Author: Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development in the workforce. One blog is about that. The other is about tennis.

Outputs vs Outcomes

How does anyone become expert at anything?

How do we know what high performance looks like?

How can we best support performance in the work context?

All different questions, all geared up for a similar set of answers.

While I worked as a consultant to Ford Motor Co., I worked in the same building where they trained their apprentices in Dagenham. At the end of the two year programme, they produced fully ready apprentices ready to join the workforce proper.

You know what was the single most important factor of this success?

The training. Nothing less, nothing more.

You know what was the biggest challenge they had?

The training. Massively unpredictable even though there was a curriculum to work towards.

In the L&D world, it is easy to get lost in the outputs of what we produce and forget about the outcomes. I’m very guilty of this.

Performance support at work is all about providing learning at the point of need. This is the single biggest challenge facing L&D departments everywhere.

There’s no silver bullet for this stuff. We have to doggedly work at educating the business into what that difference is. When they keep asking for stats on bums on seats and spend per head, that’s fine but it means very little. We need to be providing information on outcomes.

That means things like:
- A person’s time management and personal organisation improved because they understood how to make that happen
- A cohort of people completing a programme of activity ready to take on the next business challenge
- A fully trained group ready to join the workforce
- Improved performance by a team who undertook some proper team development
- Greater use of technology or systems because of improved literacy and education levels

I look at that list and I know that those outcomes are what I should be focused on. But because it’s easier to describe the outputs, I lose sight of the outcomes.

More pertinently, what I think happens is that we forget that we’re the experts in learning and performance support. That means we have a mantle on which not many others in our organisation can occupy. We may be able to argue the toss about which delivery method is better than another, but the challenge is how we help others to understand that we know how to achieve the outcome best. I’ve had many an argument with senior directors because of this. It’s our single most difficult task we’ll ever have to do.

A coaching exercise

I’m delivering a training session on coaching today. One of the exercises I like to use to illustrate how challenging coaching can be is to get the group to build a paper aeroplane.

I normally do this when we’ve had some discussion about what coaching is, we’ve discussed people’s experience of it, and how it can be used at work.

The first part is to ask the group to simply build a paper aeroplane. Once they’ve done it, we all stand at one end of the room and see how they all fly.

The people’s ‘planes who flew the furthest then become the coaches for the next part.

The coaches team up with 1-2 others and their goal is to help the others build a paper aeroplane. The only consideration is that they can’t tell them what to do.

Once completed, we do a download of the exercise and talk about whatever learnings came through.

There are many exercises that help achieve the same, this is my preferred one. Also, for me, it acts as a useful way to link discussions around attitude, skills, knowledge and performance management.

Networks, networked, networking

I am here. Moving. Discussing. Thinking. Planning. Doing. Saying. Creating. Fun having. Being.

The eye blinks, like the shutter on a camera and transposes an image on the retina. It does this at regular intervals otherwise we would suffer coginitive overload. Each blink allows the brain a brief respite in order that we can process that information in some way. Each blink, creates a moment. Each moment collects to create an experience.

I’m in a meeting. We’re talking about something. It’s useful in some way. I choose to be present. I listen and hear what’s being said. This group I’m with are a temporary network I’m connected to. Time will move on, and tomorrow that network either remains useful or becomes redundant.

I’ve been doing things today. It’s the end of the day and when it’s time to rest, allow the brain to make sense of those things and of those thoughts. The networks that are in there are either reinforced and strenghtened, or new ones are being created. The new ones may need more time to develop and become strong.

I’ve been talking to people. They move me. They push me. They provoke me. They please me. They pull me. They stand with me. They argue with me.

Those conversations are important. They help me feel. They help me connect. They help me survive. They help me thrive. They help me exist. They help me switch off. They help me progress.

What happened to my network? What happened to what I knew? Has it changed? Is it the same? Where do I seek support? Where do I seek comfort in practice? That anxiety is because my brain is telling me this will be hard. I can feel that. I can experience that. My gut is all twisted into knots of stuff.

Something sparks. It sparks and it creates a flame. The flame grows and it becomes a fire. The fire burns and it envelopes. The fire dies to its embers.

I’m on a road. I’m on a train. I’m walking a path. I’m in my house. I’m following a routine. It plays out and I’m somewhere. I know I’m here, but do I know what happened?

When did I stop to hear? Did I see that thing? What experience did I have? Did it matter?

I’ve created a new connection. I’ve been part of a network. I’ve found meaning in a conversation.

Networks, networked, networking.

Opinions in the wind

I find the whole concept of online trolling truly bizarre. That there are a group of people out there who willingly seek out to connect with a person with the sole intention of causing them distress. Intentional distress. What’s going wrong in these people’s lives that they think this is a valid way to express themselves and connect with others?

Which is why, in the main, I’m glad that I don’t write anything truly controversial, or divisive, or upsetting to others. I have opinions on lots of things, and choose to share them via different media. On Twitter, I tend to express myself on lots of topics because I’m quite aware that it’s a transient medium. A tweet can get lost in the timeline because it can.

But here, on my blog, I’m far more cautious. People can seek out my opinion. So I express my opinions which don’t matter to many people. The only people who care about what I write are a very small population in the big bad world, and if I got trolled by anyone, I’d probably hunt them down and shake their hand or something.

So, it surprised me the other week to learn that I may have potentially with little intent and no malice but it happened all the same caused various people I know in my network to be cautious about their voice in social media.

Yo, no one should have that level of influence.

I have shared, quite widely and openly, that I have a very low opinion of NLP.

And I have done this knowing that there are many L&Ders who are trained in various levels of NLP. And, many of these people I would consider, friends, good people and good L&Ders.

Here’s the thing. If you choose to practise NLP as a way of working for you, and as a way of helping and supporting others, then I can only applaud that. Everyone needs help in this world, and there’s nothing worse, for me, than demonising others.

I just choose to believe something about this particular mental model of the world. I find its efficacy and its claims to be wild, and I find the evangelism that goes with it to be bizarre. There are a good many folk who don’t care about those things, because it works well for them.

Just like I think homeopathy is complete nonsense. I know many people who swear by it, and live perfectly healthy lives. It has incredibly low medical verification of any kind, and for me that matters. For many others, that doesn’t mean a thing.

There are things I’m perfectly willing to change my mind on. Like when I wrote about whether learning is about performance, or that there should be one definite route into L&D. I wrote something, got some valued input, and changed my thinking. I’m allowed to do that.

It will take more convincing for me to buy into NLP as a legitimate way of thinking.

I’m highly aware that I’m using language which caveats my openness to NLP.

I’m also highly aware that when I talk about positive psychology, the same claims of evangelism could be levelled at me.

What I don’t want though, truly, is for anyone I know, respect, socialise with, regard a friend, to be uncomfortable with me because I have this bias. I have opinions on certain religions (like Scientology), and prejudices and biases on a whole range of topics – just like we all do. What I think I’m careful of, though, is not letting them affect my actual behaviour. Dialogue helps, challenge helps, support helps, different thinking helps, and I’m always interested to know more.

This is my blog. My thinking space. I happen to enjoy sharing that openly. What I think, and what I do are often two very different things. In particular, what I write doesn’t always reflect what I think. My thinking process happens outside of my head. That’s where I get clarity on things. So when I write things down, it’s like I’m talking to a friend who understands me. And, for me, it’s about making sense of what I’m thinking. Like I said once before, I just happen to be someone who enjoys thinking outside of their head rather than in it.

So to anyone who I’ve put at arms length because of my opinion on NLP, this is an invitation. It’s an invitation to understand me a bit better. It’s an invitation to say, please don’t not promote your NLP skills because I express an opinion about it.

And what’s the lesson we can learn from this blog post? That if you’re an NLP practitioner, who follows Scientology and practices homeopathy, we’re gonna really struggle to get along.

ADDENDUM: I’m aware I haven’t trolled anyone about NLP. It’s an extreme comparison, and that’s how I work. I find extremes of examples help me figure out my position.

On Kindness

There are all sorts of social experiments carried out to show how kindness is all kinds of awesome. Stories about kindness get shared lots, and why not? It shows the best of being human, and who can argue with that?

We know that when people are kind, we repay that kindness to complete strangers.

We know that when people are kind, we feel good inside with all the warm fuzzies.

We know that when people are kind, it leaves us feeling with a sense of awe.

We know that when people are kind, it cuts through straight to the heart.

But.

And.

Just what is it?

My children are capable of such kindness to one another that I beam when I see it. They do it because they care about one another. They do it because they just do it. As much as we might explain how it is to be kind, and why they should do it, there are many a moment when it just happens. And I feel so full of joy and pride when I see it.

And then they fall into sibling behaviour and get into scraps and arguments with one another moments later and I think and wonder, how did that switch around so quickly?

Did you know our closest evolutionary cousins, primates, are also capable of kindness?

We get so bombarded with such a variety of messages. Buy this product so you too can have a clean and happy home. Buy this investment so you too can live a happy financial future. Buy this life that you don’t currently lead and feel valued in. Buy this.

I’m not railing against consumerism. It is what it is. But advertising isn’t meant to show us what kindness is about.

And the national political debate swings from claiming we’re all in it together and then demonising those living on the streets and on the breadline.

Charities and the voluntary sectors have oddly seen a rise in their donations over these difficult years, which says something loud and bold.

So I’m railing against the good advice.

I’m railing against the top ten list of how to do it.

Because we know it when it happens. I feel it. You relish it. We live it. It is awesome. They crave it. It is free.

Go and be kind? If you want.

Show some kindness to a stranger? If it fits in your day.

Take a moment to offer a kind word to a colleague? If they deserve it.

Write a kind letter to a loved one? If they’ll be receptive to it.

Damn that yin and yang.

Go. Be. Do.

Emergent Learning

A couple of weeks back I had a good old natter with Doug Shaw about the learning experience and how we could encourage a much more free-form of what happens in the workplace to support learning and therefore performance.

We toyed with the idea that if you asked a group of people to come together, and let them decide what learning needed to happen, what role, then, does the facilitator play?

In typical learning and facilitation, the facilitator has a set of notes, a slide deck, a range of topics to cover, exercises and some clear learning objectives. There’s nothing wrong with that, and is the form and structure of a lot of current learning programmes.

Of course, when I say nothing wrong with that, what I mean to say is there’s nothing wrong with that if you don’t care about how learning actually happens and don’t care about knowledge transfer and application to daily work practices.

So, imagine it. A group come to the room ready to learn about any given topic. There’s no structure, there’s no direction, and there’s no lesson plan. There’s no slide deck, there’s no agenda and no planned exercises. You’re at the mercy of the group, and at the mercy of life itself.

What would they learn? How would they learn it? What’s the point of an expert? What models can they use? What does good practise look like? How can they improve? How can they get fixed?

This weekend, I chose to attend a self-facilitated and self-organised learning event all about facilitation skills. It was called Facilitation Jam, and was probably one of the best learning experiences I’ve had in recent years.

Different to the unconference environment which is still focused on production of content and allowing an agenda to take place at the pace of people attending, this was much more free-form and loose in its execution.

There were a group of seven of us, all skilled facilitators in different ways, and all there for our own reasons and purposes. As I reflect on it, there were several things going on which meant we all engaged and disengaged in varying forms, and had the support and confidence of the group to move things along.

We spent the whole time together contracting and checking in with one another. This was of high interest to me because I didn’t realise how vital this is to building trust in a group. Ordinarily on a learning session I might contract with the group at the start of a session about the behaviours we all agree to. But for it to be a regular and focused part of the conversation meant people had the freedom and permission to be engaged, challenge others when they thought they weren’t being participative, and share when they felt disengaged by what was happening.

The checking in, for me, was something I overlook regularly. The checking in was all about asking people to acknowledge what is going on for them personally and sharing that with the group so we’re all aware of the state of that person and can support them if it’s requested. I think we did this very well with one another, and we were fortunate. I know there are a good many groups who would find this truly challenging and not important.

There was no pressure to have to conform to an agenda or learn set things or follow a model of thinking. We shared knowledge, helped each other develop our own thinking, and had robust discussions about lots of things.

We understood each others purpose for being there. We wanted everyone to focus on how to achieve what they came for, and supported each other in this pursuit. Some had the opportunity to deal with things directly, others got there by virtue of unexpected insights and discussions.

What the Jam showed me was the power of emergent learning.

What it also challenged me with was how to bring that experience to the work environment. It’s a hard sell to a group you’re going to facilitate a learning session with no set up, no agenda and no overall learning plan.

The opportunity, though, means that we truly tap into people’s motivation, providing the right support for performance  improvement, the right support for personal development and the right environment for learning to take place.

One of my reflections with the group was that we were in an environment where creativity and innovation could happen because of the people present. As I reflect now, we were also supporting a good many other things, but none explicitly sought, and that matters.

Something also tells me that one of the reasons the Jam worked so well is that we were an experienced group of facilitators who knew and understood how to enjoy a session like this and how to make the best of it.