Talking VUCA

Context is everything. Recently I delivered a workshop on strategic decision making for our senior leaders. I started the session by talking about VUCA. For the uninitiated, it’s an acronym used to describe the nature of change:
– volatility
– uncertainty
– complexity
– ambiguity

It’s origins come from the military where it’s used to describe the different environments they encounter and the types of strategies needed for them. It’s easy enough to see that this same acronym has resonance for the organisational world we live in.

It helps give people another way to consider the range of challenges they face, understand them in a different way and potentially work through solutions. Indeed the people I was with came up with many examples of how they experience VUCA. We’re all subject to factors outside our control, and there is a propensity to want to control those factors as much as is possible.

The things we’re learning in this space are around collaboration, creativity and simplicity. VUCA helps provide a language that people can make the target of their challenges. It might even act as the beginnings of a framework in better analysing these challenges and the nature of them. By it’s very definition it demands intelligence and sophistication in dealing with those challenges.

In this piece from Simon Heath, he argues for the need for simplicity and I wonder, is the answer not ever such? Answers arise and are often the obvious way forward. Sometimes they feel too easy, especially in the work context and it doesn’t feel like it should be that easy. So we write papers, prepare presentations, create fandangled communication campaigns all with the aim in mind of showing how intelligent an answer something is. And yet if something can happen easily, without need for sophistication and it being simple, does it have less worth as a solution?

My call is this. I find using VUCA a useful way to help people understand and potentially navigate the challenges they face. I’ve used it in a number of contexts where it is supportive of the content. The solutions we develop and the answers we seek don’t need to be in the same vain. They might be, and that may be the way forward, but let’s not do that because it’s a default. Let’s do that because it’s the right solution.

Learning, capacity and social

I remember on my degree learning about the development of the human mind in infants. There’s a theory called Theory of Mind which says that as an infant, although cognition is present, it is clearly still developing. An infant can copy human behaviour because a mental process of recognition allows them to.

The infant recognises that the parent is trying to do something like stick out their tongue. After some time the infant can copy and stick their tongue out. They’re able to do this because they recognise the parent is doing something which is something they might be capable of doing. They don’t understand it, but they can copy it.

As we learn more about the mental process of learning with the help of neuroscience we understand better the neuronal process of learning. The capacity for learning is ever present so long as there is no damage to the brain. We are all capable of learning any number of topics and subjects, because we have the right physiological capacity for doing so.

We also know that learning and development of learning is an inherently social process. Studies of children who have been locked away from birth show that the children have severe motor difficulties with things like walking and holding objects and severe communication difficulties with no language capability or ability to communicate needs. They can learn to do these things, and they do, but the profound effect of a lack of social contact in their early formative years is ever present.

Just some stuff to think about out there.

The truth about the Gen Y myth

There’s a truth about the Gen Y mythology which has been staring us all point blank in the face and which I’ve come to realise. Maybe we’ve all known it all along. Maybe we’ve been too caught up in the rhetoric of this up and coming age group that we didn’t let it sit a bit longer. In this day and age of digital and social connectedness we’re all very willing to comment and opine.

It’s bothered me, you see. For everyone saying that Gen Y have no different needs to any other generation, I’ve felt there has been something amiss. I’ve read lots of pieces on the Gen Y myth. I’ve read blogs from Gen Y who think they need to educate everyone else on what their modern lives are like. It’s all been insightful and it’s caused ire and annoyance for many.

We all need regular feedback. We all use digital devices. We’re all accessing the internet. We all want to work for ethical and moral organisations. We all want more responsive performance reviews. We all want flexible working and remote working opportunities. There’s a jazz and it’s playing a tune we all want to groove to.

What’s bothered me for so long I’ve now realised is not that these things are inherent to Gen Y, but that they showed how backward a lot of our working practices are. What’s worse isn’t that Gen Y are coming banging on our doors demanding new and modern ways of working, but that we don’t know how to help the people being left behind.

All those things that apparently we’re all wanting and doing? There’s a lot of people out there not wanting and not doing and very few people are helping them. That’s what the Gen Y problem has been about.

We’re railing against our own outdated working practices, not that Gen Y have the solutions. We’re railing against IT systems that are locked down, not that Gen Y need to access social media at work. We’re railing against pointless bureaucratic processes, policies and procedures, not the alleged free attitudes of Gen Y.

We’re railing against the things we’ve created which once served a purpose and we forgot to question their continued relevance. Gen Y certainly don’t have the solutions to any of these old working practices quire simply because they’re caught up in the same systems.

I’ve just finished writing my plans for OD over the next five years. You know, one of those strategy things. One of the things I’m going to be focused on is improving the digital literacy of everyone who needs it. If we’re expecting our people to be more digitally responsive and able then I have a direct responsibility to support them in doing so. I’m not doing it because Gen Y are demanding it. I’m doing it so that the people I work with have the capacity and capability to use digital tools for themselves, for their learning and for the customers they work with.

Designing learning, learning cycles and styles

I’m probably at risk of writing about my experiences in this blog post which rail against given methods of learning design. It’s quite likely to be heretical and quite potentially blasphemous.

You see, I haven’t used the L&D Cycle, Learning Cycle or Learning Styles for any of my learning design for years. They just started to lose relevance to everything I was doing in the learning space.

When I was arranging for open mic sessions to take place, there was no following of the L&D Cycle. I didn’t carry out and LNA across the business. I didn’t design a full learning solution. I definitely didn’t consider how I was going to measure the impact of that learning solution. I just made it happen. It happened. It continued to happen as a valued business activity.

When I’m designing a course ready for delivery, I’m not concerned about Learning Styles. I develop the content first. That’s always my starting point. Get the content right, and then I can concentrate on other aspects of the course. Where can I include exercises to help people connect the dots? Where can I encourage debate or discussion to cultivate development of understanding of the topic? What am I asking people to do with the content, and how am I going to support them after?

I couldn’t even tell you the last time I used the Learning  Cycle to help me design or prepare for a learning session.

I’ve been designing some e-learning recently and I’ve been highly focused on keeping the copy and text light, creating interactive learning pieces such as watching a video or listening to some audio, and using text boxes to help provide further information as options as opposed to mandatory reading. I don’t care about testing knowledge at the end, I just want someone to complete the thing and relay their experience to me. So far, the work my colleague Kate has done with this is showing that this approach to designing our own courseware has been highly appreciated by people and they enjoy the e-learning.

At one time, those models mentioned above had relevance. They held an attraction and they provided a useful model or thinking on how to design a good learning session. Some, though, like learning styles and learning cycle have since been discredited in academic circles for having no tangible difference on learning outcomes. I mean that’s quite damning. So why would we continue to use them in the learning context?

It’s quite likely I do have methodology to how I design learning interventions. These days, though it tends to be less about which learning theory I’m using to design with, and more about getting the right outcomes. When you add in blended learning options too, then it starts to become unwieldy to consider how each element meets a part of a cycle or a style. There’s far too much fun to be had in getting people doing things, reflecting on their learning, sharing their learning and improving performance as a result. Maybe that’s using learning styles, etc, but I think it’s moved beyond that to be about useful learning experiences.

I just haven’t found a way to categorise that as a concept. When I do, or when you do, I bag the right for commercialising it.

Feedback would happen all the time if… we gave praise well

The great British reserve of politeness and not talking honestly with others is a true mystery. Keeping the stiff upper lip about your emotions, what you’re thinking and in not offending others. It’s an explicit and deeply cultural phenomena. I also wonder of the impact of our culture on how we are able to be better emotionally intelligent?

Day by day we’re becoming more and more comfortable with the lexicon that sits with being emotional intelligence. The concept itself challenges the way we seek to understand ourselves and others so that we can have better relationships.

And I also see that feedback is regularly such a thing where people find it difficult at work to talk with each other in a way which invites inquiry, promotes development and is supportive of the individual.

It’d be easy to blame not giving feedback well on culture. And the truth is that all cultures have rules which get in the way of giving feedback well. I also wonder if there is an overlooked piece on how we appreciate others?

In the workplace, it’s not unusual that people don’t praise one another. It’s often seen as a motivational tool which I find rather disturbing and completely misses the point.

We know, both because of psychological and neuroscience processes that receiving good and positive feedback is healthy for people. When people at work experience more positive comments to negative by a ratio of 3:1, they feel like they can thrive at work.

Yet, most managers shy away from doing this. The reasons tend to be:
– but I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable about doing a good job
– if I say something good I have to give them something developmental to work on too
– who am I to say they’re doing a good job?
– they’re not comfortable with receiving compliments so I don’t
– I have such a lack of belief in the benefit of doing this that I don’t want to, don’t know how to nor even how to articulate it without it seeming disingenuous and forced

So, we L&Ders, we go away and develop tools to help people do this. We develop frameworks and we develop learning interventions to support people in doing this well.

Giving feedback is a challenging skill. Giving critical or developmental feedback is hard. Giving praise, I would argue, is just as hard. There’s just as much discomfort we experience in praising well as we do in criticising.

Recently, Sarah Lewis gave me this set of positive organisational development cards on how to appreciate others using positive language. I’ve used them in team development events and found them really useful in giving people a way to talk with one another about their strengths and what they do well. Please do check them out as a way of helping focus on what’s going well.

I am a fan of finding ways for people to talk well at work. We allow too many things to get in the way, and can often feel the need to qualify or quantify feedback with too many variables. It’s worse when it’s about appreciating someone as suddenly we stutter things like “but don’t go getting a big head about it”, or “I’m not great at saying when things go well but…”, or following up with a criticism of the person.

I wonder how bad it would be to praise something someone has done, praise it well, and say nothing more?

What’s next for L&D?

The learning solutions landscape has changed significantly in the last 15 years. When I started out as an L&D Officer, we were delivering learning through only face to face solutions. Some coaching was happening, and the odd bit of e-learning was present. In a lot of workshops we used video based resources showing “live” situations. We had Computer Based Training solutions often delivered via a CD-ROM. The internet wasn’t really a thing then for anything other than online shopping sites and news feeds. YouTube was in its real infancy.

Move forward a few years, and not a lot more new was happening. Video content became DVD content. E-learning was really quite niche still and there was still a lot of face to face learning. Websites were catching up and suddenly you could stream video content on news sites. Facebook became a thing. Twitter had just started.

Move forward a few years more and suddenly there was an explosion of social networking sites both enterprise and public. Webinars were becoming more popular and blogging was becoming a strong force. WordPress was coming into its own. Not only that but people were playing and messing with formats of conferences creating events like unconferences and barcamps and hackathons. What nobody expected was the impact of the new web on brands and immediateness (totally I word I just made up) of customer service via these new channels.

Fast forward to today and mobile technology is in a place no one could have conceived 15 years ago. Back then it was a simple device no more complicated than a PDA with phone and message capabilites. Look at the ubiquity of mobile use in today’s world with then and it’s the single biggest technological shift we’ve seen in consumer use of the shortest period of time. Online learning, wikis, online collaboration sites, digital universities, and many other forms of digital learning are abundantly available.

That’s a short space of time for a step change to have happened in the learning landscape. There’s a lot of talk and rhetoric from many in the learning writing and consultancy sphere who make all sorts of claims about the redundancy of face to face learning, about the need for modern learning solutions, about the new skills L&Ders require in developing effective learning holistic solutions. But in truth it’s not really a wonder most of the profession hasn’t caught up.

Who knows what lies in store tomorrow. A lot of what happened over the last 15 years many of us couldn’t have been predicted, certainly not most of us in the L&D space. Let’s cut each other some slack on this front. Sure there are modern learning solutions which are available, but this doesn’t equate to all L&Ders knowing these. The sharing of learning we have as practitioners is probably the most valued thing we can do in the L&D profession. Be that through curation, blogging, vlogging, writing or speaking, there are a good many options for sharing our learning to raise what we all do.

The enigma of the human condition

We know a lot about the human condition. It’s one of those areas of study, of philosophy and of life that we are constantly drawn to understand ourselves better. Psychology, economics, medicine, law, are complete fields of study that help us understand how people interact, why they interact, what makes us better, and the consequences for actions which are harmful to others.

We know so much that we’re able to understand the cognitive development of babies. We understand the process of language development. We understand the purpose of emotions and are able to categorise them. We understand about ethics and┬ámorality. We understand about love, affection and companionship.

And yet, there are some things we will never truly understand. Why does one person murder another? Why are some people born without the ability to be empathetic and therefore wilfully harm others? Why do some people develop addictions that are clearly harmful and yet they cannot help themselves? Why are some people just not in control of their eating habits and make themselves sick because of either under or over eating? Why do some people have less capacity for kindness to others? Why do some people wilfully hurt children?

Psychology (and other fields) tries to explain some of these things. But what about when your average police officer shoots a seemingly innocent person? Or what about when a stranger will seemingly give a deadly electric shock to another person for no other reason than they were instructed to? Or what about when a regular office worker commits fraudulent behaviour because they are under heavy personal financial pressures?

Sometimes, we can’t explain things. Sometimes we have to just accept that something awful has happened, and there won’t be an explanation.

The human condition is one of life’s biggest conundrums. We will continue to strive for answers in religion, in science, in philosophy or in medicine. We’ll come up short, because no matter how intelligent we may be, there will always be something that happens which we just can’t account for.

I am saddened by the shooting of Walter Scott in America. It’s a complete tragedy and there will be insightful commentary and analysis of why it happened. And not just of this incident, but also of the many others hat have occurred. Many will shout race, many will shout police right, many will not know how to react, many will be angry.

We have the right (imperfect) systems in place to deal with things like this. We can only have faith in those systems and in people that we can and must be better. But all the while, no matter how good we might be, we’ll never be able to account for that errant factor that is the human condition.