Change Thinking

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Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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Using Errors to Our Advantage

In the last two postings, we discussed the fact that mistakes are inevitable during major change—essential to the learning process, and an inherent part of transition itself. We also distinguished failures (falling short of expectations without learning) from corrective experiences (missed goals that lead us to learn how to avoid or minimize the same error in the future).

There are clear patterns displayed by people who view missing the mark as a corrective experience versus a failure.

Corrective experiences occur when mistakes lead to learning and growth.

Here, the person:

  • recognizes that a performance gap has taken place,
  • acknowledges the negative implications and takes responsibility,
  • apologizes to those affected for any adverse repercussions,
  • identifies causes and the appropriate healing or mitigating actions to pursue,
  • applies the proper remedy to reduce the likelihood of recurrence, and
  • shares learnings so that others may benefit from his or her experience.

Failures occur when mistakes lead to stagnation and atrophy.

Here, the person:

  • is unaware or uninterested when a performance gap occurs,
  • deflects the negative implications and his or her responsibilities,
  • ignores those affected,
  • evades exploration of causes and actions to be taken,
  • sidesteps application of remedies, so recurrence of the problem is likely, and
  • withholds from others any key learnings that do occur.

Model 3: The Learning Sequence

When this corrective experience pattern is intentionally replicated, it is referred to as the Learning Sequence. Here are some of the guidelines that foster its application.

Guidelines for the Learning Sequence

1.      Recognize that a performance gap has taken place.

  • Be mindful of self-observation or feedback from others that will help identify gaps.
  • Acknowledge recognized gaps and speak openly about them.
  • Avoid being defensive, blaming, or self-serving when discussing gaps.

2.      Acknowledge the negative implications of the gap and take responsibility.

  • Think through the consequences and interdependent linkages.
  • Consider any emotional cost as well as impact on the change initiative.
  • Search for unexpected complications.
  • Take ownership of gaps and speak openly about them.

3.      Apologize to those affected for any adverse repercussions.

  • Express regrets in a timely manner when the issues and damage are fresh.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the consequences and empathy for those impacted.
  • Make no excuses or blame others.
  • Declare intention to take corrective action and specify how.

4.      Identify causes and the appropriate healing or mitigating actions.

  • Be objective and thorough about examining the nature of the gap and the factors that contributed to its occurrence.
  • Explore both root cause and systemic ramifications.
  • Create a mitigation plan to resolve the implications for the current situation.
  • Develop methods, practices, or structures to reduce the likelihood of those same root cause issues from triggering a similar gap in the future.

5.      Apply the proper remedy to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.

  • Take corrective action by engaging the mitigation plan.
  • Measure and report results to the appropriate people.
  • Integrate your learnings into how you do things in the future.

6.      Share learnings so that others may benefit from your experience.

  • Describe what was learned about the problem, contributing factors, and solution so the specific problem can be avoided in the future.
  • Articulate the entire process you went through—Recognize, Acknowledge, Apologize, Identify, Apply, Share—so others can learn about utilizing the Learning Sequence itself.

There are certainly benefits for individuals who apply the Learning Sequence:

  • Resolution of the problem
  • Prevention of reoccurrences of the same mistake
  • Reinstatement of credibility
  • Mending of strained relationships
  • Contributing to others’ learning

When an organization incorporates the Learning Sequence (or some equivalent) into its cultural norms, additional leverage is possible.

In such an environment, people tend to do the following:

  • Trust that they are being encouraged to push the boundaries of their capabilities
  • Feel they are encouraged to take informed risks versus playing it safe
  • Have confidence that they contribute to the innovation and creativity that help the business thrive
  • Invite open examination of any failure to live up to their own or others’ expectations
  • Receive constructive feedback comfortably, and listen with an open mind
  • Own their actions and don’t blame circumstances or other people for results of their own mistakes
  • Come to believe that mistakes on unfamiliar tasks are valued and appreciated because they produce important learnings that help achieve company goals and serve as catalysts for growth
  • Embrace that for familiar tasks, failure is unacceptable because it is a drain on resources and inhibits professional, corporate, and personal growth
  • Understand that being accountable for results includes taking the proper corrective steps to resolve negative implications and reducing the likelihood that similar problems will occur in the future
  • Believe that no one needs to feel attacked or victimized for individual and team development to occur

From a practitioner’s point of view, I have found the Learning Sequence to be well-received when introduced to leaders with a predisposition for seeing connections between missed expectations and professional growth. These executives see failures as mistakes that render no value (people miss the mark and do not learn from the incident), and corrective experiences as mistakes that enable people to experience important discernment and illumination.

If you view “corrective experiences” as a mindset that certain leaders might like to promote within their organizations, the Learning Sequence can put that way of thinking into play.

I’ll close this series with a caution: Don’t let the models you use to facilitate or understand the learning process become so rote that you fail to leverage their full potential. Take some time to review them and be sure you are applying their concepts or tenets by design and with forethought. It will benefit our profession and us as individual practitioners to keep learning about learning.

Posted on: January 18, 2011 10:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Learning Paradox

In this series, I’m encouraging you to review the models (concepts, approaches, and frameworks) that may have slipped into unconscious application over your years of practice. I’m also sharing a few learning-related models that have surfaced from observations in my practice. The model below is one that came to light for me as I watched people learn (or fail to learn) from their disappointments.

Model 2: Corrective Mistakes vs. Failure

In organizational transformation, clients must have lofty ambitions in order to break the gravitational pull of the status quo. However, aggressive aspirations make them risk falling short of their objectives. Many people, and even entire organizational cultures, assume they must choose between succeeding with goals that don’t challenge the current paradigm, or failing at groundbreaking—but nonetheless out-of-reach—intentions.

My experience is that clients who consistently succeed with change embrace an alternative path—they strive for goals beyond their current grasp, but include a way to capitalize on the unavoidable shortfalls that occur. These leaders think mistakes are not only inevitable but essential to the growth process—an inherent part of the journey itself. They try their best to accomplish all their change milestones and ultimate outcomes, while at the same time recognizing that mishaps and setbacks provide the learning necessary for success. They embrace the paradox that falling down is crucial to winning the race. This important attribute distinguishes them from those who desire transformation but never quite reach the goal line.

Mistakes Are Key to Success

The only way to succeed when seeking transformational goals is to reframe the notion of failure into “corrective” experiences:

  • Failures are mistakes that render no value—people miss the mark and do not learn from the incident.
  • Corrective experiences are mistakes that enable people to gain important discernment and illumination.

I’m not trying to diminish the importance of reinforcing and recognizing successful performance, but I am highlighting the importance of using mistakes as catalysts for growth. Major change stretches the boundaries of what clients have done before. This creates a rich environment for errors, so it’s important that they see them as a valuable part of living on the edge of what’s possible. Corrective experiences are not only acceptable, they are vital to the spirit of inquiry needed to “push the envelope” during the stress of major change.

As odd as it sounds, falling behind on personal and organizational goals can’t simply be tolerated—it must be embraced by leadership as essential to successful implementation. In fact, sponsors should declare that if there aren’t enough errors and shortfalls, perhaps they haven’t raised the bar high enough, thereby making it possible for people to play it safe and not take enough risk.

However, not just any blunder will do. Leaders who consistently succeed with change don’t foster a “failure friendly” work environment. In fact, they usually have a very low tolerance for failing (mistakes without learning). They seem to have inexhaustible patience, however, for people who find a way to create corrective experiences out of missing their objectives and expectations.

Leaders of nimble organizations take a very strong, but paradoxical stance: “If you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not pushing the edge enough. If you’re not learning from your mistakes, there’s not a seat for you on the bus.”

I have found that sharing this perspective (model) with leaders can be helpful in establishing the kind of learning environment needed for successful implementation. I’ve never gotten much traction with executives who punish all errors. However, for those who seek another path, but aren’t sure how to proceed, seeing how to make heroes out of people who learn from their mistakes is a welcome alternative.

Levels of Change and Learning

There many kinds and levels of change; each has a corresponding type and degree of learning. The learning that occurs during continuous improvement, for example, typically happens under predictable, stable conditions. A related, but different kind of learning takes place as major change unfolds; it happens during erratic, fluctuating circumstances. Both are important to organizational viability, but each requires a different perspective on learning.

The turbulence, disruption, and stress that accompany dramatic change mandate that many of the learning opportunities stem from missteps and disappointments. Mistakes prevail when navigating the uncharted waters of significant organizational change, and learning from them is essential to surviving.

Sponsors, agents, and targets make plenty of mistakes as they acquire the skills needed to perform their roles properly; the only question is whether they will learn from these experiences. A key to success is to increase the likelihood people receive a sufficient “learning return” from their mistake “investments.” Facing errors, blunders, and poor judgment is not a pleasant experience, but is fundamental to increasing change-related competence. If handled effectively, drawing positive implications from mistakes can create extremely beneficial results; our job as change facilitators is to foster this kind of learning environment as much as we can.

Posted on: January 14, 2011 08:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

What Have We Learned About Learning?

Enlightenment isn’t about knowledge you learn, it’s about knowledge you turn into. ~Deepak Chopra

 

In my opinion, learning is one of the indispensable bedrocks of our craft. I layer many concepts, tools, and techniques on top of this core element, but fostering learning—my own and my clients’—is at the heart of what I do.

Recently, though, I realized that I haven’t been paying enough attention to what I’ve “learned from learning.” This prompted me to go back and reexamine a variety of learning models that I’ve used over the years and ask myself to what extent I apply, by design and with forethought, the concepts or tenets from these frameworks. I didn’t merely ask, “Have the models influenced my thinking or impacted my actions?” but “Am I intentional and mindful about their application?” My answers varied from model to model—sometimes it was encouraging, but mostly it was sobering. After years of application, many of the models had seeped into my unconscious…they were definitely reflected in my work, but not because of any specific overt intention on my part.

You might say, “Don’t most professional change facilitators rely to some extent on their ‘unconscious competence?” Yes, we all implant certain concepts and models deep into our thought processes and gradually lose awareness of when, how, or to what extent we incorporate them into our actions and recommendations. There are many positive implications that result from this, yet, as we all know, any asset overdone can become a liability. Learning frameworks, used without conscious intent, can result in sloppy application, for example.

Any learning is a good thing, but we get more value when we are mindful about leveraging our knowledge. I’m not suggesting we stop drawing on our unconscious competence, but I think we should pause occasionally to remind ourselves of what has become more intuitive, rather than deliberate, in our practice.

This blog series is about some of the learning models I’ve become more attentive to after inventorying all the ones that influence my work (at least those I can remember). Because the full list of concepts and frameworks I’ve used and found valuable in the last 36 years is beyond the scope of this blog, some paring down was necessary. At first, I was tempted to address only the “big ones”—learning models that most likely all of us have benefited from (ones developed by the likes of BF Skinner, Abraham Maslow, Howard Gardner, Chris Argyris, Gregory Bateson, Peter Senge, etc.). I decided against this, however, because, although I can honor these pioneers by listing them, I have little new light to shed on their remarkable insights. Instead, I decided to focus on three less-familiar models that surfaced for me as I observed highly successful clients and consultants.

I encourage you to think about the learning-related concepts, approaches, and frameworks that have stood out in your work. Also, please consider sharing what you find with colleagues so they can benefit from knowing what you have learned about learning.

Model One: Learning Harvest Predisposition

Attitude really matters when it comes to learning. I’ve observed three learning outcomes among people who face dramatic change. Each reflects a different set of attitudes and emotions about the cost/benefit from transformational experience.

Recovery: Cost-Benefit Analysis = Negative
  Attitude = “This change was horrible to live through with little to no positive implications to show from it. If I could retract it I would, but I know it’s irreversible.”
  Emotions = Resigned, often bitter; blames others
   
Gain: Cost-Benefit Analysis = Worthwhile
  Attitude = “I gained a lot from the change, but it was terribly expensive. I’m glad it’s over, and I’m pleased at the outcome, but if I had a choice, I would not do this again.”
  Emotions = Gratified but often full of cynicism, anger, and resentment
   
Growth: Cost-Benefit Analysis = Positive
  Attitude = “Even though the price was more than I ever thought I would have to pay, I would never return to the way things were, and I would do it all again if I had the same choices.”
  Emotions = Grateful, optimistic, and forgiving
  • Recovery: The person involved sees the resources necessary to adapt to the new circumstances are inordinately high when compared with the value received from the ordeal. The individual would gladly undo the change if possible, because, from his or her standpoint, little payoff occurred in relation to the cost of the adaptation process. The person accepts the change as irreversible, but sees only a slim chance of succeeding well enough in the new environment to compensate for the difficulties experienced during the migration. For this reason, people in these kinds of situations often carry a great deal of bitterness, and they tend to blame others for what caused the change, what happened during the transition, and/or what transpires as a result of the shift.
  • Gain: The person involved believes the change was too expensive for the results received. However, with this kind of learning harvest, there is more of a return for the transition investment than with a recovery outcome. The physical, emotional, and intellectual energy it took to recalibrate was costly, but from the person’s standpoint, what resulted created enough value that it made the effort at least worthwhile. Although the individual reports a positive yield from the experience, the trouble and hardship he or she withstood left such an impression, that if there were now a choice to re-enter the same change situation, the individual would decline it.

People in these circumstances consider themselves fortunate to have profited from the discomfort and aggravation suffered, but overall wish the experience had never happened. They would still prefer for things to have stayed the way they were before the change. Because of this, even though people in these situations have achieved more because of the change than they otherwise would have, they often hold on to a great deal of cynicism, anger, and resentment long after the transition is complete.

  • Growth: This individual pays no less of a price for his or her change outcome than individuals who have “recovered” or “gained” from theirs, but this person believes the investment was more than worth the trouble and pain that was experienced. The cost-benefit ratio is viewed in an extremely positive light, and he or she would never wish to return to the pre-existing state before the change. Even though a very high price was paid for the rewards received, this person believes whatever was required to accomplish the transition was worth the investment. The physical, emotional, and intellectual invoice may have been much greater than this person ever thought possible before entering the transition process, but if offered the chance to do it all again, he or she would. Even knowing beforehand what the full price would be, he or she would not hesitate to pursue this change again.

People who grow from change typically carry little, if any, negative baggage from their difficult and costly ordeal. If injustices were done to them along the way, they forgive and/or move on with the rest of their lives. If they made mistakes, they don’t indulge in a lot of guilt or self-incrimination, because they believe they were making the best decision they could at the time. People who grow from their trials and tribulations tend to be more grateful than resentful about the price they paid to achieve what they ultimately accomplish. They often report that everything they have experienced in their life, both good and bad, was necessary for them to be prepared to achieve and embrace the rewards they eventually enjoyed.

This model has helped me recognize a person’s learning harvest predisposition as well as how to encourage him or her into a growth mindset instead of gain or recovery. Of course, some gain and recovery predispositions are too strong to overcome, but even in these instances, I have found it helpful to understand how people relate to their shifting circumstances when determining change-related  interventions.

Next: The Learning Paradox

Posted on: January 10, 2011 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
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- Will Rogers

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