October 23, 2017

Learning or doing, which is the priority?

Woman thinkingWe need to keep learning e.g. about people; and we need to keep doing or delivering e.g. in a business. So which is more important? Delivering perhaps (it’s certainly likely to be more urgent), but what if the delivery is weak because we haven’t yet learned some vitally relevant information?

If learning is the priority then perhaps the opportunity or expectation will pass before we have made ourselves ready.

Obviously, it’s a balance. Do you have it in the right place? Could you benefit from moving learning up a bit?

Sometimes, of course, we need to act in order to learn: We can’t merely think our way to the right solution. We need to gather some experience of the issue. We need to attempt delivery and see what happens.

Which is more likely to make a long-term, sustainable difference: Learning or delivering? Probably learning, I’d say.

How do you balance this out?

Refined or just reticent?

Group of people listeningOr is it just natural human reticence that most of us could do with overcoming (though some were never troubled in this way)?

For many, we need to work at putting ourselves out there to be judged. It’s uncomfortable, or seems so at first. But arguably it’s part of the natural human journey of increasing maturity, if we choose that particular part of the path.

How do you decide whether you are being admirably refined or just unwisely and over-cautiously reticent?

The wrong choice could be holding you back and, conversely, a change could propel you forward.

Just because something is comfortable, doesn’t mean it’s right: It just means it’s our usual habit—a familiar, programmed pattern that was helpful once but perhaps not any more.

The subtlety is the point

Four business people in a discussionMany situations seem to require being focused and broad at the same time; being specialist as well as generalist.

That appears to be a contradiction, a dichotomy—one that needs very careful handling if a group of people is involved, and a considerable challenge to manage successfully.

If we suggest focusing an organisation, for example, in one or more particular areas, the people involved in the non-preferred areas are likely to resist because they feel threatened. But we possibly didn’t intend any real downside for them. It’s more that we hope to grow certain emerging strengths.

Alternatively, if we aim to keep everyone happy, we may fail to develop the concentration of effort necessary to achieve significant breakthroughs.

Chances are what we really require is a relative emphasis on certain areas that may yield superior returns on effort, not a major upheaval.

Our biggest challenge, in fact, may be to convey the subtlety of what we intend so that we don’t “frighten the horses” whose support we need. Managing the situation with the necessary sensitivity and spreading that ethos throughout the organisation could be harder than—and just as vital as—the actual choice of areas of focus.

In other words…

The subtlety is the point.

Setting and defending boundaries

Three senior managersFlexibility is a good thing.


Sometimes—and about some things—we need to be inflexible: We need to have boundaries. We need to decide what we are going to accept and what we are not going to accept. Actually, we probably already know, deep down (we can tell by what upsets us—that’s a signal), we just need to articulate the parameters properly to ourselves, and our colleagues, if they’re involved.

Then we need to make our boundaries clear and visible to those we are interacting with, whose compliance we need—and whose liberty-taking is causing us problems.

Funnily enough, it can be in the other party’s interest to be compelled to act in a certain way if they want a particular outcome. They may benefit from that kind of influence.

For example, having high expectations of the time-keeping and focus of participants in events and workshops may actually be part of the learning. They need—maybe in some ways want—to be called out on their distracted behaviour, like checking their phones for email, or just not turning up at all.

Rather than being soft and accommodating, we may be more help to people if we set fair boundaries, communicate them clearly, and are robust in their defence.

How are your boundaries looking?

Separating learning and evaluating

Mid sized audienceLearning something isn’t the same as accepting it, necessarily. We don’t have to commit to agreeing with something before, or even as, we learn it. And often we can’t evaluate some new piece of knowledge or a new skill properly until we have thoroughly understood it—tried it out even.

Sometimes we can only learn by doing. Some knowledge can only be gained through experience.

It’s a good idea, therefore, to defer judgement until the learning has taken place—until we have the whole picture.

Being sceptical every step along the way isn’t an effective learning strategy because it slows down the process.

It’s wise—and quicker—to be open-minded. And to experiment.

We want a thriller not a thesis

Members of an audienceLike it or not, we find it hard to engage with dry, factual, objective communication. We need the information, of course, but nevertheless we find a “thesis” hard to access and to assimilate.

Instead, even though we know we maybe shouldn’t, we find it easier to connect with something exciting, something that touches us emotionally, something vivid. We’re captivated by the story and the drama. We hear the message within—and what’s more we remember it.

There’s a time and a place for rigorously argued, dispassionate material, and there’s a time and a place for emotional intensity.

Can we deliver both, as the occasion requires?

If we want to move people, there’s no getting away from it…

We need a thriller not a thesis.

To be a critical friend you need to start by being a friend

Three people in discussionThe phrase “critical friend” is sometimes used to describe the role of a trusted adviser and, in particular, one who is prepared to tell you something you might not really want to hear—but do need to hear.

The role is reasonably widely understood, but that doesn’t mean it’s a commodity, or even really a service to be bought. It does depend on there being a real and genuine connection between the people involved. They need to care.

To be a critical friend, you need to start by being a friend.

Does delegation go up or down?

Group discussing plansDoes delegation mostly go up or down your organisation? Seriously.

The art of effective delegation is perhaps the poor relation of management and leadership practice—not very exciting to study—but nevertheless very important.

So often, I meet leaders or even whole management teams who say they can’t delegate any more work because their team members are too busy already. And so they overload themselves and don’t have the capacity to take on the higher level—and perhaps unfamiliar—challenges they should taking on.

The thing is that’s really backwards: It means delegation flows up the organisation not down. If our people can’t handle any more work, it means they don’t have a big enough team or they’re not effective at delegating or need help with the task. The answer to that is to help them learn to delegate more effectively and perhaps find more people, not take on more work ourselves.

If we want to evolve and grow, we should be pushing work down the organisation not lifting it up, building strength in the team as required to make that possible.

Much easier to shut down initiative than get it going

Group of colleagues

I think we underestimate this asymmetry.

The taking of initiative by team members can be a fragile thing. It’s much, much easier to shut it down than get it going in the first place. The truth is we really don’t need to worry that we can stop something if we need to do. That’s all too easy. The difficult part is switching people on in the first place. We need to nurture that.

It’s so easy to fall in to the trap of thinking we should be in control of what happens at all times. That may seem to be what’s expected of us, or so we think anyway. But that sucks the energy out of any initiative. The effort becomes just our energy then—ours alone. That’s a lot less than the energy of the group.

Instead, we need the art of the light touch and the continuance of trust.

Unless, that is, we believe a heroic, solo effort from ourselves is the right way—that we’ll somehow be stronger than a whole organisation full of people.

Most of the time, we won’t be.

It’s not so comfortable to allow something to happen and not be in full control, but for others to take and sustain initiative that’s the path we need to follow.

If in doubt, communicate

Three senior managers talkingSometimes we wonder whether we should say something or not, probably because it’s sensitive in some way.

I’ve always reckoned that if we’re unsure whether to take a particular action or not, we should do the positive thing i.e. take the option that is active rather than passive. At least that way we’ll learn something even if the action doesn’t turn out that well, whereas if we don’t do anything, we’ll learn nothing. Over time that attitude has paid off, I would say.

Similarly, then…

If we’re unsure about speaking (or writing) to someone about something—if the decision is finely balanced, that is—we should go ahead, with the best skill and tact we can muster and if it seems the right time. At least then we move things on, even if the road is bumpy.

If in doubt, communicate.