“So, can you just re-confirm what is happening to this course?”, the senior leader asked.

I pointed to the whiteboard wall. “There. It is written on the panel to the left of you.”

Shaboom. Ka-blewy. The course on leading change I had just run was in the midst of being blown up.

My colleague doing the course re-design had already started briefing stakeholders on what was happening. Subject matter experts, people in HR and our wider L & D team. Here in front of me though was a group of mid-tier leaders from a part of our business with 8,000 employees. These leaders are the steering committee for leading change in that division. I was there to showcase the content, in a manner that was understood before anyone got the invite: a training workshop. The thing is, the course only has 3 months to live.

What led to this moment?

Many things; for me it was a day in late 2012. I had started running this change workshop, but not as a subject matter expert. Desperate to be a connecting facilitator, I found out about a lunchtime presentation being made on the ‘neuroscience of change’ by one of our change practitioners. The problem was, it was being run on the day I was running my workshop! The solution was, it was in the same building and I controlled when lunchtime happened. I asked a couple of interested participants along to it and we sat and learnt.

We learnt things like when people experience change, their brainwaves – under MRI – look the same as physical pain. We learnt about amygdala hijack and the effect it has on communication effectiveness. I learnt that L & D wasn’t the sole corporate custodian of knowledge. I’ve never felt so excitedly humble; I guess this ensured that when I went back into my workshop I asked the participants who came with me to share what they learnt, not me. I clearly remember how they took what they had heard and put it immediately into the context of their team, measured and matter-of-fact, to the respectful attention of their colleagues. Afterwards I got my hands on the neuroscience slide-pack, added it to the post-workshop email with some contextual commentary and attached it to the yammer group set up to evolve the workshop with those close to the content.

At the time I had no idea I had been to a social learning event and provided personal learning support to those coming with me. I had no idea that I’d taken a flipped classroom approach and facilitated peer-to-peer learning. I had no idea I had curated an item of performance support and engaged in community management. What I did know was that it felt natural, all except that it challenged the established norms of how my job and department was meant to operate. Later, rather than a university qualification, it would be my doing these things combined with a personal learning network that would help me make sense of it all and feel confident to talk about it as a peer with the experts. But most of all, it was the start of courage to consciously experiment.

The community of practice (CoP).

Speaking of conscious experimentation, early in 2014, a group appeared on our company’s Yammer platform.  Called ‘Talking Change’, it was the second group that appeared to be set up to link our community of internal change practitioners. The first, ‘Managing Change’, hadn’t had a lot of traction, so this new group appeared to be a fresh start. Any scepticism I had about ‘Talking Change’ evaporated when I saw who was driving the group: the same person who delivered the neuroscience talk 18 months prior. She was now at hero status in my eyes.

What became apparent was the new approach to ‘Talking Change’. Very quickly I saw that it was a true fostering of a community of practice; it was for change professionals but open to anyone. In the wake of a big corporate restructure that re-cut reporting lines and re-cast roles, our change professionals were in need of a skill-based communal identity. An excitable observer from the outside, I got actively involved early on in the topic-focused community learning events, co-delivering a talk on learning through an enterprise social network and later experimenting with a co-branded community-focused version. The fact the latter one didn’t end up fitting the remit didn’t really matter, purely because it was an experiment. Crucially, without that CoP existing, there wasn’t oxygen for that experiment.

A year on and that CoP has a conspicuous presence. The latest talk I attended arranged by it had over 250 people present. The yammer group has 555 members and is in the top 5 most active groups in the company. The community is actively managed, has sponsorship from senior leaders and is the best answer to the professional development needs of the people in that community. It is popular, and god only knows how much it is adding to the measurables of engagement, enablement and end customer satisfaction. More than anything else though, it is inspiring and is a living, breathing benchmark as to what can be achieved. Tellingly, it was not born in a test-tube in our L & D lab, but crucially it has built a bridge to us rather than a wall. We in L & D have learnt and are embracing it. It has inspired & informed my attempts at a CoP for facilitation skills and – even more importantly – has worked its way into learning strategy at our company.

The controlled explosion.

9 months ago, a colleague in my team was handed a strategic brief to refresh the change workshop. In retrospect, she was the perfect choice: experienced and competent facilitator, seriously design-minded, inherently very social, extremely familiar with social media platforms and (most importantly) open-minded. Early on, she came to me as the workshop’s program manager for my input. I have run the workshop upwards of 40 times and evolved it 75% away from the original facilitator guide over that time.   This meant I could share the best way to run activities, put across ideas simply and articulate the outcomes that landed most tellingly with people. We spent a couple of days all up workshopping that and how it could look. There were content chunks that stood alone, interesting and useful in their own right. There were pathway lines of knowledge, overlapping to hierarchical roles and contextual situations. It didn’t look like a training course, it looked like a plate of spaghetti bolognese.

After that, my colleague went and interviewed 40-ish people with an interest and expertise in change. The vision in her head was initially a swirling morass of new concepts and talking to these people gave her anchor points and confidence. Every week or so we would chat about progress and she would show me pages of multi-coloured ink. In those time snatches I couldn’t absorb much detail but I knew she was onto something. For both of us, the evolving and independent success of the change practioners’ CoP gave more than confidence, it gave a sense of permanence. The practical experiment evolving future theory, the CoP showed what worked and what could be used in an enterprise-wide holistic learning solution.

Since Christmas other things (like my core job) have kept me away from being close to the evolution. My colleague has sensibly cocooned herself to meet the delivery timelines we all live by. I haven’t seen the end solution, but I have the patience of the trusting. I already know it will be revolutionary, and it will win her esteem. I am proud of my intermittent interventions in the whole shebang. With any pioneers, the most powerful support they can ever get is to share their story, so that is what I am doing here and now. It is also what I did in the workshop last week.

My workshop is going to die.

I’ve already experienced grief when I was temporarily not able to run this workshop any more (looking back it feels like a quaint notion now!). Logically, I should be experiencing even more sense of loss, given the plan is to permanently retire the workshop in 3 months. But not even in the days after Leonard Nimoy’s death did logic determine people’s emotional state in their reaction to the news (ha!). No, I have already processed my loss through being active in the re-incarnation.

This is what allowed me to successfully run a showcase workshop to those senior leaders last week. It allowed me to take them through simplified set ups of complex change theory, run activities their subordinate people leaders will be able to run with their teams and share how this will fit within a vibrant community of practice. It allowed me to do that authentically and as an advocate for change itself, even without knowing the end picture. On reflection, what has happened is an example of how to be agile and deal with ambiguity.

What all this hasn’t done yet is ready the rest of the company for the change. At the end of the workshop last week, when I reconfirmed to a unit’s general manager in the room that we were indeed blowing the workshop itself to bits, it triggered a whole host of other questions. “How will you measure success?”. “What support will you give to people?”. “Why can’t the workshop keep going?”.   That last question is a good one. The workshop is the most cohesive and useful training course I’ve ever been involved in; in fact it survived a cull of a dozen similar workshops and survived as the sole solution for our enterprise 12 months ago.

Personally I can still see a role for it, but as I ended up explaining to the senior leaders in the room, I don’t know the complete new picture yet. It seemed to work as a showcase of content, which was inherently the purpose when I ran it last week. I can see a version of it being useful run with people being able to come and go during the day, as they please, for the items where they see value. I can see a version being useful as a way to coach people leaders in how to run activities for their teams. What I do know is that only 1% of our employees get to come to the workshop every year, and only a fraction of that experience the content in ways that align with their preferred mode of learning. That is not good enough, and that is the purpose of the change right there.

So, I ended the workshop by showing on the screen the hand-drawn map of emerging learning trends that a colleague and I came up with last year. The visual soothed concerns somewhat by giving a way to conceptualise next steps. I invited the senior leaders to contribute their own thoughts. A lot of opinions can cause an instructional designer much anxiety, but this is an investment in bringing hearts and minds along. For a change to be successful, people need to feel part of it, be part of it, have some control over it. Our people are going to love what is coming for them. I will feel good about killing off a workshop I have loved. I will get to facilitate learning in an entirely different way. Shaboom!

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