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Why we need room to move to allow for innovation, change and learning.


Four months ago, I last wrote here of my desired approach to building a learning ecosystem.  The main desired quality I articulated for the ecosystem was elasticity: where movement is invited, with a cadence that can be followed, maintaining a strength of definite form and substance.  Sinuous; something that can be felt.  I found that trying to explain a concept so intangible, in an office setting through different mediums, is another task altogether.


I had a systems-thinking map, but it didn’t land with most people straight  away.  The timing was kind of wrong as there weren’t many practical examples to cite on top of what was floating around in my head; it was hard for people to see what their future in it could look like.  Not a matter of fault I thought, just a matter of needing to be patient and building more detail.  So I tried drawing simplified versions, writing narrative stories, constructing complementary theoretical models and building matrices.  These efforts all fell out of helping to research and write the new Learning Strategy for where I work, and will be useful now; but they are not going to be enough. There needs to be co-creation.


Those 3 months before Christmas working on the Learning Strategy were necessarily focused; I said ‘no’ to a lot of extraneous requests and I didn’t even blog (it is good to be back here, though!).  It was my first pure strategy role, so I had to knuckle down and learn research techniques, ways of categorising data and developing guiding principles.  All selfish me wanted to do at the start was design the ecosystem, but I’m appreciative now that the strategy was written first, and appreciative of the strategy-writing skill of the people in my team.  My sketched ecosystem framework accordingly has firmer foundations of the stories of people in our business, a knowledge of the priorities and the green-light to get things done.  “A good strategy inspires action”, I was told.


And blimey, action is happening at my work!  The people in L&D are inspired to make change.  In some moments of quiet anxiety over the last few weeks, I’ve been lamenting that inability to fully articulate a detailed ecosystem for these actions to happen within.  But at its heart, that is really a fleeting desire to unnecessarily control what is going on, and I know it (I’m not often like that, but I’m particularly emotionally invested in this work, so I need to constantly manage the implications). What is happening is really encouraging: teams are now using design thinking and insights from previously-unexplored data to set what their future learning solutions should be.  Whatever they find out from our people will be valid input into any overall learning architecture set for the company.  Not to mention that they have high-level guidance from the new strategy.   Most of all, I’ve come to better appreciate that everyone fundamentally needs room to move, in anything they undertake.


On that note:  I’ve just finished reading Tim Harford’s latest book, Messy.  I took as much from the content in it as the structure of how it was written.  From the outset, Harford tells you that he just wants to offer a gentle counter-point to the increasing prevalence for life to be rigid, ordered and predictable.  He then takes you through realms of art, history and industry to show how we behaviourally respond to the messiness of life.  Every chapter maintains a predictable structure: loosely ducking in and out of three or four case studies, the occasional assertion from Harford, eventually tying up a view on messiness framed by the theme of the chapter. The writing is charming, and the finish to the book is as mild as the start.  Although a cogent argument is built by Harford throughout, he leaves it up to you to make up your mind.  Just enough messiness to be beguiled.


The case studies in Messy are quite arresting.  For instance, the jazz improvisation of Miles Davis gets explored, in the making of his iconic album Kind of Blue. Davis had the confidence to push his band to improvise, partly because some months earlier he had to improvise himself out of unpredicted necessity. It turned out that by improvising, Davis came up with a different album from what he intended.  He still loved it though, and no less than Quincy Jones played it every day for inspiration.  Improvisation takes practice and commitment to let go in the moment.  Harford goes on to detail how when jazz musicians (and, equally, freestyle rappers) improvise, most of their prefrontal cortex shuts down.  That is the part of the brain responsible for reason, planning and emotional control.  Through improvising, “they shut down their inner critics.”  Cool, huh?


So, back to the relevance for the teams at my work getting on with innovating learning & development.  Why would I want to impose burdensome restriction right now, when they have a mandate to improvise?  Why would I want to come in as an external critic, when they are doing their best to turn off their inner critics?  No, I want to learn from them.  I want to take their insights and co-create that learning ecosystem.  I’m writing papers right now on the coagulating aspects of the ecosystem structure, and working out loud by sharing them with relevant people.  These papers are variously being themed as ‘org’, ‘community’, ‘team’ and ‘self’.  In this way, my emergent structural ideas can be useful to those currently improvising.  Iteration, if you like; in a manner gently, like the way Tim Harford wrote Messy.


The first paper I’ve shared at work in this way has been the ‘community’ one, a few days ago.  I’m advocating for a consistent approach to Learning Communities (however gently I’m going about it, I need a point of view; it’s my job).  Even since then though, a new rationale on having room to move has emerged in my mind, and it came from one single tweet by Stephen Fry.  In the excerpt from Richard Feyman’s writing, we are reminded that scientists are used to leaving room for doubt and never being 100% sure of anything.  The next conclusion to draw is highly politically relevant right now: we need the room to continually question and challenge what is put forward as ‘truth’, and enabling that is a big role our communities are there to play.  Actually, it is the bigger role for us to play in our communities.


On that note, I’ve just signed up for the Learning Café Unconference in Sydney on 23 February 2017.  The intent there is to challenge the prevailing ‘truths’ in Learning and Development, so that we too as a profession can continue to build that psychological safety to improvise and innovate.  Fittingly, the theme is ‘L&D Grows Up to be a Team Player’.  I’ll be facilitating a session exploring how we can pragmatically harness the power of teams and communities to embed learning at the grass-roots level.  Like all the sessions at an unconference, it will be a guided conversation, not a presentation.  Your insights will be more important than mine, and I promise that room to move.  Hopefully I’ll see you there and get to learn from you.


PS – for an idea of how the Learning Café Unconference rolls, check out my post from a couple of years ago of my first experience with it.

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