Ten factors to create the environment required for deep learning

January 27th, 2017   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Ten factors to create the environment required for deep learning

 

As a leader, do you sometimes wish that the people you lead would learn and grow faster? Many leaders organize training for their people, but are frustrated by the limited impact. The issue, in many cases, is that people remain in their comfort zone – they sit through the training and may even listen intently, but they are not moved by what they experience. From the training they acquire a few techniques and perhaps they remember a few frameworks, but this only affects their behavior superficially – at best. The return on investment is dismal.

 

I recently delivered a leadership development program in Shanghai, where we had the chance to celebrate that much deep learning took place in the course of the week. Participants learned to name and confront their fears that were interfering with their performance. They saw new ways to reframe their challenges, enabling them to walk away with greater energy and optimism. They took on board the personal challenge to set higher aspirations for themselves and their teams. There was a lot to celebrate, and we did so – with participants – toward the end of the week.

 

This experience got me thinking – again – about why there is so much corporate training with limited or no real impact. And what, exactly, we do differently, to achieve the deep learning we aim for. Ten factors are crucial, and I will explain each of them below.

 

1: We don’t do training (for the most part)

 

2: We create a safe arena for learning

 

3: We role model vulnerability

 

4: We push participants beyond their comfort zone

 

5: We give participants ample opportunity to practice – and give them hard-hitting feedback

 

6: We love the participants

 

7: We clearly put the participants in charge of their own learning

 

8: … but we do also field faculty who are centered, who have a successful track record as leaders and who have decades of experience

 

9: We facilitate learning from peers

 

10: We tie the learning, thoughtfully, to the specific role and aspirations of each participant.

 

1: We don’t do training (for the most part)

 

We don’t do training (for the most part). Period. There are, of course, simple, technical challenges where training is useful. But the deeper, adaptive challenges that organizations are faced with will not be addressed by delivering training. We design and delivering learning programs and leadership development programs. This difference in vocabulary may seem trivial, but it represents a huge difference in mindset. If you set out to deliver training, I can pretty much guarantee that you will be successful. At the end of the training program, you will have delivered training. Mission accomplished. But has any real learning occurred? Often not. By defining the objective as deep learning – rather than training – you set the bar high – at the level where it needs to be.

 

2: We create a safe arena for learning

 

For people to learn, they must feel safe. They must feel that it is OK to share their concerns, their shortcomings, their fears. They must feel that it is acceptable to try something new and fall on their face, get up, and try again. They must have a risk-free environment. We go out of our way to create this. We typically deliver learning programs offsite, indicating that other rules apply at this program. We avoid having direct reports in the same program. We set ‘ground rules’ at the beginning of the program, highlighting respect and confidentiality as key norms.

 

3: We role model vulnerability

 

Setting ground rules is not enough. We must role model vulnerability. As faculty, we do this by sharing some of our own challenges and our own failures. By doing so, authentically, we invite participants to do the same. That creates an atmosphere for deep, personal learning.

 

4: We push participants beyond their comfort zone

 

We know, from experience, that adults learn best when they are pushed beyond their comfort zone. They must be nudged into their learning zone. We do this by inviting them to engage in a grapple exercise – a simulation where they are likely to struggle, or even fail. By dissecting how and why they struggled, participants are motivated to build the capabilities required to succeed.

 

5: We give participants ample opportunity to practice – and give them hard-hitting feedback

 

We may engage in “teaching” for 5% of the duration of the learning program. The rest of the time, we engage in grapple exercises (see above), open-ended reflection, guided dialog, peer coaching, one-on-one coaching and other activities that engage the participants at a much deeper level than teaching.

 

6: We love the participants

 

I could, of course, choose to express this using a “corporate vocabulary” and say that we care deeply about the participants. But it really is about love. We recruit faculty who have personal passion for what they do, who consider it a calling. We make ourselves available beyond the learning program to support each participant in their personal learning journey. We conduct faculty meetings each morning and each evening to explore, together, how we might remove interference for each participant. We ensure a faculty-to-participant ratio that permits due attention to each participant.

 

7: We clearly put the participants in charge of their own learning

 

This is demanding. We expect of the participants that they be fully present, and we make this clear. If they have so much else going on in their lives that they struggle to be present, we invite them to opt out. Deep learning will only take place if all participants are fully present – physically, mentally and emotionally. We ask that participants articulate their personal learning goals, and we ask them to monitor their own progress towards these goals as the program progresses. We encourage participants to free themselves from the tyranny of technology – parking their phones at the door, for example – to facilitate deep engagement.

 

8: … but we do also field faculty who are centered, who have a successful track record as leaders and who have decades of experience

 

Putting participants in charge of their own learning in no ways lets the faculty off the hook. Holding the space in a way that encourages deep reflection requires credible faculty. The credibility has multiple sources, but rich experience and a successful track record are required. This allows the faculty to share relevant stories from their own lives. Beyond this, faculty must be centered. They must have processed their own experiences to reach a level of maturity that allows them to engage with participants through all phases of the journey.

 

9: We facilitate learning from peers

 

In a learning cohort, some participants will have their spike in one area, others will have their spike in another area. Some will have achieved success in one area, some in another area. There is, therefore, ample opportunity for participants to learn from one another. All it takes is a judicious setting of the stage – carving out time, encouraging thoughtful questions, nurturing supportive behavior and safeguarding the risk-free environment. Learning from peers has a great benefit beyond the learning program: if participants can learn to learn from one another, they will gain from this long after the program is over.

 

10: We tie the learning, thoughtfully, to the specific role and aspirations of each participant

 

We spend time with each individual and with small breakout groups to understand the role and the aspirations of each participant. When we give feedback, we give it in the context of the individual’s role, aspirations and learning goals. When the participants engage in grapple exercises, we encourage them to reflect on how the exercise and their experience with it tie to their role, their aspirations and their learning goals. This personalization makes the experience “real” for the individual participant.

 

It is actually simple. It is not easy, but it is simple. By delivering learning programs according to these principles, organizations can greatly increase the value they derive from these programs. A word of caution, though: cherry picking from the list above will not work so well. It is the interaction among these principles that creates the magic. So go “all in” to achieve deep learning.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.