The Heart of the Matter: Learning

My guess is that learning is not at the heart of your agenda; although you are almost certainly doing more of it then you are aware of.

Leaning conjures up images of institutionalised schools, learning by rote, important but intrinsically meaningless exams to be passed, time wasted.  Hardly inspiring.

Learning is not something that is much talked about in our day-to-day business lives, it is not ‘the thing’, not cool, not sexy.

Learning is something we hand over to the HR department.

Or we call it ‘change’ in the hope that this will make it more strategic, more acceptable

How did that come about?

There are many issues here but three are key: ‘Fordism’, The Myth of the Gifted’ and Self doubt

In manufacturing Henry Ford created a breakthrough with the production line.  That philosophy has continued and grown to embrace Total Quality Management, Business Process Re-engineering and Six Sigma technologies.  All of which have made a contribution and have a place.  But the principles, appropriate to inanimate things, have been brought to bear on human beings.  Our education systems, our performance systems our talent management systems are built on a model of prescription, measurement and compliance.  Take the word ‘competencies’ for instance.  Who would want to be merely competent when greatness or self-expression is possible?

To quote Sir Ken Robinson, one of the leading educationalists “ Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we have strip-mined the earth: for a particular commodity.  And for the future it won’t service”

Then there is the ‘Myth of the Gifted’.  We have held a notion for some time that says that some people are intrinsically talented, genetically different to and better than the rest of us.

What would change if you found out that there was no such person, no one who was ‘gifted’, no one intrinsically better than you.  How would that change you view of learning?

The most recent evidence firmly points to new idea – genes do not dictate individual destiny.  We can influence what we become.  Studies of the apparently gifted reveal one consistent fact: they have put in ten thousand hours of practice over a period of ten years.  There’s caveat here; this does not mean that anyone can achieve anything – your genes, and many other factors, do play a part.

The truth about child prodigies is not that it was in the genes but that they were immersed in their discipline from a very early age.  Mozart was born into an environment where his father was a musician and teacher who had developed a unique instruction system, his older sister was being taught the piano while he was staggering around in nappies.  As soon as he could reach the piano stool he was learning and then trained by his father.  No prodigy here, merely 10,000 hours over ten years.

The implication for all of us, mere mortals that we are, is that we have more than enough potential to learn and to achieve most of our desires in life and work.  The only question is our willingness to pursue them.

The third point is about self-doubt.  A prevalent response to Fordism is compliance.  When you combine compliance with humility the toxic result is self-doubt.  Nothing interferes with our potential more than self-doubt:  It buries creativity, erodes confidence and undermines motivation.

In some professions, the performing arts and sports in particular, learning is at the heart of the agenda.  New routines are developed and added to the repertoire; new skills are developed to ensure that one stays ahead of the competition.  Federer has developed his game in the last couple of years, more power on the backhand and new skills added such as the drop shot.  He is not the same player who first came to prominence in 1998.  He has developed, he has learned.  Through this he has maintained a position at the top of the game – he is unfortunate that his two rivals have learned even more, more quickly.

Aristotle Onassis, one of the best business negotiators of all time, and his team practised meetings.

You might like to think about the core of your career as a craft and yourself as a craftsman.  In your craft what is it specifically that you are, or could be great at?  How might you develop that? Again, in your craft where’s the weakness?  What might you learn?

For those interested in coaching let me add this: the result of Coaching is Performance; the process is Learning.

For those who are managers and leaders of others: bring back learning – and as coaching is part of a manager’s role you can do that without changing anything – and two things will happen: performance will increase and enjoyment will increase.


“I am the way I am?”

A few weeks ago I went for a run.  I was somewhat unfit after the cold Winter that had slid into being a cold Spring then a cold early Summer – not conducive to outside activity – and after surgery to my shoulder, so the running was not a ‘flow’ activity!  I had also promised myself that I would take a less macho attitude to my running and to pay more attention to my body’s needs.  Maybe this happens as you get older.  After a while I was running out of steam, uncomfortable and a little bored.  I thought, in the spirit of listening to my body, that I should stop running and take a shortcut home, walking.

Then this damned odd thing happened. Unbidden and uninvited the voice in my head said “That’s all very well, but what does your will want?”  My will was unequivocal it wanted to run on, to get fit!  I ran.

I had been reading ‘The Ego Trick’ by Julian Baggini.  In it he posits that the closest we can get to understanding the idea of identity – if you cut me open there is no part of me that has ‘me’ stamped on it – is that identity is not one single thing: not my nationality, not my sex, nor my body, my soul, my past…it is however a ‘bundle’, all of these things and others play their part.  I took from this that our indentities are not as fixed and are more malleable than we think.  “I am the way I am” is not solid ground on which to stand!

I have been stuck at my desk for a few months as the Inner Game eCoach is developed and brought to market.  The identity that sits there doing that is reflective, retiring even reclusive.  As the time comes to sell the eCoach I have to get out and about with clients.   Re-creating the ‘out and about’ identity is the current task.  I gave this identity a name ‘Gabriel’.  As part of that process I asked this other self these questions: what do you look like; what do you wear; what music do you listen to; where do you stand; how do you sound…and other questions.  By the way there was no science behind the list of questions – they occurred to me at the time.

A little while later I went to a presentation and networking event.  I was surprised and delighted that Gabriel showed up.  “I am the way I am” keeps me stuck; having multiple facets to my identity gives me Mobility

True engagement is a function of Mobility

Mobility is not the most musical of words nor is it poetic in any way (yet real music and poetry arise from it).  Mobility is, amongst other things, the name given to a mental state by Tim Gallwey (The Inner Game) and much as the word does nothing for me what it stands for means almost everything.  It is the opposite of conformity and compliance.  It is not being stuck.  It is without fear or self-doubt.  Free of should, must or have to.  It is the ability to reach one’s goals in a fulfilling manner.

Many of our educational institutions are built on conformity and compliance.  Social conventions nurture it, many religions foster it.  Management practice does not help much either.  In this environment it is easy to forget who we are!

Employee engagement can be approached from compliance and conformity.  From tweaking the values, communications from the CEO to changes to the incentive system.   But true employee engagement must be a choice.  True employee engagement is a function of Mobility.

I met the CEO of a global professional service firm recently.  He felt there was a need to change the culture in the organization.  He was looking for, amongst other things a ‘coaching culture’.  He also wanted a business “without HR” meaning that he wanted managers to be responsible for their teams and to get away from the process driven approach of the current HR regime.  We had a fantastic meeting that resulted in a plan to find the true leaders in the business – not necessarily the people in the senior-most positions – to help them experience ‘Mobility’ and from that place have a good look at the organization and recreate the vision and values.

In due course I sent in the proposal.  Interestingly I have not managed to meet with the CEO since.  My hypothesis?  His need for control, to maintain authority, was too great for him too be able to invest in Mobility – and he is not alone in this.  A tragedy, because Mobility is the source of innovation, creativity and ultimately, productivity.

Thinking, Floodlights and Spotlights

Last week I was struggling to find resolution to an important business problem.  I found myself going around in circles in my thinking and getting more frustrated.  I rang a friend and colleague Cliff (Kimber, of Big Blue Stuff).  His question to me was “what is it that you need to think about clearly?”  It took me twenty-four hours to get to the answer to that question but it was the opening I needed.

And it brought to mind Floodlights and Spotlights.  Within a given context the Floodlight mode is to stand back and become aware of all the elements and variables in the situation – with as much detachment as possible.  This should not be rushed.  Asking “what else is there?” almost always pays dividends.

Then the switch to Spotlight mode: “what is it that you need to think about clearly?”.  Where to focus your attention?  Identifying that focus is not always easy: fear and doubt, ‘should, must and have to’ distract you.  One key is to ask “what’s most interesting?”

In coaching I have called this process the ‘Model T’.  The horizontal bar of the T is an invitation to expand the conversation: “tell me some more about that?” and as the situation is described in full then the vertical bar is an invitation to focus: “what part of this is most interesting to talk more about?”

Floodlight followed by Spotlight allows thinking to unfold.

The Joy of Learning

Some weeks ago I was at a local tennis centre and noticed a group of four having a knock about on a court.  There was a fair bit of shouting and swearing going on, lots of judgment and not much fun.  A thought crossed my mind – I wondered when any of the players had last learned something to improve their game.

By way of contrast a few days ago I went to a favourite local pub, the Princess Victoria in Acton, with my wife Jo.  I have sometimes wondered what makes this place so good and on this day part of the answer was played out in front of us.  We had arrived early and the place was empty of customers.  One of the owners was showing a member of the bar team how to make a Bloody Mary. He made one first, they tasted it and then he asked the barman to make one, which they both tasted and then discussed.  As this little scenario unfolded other members of the team started listening in and asking question.  Everyone was paying attention, everyone was interested.  As the show came to an end, another member of the bar team appeared.  She asked the barman who had just learned to tell her how to make the drink.  Which of course he did, with enthusiasm.  Ten minutes and a good handful of customers later someone asks for a Bloody Mary.  The late arriving bar person prepared the drink, watched by her colleague.  After the customer had tried the drink they asked for feedback.  What marked this whole situation out was that everyone involved, owner, bar staff and customer all enjoyed the experience.  And learning was at the heart of it.

There is also something in this story about the Mastercraftsman/Apprentice model that has been fundamental to learning a profession in the past but that modern organizational structures have either forgotten or eliminated.  A great loss.

What have we done with learning that, for many, has taken the fun out of it?

And, by the way, a key to a great Bloody Mary is some fresh, grated horseradish.

is coaching only and always non-directive?

I have long been unhappy with the expression ‘Non-Directive Coaching’ for the very simple reason that it tells the coach what they should not do – but gives no indication of what they might do.  Indeed, and forgive me if this sounds too self-assured,  outside of my own work I have not found one description of the ‘non-directive’ process.

I am currently trying out the term ‘self-directed coaching’ to see how that works.

I notice that there are many people who say they follow a ‘non-directive model’ – because it is the ‘correct’ thing to say – but who actually do not know how to do this. Many seem to think it means to ask questions – and too often the question that gets asked is merely a thought that has occurred to the coach that then gets re-worked as a question.  This is manipulative and disingenuous and will ultimately undermine the relationship with the player (coachee).

And then there are those who think that coaching should only be non-directive.  I don’t believe this right or helpful to the player.  Let me explain.

Non-Directive Coaching is a theoretical concept.  Conceptually it has a place but is not viable in practice – because it is impossible to execute.  Behind the idea of ‘non-directive’ is the ideal that the player should do their own thinking without being influenced by the coach.  Great as an ideal but it is this ‘not being influenced’ that is impossible – human beings are designed to pick-up even the smallest signals, verbal and non-verbal, ands so if, for instance, the coach agrees or disagrees with the player, if they are excited or disappointed, the player will pick this up and, in all likelihood, respond to it.  It is impossible for the coach not to signal what he or she is thinking –the coach ‘leaks’ – a flicker of the eyes, a quickening of the breath.

Following the argument that non-directive coaching is impossible in practice I will also be a little more controversial (to some) in suggesting that it is in fact undesirable.  In a therapeutic context I can hold onto the argument for a solely non-directive stance for a little longer because the goal of the intervention is to help that individual to become whole or “a healthy, coping’ individual (an inner goal) which, I think, demands that the individual be given the opportunity to pursues their own thinking in greater depth and to own and develop their meaning making capacity.

Equally to prioritise learning over performance may well be appropriate in a therapeutic contract but one of the things that differentiates coaching from therapy is the performance bias

But my reason for suggesting that it is OK to be ‘directive’, to suggest or offer an opinion for instance, is that there are many occasions when the coach sees, knows or understands something that the player does not.  This is inevitable.  If in that moment the information is offered with the intent to increase awareness then it might well be the appropriate thing to do.  Imagine a professional business coach, having come to the end of a session in which the player has not achieved resolution, simply getting up and leaving when he or she – the coach – has a clear idea as to what might be done.  I cannot imagine doing that.  More than that I would suggest that to leave without offering the idea would be professionally negligent.  This is the case in coaching where the goal is almost always external – a result or end to be achieved – so the coach’s intervention has much less impact on the players meaning making capacity.

There are also moments in coaching when the player is in a situation of distress and where immediate action or a decision is required.  If the coach knows what to do in that moment then to do nothing is simply not helpful and may again be negligent.  Of course, at a later date when things to have cooled down, it would be ideal to revisit the situation for the player to understand why they became stuck.

A further part of my argument for the ‘directive skills’ comes from the observation that, in executive coaching unlike therapy or life coaching, it is not only the individual player’s needs that are being taken care of.  In a business context the individual/player is seldom the client (this ‘client’ title is part of the problem): the organisation paying the bill is the client.  And the client organization must have its needs met in the coaching process.  This will sometimes demand that the coach uses ‘directive’ skills.  As an example, if the coach believes that the course of action being adopted by the player will not achieve the organisation’s goals then, I believe that giving feedback might be an appropriate response.  Or if a player is about to do something that is unethical or unlawful – what then?

Having made an argument of sorts for the directive coaching skills I find the need to reposition Self-Directed Coaching Skills.  These are the skills that have the player do the thinking, creating, problem solving.  These skills are the foundation of effective coaching.  They must be learned and practiced until a level of mastery is developed such that the coach has almost no need to stray to the directive skills – coaches most often revert to ‘telling’ when they have no other option!  Once the Self Directed skills have been learned then there is a job to learn the directive skills – for the coach to be able to use their own Resources – in such a way as to raise awareness in the player and not unduly influence their meaning making or decision making capacities.

I will finish with this: a coach who is dependent on their own knowledge, experience or problem solving abilities will never Enable Genius, will never enable the player to gain Mobility or experience their own Authority.

Can you trust your thinking?

Can you trust your thinking?

This is a significant week for The Inner Game eCoach as we pilot a version of the eCoaching system with a significant global client.  The version we have created is designed to help people deliver projects using a Lean/Six Sigma approach.  This will shortly be followed by a version more suited to performance and learning in everyday life which we hope you will help us test and develop.

What the process of designing this Lean Sigma eCoach has revealed (again) with remarkable clarity is the impact of inhibiting people’s desire to find solutions or move forward immediately and instead having them stop for a moment, look at their situation and notice what then occurs to them.  And then to trust what has occurred or emerged in their thinking, their feeling, their imagination.

As an Inner Game coach standing on a tennis court one of the things that I actively encouraged was for people to have a swing in increasingly uninhibited fashion.  Trust and let go.  Which brings me to this: why don’t we trust our thinking?  And by thinking I mean any of imagining, intuiting, understanding, problem solving etc.  The thinking that emerges when we stop.  Part of the answer is, of course, that we are trained not to trust our thinking but rather to learn what we are being taught.

Which in turn takes me to what happens when we do trust our thinking – what would that look like.  It would I think be thinking that did not come from should, must or have to, that did not come from fear, doubt or greed.  In Inner Game language there is a difference in the thinking that emerges for Self One to that which emerges from Self Two.  By way of an example I have a strong sense that many, many people set their goals, in life and work from Self One, from ‘should, must or have to’ from fear, doubt or greed.

It is interesting to note that there is some evidence, in the west at least, that there are increasing numbers of people moving away from such goals, particularly in their careers and are looking for work that is meaningful and purposeful, that is ethical and sustainable.  Prosperity in the Twenty First Century may look very different to the previous.

What we are trying to create with the Inner Game eCoach is a system that delivers Mobility (the ability to move towards desired outcomes in a way that is fulfilling to you) and that evokes Self Two.

%d bloggers like this: