In times of crisis, we need to stop learning…

… Right?

We are joining the dots between some conversations and things we’ve been reading over the last few weeks.

Here are some headlines:

  • Businesses need to pivot, to work in lockdown and beyond
  • The need to experiment, and create, to develop innovative solutions for our current reality
  • We need to change, adapt and be agile to survive
  • Staff training and leadership development is being cancelled
  • Learning and development budgets are being slashed
  • Training will be the last thing to come out of lockdown

Really? Can you see the paradox?

The trouble is that we live in a world in which we seem to have separated learning from the every day, and yet right now learning’s exactly what we need. Every day is different, things are changing at a rapid rate, so we need to be learning and adapting now more than ever.

Just to be clear, when we talk about learning we do not mean the consumption of theory. We say this because our education systems and most traditional training is rooted in teachers /experts sharing theoretical wisdom for others to consume.

When we talk about learning we mean the fundamental human ability to develop and adapt through the process of trying things (doing), reflecting on them (reviewing), drawing conclusions (theorising) and then figuring out how to try it again, possible differently (planning).

Do you remember learning how to swim, how to ride a bike, how to drive? This is how we learn. And this is not new – David Kolb’s work on the learning cycle is decades old, the continuous improvement cycles of the quality movement are rooted in the same theory. For decades people like Peter Senge and other academics have talked about the power of learning organisations.

The issue, as we see it, is that teaching and training are firmly rooted in the consumption of content (most usually, theoretical) and is not anchored in our everyday work. Most training that goes on in organisations today is done in classroom environments, where often people are ‘sent’. At best they are acquiring knowledge and skills and might find the training thought-provoking. Another feature of workshop training is that is disconnected from the everyday reality of work. It is therefore rooted in how people think things are currently, rather than facing into and raising awareness of how things actually are playing out.

To really learn something we need to flow through all the stages of leaning described above. And it requires us to face into the reality with full awareness of how things are currently, rather than how we might think things are.

In organisations, our greatest untapped opportunity for learning and development lies in our meetings, if we meet differently.

Meetings are where we work together and make decisions together – these are where the fundamental operating assumptions that drive our organisations and society play out and, to the trained eye, we can see them. By making time to reflect and conclude we can pay attention to these mental models and do work that ensures we keep checking, learning about and choosing the mental models we work by.

  • What is it that we are working towards and are we all working together?
  • How are we including different perspectives?
  • What information are we paying attention to? And what assumptions are we making in that?
  • How are decisions actually being made?

These are just some of the dimensions of learning that are possible in meetings. Imagine how fast we could learn if we took time to do this quality of work in meetings.

Of course, the trouble at the moment is that we are in so many meetings, all focused on planning and doing that we don’t have time to think about whether what we are planning and doing is the right stuff.

Oh the irony!

Our obsession with busy-ness and feeling productive has inhibited our learning and developed generations of human’s doing instead of human beings.

We know that embarking on working this way isn’t easy for people. It disrupts many existing patterns of behaviour and can feel ambiguous and challenging. But it’s a real ‘go slow to go fast’ approach that leads to sustained learning and continual evolution in the workplace.