Creativity and big ideas

I enjoy watching other L&Ders do their thing. Regardless of if someone is delivering well or not, there’s just something about how people choose to interact with their stage. It’s their arena, and whatever they’ve learned works well for them, is what they bring to the party.

I watched a number of people show their craft to others at last weeks Learning Live conference. I had a lot of respect for Andrew Jacobs from his writing, and from a lot of conversations we’ve had. Seeing him do his thing was excellent.

In his session, he took his blog post on 50 big ideas to change L&D and wanted to play with the content. What I saw happen was very interesting for what he was asking for.

He took 5 of his big ideas, and asked the group to exercise some creativity in producing ten small ideas for every one big idea. His hope was he would have 50 small ideas by the end of his session. Specifically, he asked for volunteers and directed to them that they would now be curators. What happened was, these L&D professionals defaulted to becoming facilitators, because that’s what we do best.

It raised some interesting thoughts for me. Primarily that as L&D professionals, creativity is meant to be our absolute bag. Every learning intervention, every interaction, every facilitative piece, every collaboration, every design is meant to be creativity personified. But I witnessed so little, that I got quite annoyed.

The curators all sought input via a bulleted list, and stopped there. This, for many in the room, fulfilled the brief given. Now maybe it’s my make up, but I take a brief at face value before taking creative license with it. I seek to understand what I’m being asked for, list out all the obvious stuff (to me), and then I go to town.

See, when you’re carrying out something as straightforward as a brainstorming activity, part of the challenge is to discard the rubbish. If you want 10 good ideas, you need at least 100. Seems like overkill, doesn’t it? Who has the time to do that? And surely that’s just a waste of ideas, right? And if you need 10, why produce 100?

There’s no ratio to this. But no one in the history of good ideas ever had just one. They have one idea, they play with it, and they move on to the next. Often, the best ideas are the ‘n’th number down the list. Not because all the others were crap, but because they weren’t refined enough. That iterative process is something many of us in the world of work just aren’t used to.

In the world of technology, that’s known as being in perpetual beta. That is, everything is changing all the time, so there is no right answer.

In L&D (and arguably HR), we get so caught up in responding to queries and being responsive that we forget how to use some critical skills to assess if things are worth doing or not.

Case in point – Bob thinks we should have a poster campaign for the Premier League Football final. Everyone says ‘great idea!’, then leaves Bob to get on with it. No one chimes in to say, ‘that could work, but how about we hold a poster campaign challenging one of the other departments on the same thing?’.

Why don’t we do that? Because we’re afraid we’re going to upset Bob and we don’t like upsetting people. Instead, we just accept what’s provided and make do. Neil Denny described it best in his keynote when he said we fight to accept mediocrity. I tweeted something about this, and someone responded saying that most people don’t like to challenge or criticise. That’s true, they don’t. But we’re in a privileged position in being in L&D. We’re actually not meant to be the pink and fluffy types. We’re meant to be the performance support types, but if we have trouble with creativity, how are we ever going to achieve that? If we don’t know how to criticise, how will be produce the big ideas that will change the world of work?


Can L&D be Agile?

Last week at Learning Live, I had a lot of fun listening to a variety of speakers on some interesting topics. The first of these was from Owen Ferguson, and his colleague (whose name I’ve kind of completely forgotten). They were talking about how they have adopted using an agile methodology for project management when it comes to any work they receive. In the world of technology, this is fast becoming a way to disrupt the traditional way of producing work.

I first learned about agile as a project management methodology in a previous organisation I worked for. The majority of their work was project based, and in the main, it was delivered by using traditional project methodology known as waterfall. The waterfall method is what we know of as a typical was of working in projects. There are various models for this such as Prince2 or PMBOK.

These projects follow a set and prescribed way of working, with clearly defined roles such as Project Manager. You have a scoping phase, development phase, user testing, and implementation. In the world of work, most of us will be used to this. It involves defining clear deliverables, producing business cases for projects, having clear parameters for what work will and won’t be done, milestones, and having a critical path. You’ll likely use tools like MS Project, Gantt charts, SWOT analysis, benchmark research, and other interesting and useful tools.

Project teams normally meet their clients when they have to, when milestones are reached, and at the end of the project when they are ready to hand over and implement a project.

Procurement teams in a lot of corporates favour this as a preferred approach to delivering projects for their companies. This is mostly because of the things I’ve talked about above. It offers these departments the firm perspective that nothing could possibly go wrong, and if it does, there are severe repercussions.

Agile, then, is kind of everything the waterfall method isn’t. Here’s the set of values that agile teams ‘sign up’ to (as in they agree to these things as a way of working):

‘We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
Working software over Comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
Responding to change over Following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.’

The nuts and bolts of this methodology are completely different to waterfall. The agile team works in what are called sprints. A sprint is a period of time normally between 2-3 weeks. At the end of this sprint, there is normally a product available for the client to review. On feedback, the iterative process starts again, and the team set about the next round of development, ready to complete the next sprint in the same time frame.

Instead of objectives and tasks, the team have what are called ‘stories’. These stories help the team know what they should be focused on. The stories can be codified and categorised however makes sense. The idea is that at the start of the project, you have a big list of stories. By the end, using the agile approach, you would have a few leftover which don’t matter.

The iterative and sprint approach means that the client involvement is much greater and often requires the client to be present throughout the project so that decisions can be made instantaneously. What is also means, crucially, is that you have working prototypes from the end of the first sprint. It won’t be perfect, it’ll be full of flaws, but it’ll be something to review against. By the 7th or 8th sprint, you’re either well into producing a highly usable product, or you’re ready to deliver the product because of the process you’ve just gone through.

There are, of course, challenges to this approach. It’s a bold way of working, with definables being worked out along the way. That’s scary for a lot of clients who want a clear idea of what they’re getting before the work has even started. The size of the project team can fluctuate depending on the sprint and stories that still need to be resolved. There is no need for a central project manager. It relies on the team working together and offering support to one another as appropriate, be it your speciality or not.

So, here’s the question: Can L&D work in this way? Can HR work in this way?

For a long time, L&D has always followed the waterfall method. We define a learning need, design a course, and deliver it to the business. There’s little in the way of checking in as it’s being designed. There’s little in the way of effective feedback from users. We pretty much don’t know if it works as a learning intervention until we are standing and delivering.

Those in the e-learning and online collaboration worlds may lay claim that they’ve been adopting the agile methodology more in recent years.

But what about the internal teams? The ones who are aligned to business goals and have budgets to deliver against, and have teams out there doing good facilitation? Can they work in this way?

My tuppence says that if we are to, we have to learn a lot of new skills to support this.

Being your best self at work

This is the basis of the talk I’m delivering at Learning Live on Wednesday 10 September.


Start with Phil’s blog post – It’s time to choose, right now.

Can everyone with a smartphone have it on and connected to the wifi, we’re about to crash the system.

Go to YouTube and search for Chicken chicken chicken.

Apart from being an amusing video, with valuable insights into chickens, this is what’s happening daily in organisations across the world. And L&D are doing little to stop peddling this way of raising the game.

With all the talk of Chief Learning Officers, Business Partners and our activities being linked to business objectives, we’ve lost sight of what we do best. We help others be their best self.

I want to question why our focus is where it is. I want to invite you all to put those big brains together and have some hardcore dialogue. I have no answers, I just have a lot of observations. One of my biggest observations is that we are so lost in making whizz bangy learning programmes that we’ve lost the art of being in L&D.

We get lost in designing and creating weird and wonderful programmes of activity that are not guaranteed to do do anything other than impress ourselves with the level of sophistication of the programme. We get lost in rights and wrongs at works. We get lost in absolutes and stakes in the ground. We get lost in prescribing actions and mandating actions. We are so lost we fool ourselves into thinking a strategy will rectify the haze we’ve created.

You know who has the least clue of what’s going to happen next? People in power. You know who else has no clue of what’s going to happen next? People not in power. Yet we fool ourselves into thinking that control and direction are the answer. They are an answer. But not the answer.

Control and direction only matter when you’re clear about your purpose. And if our purpose is to help others be awesome, that’s what I’m aiming for.

Maslow had it wrong. It’s not that our basic needs must be met before we can self-actuslise. It’s that we’re not focused on self-actualisation enough because we think we need basic needs.

Helping people be their best self at work is about helping people do stuff better. My kids are awesome because they find ways to be awesome all on their own, with some guidance and prompting from me.

That’s where we’re falling down in L&D. We still think we have to give our learners the answer to all of their problems. We don’t. What we have to do is help them learn how to get their themselves.

It’s easy designing a course following a set curriculum. It’s even easier delivering that training. What’s hard is just providing people with resources and asking them to get on with it.

It’s easy to get lost in the idea of social learning and 70-20-10 as a methodology for delivery. Let’s explore what that all means.

Think about e-learning Design. What one thing do you do really well?

Find someone who you want to learn from on a topic on the wall and talk to them about what they do. What techniques do they use? Why those? Why are they effective? How did they learn them?

Communities of practise at work.

What one thing do you want to learn more about?

Find someone in the group who can help you. How can they help? What will you be able to do differently?

Peer based coaching and learning at work.

Mindfulness in learning

Carry out a 4 minute mindfulness session.

What are you now focused on doing?

Is that how you’ve practised mindfulness before? What was your experience? No right or wrong answer. It’s about better understanding and practise. It’s about focus of thought. How do we encourage focus of thought instead of juggling of balls?

If embedding of learning takes anything from 5 days to 120 days, what exactly are we reporting on in our MI? How does bums on seats help us show the efficacy of learning?

Outcomes are hard to define. Performance is hard to attribute to learning.

You know what the biggest fib L&D tell ourselves and the business? That performance improved because of the L&D intervention.

The greatest trick the devil pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. That’s what L&D do. We convince the business world that L&D directly affected performance. Poppy cock – and we all know it too. I’ve peddled that lie many a time.

Performance at work is attributable to so many things, L&D being just one of them.

People are amazing when you give them the opportunity to do so. And we try our damndest to attribute everything as a learning intervention.

Once you tell someone they’re awesome, that’s a pact made in gold. You can’t renege on that. But it’s such a pact, we keep those comments reserved for the few. For the talented. For the ones who will drive the business forward. Because that’s the way the world works.

What are the outcomes we can report on? How do we focus on those outcomes as a way of reporting?

No one wants to suck at work. People don’t come to work thinking they’re going to do a bad job.

Building self-belief into learning design. Resilience is the ultimate goal.

One of the ways in which we can build resilience is by focusing on inclusion. I don’t just mean completing your E&D annual training. I mean actively and repeatedly looking at how inclusive you’re being for your organisation. In your comms, in your activities, in your language, are you being inclusive? When you spot bad behaviour, when you hear unsavoury comments, when you witness something bad, are you acting inclusively to help and support? In yourself, in your actions, in your judgements, are you challenging your own self to be more inclusive?

The question is how do we build resilience? The answer is it depends. It depends on your organisational context. If you’re in the police it’s about your personal resilience in dealing with anything from a domestic dispute, to abuse to drunk behaviour to death. If you’re a firefighter it’s anything from fighting a fire to cutting a roof of a car to filing a report. If you’re a data analyst it could be anything from a personal dispute with a colleague, to a heavy workload to Excel not playing ball. If you’re a coffee shop barrista it could be anything from irate customers to a broken machine to a kid puking on the floor.

When we can help people learn about themselves in those situations – that’s when things become special. When you are mindful of what you’re experiencing, as you’re experiencing it, that’s when people perform at their best.

Compliance training, statutory training, mandatory training, collaborative learning, social learning, informal learning, professional qualifications, personal development and management development, all have a place in supporting a person’s development and resilience building. But until they need to know a critical fact or learn about others experiences, or have a moment to practise what they’re learning, they won’t be their best self.

I hope this gives you more to think about than it does answers questions. I’m not in the game of providing answers. I’m in the game of facilitating and provoking thought. I’m in the game of helping people be their best self at work.

What are you focused on?

The Placebo Effect in Learning

It is often the case that we have to argue our way to a solution with managers in the organisations we’re part of. Managers have a view about what learning looks like. It’s my role to help others see how I’m the expert in learning and development and as such can advise the best solution for learning. As I often advocate that should more often include performance support on the job, with a training course as part of the solution, not the end.

The placebo effect fascinates me. What is it? In medical terms, it’s when you have a control group of patients who think they’re receiving certain medicine to improve their condition but in reality are receiving nothing more than a sugar pill or something else non-critical. Want to know something interesting about the plaecbo effect? People’s health can still improve even though they are told they are taking nothing more than a placebo.

I swear I fall into this category. When I suffer hayfever, I take an anti-allergy tablet. I am sure if I took a placebo, I would stop sniffling and sneezing all the same. But because I am taking something, actually physically doing the act of taking a tablet, I know I’ll feel better.

So is it the tablet, or is it the power of human belief?

Learning is a lot like this. We send people on training to fix them. But often it’s not the training that fixes them. It’s the dialogue they’re having in the learning, the self dialogue they’re having about the learning, and the self assessment they’re doing about the topic. What they learn at the session either supports their thoughts or challenges them or serves neither.

Which makes me wonder how do we mitigate for this?

It also makes me realise that I’ve totally made the case for not investing in L&D and just argued the department into redundancy.

The mitigation of the placebo effect for me is this.

– Managers are the key to performance support. If they don’t know how to do that, no amount of learning interventioning (totally a word) will improve the situation
– People learn best when they’re in dialogue with one another. As the very wise Julie Drybrough says “I challenge you to talk in a group of people and not learn something. It just can’t happen.”
– In organisations we need to get much better at developing communities of practice or communities of interest. This is where innovation happens and this is where people learn.
– If we’re going to offer online support we need to be aware of natural online usage. People don’t surf the web looking for e-learning. They look for articles to read or videos to watch or podcasts to listen to. They will do e-learning only because it’s mandated as a way to deliver core information. Fine, so let’s make that whole thing excellent.

You’ll note I haven’t spoken about alignment to business objectives. Or speaking the language of business. Or ROI. Or anything else we’re meant to focus on. That’s cos all these things are red herrings.

The above is essentially the talk I’m going to be giving at Learning Live in September. See you there?

L&D, Comms and Marketing

There’s a natural meeting of the minds when you bring L&D, Comms and Marketing people together. They’re all trying to achieve behaviour change, albeit for their own devilish purposes. And that behaviour change outcome means these three people can sit down and talk about meaningful ways to make that happen inside a company.

For me, I remember my old boss, Dan. He was telling me to think like a marketer back in 2003. He wasn’t just telling me to think like one, he actively made sure I was exercising that muscle. He was buying books for the team on the subject, he was getting us to be creative about our comms and how we worked with the comms team, and we were actively involved with the marketing team and their efforts.

It helped me to think beyond my role as an L&Der and how through better use of images and words, you can raise awareness that something is afoot, and that there’s a process of thinking and getting to a point where you ask people to make a call to action.

The last session at Learning Live I attended was Craig Taylor’s Course to Campaigns talk. His previous role had a focus on developing e-learning content. One of the last projects he was tasked with was around the compliance training needed to be completed within the company.

As well as doing some good piece of consultation with the subject matter experts across three key subjects, he wanted to explore other ways of effecting desired behaviour change. What emerged for him was to collaborate with suppliers who could bring a different approach to the e-learning solution by asking them to develop ideas on how to market the desired change.

This helped Craig to work with suppliers who wanted to be involved with the project and really do something interesting other than make the e-learning more engaging or better designed or more social.

The simple idea they landed on was in creating two personas of people who would become the core focus of a marketing campaign. One persona would show how to do the right behaviours (better online security), and the other would show what the consequences of not (possible hacking of systems). And on the posters and other online material there would be a link taking you to the e-learning directly.

We can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking we need to go out with a big bang of activity and then things will magically start to happen. Of course, human behaviour doesn’t work this way. Especially in a working environment. We need reminders, we need prodding, we need enticing, because otherwise we’ll forget and move on. At a previous company we called this comparing a fireworks display with a bonfire. The fireworks display is nice for initial awareness but you need to plan for the bonfire for lasting change.

So, my thanks to the LPI team for asking me to be a Live Reporter at Learning Live. As I said last week, content is king and this conference absolutely delivered.

Oh, and if you’re interested Craig is looking for his next role. Why not get in touch with him?

The Delicious Discomfort in Not Knowing

I just love this as a title for a conference presentation. Props to Neil Denny for really getting on board with the story telling bandwagon and showing us how to do it so well, from the title of his talk to the delivery and beyond.

I don’t know where to start with Neil’s talk. How about telling you he’s a recovering divorce lawyer? He somehow found his way to the L&D and personal development world, and has been riding a pretty amazing wave for nearly two years now. His is a success story in a lot of ways, and if you get a chance to connect with this guy I encourage you to make it happen.

What was one of his bold assertions in the talk? That there would be no stats in his presentation. This wasn’t because he was trying to be deliberately obtuse, but because the point served him well. In the corporate world we place a great amount of certainty in ‘knowing’ things because we have the data and information which tells us a story. We interpret that story to fit a narrative, and that narrative informs people of what is happening. He used a great example to illustrate this – in 2012 we were told by politicians we were in a double-dip recession, only to be told months later that actually we never were, and instead the economy was just flat. The data in both instances was the same, the story just changed to suit the narrative that needed to be told.

Interesting, huh?

He went on to talk about how arguments are won, and how they’re not. He asked this simple question, which was brilliant “How many arguments have you won, by proving the other person wrong? It just doesn’t happen”. It just doesn’t happen. He was so right about this. Understanding comes from taking the time to listen to the other person. Once we have that, we’re better able to make an informed decision about how to move forward. If we choose to support the other person and work together, we all get a better result. If we choose to be firm in our belief and not budge, we will only create friction and potentially never achieve anything. I say potentially because there have been some disputes won by being firm in your belief. What was key, even in those instances is both parties willing to talk and resolve their differences – think of women’s rights in the UK.

One of the parts of the talk which really got me thinking was when he shared the ‘collusion box’ with us. This is what happens when we are in conflict with someone:
1) They do (something I find annoying) – e.g. Bob started ranting about a mistake a team member made
2) I feel – annoyed that my team member is getting a hard time
3) I do – I respond by blaming Bob and his team for not following the process
4) They see – evidence that this was only going to fail because of my attitude

And what happens when we get stuck in this is that it becomes a vicious cycle of bad behaviour reinforcing bad behaviour. The point at which things can change, is where you recognise that you can do something different. You don’t have to respond in a way which reinforces a negative behaviour, you have the capacity in you to make a different decision, and thereby creating something new and different.

The last thing I’d like to recount is about the importance of ‘play’. Neil helped us to remember that if you introduce games into the learning environment, you create an innate sense of not knowing, because every game is unpredictable by its very nature. I loved this, and it’s something I remain keenly aware of. Introducing the right game can increase the learning a group goes through, and can really help create solid learning. All too often though, we’re left with doing assessments and other forms of testing learning which doesn’t always work. Even worse, the work environment almost demands that games aren’t used because they’re not serious. I’ve written about this before, and how purposeful games and simulation exercises can often bring about great learning.

So there was loads from this session I enjoyed, not least the delivery from Neil himself. He is a witty, charming and intelligent gent and I thoroughly enjoy his company. You should seek him out if you want something interesting at an event of yours.

Importantly, make sure you sign up to the League of Not Knowing.