How feedback from a room full of strangers strengthened an emergent, team-based learning framework.
A month ago I published ‘Team‘, a manifesto of sorts about how teams within organisations could be the initial focal point for learning, rather than individuals. The post was pre-reading for a discussion session at the Learning Café Unconference held in Sydney on 23 February 2017. I promised that I would share the outcomes from the discussion session, and here it is. If you haven’t read the original post, I recommend doing so, but if you are time-pressed, here is the original infographic.
After a brief run-through the framework, I got everyone in the room up and assembled at corners of the room to list risks, opportunities and roles for about 10 minutes. I answered questions about the framework as this happened. After that, there was some discussion around various aspects. The vibe I got from those in the room was that there was a healthy mix of curiosity, scepticism and positivity. I had been really clear that the session was sharing an emergent framework, one that would be improved by everyone’s feedback.
As the room emptied, 3 or 4 people hung back to offer their thanks and encouragement, which I valued. There have also been some people approach me on social media interested in seeing how this develops. Dr Robin Petterd from SproutLabs mentioned in his blog post that he thought the approach could have merits, but more so with teams in a traditional hierarchy rather than short-lived project teams.
The main way I would know if I was on to something though was the feedback from within the room. Here is an ad-verbatim account of that feedback:
|Risks||* May get wish-list instead of credible data-driven analysis
* Missing the big picture; inward-looking
* Lack of data
* Hard to obtain relevant data
* Too many competencies
* Doesn’t cater for individual differences, nor address them
* Identifying a valid/first team assessment
|* Plan too generic
* Mean v median
* Cross-functional team and needs
* Ensuring effective team plan; deal with root cause
* Missing individual learning opportunities that are needed
* Scaling to N-1
* Too much focus on tasks rather than people
* People might be able to hide, or appear to, to colleagues
|* Manager driven or shared ownership?
* Buy in… ‘doesn’t apply to me’
|* Manager knows best / makes final decision
* Link/lack of link to strategy
* Only shares successes – not failures
|Opportunities||* Intangible needs
* Uncover a new trend
* Innovation, blue-sky thinking
* Team collaboration
* Identifying ‘future’ capabilities, not just what the team is lacking now
|* Capture biggest opportunity to increase cohesion and effectiveness
* Focused on team goal only
* Involving whole team and sharing strategies to reach collective goals
* Less work i.e. no individual plans
|* Quicker upskill across roles
* Team identify other opportunities to increase effectiveness of peers
|* Increased cohesion
* Other teams may benefit
* Share ‘beyond’ the workplace. Learn from other teams
* Learn through failure!
|Roles||* Team members
|* Specific R & R||* Team members
* Expert facilitators not “trainers”
There are points raised that are covered in my original post, so I’ve tried to address the points not yet assessed. These further insights are listed below.
Insights from the group: “Assess” stage.
Risk: “May get wish-list instead of credible data-driven analysis”.
My insight: This is a genuine risk. It is reliant upon the L&D people being trusted advisors around what sort of capability diagnostics are needed in the first place, and for L&D to supply useful insights from that data. The Assess stage is the most crucial because it defines the problem to be solved.
Risk: “Doesn’t cater for individual differences, nor address them” and “Diversity”.
My insight: An underlying principal of taking this Team approach is that it is about helping establish a development culture. This happens by looking at what development needs people have in common first. Because the learning is funded by a business, what will lift business performance becomes the initial focus for capability uplift. Where the team diversity is celebrated and used is in the solving of business problems at the Run stage. With a development culture then up and running in the team, the leader is better placed to actively support the individual ambitions of their people.
Risk: “Too many competencies”.
My insight: This comes down to a conversation between L&D and the team/business leader around what capabilities/competencies are business-critical and should be the focus of the team. In my original post, I suggested that rationalisation occur at the Plan stage. On reflection, this should happen in part at the Assess stage. This is where it is imperative for L&D to have a keen understanding around what the priority capabilities/competencies for the organisation are.
My insight: Maybe. But what value does L&D give by just being an order-taker in teeing up a capability assessment or two here and there, without a consulting conversation? As mentioned, the Assess stage is the most important as it gives the necessary data to plan from. It also sets up a baseline for future comparison with. The choice of what the assess for needs to be purposeful.
Opportunity: “Intangible needs”.
My insight: Not everything can be measured, but this comment made me think about the additional value of the conversation that would happen between the team/business leader and L&D. Fundamentally, the leader would know their team’s needs pretty well, but might only be able to articulate the capability gaps they see, once talking through the data with L&D.
Opportunity: “Identifying ‘future’ capabilities, not just what the team is lacking now”.
My insight: This comment got me thinking about what the ideal seasonal timing of the Team approach would be. Of course, it would depend largely on the operating rhythm of the business (and would ideally just slot into that), but if it was an annual process, it would give scope to properly plan for future capability learning solutions to occur within that year. Imagine knowing who and where the knowledgeable people are in an organisation around a necessary future capability. The design of a learning solution wouldn’t then just need to be an expensive outsourced formal learning program; you would have a network of champions to get social learning happening.
Insights from the group: Plan stage.
Risk: “Plan too generic” and “Mean v median”.
My insight: I accept a Team Development Plan (TDP) would have some individuals in the team feeling a lack of relevance to their needs. That is where it comes down to the leader expressing that the TDP is specifically about the team performing better as a whole. Gut-feel tells me that 2-3 capability gaps would be chosen to be tackled team-first for any period of time; this would come down to the context of the organisation. What to do with the people who are already proficient in the capabilities where gaps have been identified in the team? Get them to lead or coach within the “Run” stage sessions.
Risk: “Cross-functional team and needs”.
My insight: This mirrors the opinion shared by Dr Robin Petterd, and after reflecting on it a lot I have an answer. Lately I’ve been helping with the capability needs of some Agile teams where I work. They are truly cross-functional, and don’t really have a common capability gap. They actually learn a lot from each other through problem-solving together, just like the Run stage of the Team approach. They are typically quite expert in their field too. But what is lacking is an understanding of each other, and therefore less of an early basis for trust. So, my adaptation of the Team approach for cross-functional teams is this: At the Assess stage, focus on personality profiling. Then at the Plan stage, help the team/business leader to choose methodologies that will harness the character strengths of their new team during the Run stage.
Risk: “Scaling to N-1”.
My insight: The answer to the scaling issue to me is largely in accepting that the Team approach would have some room for flex, to match the context of the teams it gets applied to. L&D would need to be OK with ceding control and instead, building their brand as trusted advisors. Beyond that, the provision of clear and simple templates (ideally built into platforms like the Learning Management System) would be a critical enabler.
Risk: “Too much focus on tasks rather than people”.
My insight: It is pretty hard for a leader to focus on the development needs of her people if there is little trust and no team development culture to work with. That is the main reason for the Team approach to development. Tasks are inert and impersonal. Using problem-solving to build trust means that the tasks become the servant of building team culture.
Risk: “People might be able to hide, or appear to, to colleagues”.
My insight: This is a good point. Realistically, a team of more than 15 might start to struggle to involve everyone all the time in the Run stage. This is where a leader could pick and choose the people in the team to be involved; at least it would be led by data from the Assess stage and insights from the Plan stage. The perception issue within the team would be important as well. This cuts through a long-deliberated question asked by any leader who has assembled a skills matrix for their team: do I make it public or not? In this Team approach, I would go with making it public. With the focus being on positive action to harness strengths and address critical capability gaps, the skills matrix wouldn’t just be a league ladder. It also means no-one hides, emphasising the collective responsibility within the team to build capability.
Opportunity: “Focused on team goal only”.
My insight: When I read this comment, my first thought was ‘that could be a risk too’. But framed as an opportunity, my mind went to the available cognitive bandwidth at any one time for people at work. Clarity and simplicity is increasingly valued in a VUCA environment. Specific team development goals, with everyone pulling in the same direction, deliver that.
Opportunity: “Less work i.e. no individual plans”.
My insight: Yes, initially. And over time, less time wasted on producing Individual Development Plans that just get shelved and never enacted. The highest and best outcome of the Team approach for individual development is to produce a localised culture of growth mindset and self-driven learning.
Insights from the group: Run stage.
Risk: “Manager driven or shared ownership?”.
My insight: That is where there needs to be a fair bit of flex in the implementation of the Team approach at the Run stage. The facilitation capability of the leader is a factor, as is the extent to which the leader can delegate the running of the problem-solving. The best outcome is ‘manager-driven shared ownership’. That is because facilitation is all about trusting the wisdom of the group.
Risk: “Buy-in… ‘doesn’t apply to me’” and “Attendance”.
My insight: No-one wants to (or should) attend training that won’t help them. That is where learning through problem-solving gives additional incentive to people to get involved: you end up being part of the solution. Ultimately, that is a performance thing. It would be a localised decision as to whether attending such sessions are mandatory. Personally, I would, as every High Performing Team stays accountable to some minimum standards.
Opportunity: “Team identify other opportunities to increase effectiveness of peers.”
My insight: I think this would happen frequently. At the start, it is about giving the team permission to think about their collective effectiveness. The data and resulting insights would be from a point in time; as the months roll on, the team would start to define what else would need to happen. That would be a great situation for any leader.
Role: “Expert facilitators, not trainers”.
My insight: I’m a process facilitator too, and the biggest thing I learnt at the most recent facilitation conference I went to was from the business leader Q & A panel. The message was clear: facilitation is more a critical business skill rather than a critical business role. So yes, whoever is running the team problem-solving sessions needs to truly facilitate them, but there will rarely be enough expert facilitators within an organisation to go around and run all of these. Besides, learning facilitation actively helps a leader with the mindset and tools to trust their team. A team will respond to that trust.
Insights from the group: Share stage.
Risk: “Manager knows best / makes final decision”.
My insight: There could be some flex here in the implementation of the approach; a dependency would be what the overall approach was to user-generated content and curation of it within the organisation. I’ve become aware of a large Australian health insurance company opening up user-generated content to their people without controls. This has been led by their employee comms team, not L&D. Ideally, L&D leads vetting and curation of user-generated content so that it can make sense to others in the organisation. Leaders of teams are best-placed to have accountability for initial vetting of new content from their teams before it would be shared: Is it aligned to the organisations’ strategy and values? Is it in a digestible format? Is it politically sensitive? Giving the leader the ultimate call over that can protect the team; it also lessens the work for the curators within L&D.
Risk: “Only shares successes – not failures”.
My insight: When I read this comment, I thought ‘well that made running the discussion session worth it’. I acknowledge my original definition of what should be shared – solutions to problems – is too narrow. Contextual learning from trying something and failing fast can help other teams in the organisation from having to do the same thing. This is also something rarely shared. The Team approach actually does lay more groundwork for failures to be realistically shared than what I gave it credit for.
Opportunity: “Other teams may benefit”.
My insight: This comment got me thinking that a knock-on effect of the Team approach could be teams collaborating at the Run phase. Opportunities for this would come up in discussions between peer leaders and the leader-of-leaders. Another way more teams could benefit is that the teams that do this well will show the way to the rest of the organisation.
Opportunity: “Share ‘beyond’ the workplace. Learn from other teams”.
My insight: Half of this comment relates to how curation of user generated content within an organisation can help refine process and drive innovation. The other half of the comment refers to potentially creating shared value with the community outside the organisation by sharing user-generated content. This would be a sign that you were now working in a true Learning Organisation. It makes me think ‘how cool would that be?’. It also makes me think how important getting the basics right first is too.
What next for the Assess-Plan-Run-Share Team approach to learning?
Firstly, let me express thanks to those 20 people who chose to come to the discussion session at the Unconference. Your insights have pressure-tested this emergent framework, and I trust that I have done your feedback justice here in this post. In the meantime, I have also gone back and compared the framework to some other examples of learning methodology, such as the ‘Team Learning’ chapter of Peter Senge’s ‘The Fifth Discipline’ and the collective at teambasedlearning.org. So far the framework still holds up.
The next phase for me is to see if this can be piloted where I work. Ultimately, that is the context in which I largely developed the framework for. In the meantime, I would love to hear from anyone who has taken this and tried it out. You can communicate most easily with me through my twitter handle @freefacilitator.