Thinking and learning

Sam Altman wrote something about being successful. I don’t believe there’s a single path to success but I do think the points he makes are valid and this argument he makes about thinking is good, especially as thinking, I believe, is a critical component of learning.

3. Learn to think independently

Entrepreneurship is very difficult to teach because original thinking is very difficult to teach. School is not set up to teach this—in fact, it generally rewards the opposite. So you have to cultivate it on your own.

Thinking from first principles and trying to generate new ideas is fun, and finding people to exchange them with is a great way to get better at this. The next step is to find easy, fast ways to test these ideas in the real world.

“I will fail many times, and I will be really right once” is the entrepreneurs’ way. You have to give yourself a lot of chances to get lucky.

One of the most powerful lessons to learn is that you can figure out what to do in situations that seem to have no solution. The more times you do this, the more you will believe it. Grit comes from learning you can get back up after you get knocked down.

Practice, the “Learning Loop” and peer-to-peer learning

Practice! In the wild. This story from a Harvard Business Review about peer-to-peer learning by Kelly Palmer and David Blake:

For example, when Kelly was in charge of learning at LinkedIn, her team created a peer-to-peer learning program designed around the company’s key corporate values. One section of the program focused on difficult conversations; each participant was asked to identify a real-life difficult conversation they needed to have at work (especially one they might be avoiding). They were first taught about difficult conversations (stage 1); next they practiced with each other before holding the conversations in real life (stage 2). One of the participants, John, confronted his employee Mark about his missed deadlines, a pattern which had been negatively affecting the team. The conversation did not go well — John felt awkward, and Mark got defensive. When John shared this experience with his peers in the learning group, they openly shared their views and ideas, and their own experiences of similar situations (stage 3). As everyone in the group — not just John — reflected on what they had learned, they concluded that they had all become more confident and armed with ideas about how to better handle a similar situation in the future (stage 4). Later group members indicated that their real-world difficult conversations indeed had become more productive.

The “Learning Loop” seems a sensible approach to learning:

People gain new skills best in any situation that includes all four stages of what we call the “Learning Loop”: gain knowledge; practice by applying that knowledge; get feedback; and reflect on what has been learned.

And, as an afterthought to the practice example, peer-to-peer learning seems to be a giant opportunity to improve learning in organizations.

How can management skills be improved through practice?

That’s the question I’ve been turning over in my head the last few days.

It was prompted by this Niels Pflaeging passage in a previous post:

Transforming Knowledge into Mastery is a second way of learning: the domain of “collective learning” so to say. One that requires learners to practice with each other, or to practice together with “masters“ (i.e. someone with mastery). One might say that here, you need at least two learners! This “K2M” transformation can happen in the classroom, “on the job”, by practicing problem-solving, by seeking advice, or indirect online interaction.

How can a manager practice the skills of management? I believe it starts with being cognizant that opportunities to practice exist and that practicing work skills is an actual thing that a worker can do.

Robert Schaeffer makes the case for practicing management in a Harvard Business Review article:

Skill-building requires practice. In most endeavors, those who want to improve take this as self-evident. Big tasks are routinely broken into small elements that can be worked on over and over again: scales in music, tight moguls in skiing, certain board situations in chess.

Yet this rarely happens in management, even though we must develop and integrate dozens of discrete skills. Some are almost universally required — for instance, setting goals, coordinating across units, and intervening when a subordinate’s performance is slipping. Others are job-specific, such as critiquing complex project plans and negotiating deals with suppliers and customers.

Any organization can identify the elements that matter most to its managers’ success and help people work on developing them. But a common obstacle is the way most managerial work is organized. There are few opportunities to practice critical skills because many of them are used infrequently.

He offers this advice at the conclusion: “To benefit most from practice in your organization, you’ll want to focus on tasks that can be tested quickly, that provide immediate results data, and that can be repeated and repeated. “

Transforming knowledge into mastery

Niels Pflaeging offers an interpretation of turning data into information into knowledge into mastery:

The first is transforming Data into Information. This is in the domain of “IT“ (not learning). To do this, you don’t need humans, nor are they necessarily involved.

Transforming Information into Knowledge: It is here where things get interesting as Knowledge involves humans and human activity. This “I2K” transformation is the domain of “personal, or individual learning.” Some call this “basic“ learning. Learners or students can practice this kind of learning individually, from home, online etc. When you look up something on Wikipedia, watch a TED video, read a book or article, or search for something on Google, it´s this kind of learning that occurs.

Transforming Knowledge into Mastery is a second way of learning: the domain of “collective learning” so to say. One that requires learners to practice with each other, or to practice together with “masters“ (i.e. someone with mastery). One might say that here, you need at least two learners! This “K2M” transformation can happen in the classroom, “on the job”, by practicing problem-solving, by seeking advice, or indirect online interaction.

It’s the mastery we’re after. Mastery provides us the ability to respond in complexity.

He continues: “While the first kind of learning, ‘I2K’, is sufficient to make sense and to solve known problems, the second kind is key to solving new problems, and to deal effectively with complexity. It is ‘K2M’ learning that is needed for innovation and problem-solving in dynamic markets.”

The implications for learning, he writes:

“Flat” classroom settings, instead of the “sage-on-the-stage” approach and lecturing.

“No PowerPoint, no presentation” – focusing live learning situations and classrooms on dialog, questioning and peer-to-peer exchange and using flip charts and other devices to let the content emerge throughout the interaction.

“Knowledge acquisition ahead” – pre-readings, online learning, and online media complement the presentation setting, ideally ahead of the live learning encounter.

“Reflection on learning” at the end of each cycle, not knowledge testing, knowledge grading, or exams that get in the way of learning.

… and more.

I copied and pasted liberally here so you should read the full article. Also consider buying his book Organizing for Complexity.

Learning about learning

This tweet appeared in my timeline.

It was similar to tweets from Niels in the past that had sent me down a thinking path: Why is learning at work so bad? How can learning at work be better?

So I sent him a tweet and he responded:

The article is great and I’ve started reading Jose Bowen’s Teaching Naked. I enjoyed this video of him discussing Teaching Naked with academics as well:

How do people make decisions in your organization?

If you don’t understand how people make decisions in your organization, you will never be able to influence them.

Erika Hall

Sage advice from Mule Design co-founder Erika Hall. It’s from her article “Research Questions Are Not Interview Questions” and it’s about doing design research well, a skill necessary for success in just about any job.

Another great nugget:

Your research question and how you phrase it determines the success and utility of everything that follows. If you start with a bad question, or the wrong question, you won’t end up with a useful answer. We understand this in daily life, but talking about research in a business context seems to short-circuit common sense. Everyone is too worried about looking smart in front of each other.

What’s wrong with learning and development?

I believe it’s a simple diagnosis.

Learning and development programming is created for the purposes of the department and the people leading those programs. This is not their fault, of course, because this self-inflicted problem exists for the same reasons anything exists in a corporate environment: the need to demonstrate value. 

And what better way to demonstrate value than to create a dashboard tabulating this year’s learning and development events, participants, and some type of ROI measurement?

That’s easy! Make learning and development valuable to the people it’s intended to support: learners!

The situation reminds me of a concept in McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise that has stuck with me since I read it. He writes about the idea of service and how staff (HR, IT, L&D, planning, etc.) should exist to serve the operation and managers should ask staff for help when they need it.

Most organizations operate in the opposite direction. Executives decide that a leadership development program should exist. The Learning & Development Department creates it. Then the executives and the L&D leadership “sell” the program to participants whose interest ranges from indifferent to moderate.

Even for a great salesperson, it’s difficult to make a sale to a disinterested buyer.

McGregor writes about management development staff: “The help it will be prepared to give will seldom take the form of detailed formal procedures or canned training courses. It will be help to managers—individually or collectively—in finding and utilizing whatever means will best meet their needs.”

He goes on, “Programs and procedures do not cause management development, because it is not possible to “produce” managers the way we produce products. We can only hope to “grow” them, and growth depends less on the tools we use than on the environment which is created.” 

Here Be Dragons

A tiny, copper globe in the bowels of the New York Public Library holds one of the world’s most famous warnings: “HC SVNT DRACONES.”

For centuries it served as a cartographical cautionary idiom for the explorers pushing the boundaries of the known world. It meant, in effect, that just around the corner could be disaster.

A dragon! Surprise!

It sounds a little like what the map of a healthcare administration career might look like today. Get to the edges of change and watch out: there could be dragons.

Figuratively that is. Because in reality dragons are a myth and so is the fabled “Here Be Dragons” sentiment built by centuries of imaginations and the very real sea creature drawings of medieval mapmakers. 

But I love the analogy. 

Work is filled with surprise as a result of complexity. 

Surprise, however, is not our problem. We know it’s coming. The trouble, in my estimation, is our our inability to respond to it. We’re relying on a (hypothetical) map full of (proverbial) unexplored territory with no cautionary cartographical warnings of (metaphorical) dragons.

I believe to be successful as an administrator and to contribute to the success of an organization we need to be ready for the dragons.

So here it is: Here Be Dragons.