Goals and journeys

Saints John and James Church - FergusonMy dad is 96. He’s never been a big talker, but there is one story that I’ve often retold. It wasn’t one that I learned until I was probably in my thirties.

Dad served in the Navy during WWII. He had to cheat on his pre-induction physical because of his eyesight; he memorized the eye chart while standing in line. He ended up stationed in San Diego, pretty much as far away from his home in Delaware as you could get and still be in the country.

After the war, Dad went back East and got a degree in mechanical engineering on the GI Bill. In 1950, he packed himself into his car and started west to return to San Diego. If you’ve seen both Wilmington, Delaware and San Diego, you can understand the attraction.

Around about St. Louis, he ran out of money, found a job, and started going to the local parish church, while saving up to resume his journey. One Sunday after Mass, he asked the parish priest if there were any nice Catholic girls he might get to know. It turned out to be seven children and nearly forty years before he finished that trip to San Diego.

Goals are important. They set you on your way. But, what you learn on the journey is equally important. It’s trite. I know. I don’t like trite. But I need to be reminded that it is the shared human experience underneath the trite that is important. I am distracted by bright, shiny, objects all of the time. For me, this story is a reminder and a warning to worry less about the particulars of my plans and keep the human goals top of the list.

UPDATE: With the help of some of my cousins, I was able to track down a photo of the church where Mom and Dad were married, Saints John and James Catholic Church in Ferguson.

Learning is harder in the digital world

Snowboard lesson Most of us have crappy theories of learning. The better you were at school the more likely your theories about learning are distorted. I ran into this phenomenon while I was the Chief Learning Officer at Diamond Technology Partners in the 1990s. My partners were full of well intentioned advice about how they thought I should do my job based on their school experiences years or decades earlier in their lives. I had my own, somewhat less ill-informed, theories based on my more recent school experiences convincing my thesis committee to let me loose on the world.

Fortunately, I also made the smart decision to go find several people smarter than I was and hung around with them long enough to soak up some useful insight. Two in particular, Alan Kay and Roger Schank, were instrumental in shaking me free from my poor theories. Very different in temperament, they did agree on fundamental insights about how learning worked.

Learning is what happens when our expectations about the world collide with experience. As we adjust our expectations to be better aligned with reality we learn.

Schools are dangerous places for learning because they are too isolated from the real world. On the other hand, the real world can be straight up dangerous if we haven’t learned how to behave correctly in the situation at hand. All learning is learning by doing, whether we’re learning to turn on a snowboard or solve a differential equation. If we had unlimited time and were invulnerable, we could figure anything out on our own. As it is, it helps to have someone who knows more than we do to arrange the experiences we can learn from in a reasonable and safe sequence.

The name for this strategy is “apprenticeship” and remains the most effective from a learner-centered perspective. All other approaches are compromises to make the economics work or to solve scale mismatches between the number of those needing to learn and those with mastery to pass along. Anthropologist Lucy Suchman showed how to extend this notion of apprenticeship to all kinds of learning beyond the trade/craft connotations we attach to the word. She talked of learning and apprenticeship as a process of “legitimate peripheral participation.” You learned how to repair copiers by handing tools to the senior repair technician and carrying their bags. You learned how to handle the cash register by watching someone who already had it figured out. You learned how to put a budget together by doing the junior-level scut work of helping your boss transform a handwritten budget into a typewritten one.

It’s become a cliche that learning has become an ongoing requirement in all kinds of work. The problem isn’t simply that work demands more learning more often. The changing nature of work also makes learning qualitatively harder as well. This was never a problem for physical work and for much of the knowledge work of the 20th century. Nearly everything you might want to observe was in sight. You could watch how a repair technician selected and handled tools. You could see an editor’s corrections and notes in the margins of your manuscript.

As work has evolved to be more abstract and more mediated by technology, the task of learning has gotten harder. Whether we call it apprenticeship or legitimate peripheral participation it becomes difficult, if not impossible, in environments where you can’t see what others are doing. Previously, the learning called for within organizations occurred as a byproduct of doing work. It now takes conscious and deliberate effort to design work so that it is, in fact, learnable.

The danger of easy paths

easy pathBeing a quick study can get in the way of learning what you need to understand. Midway through elementary school I went on my first field trip to the Museum of Natural History in Milwaukee. The enduring memory from that trip was my first encounter with a buffet line in the museum cafeteria. My tray was loaded by the end of the line and I was mildly ill for the remainder of the day. This was merely the first in a long line of lessons about the difference between theory and practice; lessons that I continue to trip over half a century later. There was the 4th-grade teacher who sat me in the back of the classroom and challenged me to see how much of the World Book Encyclopedia I could finish by year’s end whenever my other work was done. By the time I got to college, I had been nudged by so many teachers and other supporters in the direction of thinking over other kinds of doing that I was on track to graduate in three years.

As that second year in college was drawing to an end, I realized that I had no idea what I wanted to do when graduation arrived. My parents didn’t flinch when I concluded that I wanted to take the full four years to finish school; I wasn’t insightful enough to grasp the financial hit I was imposing on them. Regardless, they bought me an extra year to work out an answer about a next step.

There’s a running debate whether competence or passion should drive your career. The passion wing cheers that heart should drive your choices; find your passion and the career will take care of itself. More recently, the counter-narrative that expertise precedes engagement has regained ground. This is the realm of the 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice. Better that you should become good at something and trust competence to evolve into commitment.

We now have two false dichotomies—theory vs. practice and passion vs. competence. There are others we could add to the list. The world isn’t organized into these binary choices. It’s necessarily messy and complex. This is not a popular position; we all want to believe advice that begins with “all you need to do is…” Everyone is offering proven systems or guaranteed methodologies. Instead, we should seek to accept complexity without letting it paralyze us. We need to remember what H.L. Mencken said “there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

Today, in particular, we live in a world full of bright, shiny, objects promising to address their narrow perspective on a narrow conception of the problem. We need to become adept at framing opportunities to incorporate messiness. That’s a process that benefits from traveling companions walking the same paths.

There’s always a bigger picture

Earth from spaceIt’s a given in writing circles that there are only a small number of basic plots; the miracle of human storytelling is how many unique tales have been wrought from that basic ore.

Storytelling has become a lens in better understanding the organizations that we belong to and interact with. I think we’ve construed story too narrowly in organizations. Oddly enough, we’ve done so by ignoring the social dimensions of story.

Our first images of story conjure Homer declaiming to the audience gathered by the fire. But we quickly enlisted others to bring stories to fuller life and drama arrived. Through the usual concatenation of circumstance, fortuitous moments, and basic temperament I found my way into that world. A degree of shyness and curiosity about how things—as opposed to people—worked led to a shadow career behind the scenes.

I was fortunate that my early history involved producing original works within a tradition rich environment. What that meant was that you started without a script or even a title but opening night was fixed. Some of those involved had been through the experience the year before and the year before that. Others of us had no clue. All of us knew that the institution had been pulling off the equivalent trick since 1891. There are things you can accomplish before the script is finished. On the other hand, it’s hard to build a set before you’ve designed it and you can’t design it without an inkling of what the show will be about.

From the outside, this looks like chaos. Parts of it are. Traditions and history assure you that the curtain will go up on opening night. Tradition also assures that you will lose sleep along the way. I couldn’t see it at the time but I was learning how innovation and organization worked. More specifically, I was learning about innovation as collaborative story-making and about the interplay linking technology constraints and opportunities with artistic or strategic vision.

Viewed from the audience, performance is about actors, their lines, and their interactions. Sets, lights, and costumes may be visible, may attract some fleeting attention, yet fade into the background. The massive efforts going on behind the scenes to create the context within which the performance plays out only become apparent when something malfunctions.

This creative fulcrum, where content and context are brought together, is the most interesting place to stand. Those who can learn to look in both directions—to play with both content and context—have more degrees of innovation freedom than those who limit their gaze. Learning to look both ways, however, is a very hard thing to do.

What makes it hard is that the tribes who come together to create a shared creative outcome come from very different traditions and mindsets. Pursuing excellence within any one aspect of production means settling for mediocrity in others. Working across tribes demands an ability to speak multiple languages with competence at the expense of eloquence in a single tongue.

The particular conversational bridge that draws my attention today is the contribution that changing technology can offer. Technology is a powerful creative lever . It makes things possible that weren’t before. In a stage production, for example, an automated lighting system can slowly change the look of the set over the course of many minutes, simulating the transition from dawn to full daylight. That is an artistic effect that wasn’t possible when the change depended on human operators.

But that creative effect might never be contemplated unless the artists staging and directing the performance learn about and understand what the technology has made possible. And that requires an effective conversation between artist and technologist.

It requires translators but also requires something more difficult. This level of creative collaboration demands a shared respect for all who contribute. Healthy, tradition rich institutions are better prepared to cope with new innovation opportunities than weaker organizations. Resistance to change is a marker of organizational weakness; infatuation with new technology for new technology’s sake is a marker of low trust in institutional tradition.

Managing the conversation across the performance and technology tribes depends on helping the participants see the larger picture that all are seeking to bring into existence.

Learning to think for innovation

Management Thinker Peter Drucker

“Innovation and change make inordinate time demands on the executive. All one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and to do as one has always done.”
Peter Drucker – The Effective Executive

Once again, Peter Drucker offers insights for today even though this was originally written in 1967. Taken at face value it suggests that innovation in today’s organizations is a fool’s quest. A few people—Cal Newport, for example, in “Deep Work”—have begun to pick up on this, but they are distinctly in the minority. They can be nearly impossible to notice or hear in the cacophony of productivity advice, inboxes littered with offers to write your best-selling book in 90 days, and workshops to design your business model in a weekend. We have always been enamored with speed and live in an environment that raises speed to a religion. Thinking hard has rarely been popular.

There are some counterexamples. Bill Gates was famous for his “Think Weeks” where he withdrew from his day to day responsibilities to look beyond the immediate. The question for mere mortals is how to create the time and space needed to do the kind of thinking needed for innovation. Recognizing the challenge is, doubtless, the first step. Few of us have the luxury or clout of a Bill Gates to dedicate entire weeks for deep thought; we can all recognize that some kinds of thinking and reflection require bigger chunks of time and carve out those chunks where they can be found.

Another thing worth doing is to get better at stringing those chunks together in more effective ways. I’ve taken a run at this before, for example,

Distraction is the enemy of reflection. What Drucker is pointing out is that the underlying time demands for innovative thought flow from the demands of clearing your mind of the immediate and building the internal mental models necessary for deep work. I think of it as learning to meditate in a particular direction. We know a good bit about step one from the lessons of meditation. But meditation tends to stop there. The second step is to point your thinking in a particular direction and provide useful supplies for the journey. There is a process and discipline to thinking about innovation that is learnable. It is a skill that can be improved with deliberate practice.