Sunday, 5 March 2017

Culture change - recognising, releasing and nurturing what is already present

I attended the HR Summit in Barcelona on 12-14 October 2016, which is a long-standing networking event that brings together suppliers and buyers of HR services.  Interspersed amongst the meetings, were a series of practitioner-led sessions and I went to a couple of the sessions that talked about culture change.

What interested me is how culture change is talked about in sessions like this.  First, a sense of something that's 'done to' rather than 'done by' people - in other words many culture change programmes are in fact doing the very opposite of what they are intended to do:  they are disempowering.  Second, that the process of change is quite formulaic and simplifies, or at least attempts to simplify, something that is, in practice, emergent and messy.  Third, that the leaders and managers of an organisation are somehow blessed with special powers to make the change happen.

Here's what I mean.  To start with, you run a series of focus groups to capture how things are working at the moment and how people are feeling.  You then identify a set of values and behaviours that describe how the future will look when the culture has been changed and from which you develop a communication and engagement process.  In their way, these communications have a kind of pious, almost cult-like, air about them, exhorting the organisation to adopt its new values and behaviours.  Into this mix is often the implementation of an expensive leadership development process targeting weary, and somewhat cynical, middle-management to lead the change. 

Approaches like this are popular because of the ways in which they first define the problem - there is a starting point - and then create a sense of action that will take us to an end point. Unfortunately, however seductive such approaches are, this is not how change works.  They take little or no account of how an organisation actually works in practice: how people talk and interact with each other and how things get done.  If a culture can in fact be changed at all, it emerges from what is already being done and has always been done.  It can be observed in the many, many taken-for-granted everyday interactions between people.  

Releasing what's already there

A few weeks ago, the reading for the day at my local church was the passage from Luke's Gospel (17: 5-6). This describes a change management problem in which Jesus' disciples ask him to increase their faith.  Jesus' response is that if you have faith like the grain of a mustard seed, you could make all kinds of extraordinary things happen.

Whatever your personal beliefs, Jesus is saying something here that is very relevant to how we might approach change in organisations.  The disciples plea to Jesus is that if you give us more, (in the biblical example it was faith, but we could replace this with skills and behaviours), we can do our work even better.   What's interesting is what happens next.  Instead of acceding to their request, he turns the question on its head and points out that it's not more faith that's required but to release what is already within themselves. 

Where does this lead us?

Whether your mission is to propagate the Gospel or something else, the point is that instead of seeing culture change as being about fixing something, perhaps we are looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope.  Maybe what's needed is to find ways that can enable people within an organisation to work together naturally and the product of which enhances what is already present.  This means looking for approaches that are practical and that can create a shared experience and ownership.  My hunch is what would emerge from this is greater individual self confidence and a clearer sense of what it means to belong in a given working environment.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Online leadership learning – does it work?

‘I feel the course was designed for me’

‘I’m not forced to learn what I don’t need’

‘I’ve gone through some of the lessons several times.  This is the best approach for responsible adults.  Leaders need to take responsibility and the learning process supports this’

‘The online courses are more challenging [than learning in the classroom]’

These aren’t my words.  They are from a manager that I’ve been mentoring as part of a leadership programme (see my blog in October), the primary content for which has been done exclusively online using off-the-shelf short courses and videos.

My reflections…

Course design

The off-the-shelf content has been very well received.  In fact, much better than I might have expected.  I was concerned that a generic treatment of topics like performance management, change management, feedback, and so on would miss the specific context for the organisation.  This has not been the case at all.  All the participants seem to have been able to see past these potential weaknesses and to be able to apply the learning in their own context.

Independent learning

The online approach has allowed the learners to make their own choices.  This is something that we’ve known about e-learning for a long time so what’s my point?  It’s that the online learning approach matches the responsibility that leaders and managers are expected to demonstrate all the time in driving performance.  To learn from the online material, learners have to engage with it, which is in stark contrast to the traditional classroom model for teaching leadership.  It’s not enough just to show up at class and complete the course evaluation form.  With the online approach the learner has to do the work.  To put it another way, no output.

Deep learning

The ability to go back over content, at the learner’s own pace, to deepen understanding, is again a feature of online learning.  What really impressed me was how seriously the individual I was mentoring took their learning.  I am certain that the online content really helped to produce deep learning through the learn-do-review process.  

The utility of the online content

In his feedback following the end of programme review, the senior manager who is sponsoring the work commented on the obvious utility of the online portal and content.   Learning portals can sometimes seem to best serve the needs of the self-starting and self-motivated.   But what my work has shown me is that by bundling resources, along with a simple programmatic structure, we can create very cost-effective learning that can deliver practical everyday value; it works.      

Monday, 26 October 2015

Note taking as a learning aid

Note taking is a critical learning skill because it helps to capture the fragments of thoughts, observations and ideas that emerge as you work and learn.  I keep a small notebook to hand at all times that I only use for my learning notes.  My notebook and my blog are central to my learning.   This post is a reflection on note-taking as a learning aid using the what? so what? now what? model.


The most influential process of learning that I have experienced was the Masters in Management Learning from Lancaster University, UK that I completed between 2006 and 2008.  The expectation to explore, inquire into and reflect on my own practice was relentless, challenging and messy - messy because the process of inquiry never followed direct pathways to 'the answer'.  It felt much more like detective work, where notes became critical ways of making connections between ideas and the means of returning to specific pages in articles and the like

So what?

I was briefing a group of team leaders recently at the kick-off of a new leadership programme that I'm supervising.   The core learning resources for the programme are online and, similar to the process that I experienced during my masters, I am expecting the participants to make notes about what they are learning and noticing as they progress. The method for this is a weekly learning report that's to be shared with a mentor and also submited to the programme office.  The latter step is there solely as a means of monitoring that the reports have been done and is not an evaluation of the content.  

The note-taking is important because I want to help them to develop the confidence to follow their own learning interests and, therefore, to be able to search for resources that will address their personal and work-based learning needs, rather than following a spoon-fed agenda.  Note-taking is also important because it's a 12 week programme at the end of which each person will need to produce a personal summary of their learning highlights and impacts.  To be effective this needs to be based on solid continuous reflection.

As I briefed the group, I thought back to how it felt to be part of a learning process that demanded a formative assignment.  In the case of the masters course, this was done via an online virtual learning environment rather than a weekly report, but regardless of the approach, I remember feeling exposed by the need to share my thoughts and unsure as to whether they were good enough, or what was expected.  If this is how I felt, and I was already a mature learner, I know that what I'm asking is quite demanding.  So to help the process I thought I would make some notes about why note taking is important and how it might be done.

Now what? 

Writing is useful because it helps you...

...notice more.  You become more aware of what is happening around you and this helps to link learning and practice.  

...get ideas and thoughts out of your head.  The process of writing allows things to be put into perspective and assessed more objectively. share ideas.  Blogging is a very public form of note-taking but even if you don't want to publish, sharing notes with fellow participants opens up the possibility of others relating to your insights and prompting their own thoughts and ideas.

Use a notebook 

By this I mean a paper notebook.  Of course, if you prefer to make notes on a tablet or laptop, then OK, but a notebook is cheap and portable and it's a handy way of making brief notes about anything that emerges from the things you read or observe.  As well as written notes, note-taking can also include pictures, mind maps, colours, cutting and pasting from newspapers - anything that helps you capture what comes to mind.

Use a smartphone to make audio notes 

I sometimes find it helpful to talk through my ideas first before writing things downAs Karl Weick, the Organizational Theorist, once said, "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?"  If there is nobody available to listen, then use the recorder on a smartphone.  

Take pictures, short videos and screen grabs

Images can be very useful to bring ideas to life, especially where you are interested in showing something about how things get done in the workplace.  

Make notes continuously

My experience is to make notes as often as you can.  An approach that I often use, which I picked up from my coaching practice, is to ask myself the questions 'what am I thinking?', 'what am I seeing?' and 'what am I feeling?'  The latter two questions can be particularly useful in tapping into other aspects of our conscious and unconscious experiences.

Review, reflect, make notes

And if you do make notes then at some stage you should go back to what you have written, reflect and, as you do so, to make more notes.

However simple the concept of note-taking may seem, I have learnt never to underestimate the challenge inherent in committing our thoughts to paper.  But my encouragement, and my experience, is that the rewards of doing so are deeper learning and greater self-confidence.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Do we need management courses? - revisited 3 years on...

One of the things that I really value about maintaining a blog is that it provides me with a reference point that can used in a number of ways.  Perhaps of most value is that it enables me to return to topics that I've reflected on in the past but which, for whatever reason, have been kicked into the long grass, laying dormant until ready to be brought back into play.

I wrote this piece called 'Do we need management courses?'  just over three years ago as a reflection on several trends that I was observing at the time. I was interested in the idea that learning practice might be shifting away from courses towards bundles of resources like videos, documents and quizzes that could act as aids to learning in situ in the workplace and not in the classroom. And alongside this was a thought-provoking presentation by John Seely Brown about the cultivation of the entrepreneurial learner. Here is the link again to his presentation. 

A movement of independent learners

When I wrote the blog 3 years ago I remember doing so with a certain wistfulness.  I could detect a shift and was interested in the challenge to the status quo but could find no immediate outlet for the ideas to be applied in my practice as a leadership developer...until that is about 2 months ago.

I'm currently working on a corporate university assignment for a global organisation the core element of which is a portal that provides a range of resources: courses, videos, PDFs, presentations, handbooks and so on.  Contained within a branded corporate university wrapper, the offer is a self-development proposition that promises to solve workplace problems, increase knowledge and provide a career builder.  To encourage participation, the period either side of the launch about 4 months ago, target users were exhorted to register through an intensive communications campaign.  The take-up has been good - approximately 75% of the target group registered in the first couple of months.  However, the challenge is to sustain the intitial interest and turn the natural curiosity of the first few weeks into something that can drive itself; indeed to create a movement of independent learners.     

Necessity is the mother of invention   


Because of challenging economic conditions, the organisation has had to make some tough choices about its spending and this has affected some traditional classroom-based management training activities.  Into this space the corporate university has been able to extend its reach and provide the resources to support development in much the same way as I wrote about 3 years ago.

One of the things I'm trialling is a management development process for a group of about 20 people, the teaching for which is entirely online.  I've put together a structure - see image above - a bundle of resources to provide some starting points and a briefing for the participants and mentors.  As the participants move through the process and grow in confidence, I am expecting them to follow their interests and create their own bundles of content.  

Support and challenge

What I have found particularly interesting so far is the reaction at the end of the participants' briefing.  Asked  whether it was what they were expecting, and after a short pause, one of the group volunteered the view that 'no' it was not what he had been expecting and that it was a lot more challenging.  Challenging because of the expectation that learners: will have to make their own time to learn; make choices, as they progress through the process, as to what they want to learn; make a commitment to share their learning with a senior manager at the end of the programme.    

But alongside this challenge, the participants can see that they are being supported in the workplace by access to a mentor - not a heavy process - but an informal advisor and someone to talk to.  And I've had feedback that the participants are really valuing the chance to revisit the content as many times as they like, or to refer to it whilst they are working.  This is such an encouraging response.  

Learning from the learning

I've been candid with the pilot group, and the senior manager who is sponsoring the programme, that what we are doing here is quite experimental.  As much as I want the programme to be successful, I am also interested to learn what works and what doesn't.  I'm also interested to gauge to what extent this approach to management development is sufficient to meet the needs of the organisation.  

My hunch is that it will work and, I hope, provide the hard evidence that this mixed resource, work-based approach is superior to the classroom.  Superior because at its heart is a learning process that encourages self-discipline, self-discovery and independence. 


Monday, 12 January 2015

Lessons on learning from the spiritual to the secular - enough is never enough

Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
From a quotation by Desmond Tutu 

The purpose of this post is to revisit a model of learning that I put together as part of some study for a coaching qualification that I completed in 2013.  The model that I produced I've called NODES in recognition of the fact that, for me, much if not all of what I learn is accomplished in relationship with others.  It emerged as a means of conceptualising a number of things that felt important to me about the process of learning: I learn with and from others, and the resposibilities of learning: if I am learning from others then I have a responsibility to be generous in sharing what I am learning.

I've embedded a link to a Slideshare presentation about NODES and the underpinning ideas, from which I have drawn, to develop the model.

From the spiritual

I want to draw attention to a conversation that I listened to in December 2014 when the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend and Rt Hon Justin Welby, was interviewed for the BBC Desert Island Discs programme.  In the conversation the presenter Kirsty Young asked the Archbishop a question about prayer:

KY "How do you know when a time of prayer has finished? How do you know when enough is enough?
JW: "I don't think enough is ever enough in prayer.  Because prayer is about engaging with Jesus Christ, us allowing his presence to shape us and to bring what is in us to him or just to enjoy his presence and there's never enough of that and certainly not in this job is there ever enough of it and so I don't think I can answer it because I don't think I've got to enough of it yet."
I thought that this was an interesting response for a number of reasons: The Archbishop was underlining the importance of relationships and inter-relationships, the need to engage in a relationship openly, whether through conversation or simply enjoying being with another person; to being open to our thoughts and feelings and to allow these thoughts to be shaped by others; to take seriously our own experience and to make it available to others so they too can use the ideas to develop their own experiences.  In sum, it was pointing the way towards what it means to be human and therefore, in the context of who was saying it, how to live in the image of God.

To the secular

From the secular domain of everyday workplace learning, here are three examples of how Rio Tinto, Xerox and LV= are solving problems by invoking the spirit and the practice of NODES. 

  • Fixing the brakes on a bulldozer: a Community of Practice (CoP) success story from Rio Tinto link

  • Mending photocopiers: an Infographic from Xerox link

  • Helping customers get the right information: a case study from LV= link 

Conclusion - enough is never enough


It is in the Archbishop's response to the question 'How do you know when enough is enough?' that I relate something of my own experience of what it means to learn with and learn from others.  From the cosmic to the commonplace, from the spiritual to the secular, it is in the work of networking with others that we create the spaces and the opportunities to learn continuously and ongoingly.  In that sense enough is never enough.


Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Learn from observing human behaviour using an 'empathy map'

I picked up this piece from the Harvard Business Review blog - Three Creativity Challenges from IDEO’s Leaders Link to HBR blog

All three of the creativity challenges are good; I know about mind-mapping and already use it regularly but the other two were new to me.  Of most interest was the third challenge - 'Learn from observing human behaviour'.

Why is this of interest?

I learn a lot from watching and listening intently to what is going on around me everyday.  In my coaching work, in particular, I pay attention to the social data emerging in the conversation. In my professional development as a coach a lot of emphasis was placed on paying attention in any conversation to what is being heard, what you see the other person doing and how all of this is making you feel.  The parallels between this and the empathy map were instantly clear.

I’m interested in observing all aspects of talk including things like pace and tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures and use of humour. I then use this social data to provide detailed observational feedback.  And in turn I have had consistent feedback about how useful this approach is.  Perhaps it's because it helps an individual to make a connection between the interaction-in-that-moment in the room, to parallel experiences happening elsewhere. 

Why it is important to management learning?

This quote from John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid describes something that reflects my own experience of management learning:

Most conventional learning theory, including that implicit in most training courses, tends to endorse the valuation of abstract knowledge over actual practice and as a result to separate learning from working and, more significantly, learners from workers. 

As I have discovered through observing managerial work, if everyday workplace practice is placed centre-stage, in other words endorsing actual practice over abstract knowledge, then what you get is lots of context-rich learning: about what actually gets done; practice that is good and bad; practice that shows what's 'in' and what's 'out' through what people talk about; practice that pays attention to who does what and how.

The 'Empathy Map'

The Empathy Map is a practical tool that can help structure the observational process.  

Here are the instructions, copied from the IDEO blog

TOOL: Empathy Map

PARTICIPANTS: Solo or groups of two to eight people

TIME: 30-90 minutes

SUPPLIES: Whiteboard or large flip chart, Post-its, and pens

  1. On a whiteboard or a large flip chart, draw a four-quadrant map. Label the sections with “say,” “do,” “think,” and “feel,” respectively.
  2. Write down each of your key observations from the field on one Post-it note and populate the “say” and “do” quadrants. Try color-coding, for example, using green Post-its for positive statements and actions, yellow for neutral, and pink or red for frustrations, confusion, or pain points.
  3. When you run out of observations (or room) in those quandrants, begin to fill the “think and” and “feel” sections with Post-its, based on the body language, tone, and choice of words you observed. Use the same color coding.
  4. Take a step back and look at the map as a whole. What insights or conclusions can you draw from what you’ve written down. What seems new or surprising? Are there contradictions or disconnects within or between quadrants? What unexpected patterns appear? What, if any, latent human needs emerge?


Whether your interest is in IDEO's use of the empathy map as an aid to creativity or as a tool to capture different aspects of everyday practice, my sense is that it offers a practical method to help pay attention to what is going on.  And from which new ideas might emerge or provide the basis for feedback.  Experience-based learning can sometimes mean taking people out of the workplace to experience different environments, e.g. learning expeditions and project assignments but it can more simply be about learning from what's going on right now in situ.  

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...