You can take the leader out of the system…(no really, you can)

close up photography of yellow green red and brown plastic cones on white lined surface

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In the past few weeks there have been a number of high profile leadership moves in the Australian business world. Last week the CEO of Blackmores resigned with the board flagging the need for “transformational change” from his replacement while media veteran Ita Buttrose has been made chairperson of the ABC. What is perhaps most interesting about this, to me anyway, is that the media coverage and assumptions underpinning these moves highlight an outdated view of leadership and leading. Let me explain. First, a short trip through the history of leadership theory.

For much of human history leaders have been thought of in terms of heredity. Think Kings and other inherited titles. Over time this was expanded to military power (often also drawn from the elites) and the power of the church. Looking at leadership through this lens is what is often called trait theory which posits that leaders are born and not made. If leadership is a trait or set of traits then they cannot be taught and so one is born to lead. This made a lot of sense when one was indeed born to rule based on who one’s parents were. Onwards into the industrial revolution and first world war however and people began recognising a need for more and better leaders and so a theoretical shift occurred towards behavioural theory. Behavioural approaches to leadership argue that leadership is a set of behaviours that can be taught but that some people might be naturally better at than others. You may recognise this approach if you have ever gone on a leadership training program. Leaders need to be visionaries, good communicators, etc. Over time there has been a greater recognition that leadership can be influenced by context (situational approaches) and also the personality of the leader (charismatic and transformational approaches). All of these approaches to leadership focus on the leader as central to business and government. Not only is this unfair to the individuals who can’t be all things to all people, it fails to take into account a more nuanced view of organisations taken from complexity approaches.

Anyone who has read this blog before knows that I am an unashamed advocate for the insights that complexity approaches offer for understanding organisations and so it will come as no surprise that I think it applies to leading and leadership too. I’ve had the chance to think through these issues as a long-time L&D person but also in teaching the subject Leading Learning at UTS where we explore contemporary approaches to leading. I’ve written on this topic before here and here where I questioned whether our traditional ways of developing leaders were appropriate in complex organisational contexts.

In this post, I want to introduce the idea that leaders should not be positioned as central to organisational success. What I mean by that is that if you look at contemporary approaches to leading – such as complexity, practice theory or postmodern approaches – they take a systemic view of organisations. If we accept that organisations are systems then you also need to accept the premise that placing so much expectation on one person to be the visionary, the model citizen, the strategist, and everything else expected of “the leader” is pointless as it is the interactions within the system between people/people, people/things, people/spaces, etc. which shape the system. This is why, I strongly suspect, attempts at culture and procedural change are often very difficult to shift even with a change of leader. A leader may be a public figurehead for an organisation but in reality has little control over how the organisation runs and the practices which hold behaviours and attitudes in place. Indeed, I have seen research using social network analysis which has shown that CEOs are often some of the worst connected, most isolated people in the social networks of organisations.

Emergence and unpredictability are core elements of complex adaptive organisations yet we continue to approach management and leadership in the same mechanistic way as we have since the days of the industrial revolution. Leaders are a part, and a product, of the overlapping organisational systems that they are a part of. Leaders therefore need to be treated and developed to have a systems mindset, a commitment to flexibility and adaptability, and a sense of their interdependent place in the whole rather than as a “first among equals”.

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Interrogating innovation

New is always better

My life seems to be all about innovation at the moment. I’ve been teaching Designing Innovative Learning and Evaluating Learning and Innovation this semester, worked on a winter school intensive program last July called Leading Innovation, and hearing about innovation seemingly every time I turn on the TV or walk into an organisation. It is, in short, very much the zeitgeist. The focus on innovation is understandable. The world is moving faster than ever and advances in technology and ways of collaborating have made people acutely aware of the need to continually learn and adapt. Innovation appears to have fulfilled this need by offering a way forward through the seeming chaos. A toolbox of methods and a mindset shift which made it OK to come up with new ideas and try new things.

Innovation can be a slippery concept to define. What strikes me more is that when I hear people, such as employees or students, talk about innovation there is no interrogation of what the term means in general or within a specific context. I see this as problematic. On the one hand, perhaps it is just something that we all know when we see it. On the other hand, however, a lack of clear and universally accepted definitions of innovation and innovating provides cracks through which good intentions can fall. But what is meant by innovation? What does innovation look like? Often the discourses around innovation are around the tools, but what exactly does it mean to innovate?

To try to answer this question I designed an activity for my Designing Innovative Learning classes this semester to try and start a conversation about the nature of innovation using music as a discussion stimulus. Yes, music. Music and musicians are often touted as being innovative. Artists such as David Bowie, Lady Gaga, and Queen are often described as being innovative but what is it that makes them so?

Before our first class, I ask students to think about a piece of music which they see as being innovative. Then, they need to post a clip of the music to the class online discussion board and explain why they chose that piece of music. What is it about that piece of music that is innovative to them? This is the interesting part. Student choices range from classical music to 80’s pop but they all had two things in common. Firstly, a key theme which emerged was that the class overwhelmingly saw innovation as putting existing things together in new ways to make something new for a particular time and place. The time and place part is important because it ties into the second theme which was that innovation is context and individually specific. What is innovative to one person, time, or place may not be to another. I think that this is important and not often considered. Everyone has different experiences and expectations influence their opinions – these need to be taken into account with innovations as much as anything else. The other interesting thing about using music as a stimulus for discussion is that it forced the students to move beyond how we innovate to discuss what is innovative. It also required students to move beyond the usual discussion of innovation of being the preserve of technology and discuss it more at a conceptual level.

At the end of the activity I then created a Spotify playlist which I used throughout the semester in class. It never failed to remind the students of the key themes we discussed in the first class or to get them talking again – even if it was just to discuss the relative merits of 1980s power ballads 🙂

You can listen to the playlist here and judge the selections for yourself. Innovative or not? What piece of music or artist would you say is innovative and why?

An Astronaut’s guide to learning

Space Oddity

Photo sourced from http://thewordofward.co.uk/chris-hadfield-the-making-of-the-space-oddity-video/

Over the summer I’ve (finally) been catching up on some reading and stumbled across a gem called An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Colonel Chris Hadfield. Col. Hadfield was an astronaut for over twenty years and commanded the International Space Station. His book details his journey to becoming an astronaut, something he wanted since he saw the first moon landing as a child, as well as lessons he learned along the way.

So what has this got to do with learning? One of the things I found most interesting about the book was how much of an astronaut’s time is spent learning and training – in fact, the vast majority of their time. In a twenty year career, Col. Hadfield went into space just three times. The rest of the time was spent training to be in space, troubleshooting for other astronauts, helping work through technical problems being experienced in orbit, and developing new tools and procedures to be used in the future to make space travel safer and more efficient. Most days, he notes, they train and take classes as well as sit many exams for which they often study on the weekends. On top of all of that, a key part of their service is having ground jobs supporting other astronaut’s missions which are also crucial for developing their own skills.

There are three key lessons I’d like to focus on from the book in this post. First is the role of reflection in astronaut training. Second is how how NASA created and facilitated a rich learning culture for their staff. Third is how Col. Hadfield went about planning the learning he needed throughout his career which often involved planning ahead many steps into an uncertain future.

Reflection

An absolutely key part of learning for astronauts was reflection-in-action as they undertook tasks as well as reflection-on-action after completing a task, mission, or simulation. Often this took the form of detailed debriefing sessions with all of the key stakeholders. These open and frank conversations and reflections were, Hadfield notes, at times painful but always important and helpful. He describes them as being key to operational and organisational success. My last blog post discussed the importance of reflection and I don’t think that it’s importance, particularly in contexts of uncertainty and “fluid work” (Lizier, 2017) can be overstated. The ability to reflect on our day-to-day work is key to learning through work but how can organisations encourage and reward reflection?

NASA as a “learning organisation”

The concept of the learning organisation (Senge, 1990) has been a popular one over nearly thirty years but not without criticisms (e.g. Fenwick, 2001; Caldwell, 2005). I have mixed opinions about learning organisations but, reading Chris Hadfield’s descriptions of NASA, I immediately thought of the learning organisation concept. In particular, the type of environment and culture that NASA created which supported and facilitated learning. First was a general expectation that everyone was learning all of the time. In addition, “everyone at NASA is a critic” as Chris Hadfield says. This is important to extract maximum learning opportunities from every situation. One quote from the book (p. 79) particularly stuck with me:

“At NASA, we’re not just expected to respond positively to criticism, but to go one step further and draw attention to our own missteps and miscalculations. It’s not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that make them look foolish or incompetent. Management has to create a climate where owning up to mistakes is permissible and colleagues have to agree, collectively, to cut each other some slack.”

The last sentence in particular made me think. It made me think of working in organisations were they talked a good game about learning and encouraging innovation, experimentation, and risk taking but, ultimately, it was all just talk. People didn’t feel safe to make those criticisms or have open and honest conversations. At NASA their lives may depend on it and so it is OK to be learner at NASA, something that researchers (Boud & Solomon, 2003) have found is challenging for many people and organisations. There are key questions here for managers and learning practitioners: how are you supporting risk taking, experimentation, and innovation? Is it truly encouraged or are you just paying lip-service? What processes do you have in place to really, critically, debrief projects and tasks?

Career planning

The final point I want to discuss in this post is how Col. Hadfield prepared for his career by looking ahead and thinking about what skills might be needed in the future. As he notes, the requirements for astronauts change over time making skills obsolete. For example, the Space Shuttle program required skilled pilots who could fly the most complicated ship on earth for short periods of time whereas now astronauts and cosmonauts fly in a largely automated vehicle called a Soyuz. Col. Hadfield was particularly skilled at looking at what was happening and reacting to trends that he could see shaping the future.

That didn’t mean that he’d be right. He could be training for something that he would never have to do but it would mean that he’d be ready to take up opportunities as they arose. He emphasises this point, that, to take opportunities, you need to be prepared all of the time. An example of this is that he speaks fluent Russian and has been learning it for around 15-20 years. When he started learning Russian there was no formal announcement that space launches would move to Russia but he could see some key trends and wanted to be prepared. Turns out he was right and he was then ready to take opportunities to work at the charmingly named Star City (no relation to our not so charming edifice in Sydney) near Moscow.

Since this is the time of year when people are starting to think about (heaven help us) Development Plans for the coming year, this is a point worth making. We often ask people to think about their next role or where they want to be in five years but in current contexts of flux and change is that really going to work anymore? Perhaps it’s better to look around at key trends in your field and think ahead to the sorts of skills that would be broadly useful in the future rather than focusing on one or two specific roles which may not exist by the time you get there. For example, for learning practitioners, e-learning and augmented reality are becoming more influential along with STEM skills more generally. I’m planning on starting to learn some basic coding this year to fill that gap in my knowledge. I don’t think I’ll ever be a coder but at least I will have an awareness of what it entails and the key steps involved. I’ve also recently finished an online course about designing e-learning.

So, learning like an astronaut. I highly recommend the book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth as both an interesting read and a chance for learning geeks to really geek-out by reading about a true lifelong learner. It speaks to current key areas of lifelong learning and learning throughout one’s career as well as learning through work. You may also want to check out this video which made Col. Hadfield famous 🙂

 

References

Boud, D., & Solomon, N. (2003). “I don’t think I am a learner”: Acts of naming learners at work. Journal of Workplace Learning, 15(7), 326-331

Caldwell, R. (2005) Leadership and Learning: A Critical Reexamination of Senge’s Learning Organization, Systemic Practice and Action Research, 18(4), 335-434

Fenwick, T. (2001) Questioning the concept of the learning organization. In Paechter, C., Preedy, M., Scott, D. & Soler, J. (Eds), Knowledge, Power, and Learning (Ch. 6, 74-88). Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd: London

Hadfield, C. (2013) An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Pan Books: London

Lizier, A.L. (2017) Investigating work and learning in complex adaptive organisations. Journal of Workplace Learning,

Senge, P (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Century Business: London

Reflections past and future

happy-new-year-1063797_1920

Happy new year! It’s taken until New Years Day to get back to writing after a whirlwind end of the year. Having looked at my email this morning after a short hiatus its predictably full of goal setting advice for the year ahead and breathless exhortations to sign up for online programs to organise my home, lose weight, get fit, get focused….yeah…no…pass the last of the Christmas chocolate.

This is definitely a reflective time of year with the end of one year and the promise of a fresh start for the next. It’s also perhaps the first time in a long while that, if you’re anything like me, you’ve had a chance to just sit still and create some space to reflect. Reflection is something that has long interested me, mainly because of its critical importance to learning. In a world where it is “a truth universally acknowledged” that we learn primarily through “doing”, through experiences and interacting with others. But how does one realise that rich learning? Answer – reflection. Taking some time to think about what you learned from an experience, good or bad. The importance of reflection in learning, particularly at work, is also well theorised in the literature but perhaps not practised as much as it should be in the workplace.

If you’re in a reflective mood at this time of year, have you thought about taking some time to reflect on what you learned in 2017? Often we focus on what we achieved (or didn’t) but how often do you reflect on what you learned outside of a more formal performance review at work? It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I come to the end of my PhD journey. What have I learned from the experience – about workplace and organisational learning, research, and myself? Importantly, what have I learned that I can apply in other contexts? I’ll write more about my learning from the PhD later on but these are useful questions for everyone. In general I think I’d say that in 2017 I learned how to take on feedback in a far more productive way to improve the quality of my work. I also learned, through my sewing hobby, that I can, and should, take chances on new projects that will stretch my skills rather than staying within my comfort zone. Through my sewing hobby I also reinforced to myself the importance of building physical and virtual communities to support my learning and keep me motivated to push forwards which I want to adopt more in my professional practice in 2018.

The flip-side of reflecting on what you’ve learned is to then think about what you hope to learn in the next year. This can seem a bit trite, again somewhat tainted from poor or ineffective experiences of “annual development plans” at work. It’s important to think ahead though. If you consider it, if we learn primarily from experience, what sorts of experiences would you like to have in the coming year and what are you hoping to learn from these? For me, I’m looking forward to consolidating my learning from this year and getting more experience of academic writing (a pretty specific writing genre) as well as the aforementioned building learning communities in my professional practice. I’m also planning on spending more time on my hobbies and returning to some old interests now that I have some more time in order to recover old skills and build new ones.

For those of you who manage other people, it’s also useful to think about how you can facilitate learning through experiences and then reflection to help consolidate that learning. How can you get “out of the way” and let people learn and experience new things? How can you encourage reflection as a normal part of learning and working? This doesn’t have to be detailed or about making people keep learning journals. It can be as simple as asking someone what they learned and how they can apply that to their professional practice in the future.

So, go forth and reflect! Have a wonderful 2018!

 

References

Cressey, P. and Boud, D. (2006). The emergence of productive reflection. In Boud, D.,Cressey, P. and Docherty, P. (Eds.).Productive Reflection at Work: Learning for Changing Organisations. London: Routledge, 11-26  [accessed Jun 10, 2017]. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298704301_The_emergence_of_productive_reflection.

The song must further the story

At present, I have the tremendous good fortune to be spending a few days visiting a friend in Honolulu – I know, life’s tough. On the way over on the flight from Sydney I couldn’t get this song from the Disney movie Moana out of my head.

For those of you who don’t have small children, you may be blessedly unaware of this song…until now. You’re welcome for the ear-worm!

Having this song on infinite repeat for around 9 hours reminded me of a saying attributed to Walt Disney which I used in a workshop a few weeks ago. The workshop was part of a research project I’m involved in with the RAAF and myself and my colleagues were facilitating a workshop about the use of blended learning tools in learning design. One of the participants asked how to select the right tools for the job which prompted me to remark that Walt Disney once said that the songs in Disney movies are not just there for the music but they must also be there to further the story. The clip above from Moana is a good example of this. In the song, Maui, the demi-God of the wind and sky, sings a song with gives his back story and legend for viewers who are not familiar with it in a catchy, fast, and easy to understand way through the song.

In the same way, the tools that we use when designing learning initiatives must also “tell the story” of the learning. Often the new and shiny blended or online learning tool (Kahoots anyone?) is used because it’s just there, or it’s exciting, or managers want it used maybe because they’ve paid a lot for it). It’s important to stop at such points in the learning design process and ask how that tool or approach will further the learning goals – how does it help you to tell your learning story? If it doesn’t push your learning story forward, do you need it? Is there something similar but more effective that you could use instead? The tools that you select may be catchy and appeal to learners initially, but their enthusiasm may pall once they realise that there is an activity or tool there more for the sake of it than for any real pedagogical benefit. Effective learning design should help the learners meet their learning goals in the most coherent and engaging way possible, whether or not the tools used are new and shiny. What you end up with may not necessarily be Shiny but it may well do a better job for the learners.

Can you build a learning community or must it grow?

Last weekend, I found myself at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. This area was built in the early 2000s on the site of the old Sydney Showground. It was designed to be a new recreation and entertainment hub for eastern Sydney but last Saturday, when I saw the empty shops and not that many people, I was reminded of an invited presentation I gave at a professional conference many years ago about whether you can artificially create communities of practice or whether they need to grow organically. My presentation argued that, although you can create a learning and networking community, it needs a lot of guidance and facilitation to be kept up and running. In contrast, in my experience, a community which has grown organically through a particular project, learning need,m or professional affiliation tends to be more self-sufficient.

Using the title “community of practice” is somewhat problematic since it has multiple meanings in current work and learning practice. On the one hand there is the original meaning proposed in the theory of peripheral participation by Lave and Wenger (1991). The original learning theory argues that a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and learn through regular interaction. Lave and Wenger (1991) go on to say that the way in which people learn is through participation in multiple communities where they are at first “peripheral” in that they are on the margins of the group, learning how it works, learning basic skills and so on. As people learn they become more and more part of the group. The community is just as much about how the community interacts and the norms of the group as it is about the learning aspect. Communities of practice have also been widely adopted in corporate learning and development as a less formal learning approach which is more social and better aligned with how learning really occurs at work (i.e. through participation). Such groups are often (though not always) started by the learning and development or HR team as part of the broader organisational learning strategy (often 70:20:10 but more on that in a later post). This means that the groups are not necessarily “owned” by the participants but by L&D. This is not necessarily a problem unless the participants are not seeing value in it or the original convener leaves the organisation at which point it generally fizzles out.

So back to my original question, can you build communities of practice or do they need to grow organically? My own research offers a potential answer to this. In my PhD research, I found that social networks were a key part of working and learning in contemporary organisations. These networks were both within and outside of organisations and tended to follow professional groups (e.g. HR, finance, IT, engineering). Basically, people form their own communities of practice as they move through their careers, and technology, specifically social media, has enabled this to an even greater extent. I think that an issue emerges when organisations attempt to co-opt networks or manipulate networks to meet organisational ends. This is not necessarily conducive to learning and may very well be completely counter-productive. In an excellent study examining exactly that, Boud, Rooney & Solomon (2009) investigated how a local council in Sydney, Australia had attempted to “formalise” everyday learning practices of council workers. One example from the study is “toolbox talks” between field workers at the council. Workers would often meet informally to chat about their work, swap stories – effectively, to network. This might be a chat when they ran into each other or an arrangement for a few workers to meet for lunch in a local park. The compliance unit (does anyone else hear alarm bells when you read that phrase?) then decided to formalise these chats and call them “toolbox talks” which the workers did not discuss in the same way and noted how the experience went from something that was informal and part of their everyday practices to something formal that “needed to be diarised”. Although management had the best intentions, their intervention did not engender the same benefits as the social and informal learning behaviours that they had wanted to foster. This is an excellent example of something I see often, the desire to formalise practices either to measure them more effectively or try to somehow capture their benefits. In contemporary organisations which are widely accepted to be in a state of flux and change, I would question the efficacy of such interventions into everyday practices when we have little idea of the outcome. As learning practitioners, we need to be very careful about co-opting everyday practices and become more adept at getting out of the way to allow organic networking and social learning to occur. We need to question our motives for intervening and be certain that there is benefit to be found in formalising something which may be working perfectly well already.

References

Boud, D., Rooney, D., & Solomon, N. (2009). Talking up learning at work: Cautionary tales in co-opting everyday learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28(3), 323-334. doi:10.1080/02601370902799077

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

What has Adriano Zumbo got to do with workplace learning?

I am the first to admit that I’m a bit of a “procrasti-baker” – I will happily bake while everything else goes to rack and ruin. As part of my obsession I’ve been watching a new TV show recently called Zumbo’s Just Desserts which pits amateur dessert makers against one another in a competition which also asks them to face regular challenges of making the devilishly difficult desserts of pastry chef extraordinaire, Adriano Zumbo.

As some might have noticed, one of my other obsessions is learning.  Specifically, how people learn at work. While I was watching the show the other night I started thinking about learning through work which I’ve been writing and talking about a lot lately in my PhD dissertation (nearly there!) and in the Designing Innovative Learning course I teach at UTS. The vast majority of research in the field of workplace learning tends to agree that learning at work tends to happen through the practice of work rather than separate from it in educational institutions or other “formal” courses. Experience, our own or vicariously from the experiences of others, is the single biggest way that most of us learn anything.

Obviously the contestants on the Zumbo TV show have learned through experience, through the trial and error of enthusiasts who are entirely self motivated. At one point, as they worked on replicating a challenging recipe of Zumbo’s I thought about his training.  The hard yards that he spent as an apprentice from his teens, all of the years gaining work experience around the world, and starting his own business. The winner of this contest, like the similar show Masterchef, seems to somehow circumvent this.  They win money, an entrée into work experience with famous chefs in the field, and so on. A short-cut if you will.  I started to wonder, is this fair?  Pastry chefs, along with many other professions, work hard to gain their qualifications and often at unsociable hours.  Is it fair that some hobbyist who was pottering about their kitchen gets all the glory?

More thinking ensued.  Bet you didn’t think that watching a cooking show, ostensibly to relax, could get so deep!

I needed to take a deep breath and remind myself that there is no “right” way to learn something and chastised myself for falling into the trap of creeping credentialism – the idea that learning hasn’t happened unless you have some sort of piece of paper or have done the “hard yards” to “deserve it”.  Nonsense!  This is exactly the sort of thinking that has got organisations into trouble for years.  Thinking that the only learning worth mentioning  must be trackable and measurable – generally a good, old-fashioned course.  How many managers or learning practitioners would (or should) welcome enthusiastic, self-directed, motivated learners who direct their own learning out of interest?  But is this what we reward?  Is this what we foster in making sure that everyone does the same sheep dip training sessions?  Organisations could learn a lot from the enthusiastic self starters on Zumbo’s Just Desserts.  How many of these motivated learners lurk within our organisations now but we’re not enabling them?

So, good luck to the contestants on reality cooking shows. Your learning is just as valid as the world’s top pastry chefs.  As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating!