February 21, 2018

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?

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.

The importance of sifting

The importance of siftingIt’s surprising what a difference it makes, thinking over our experiences and learning.

You’d imagine that if we put all that stuff into our heads the process would be automatic after that—that we could rely on our brains to process everything comprehensively; to form all the connections that there are to form; and to generate all the ideas there are to generate. After all, we’ve put it all in one pot.

In my experience, it doesn’t work like that. The “stuff” mostly just lies there.

Instead, to make the most of what we have—all that accumulated wisdom—we do need to find ways of sifting through our experiences and new things we’ve learned. We do need to do that deliberately. And we do need to create the opportunity for new patterns to emerge.

In other words, both time to reflect and some particular approach to reflection are important.

Talking things over with other people is obviously one way, especially if they have some skill in listening and questioning. Another is writing a journal. Whatever the specifics, expressing what’s inside stimulates new realisations. Particular frameworks and models and new ways of looking at things help.

It’s like we need to cross and recross the ground in different directions, connecting up the pieces in new ways, and sorting out what is most important.

In other words, we need to sift.

So much, so obvious maybe.

The question is: Are we sifting enough?

Aiming for less to get more

GatheringIt’s a funny thing…

Sometimes we need to aim for less, to get more.

In leadership and management, it’s tempting to demand a great deal from another person in the hope of getting some of it. Actually, we risk getting none at all if they are demoralised by the seeming impossibility of the expectation, or if trying to meet it makes things impossibly complicated.

That’s not to say that we should accept only what the other person thinks is possible.


We can push for them to exceed their own expectations, just not in such a way that our vision is wholly out of sight. And we need to know they can do it.

In my view, we’ll do better if we stay within reach of what they think is possible.

It’s like towing a ship: Pull too hard and the tow line will break. And forward movement will stop.

All of this is brought home to me with my son with special needs… We realise that learning sometimes needs to proceed in tiny steps, matched to his pace, otherwise we don’t move forward at all: The flow of knowledge stops, he disengages, and we end up with nothing.

The principle is the same with the rest of us: The steps might be bigger, but the need to preserve the connection remains.

A more distracting environment than there’s ever been?

Woman with BlackberryIs this true?

Watching my early teenage years children struggle at times to focus on their homework in the face of diverse and increasing electronic distractions, I wonder whether their generation is growing up in the most distracting environment there has ever been.

Of course, living in a war zone might be rather worse. That’s true.

But assuming we’re not in physical danger, is our ability to focus more challenged than it’s ever been?

If so, that reality isn’t going to go away, and no doubt it’s going to intensify.

So it seems to me, we need to develop more skilful ways of coping; of sustaining our concentration. In fact, we need to get better at that just to stand still. We need more “one-pointedness” – the ability to focus on just one thing at a time.

Paradoxically, the modern world may drive us to be stiller in order to cope with its character; to be able to ignore its apparent insistence when we choose. Actually, the freneticism might force us to be calmer.

What do you think?

Are there more distractions that ever?

If so, how should we respond?

Blending the intervention

Four people speaking in front of a laptopWe don’t have all the answers. That’s true whether we’re on the outside of the issue looking in or on the inside looking out.

The leadership team knows its business, whereas the change agent knows something useful the insiders don’t currently have. Neither has all the answers, nor even all of the pieces available collectively.


The way forward needs to be a blend of both—both what the leadership team already has and what the change agent is bringing, but not usually all of either.

For the necessary co-creation to happen, both parties need to let go of something—to give up part of their model.

Are you ready to do that?

What really is the question?

Man thinkingMost of the time we focus on answering the question—or trying to.

But is it the right question?

Are we investing our energies in solving the right problem?

In my own (sometimes painful) experience…

We’re inclined to spend rather too much time trying to answer a question and not enough time making sure it’s the right question in the first place. We’re comfortable, in a sense, with the question as stated.

For example…

I once spent some considerable time trying to think of a way to repair a damaged piece of manufactured pipework in a remote location, with only limited resources. Only when someone asked “What does that pipe do anyway?” and I answered that it conveyed water from there to there, did I realise that implementing an alternative way of piping the water was much easier that repairing the damaged part. A piece of tubing and two jubilee clips would do fine and all were available.

To this day, I am in awe of the human propensity to fixate on answering the wrong—or at least not most helpful—question.

When actually…

As Einstein said, “The questions are more important than the answers.”

To avoid the trap, we need to be prepared to go in the direction of knowing less rather than knowing more, at first—to not only not know the answer, but to choose not to know the question either. We need to accept—even welcome—the discomfort that entails.

Where could you do with reconsidering the question?

How others see us, and what to do about it

Two staff members smilingHow others see us is very important in determining our results and what happens in our lives. Many factors affect that, of course: Our track record and so on.

However, a big part of it is how we see ourselves.

Surprisingly perhaps…

The limiting factor in what we achieve can be our own self-image. If we have a pessimistic view of our capabilities then that will be borne out in reality. Our relative denial of our own power will diminish how others see us and that will make whatever we hope to achieve more difficult. Our self-image will be the primary constraint on our success.

We do tend to hold ourselves back by playing small.

So it’s important to step properly into our own power, our own authority.

Of course, over-confidence is a danger too.

Accurate self-perception is the key to the greatest success. That way, other will see us as we really are, and results will flow from that.

The question is…

How well do you understand your own power? And do you live congruently with it?


If you realise you’re improvising…

Woman reflectingIt’s great to be resourceful in solving problems with what’s available.

But that ability carries a hidden danger…

We have the option of not dealing the with issue permanently.

If you realise you’re improvising the same solution to the same problem time and again, it could mean you’re bumping up against a limit in what you do. Some kind of constraint is making its presence felt.

That constraint could be limiting your achievements because you tend to avoid the circumstances where the issue arises.


It might be time to solve the problem properly.

For example…

Over many years, I worked around not having an A3 printer in my office. Eventually, I realised that, yes, I was managing without, but in fact I was constraining my business in certain ways by not having one.

What are you routinely improvising?

And does that suggest a constraint which might be worth removing?

Why do we resist help so much?

Three in discussionIt’s remarkable really, how hard we work to stop others helping us.

Why is that?

Is it because the help is clearly rubbish? Is it because the help doesn’t actually apply to us? Is it because the time isn’t right?

Or is it that we’re comfortable where we are? Things aren’t so bad really. We can afford to wait.

Perhaps there’s a loss of face involved in accepting help.

Or is it the loss of control required to let someone in? I think that might be the big one.

Perhaps we’d rather be in control and failing than out of control and succeeding.

What do you think? Why do we resist help?

And what do you do to overcome the reticence?