Is Your Ambition Putting You to Sleep?

27 Mar

Excerpted from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa (1973), pages 69-70.

There is the story of the great Tibetan teacher, Marpa. When Marpa first met his own teacher, Naropa, Naropa created an alter which he said was the embodiment of the wisdom of a particular heruka. Both the shrine and Naropa contained tremendous spiritual energy and power, and Naropa asked Marpa to which one he would prostrate in order to experience the sudden realization of enlightenment. Marpa, being a scholar, considered that the guru lives in the flesh, an ordinary human body, while his creation, the altar, is a pure body of wisdom, having nothing to do with human imperfection. So Marpa prostrated to the shrine. And then Naropa said, “I am afraid your inspiration is going to fade. You have made the wrong choice. This shrine is my creation, and without me the shrine would not be here at all. The issue of human body versus wisdom body is irrelevant. The great display of the mandala was merely my creation.”

This story illustrates the principle of dream, hope, wish, as self-deception. As long as you regard yourself or any part of your experience as the “dream come true,” then you are involved in self-deception. Self-deception seems always to depend upon the dream work, because you would like to see what you have not yet seen, rather that what you are now seeing. You will not accept that whatever is here now is what is, nor are you willing to go on with the situation as it is. Thus, self-deception always manifest itself in terms of trying to create or recreate a dream work, the nostalgia of the dream experience. And the opposite of self-deception is just working with the facts of life.

If one searches for any kind of bliss or joy, the realization of one’s imagination and dream, then, equally, one is going to suffer failure and depression. This is the whole point: a fear of separation, the hope of attaining union, these are not just manifestations of or the actions of ego or self-deception, as if ego were somehow a real thing which performed certain actions. Ego is the actions, the mental events. Ego is the fear of losing openness, the fear of losing the egoless state. This is the meaning of self-deception, in this case – ego crying that is has lost the egoless state, its dream of attainment. Fear, hope, loss, gain – these are the on-going actions of the dream of ego, the self-perpetuating, self-maintaining structure which is self-deception.

So the real experience, beyond the dream world, is the beauty and color and excitement of the real experience of now in everyday life. When we face things as they are, we give up the hope of something better. There will be no magic, because we cannot tell ourselves to get out of our depression. Depression and ignorance, the emotions, whatever we experience, are all real and contain tremendous truth. If we really want to learn and see the experience of truth, we have to be where we are. The whole thing is just a matter of being a grain of sand.

 

 

The End of Leadership Development?

28 Feb

I have a radical hypothesis. I think it’s possible that the real reason leadership development (LD) programs fail is because we don’t actually need them. Now, experts would have us believe that there are tactical reasons why our LD efforts fail (see here), but I suspect that a small problem got worse when we created an industry around it. For someone like me, who makes a living on being a LD expert, this isn’t easy to admit. But, like any addiction, the first step to recovery is accepting that we have a problem. Let me explain.

Leadership development is a $170 billion dollar industry with organizations spending about $14 billion annually (see here and here). This investment isn’t surprising given our need for new forms of leadership to cope with the increasing globalization and technological change (here). In fact, going back to the 1940’s, LD has always been about teaching individuals how to adapt to their environment (here). Fast forward to today, 70 years later, and we are starting to realize that our billions might not be buying us very much.

Recent studies found that only about 25% of organizations think their leadership development programs are effective (here). Additionally, leadership quality ratings, which have never been very high, have not improved since 2006. In fact, only 18% of HR professionals feel their companies have the quality of leaders needed to run their companies three years out (here). It gets worse because organizations with the worst LD programs spent 60% more money on them (here). Even if you are highly skeptical of these statistics and you exclude any single report, the collective data tells a compelling story: the quality of leaders isn’t great and leadership development isn’t helping.

What is happening? Well, I think the problem starts with our assumptions about leadership. Our management model comes directly from the industrial revolution. Despite all of the technological innovations that have occurred in the last 100 years, management technology, if we can think of it as a technology, is out of date. Like the combustion engine, it’s a technology that has largely stopped evolving. Our command-and-control management is being radically challenged by decentralization, free agency, and mobile technologies (read this, this, this, this, and maybe this too). These changes require us to radically rethink LD itself. In short, I think we should do four things:

  • Focus on performance support. Performance support tools that give access to internal databases and reports might not be as sexy as a three-day retreat, but putting the most relevant information in employee’s hands at the right time will do a lot for leadership performance…even if it means we are less involved. In fact, my research on mobile leadership development (see here) shows that performance support currently makes up about 96% of all mobile leadership apps. I would expect that trend to extend beyond mobile applications.
  • Maximize traditional approaches. Despite the hype about e-learning and mobile learning, traditional face-to-face programs won’t go away (see here). Programs are more than just gaining information. They provide access to new networks, structured learning environments, and career-advancing credentials. All of which are inherent advantages over e-learning platforms. And if performance support tools replace some skill-based training, in-person programs can leverage their natural advantages.
  • Teach new leadership models. The nature of leadership is changing and we to tell people. The rise of the “network leader” shifts power to the person who is most relevant not the person with the most formal authority (see here). Everyone will need personal branding, knowledge management, and iterative project management skills. These new competencies can support the development of others. Just like an evolutionary algorithm, they are self-perpetuating practices that get us out of trying to predict what employees need to know.
  • Embed developmental processes. Take a play from the iterative approaches like Design Thinking, Agile development, and Lean Start-up and focus on adaptation. This shift from programs to processes means less reliance on LD programs, because individuals and teams have embedded learning processes. Examples of these include GE’s Workout process, the Army’s After Action Reviews, and Integrative Decision Making. By embedding learning processes into the DNA of the organization or team, leadership development becomes an implicit part of the work itself.

Globalization and technology are radically changing the nature of leadership and learning. We need to make some big adjustments and I think it’s possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is not just to create new programs, but to change our assumptions about LD itself.

Four Problems with Action Learning (and lots of other methodologies)

19 Feb

There are a lot of group-process methods out there, but I’ve always had a soft spot for something called “action learning.” If you don’t know anything about it, I don’t blame you. In fact, not knowing isn’t the problem…the problem is people assuming they know, but they actually have no idea what you’re talking about. Having been involved in action learning for many years (and becoming a certified coach, and writing my dissertation on it), I can say, with some authority, that there are some problems.

The problems though are not with the method. I love the method. I think it’s great. (learn more here). The problems are with how we talk about action learning. In fact, I think there are four overlapping issues with action learning that I want to share. I think many of these issues are shared with other methodologies as well.

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The first problem is the roller coaster problem. I call it the roller coaster problem because no matter how many words I put to describing what riding a roller coaster feels like, you still won’t really know what it is like until you experience it. The solution to this problem is almost always to have people participate in a program themselves. Obviously, this makes it hard to spread the word about action learning. All we can do is spread the experience. In fact, usually we’d always provide a demonstration whenever we are introducing an audience to the concept. Obviously, this doesn’t make it easier to share the power of action learning outside of word-of-mouth, which so far has worked pretty well (….so far….).

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The second problem is what I call the “Michael Jordan” problem. The image above has two absolutely true statements. Michael Jordan loves basketball AND Michael Jordan never played a single day in the NBA. How is that possible? Well, that’s because…

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Yes, in fact, the Michael Jordan I was referring to was Michael Hakim Jordan. Michael-Hakim Jordan was unfortunate in that his name is shared by the greatest basketball player of all time. No doubt this has caused a lot of confusion and teasing for him, in fact in 2010 he officially changed his name. Well, unfortunately “action learning” cannot change its name so easily. But like Michael-Hakim Jordan, action learning was born with a name that has caused a lot of confusion. Reg Revans coined the phrase “action learning” in the 1940s to describe the process he was using, but since then the words “action” and “learning” are used so much that they’ve lost their resonance. Personally, I don’t think that the Michael Jordan problem is not going away. “Action learning” simply doesn’t catch your ear. So there is a branding issue that I think the World Institute of Action Learning helps resolve, but the issue remains. From previous experience, people often think of “Active learning” or “project learning” when they hear “Action learning,” which just causes all sorts of confusion.

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The third problem is what I call, “the two rabbits problem.” This applies to action learning because the methodology does two things simultaneously….it improves learning AND it improves performance. This is a good thing, but clients aren’t usually accustomed to that type of methodology. They tend to think that an intervention is EITHER a problem solving tool for business results and innovation OR it is a learning and development tool. It can be difficult to convince them that the real value in action learning is not just that it does BOTH of these things….but that it does both of these things simultaneously. On a more practical level, decisions about purchasing innovation interventions versus leadership development interventions are often made by two different people.

My solution to this problem is based on observation….and it’s the same advice I would give the hunter in the situation….he needs to pick one of the rabbits. In this case, I suggest that you should start with learning and development. This may be because learning and development is more of my area than say “business process improvement,” or “design thinking,” but from what I’ve seen you can position action learning as a comparable learning intervention to instructor-led training courses, case-studies, coaching, and other leadership development interventions.

Now, there are plenty of examples of “business action learning” or problem-focused action learning in which the purpose is solely to create new ideas and solutions. In this approach learning is often considered a secondary outcomes or not considered at all. That is fine too. It just depends on who is using it and what they are trying to achieve. I would argue that the true value proposition of action learning, as compared to other problem-based or project-based learning approaches, is much easier to describe when you are talking about organizational development or leadership development interventions. Although I should note that, historically, research bears out that balancing learning and problem-solving tends to yield better results for BOTH rather than focusing on just one.

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Finally, we have the “Frosted Flakes” problem. In the early 20th Century, ready-to-eat cereals were developed as a health food to replace heavy breakfast foods like sausage, eggs, coffee, and biscuits. They were to help patients recover in hospitals, but over time they developed into sugar-coated treats for kids. The Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek Michigan, who helped developed the ready-to-eat cereal wrestled with this issue from the very beginning. People want to be healthy but they also want something that tastes good. John Harvey decided to develop the medicinal cereals, while his brother, William decided to purpose the commercial market by adding sugar and flavor.

This same dynamic shows up in action learning. Action learning can be a transformative practice, but not everyone or every organization is ready for transformation. Change…especially significant change doesn’t necessarily taste very good. It requires vulnerability and discomfort. It may require you to challenge some deeply held assumptions. So, we try to sweeten it up. So, we take the real, unique, and powerful value of action learning and we “sugar it down”…by reducing it to nothing more than project-based learning. We talk about project work and the real solutions that will be generated and we shy away from being honest up front….this might not be the best intervention for you.

And I want to be clear here…I am not saying that it’s bad to use frosted flake approaches to solving problems. If they work well and give people what they need, then that’s fantastic. The problem I’m talking about it…is when tell people they are buying something that is good for them, when in fact they just bought some candy. The problem I’m talking about it when we conflate action learning with project-based learning, because we think it will be easier for people to understand. When ironically, the actual impact of that sales strategy is that it often makes action learning HARDER to understand.

So, a lot comes down to how much critical reflection the action learning program demands. I would argue that if you completely take out the critical reflection piece, then that is fine, just don’t call it action learning, please just call it “project-based learning” instead.

So, that’s my rant for now. Four problems and four ways that they impact our ability to talk about these really interesting transformational methodologies. I don’t have a lot of wisdom about how to offset them, but the first step is just acknowledging them. Or as an old professor of mine used to say “problematize” them.

*special thanks to myself for recycling slides from a presentation I gave last year.

 

 

 

In Defense of Ego

18 Feb
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A modern mystic, Thomas Hubl, seems like a good dude, but his message just didn’t really resonate with me

Last night I went to a talk by Thomas Hubl in downtown Washington DC. He is an interesting guy and as a modern mystic, I certainly value his perspective on his experience of consciousness. I like attending events like this because they tend to open me up. Expose me to new ideas and new people. However, while I value that exposure, it isn’t always pleasant. And last night I was reminded why I had avoided the “integral community” for so many years.

Although we may share the same interests in learning and exploring spiritual, mystical, or consciousness-based experiences and ideas, we approach that interest in very different ways. I ended up feeling like what I was seeing was spiritual materialism at its finest. Now, I did like Thomas’s talk and I thought he had a lot of good ideas to share, but the most value I got out of the experience was in a flood of ideas of my own. When ideas come this fast and easily, I am prone to think that they are coming from deep inside me rather than my overly-analytical mind (of which I am skeptical). Even though I have several other draft blog posts in the cooker, I feel compelled to share this one immediately. I decided that the easiest way to share this would be to just quote what I wrote in my journal during Thomas’s talk and go from there. I am calling it, “In Defense of Ego.”

— Feb. 17, 2014—

I don’t understand this! He is talking as if the mind/ego was something bad. “We need to bring this consciousness to light in the modern world,” he says. We “need to!?” Huh? I mean, of course we “need” to, but that is just a function of our own drive to create and there is no way for me to tell if YOUR drive to create is coming from ego or from spirit. How or why would I even try to judge it? Of course, I am doing the exact same thing to Thomas right now, judging his words, so I’ll let them be. Clearly people are getting something out of them. For me though this isn’t about the exteriors being “bad” and the interiors being “good.” In fact, language itself is just an exterior. It is an exterior, mind-created, ego-driven tool that we use to communicate and self-reflect. We needed to create language as a scaffold to develop the interior, so how can we make a value judgement on it? We need the exterior to build the interior…but where did language come from? The interior!!! So, they are co-emergent. They are interdependent. It is much like the particle/wave theory of electrons. They are BOTH at the same time, it is only our perspective that seems to have the conflict with reconciling these two things. This is why having a non-dual awareness is so important. That is why we NEED the ego. The ego isn’t bad. The ego is just an exterior. Haha! Badness is using the qualities of a wave to judge what is acting like, in that moment, as a particle. OR using the values of the interior to judge the exterior (or using the exterior to judge the interior). Of course it causes a contraction/tension!

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Wilber’s AQAL model for anyone not immediately familiar with how I am using the words, “interior” and “exterior”

Ego/mind/etc., or whatever word one wants to use to describe something “bad” or “negative,” when it is used in that way…doesn’t actually point to anything. That is, the word exists as a signifier…a sign post….but there is no signified. The sign points in a direction, but if you were to go there, you would find that nothing exists. In this way, ego has no content. It does not exist! It is so simple. We have a word for it, like we have the word “unicorn,” but that doesn’t mean that they signify something that exists in the real world. “Ego,” then doesn’t really exist in the way people use it to mean something negative or bad. In fact, what they are experiencing is the misattunement of TWO things that DO exist. How then do we bring those different rhythms into alignment? Well, I think through radical acceptance. Awareness is great. Awareness. Awareness. Awareness. Now try to accept. See if you can accept it as well. Create a new exterior. Create a new object. That that which was subject to you and make it object. Make it an exterior (that is, make it part of “mind/ego”). As an exterior, it may help you OR….maybe it is already an object…and you’ve divorced yourself from that object. These are the things that you need to bring into radical acceptance.

So, more simply…the “pain” or “resistance” or “contraction” or “tension” that we feel is NOT a result of a single entity (like the “ego”), but of a dynamic PROCESS between two entities (more akin to “friction”). Those two entities are exteriors and interiors. Existences and essences. Gross forms and subtle forms. The cure for these frictions depend on which way the energy is trying to flow. If energy is trying to create an exterior from an interior, then you need radical awareness, because you are trying to create something in the gross realm that previously existed in the subtle realm. However, it is equally likely that you are experiencing friction because something from the Gross realm is trying to enter the subtle realm (the equally important, but less acknowledged move from mind-body to spirit). In this case, as was my experience, the cure seems to be radical acceptance. That is, accepting everything even the things that you don’t accept. Or for radical awareness….radical awareness is being aware of what you are not aware of. This is why religions often talk about the masculine and feminine…big mind and big heart. Not just because these two THINGS exist, but because they represent two MOVEMENTS. Movement in one direction or another between exteriors and interiors! Masculine and feminine are horizontal types that describe movement between horizontal dimensions (exteriors and interiors). It is actually quite simple when looked at this way. So, to say that “ego” or “mind” is bad….as it feels like most people in this room are doing…just doesn’t make sense to me.

So, again, the one thing that we don;t really think about is that it is not the exteriors or the interiors themselves, but the MOVEMENT from one to the other. If there is friction in this movement then we experience suffering. This suffering can be cured with either radical acceptance or radical awareness depending on which direction the energy is trying to flow. Ok, so now we are cooking baby! :) What is this movement? HOW the hell can you move from one to another? Well, we do that in the ground of being. That is…the movement can take place because we can stand outside of either two positions and “outside” those two positions is simply the background of all reality (both subtle and gross). Now, this ground of being is actually very boring, so I won’t talk about it because talking about it is a bit silly, but it is important to mention it because it is the third element….the causal realm. So, mystics claim that individual consciousness can directly experience this casual realm and I think that is fantastic. Good for them. Good for you if you can. Nothing wrong with it at all. Sounds like a magical place to live. But, for me, by definition, this causal experience doesn’t really mean much. That is because any experience is still just that….experience (even if that experience is non-experience…if that makes sense). So, then it is not something to strive for…it is something that people get access to or they do not. There is nothing great or grand about it. It is. Just like form and ego. They are. All of this stuff….is just hanging out. Now, don’t get me wrong the creation of something out of nothing is extraordinary….what could be more amazing!? But from my perspective, there is also nothing more mundane (again….it’s like a particle and a wave….causal is BOTH majestic AND mundane).

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A particle AND a wave

So, when we talk about the gross (exterior), subtle (interior), and causal (ground that allows us to move from one to the other), we are just talking about the interplay between these two crazy characters. It is like some sort of stage play. Two characters battling it out. The two actors and the stage on which they stand…those three things make up what we call reality. This is why horizontal development is, in many ways, much more important than vertical development. Because the movement from left (interior) to right (exterior) is the ENGINE of development. These frictions, moving and moving and moving, can spark movements upward as appropriate to the challenges that you face. In fact, it is actually more like overcompensation. As that friction creates sparks, your subtle and gross mental fabric evolves. Just like how the fibers of your muscles strengthen through exercise. After lifting 100 pounds your muscles get bigger so that next time you can lift 115 pounds (since you clearly could ALREADY lift 100). So, the engine of vertical development is in fact horizontal movement.

Growth is about awareness and acceptance because “the bad” parts are simply friction that restrict movement. Resistance is only ever about the friction of movement which does NOT get better if we continue to value “spirit” over “ego.” In fact, it makes the problem worse. It creates a spiritual materialism in which a large portion of reality is denied and judged. Of course, this friction is exactly what we need. How else could it exist? Is = ought. So, from a non-dual perspective, there is nothing wrong. There is no point to changing anything. “So you’re miserable. Great! That is what you should be. You will be miserable until you are not.” I’m writing. You’re reading. So what? We are fine. Given that we are….and everything we do is okay, then let us continue talking and reading. If everything is OK, then it is also OK that we think things need to change.

So, there you go. That was the out-pouring of thought that I had. It was helpful for me in thinking it, I can only hope that it is helpful for you in reading it.

The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse

22 Jan

I have a radical hypothesis. Is it possible that the real reason why leadership development programs fail is because we don’t actually need them? Is it possible that we’ve inserted ourselves into a process that we have no business in? Traditional experts would like you to believe that there are all sorts of tactical reasons why our efforts to create better leaders fails (see here), but I’m starting to suspect that was once a small problem got a lot worse when the leadership development industry got created. Let me explain.

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Organizational boundaries are like glass. Employees can see right through them. They will stay only if its a good place to grow.

The best metaphor I can come up with for the future workplace is a greenhouse. Our current management model comes from the industrial revolution in which managers focused on improving the factory’s efficiency. Even today, many companies still focus on efficiency and logistics. They measure, measure, measure, and write reports and we analyze and predict. People are getting really excited about Big Data in HR and the truth is….it’s all bullshit (well it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient). OK, maybe it’s not ALL bullshit, but it’s mostly bullshit. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure that chair might be out of place and sure we might be about to measure the exact layout of the deck and the size of the chairs and come up with an optimum layout, but we would be missing the big problem…our ship is sinking.

The big problem for us is simply that human beings (and even more so social systems) are inherently chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, we simply cannot accurately predict or control how they will behave. No doubt you’ve heard, “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and there is a hurricane in Japan,” or some variation. The point is simply that we shouldn’t blame the butterfly for the hurricane. In fact, there would be absolutely no way of ever making that connection empirically (see Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, 2006). And yet, people seem to have a real problem with acknowledging this in our work (known in philosophy as the problem of induction). Now, on a psychological level, we are all prone to make these inductive errors in judgment, but for precisely this reason we should be very careful about assuming the precision of our models. What does all of this mean for our work? Well, a few things.

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We can do lots of things, but we can’t make a plant grow. Only the right conditions and time can do that.

We don’t MAKE the plants grow. We simply set the conditions for them to grow and hopefully they grow. As Woody Allen said, “’Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.” People are organic. Social systems are chaotic. Why in the world would we perpetuate the myth that we have any control over the learning or leadership process? It happens or it doesn’t happen, but we don’t micromanage it. All we can do is set the conditions for it to happen. We already know that most learning is informal and yet we keep pretending as if it wasn’t. Or if our little bit of formal learning (maybe 10%?) is actually really, really, really important. Managers, HR professionals, and learning “experts,” have been trying to interject themselves into the organic process because they want to get credit. If more people thought about this, then we could tackle the whole notion of corporate training and development in a completely new and more effective (and empowering way).

Think in terms of effectiveness not efficiency. I have come to hate the word “efficiency.” I used to think that effectiveness came first (you got something done) and then you worked on being efficient (you got the same thing done with less resources). It seems that most people still think this way (or at least the good ones, the bad ones don’t even realize the difference or the necessary sequence). The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that. At least not outside of highly structured mechanical systems (efficiency is important when you are talking about engineering problems, but organic systems are so focused on survival that they don’t have much time left over for discussions about efficiency). So, given this, I’d like to ban the word from our vocabulary. Certainly there is a lot of talk from the innovation and start-up community about “lean” approaches. I actually love these approaches, but by how I define the terms, they are actually focused on effectiveness not efficiency. In the real world, if you are playing the game to win, you never actually get a chance to move past effectiveness; the rules and the structures of social systems are never static or consistent.

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Individuals want exactly what they want. Can’t provide that kind of learning customization? We know. Instead focus on what you can provide.

There is a move towards extreme personalization. I’ve been noticing this trend for years, but this really jumped out at me when I was doing my mobile leadership development research. As organizations integrate more and more information and more and more users they risk becoming more and more depersonalized. If the employees are now in the driver seat, then it isn’t enough to say, “Hey 90% of employees liked this,” because the other 10% are going to feel left out. This means that we need to focus more on building conditions that allow a variety of different individuals to flourish. One of the biggest problems with competencies is that they aren’t personalized. We err on the side of the organization rather than the employee. We need to create learning platforms that allow for the greatest personalization not the greatest “efficiency” (which I shall henceforth call, “the E word”). The greenhouse will allow the greatest number of employee to flourish. They will still need pruning and some won’t make it, but that’s the whole point. We’ll have more energy to focus on the gardening and less on trying to make the plants grow (which only the Universe can do). This also has big implications for technology, but I won’t get into that here.

The problem of induction can be moderated by approaching learning and leadership from the greenhouse, not the factory. I’m seeing more and more talk about Big Data in HR and I think this is a good example of where I think we are going wrong. Fundamentally, we can’t predict or control people, but that doesn’t mean that we should double-down on the “mechanical, linear, conventional, positivist, quantification, measurement-obsessed” approach. I think we need to realize that the solution requires a new type of thinking (other than the one that got us into this mess). A type of thinking that not only recognizes that we don’t know, but that we CAN’T know.

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Big data is fascinating, but Moneyball approaches don’t apply to non-game systems. Even if they did, it’s not like baseball got rid of all their scouts.

Our models are always going to be hilariously inaccurate and yet we keep making predictions about hiring and performance (and almost everything in politics, finance, etc.) and we keep being wrong. I don’t think the solution is to keep coming up with new ways of predicting, but to take a sober look at our deep (and faulty) epistemological assumptions and move forward from there. We can make the situation better, but not by furthering the illusion that we have control (we don’t want that kind of responsibility anyway). This belief in turn actually makes us and our clients more vulnerable. In our lust for efficiency we seek out and destroy the types of redundancy and chaos that all organic systems need to survive and grow. The “Moneyball” approach might help with some small issues, but baseball still finds itself in the same situation it did before (Sabermetrics introduced a new tool, but didn’t solve the real problem). So, we can look at Big Data in HR and I’m sure we will learn some things. Awesome. There is no doubt that these analytics will become new standards, but while they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Like the deckchairs, analytics isn’t going to solve the real problem. When we recognize that we can’t predict, we actually liberate ourselves. We have more energy and focus on the things that we can control.

We don’t make the plants grow and we don’t make someone a better leader. All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.

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The world’s medical experts used to believe in bloodletting.

Did you know that the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, is iatrogenesis? What is this horrible word? It means the preventable harm caused by medical treatment. Think about that for a second. That means that we are killing roughly 220,000 people a year in our attempts to make them better. In fact, some medical historians have claimed that our medical treatments have only recently starting saving more people than they were killing. And it makes me wonder if this kind of arrogance comes from a discipline whose first principle is “do no harm,” then what kind of harm can we perpetuate in leadership development when we don’t even have that Hippocratic foundation? Is it possible that we are actually making leadership problems worse? Is it possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is actually to get rid of leadership development?

Consider the Spandrels

15 Jan

SpandrelFiguresLibrary of congress

People used to think that computers were going to make instructor-led training (ILT) obsolete, which of course they didn’t. People used to wear Bluetooth headsets, now they don’t. The problem is reductionism. We tend reduce the overall value of something by evaluating it according to a particular element. For example, just think of candles. Ask yourself, why do we still have candles? The light bulb has been around for a long time, so why do we still buy millions of candles each year? If we reduce the value of candles only to their “light-giving” properties, then we completely miss its other uses.

In evolutionary biology they call these unintended uses, “spandrels,” (a word they borrowed from architecture) which often evolve to become far more important than the original intended use. It’s the error that occurs when we make statements like, “Research shows that empathetic leaders generate up to 15% more revenue.” In essence, this reduces the value of empathy to a function of revenue. “You should be good because you’ll make more money.” Or, the example I gave the other day in our book club; imagine if a man said, “Women are valuable because they give birth to more men.” It’s absurd and yet I see it all the time in the learning context. Reductionism to learning, reductionism to measurement and data, reductionism to practical solutions, etc. However, if we simply stop and take a sober look around, we’ll realize that considering the spandrels actually makes us a lot more intelligent than almost everyone else out there. Training and development interventions are actually doing more than just improving learning. For example, we’ll know that….

  • ILTs aren’t going away because they serve MORE than just an individual learning function: 1) they provide an opportunity for people to get together and build trust and rapport, gain new information, and focus on the relationships so important to leadership; 2) it is easy for HR to demonstrate and measure that learning happened; 3) people are familiar with the modality from our schooling and therefore meta-learning is low (learning how to learn in this environment). Mobile learning (mlearning) isn’t going to replace desktop-based elearning because: 1) people actually have an increasing need for structure in our environment (self-discipline is weak); 2) form factors allow for more dynamic interactions on the desktop.
  • Beware gamification. “Just because something has a learning benefit doesn’t mean that people should do it to learn.” So, think about it this way…a Snickers bar has protein and vitamins. It has some nutritional value, but it would be a mistake to think that people eat Snickers bars, or should eat them, because they are nutritious. I think learning games face this same challenge. Just because people learn from playing games doesn’t mean that they play games to learn. We play games because they are intrinsically rewarding. We play games because play is fun. Play is an end to itself, but gamification is quick to reduce “play” to “performance” or “learning.” Now, you can start to engineer taste and nutrition and create some really good tasting protein bars, but again, you’ll need to balance the competing reasons why people eat protein bars versus why people eat a candy bar (they approach the purchase of these somewhat similar foods from completely different angles). Most of the conversations out there about learning games are doing this in the wrong way.
  • People stopped wearing Bluetooth headsets, not because they didn’t need a way to conduct hands-free phone calls, but because they make you look like a douche bag. This is the same reason why I didn’t by a Google Glass. In theory, they are really cool. In reality, you look like a dork…and therefore I would never actually wear it. If you judge a tool, a process, or a technology only upon its “logical usefulness” then you’ll have to explain why my mother buys scented candles. A “logical use” is often just a disguised reduction.

bluetooth

  • We can also find learning benefits where others haven’t. For example, most of the conversation about virtual leadership or virtual leadership development theory is largely about trying to maintain the learning while reducing costs (in the name of efficiency), without considering that virtual training and leading may actually have some ADVANTAGES over traditional approaches. Some non-learning things have learning benefits; some learning things have non-learning benefits. That means that we could offer a portfolio of services with some real knowledge of what each modality does well.

Without reducing one to the other, we can take a look at the learning benefits and the spandrels and ensure that we are addressing each in the most effective way possible. Without this understanding, we conflate things, reduce them, and often end up right back where we started. In the end, you can talk all day about the learning aspect of something, but in terms of the vibrant reality of an organizational social system, there are a lot of other important things going on in any given “training,”  “program,” or “intervention.”

If we consider those spandrels, then we can develop better products and services that leverage multiple values and multiple perspectives. E-Learning can do what e-learning does best (compliance, technical training, etc.). ILTs can be even more interactive and social among participants. Mobile can focus on access to secure databases rather than simply delivering elearning on a phone. Considering the spandrels ensures that we can help clients maximize their training. They can avoid pitfalls and maximize opportunities. Employees will be happy that we aren’t wasting their time. We don’t feel like we are doing the same old thing. Everyone wins.

The Rise of the Informational Democracy

11 Jan

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Knowledge is power.
Collectively, employees have more knowledge than leadership. 
Employees have the power.

Last year I wrote a blog post about 25 growing trends in learning technology and in that post I mentioned “democratization.” I’ve come to believe that the democratization of the workplace is the single most important trend to understand. I am calling this trend the rise of the “informational democracy” and it radically shifts the power away from traditional experts and traditional authority. The trend is building so much steam that you can’t throw a rock anywhere and not hit it, so I’ll just say a few things briefly.

First, employees no longer rely on experts and leaders for information. Employees will include them, but they don’t need them. “Information is power,” and employees’ access to information and communication means that they can organize and adapt outside of a traditional organizational structure. Moreover, modern history has shown us that information lends itself towards democratization (Kellerman, 2012), which is why rigid power structures always seek to control information above all else. I see this trend impacted our work in several immediate ways.

  • Management will become more like an administrative function. Today, we see managers as leaders and admin professionals as lowly support staff. In reality, managers have worked for their employees for a while now, they just didn’t realize it. The informational democracy will force their eyes open. Most of our leadership theory is based on history, but these need to make way for truly modern adaptations. As Gary Hamill (2007) says, despite how the world has changed in the last few decades, there haven’t been any “management innovations” to keep up. Barbara Kellerman (2012) calls this, “the end of leadership.” I agree and I think there are some things that we can do to get ahead of the curve.
  • Relevance will replace status. In a networked democracy, influence will be bestowed upon those with the most relevance. The free market of ideas and opinions means that managers no longer have a monopoly on information. In the free market, influence goes to the person with the most connections (ala Google’s Page Rank, social media analytics, etc.), not the person with the most “expertise” or “authority.” This means that the myth of the individual leader will likely start to break down as it makes way for systems approaches, which treat every individual as nodes in a large system of influence. Given this, we can start helping people “nodify” themselves.
  • The nature of corporate learning is changing. We need to start producing content that serves the employees rather than content that is just convenient to make. We keep making the same courses again and again, when we all know that most of these courses are cobbled together scraps of things some ISD grabbed from the internet. Using mobile technology as a metaphor, we need to think about the user’s consumption. Small. Bite-sized. Easy to access. There will still be a place for formal trainings (see “Consider the Spandrels” in my next post), but it’s not necessarily because of the learning benefits. If more people were to really understand what is going on with the informational democracy (and that it might be over-hyped in the short term….but it is definitely under-hyped in the long term…) we could get ahead of the biggest change in organizations we’ve ever seen.

To be clear, I am not rosy-eyed about distributed leadership as a way to avoid any sense of hierarchy. In fact, my opinion is that we likely need more unilateral decision making and far LESS consensus. But we can distribute that unilateral decision making in a much more appropriate and effective way. This is one of the reasons why I am pursing a certification in Holacracy, which is just a new type of “social technology,” which seems to be working well (it’s been getting more attention lately because Zappos just adopted it). I’m not saying that Holacracy is THE answer; I’m just saying that it represents one way of adapting leadership and learning to the informational democracy.

Hopefully, there will be many others. The informational democracy actually changes so many things about the way we do our work that I struggle to put everything into a linear story. The essence is that we should all be prepared to keep our bourgeois sensibilities in check. When everyone has our information, then it isn’t nearly as valuable. And we can fight the waves of change for only so long. Far better to prepare ourselves to ride the wave as it comes in.

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