so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear. It’s like being between trapezes. There’s nothing to hold on to.’ (Marilyn Ferguson).)
Sanderson-White, with echoes of William Bridges’ Managing Transitions, draws on biblical material to inject a sense of hope, and a hope of sense-making too, in the midst of such corridor experiences. Sometimes it’s about learning patience, acceptance and trust. At other times, it’s about a deep leap of faith, taking a risk and looking up openly and expectantly to see what fresh opportunities emerge.
Have you ever felt like Tom Hanks in 'The Terminal' (2004) – trapped in transition? Who or what got you through it?
Feedback – a topic that often keeps people awake at night. There’s something I want to say, perhaps need to say, but I can’t think of the right way to put it. ‘What if it provokes a negative response?’ ‘What if I can’t handle the person’s reaction?’ ‘What if it makes things even worse?’ Such questions can understandably create an anxious psychological, emotional and physical state. If I’m feeling anxious, no matter what carefully-crafted words I may use, the other person is likely to pick it up intuitively and it could, to them, look and feel like attack or defence: and evoke the same in them.
The truth is, we are continually giving and receiving feedback, yet often out of conscious awareness. Our tone of voice, body language, use of words and behaviour all convey implicit messages and we only have limited rational control over them. What is more, we filter and interpret signals we receive from others based on our own personal experience; including our hopes, expectations and fears. Feedback always takes place in a dynamically-complex and fluid relational (e.g. affinity; trust; hierarchy) and cultural (e.g. language; values; norms) context – and that influences everything.
Take, for instance, feedback that lands positively on one day, yet could feel negative on another, depending on how I’m feeling. If I like and trust the person, I’m more likely to hear and respond to it positively. Conversely, if trust is low, of if we’ve just had a bruising argument, it could evoke a negative reaction; even if the feedback itself is valid and fair. In light of this, we are most likely to give and receive feedback successfully if we pay attention to our psychological, emotional, physical and relational state first, and then give equal attention to that of the other person too.
We can do the former in a number of ways. Take a moment to relax, breathe (pray) and imagine the person and conversation. How am I feeling? Is now the best time to hold this conversation? What will I need to handle it well? What beliefs am I carrying? What am I saying to myself? If: ‘What if it goes wrong?’, what happens if I reframe it to, ‘What if this goes well?’ If I’m saying, ‘I want this person to stop what they’re doing’, what happens if I change it to, ‘I want this person to succeed’? Now rehearse the opening of the conversation – in a positive, relaxed state.
We can do the latter part in a number of ways too. Invite the person into a constructive review conversation together, not simply impose something onto them. Be clear about your (positive) intention, purpose and desired outcome. Ask them where and when would suit them best. Frame the conversation in an appreciative, solutions-focused way, reminding them of the vision and goals and inviting their reflections first: e.g. ‘What is going well?’ and ‘What will make it even better?’ – before offering your own feedback and ideas. Close with, ‘How shall we move this forward?’
Do you lose sleep over giving or receiving feedback and how to do it well? If so, get in touch!
If at first you don't succeed? 'Try to hide your astonishment.' (Harry Banks); 'Hide all the evidence that you ever tried!' (Billy Collins)
There are things we can do, and there are things we are willing to do; and there is a great deal of difference between the two. I could be, for instance, capable of doing a particular job well but have absolutely no commitment to do so. I could, conversely, throw myself wholeheartedly into a job that I’m hopelessly incompetent at. If we like grids, we can draw two axes with can do/can’t do as one polarity, and willing to do/not-willing to do as the other. It makes a great, simple tool to use in e.g. recruitment and selection; performance management and development; talent and career planning.
I worked with an organisation that used ‘ready, willing and able’ as a core talent management tool; a variation of a standard performance vs potential matrix. Ready meant ‘can do’ (as above) and able meant ‘wider life and work circumstances-permitting’. It opened up some valuable and creative conversations when leaders and team members met to compare and contrast insights, aspirations and ideas on possible ways forward. The ‘able’ dimension also drew broader cultural, contextual and systemic factors into the frame: influences that lay beyond individual can-do and will-do alone.
In my experience, the ‘will-do’ dimension, which incorporates e.g. motivation, determination and perseverance, often proves vital. It taps into beliefs, values and character and sifts out, ‘I would love to do this, in principle’, from, ‘I am willing to do whatever it takes (within legal-ethical boundaries) to succeed.’ It’s also the aspect that many leadership, recruitment, coaching and training conversations pay least attention to; assuming that e.g. goals, experience, qualifications, knowledge and skills are enough. How do you ensure traction? How do you test, nurture and help sustain the critical ‘will’?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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