Build capability through experiential learning

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Have you ever noticed that the journey to a new place always takes longer than the journey back? Why is that?

I hiked a new trail the other day and it seemed to take me forever to go one mile. But then when I returned by the same route, it seemed to take but a few moments. Has this kind of thing happened to you? Maybe you’ve taken a wrong turn when driving, and it seems you’ll never reach a turn-around spot. But then once you do turn around, it takes no time to get back to the spot where you went astray.Journey

This all got me thinking about how each of our experiences better prepares us for the next. It’s what John Dewey calls continuity, with each experience being influenced by those that came before, as well as impacting those that will take place in the future. Knowledge from one situation becomes the basis for understanding experiences that come later. (Dewey, 1938) Whether on a new hike or driving a new road, we are better prepared each subsequent time we take that path. We know more clearly what to expect – what the hazards, stumbling blocks, distractions, or pleasures might be.

 

Because of this, learning at work – whether it takes place in a “classroom” or on-the-job – will be most effective when experiential learning methods are incorporated. This might be done through simulations, role-play (I hear you groaning, but this really can be a great tool), field work, or other practical application opportunities. At other times, individuals and groups may participate in purposeful activities that are not directly related to their normal work environment. These experiential learning activities incorporate reflection and processing steps that allow learners to make connections back to their day-to-day environment, and gain understanding at a deeper level. By intentionally creating continuity in the learning process, skills and capability are developed at higher levels and with greater sustainability.

Think about some of your best learning experiences. What made them effective?

Reference:

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & education (1st Touchstone ed.). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Experience & Education

Why do team challenges work?

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Recently I was hiking on a granite dome, and after exploring a bit at the top, found myself challenged with finding a navigable route back down. In essence, I was “lost” on the dome, climbing up and down steep slopes for a couple of hours, occasionally getting stuck and frequently wondering whether I’d ever make it down in one piece. At times I thought it was either going to take a rescue or a fall to get me off that mountain. But I kept at it, and after much scrambling, climbing, sliding, and scooting along the rocks, I successfully made it to a trail, and then back to camp (just in time for dinner).

The experience got me thinteam challengesking about team challenges and what makes them so effective. A typical workplace team is rarely tested in the normal work environment. Team members perform their duties, handle responsibilities, and complete tasks routinely, but usually without ever knowing what they are truly capable of. And because of this, they don’t necessarily stretch themselves to try to do more, and team potential remains untapped.

A well-designed challenge activity will take team members outside of their comfort zones (but not too far!). It allows them to step out of their normal work environment and into one that propels them to learn more about themselves individually and as a team. Those lessons can then be applied back in the workplace. For example, team members may recognize something about the way they communicate (or don’t) that influenced their ability to be successful in a challenge. Or, they may have found that it was necessary to rely on the diverse strengths of all team members in order to achieve a goal.

Often self-confidence increases through participation in challenge activities. Participants may recognize that: “If I could do that, then I can most certainly do this!”  In my own dome-climbing adventure, I had to rely on strengths that I didn’t even know I had, until they were tested on the mountain.

I also came to understand things at a deeper level that I had already known. For example, the importance of planning, and thinking ahead further than the next step or two. And how failure to look at the goal from a big-picture perspective can lead to dead-ends or jams that are really hard to get out of. Additionally, I had to recognize when something was beyond my skill.  Just because I wanted and was willing to climb up a certain slope didn’t mean that I necessarily had the size or physical strength to do so. These are similar to the types of things that team members may learn during challenge activities.

Every team and every challenge activity experience is unique. What insights will your team have that will drive them to peak performance?

Crucial Conversations

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crucial conversationsWhat happens when a “normal” conversation suddenly takes a turn and becomes something much more? How can you become more aware so you can successfully navigate those more difficult conversations? What can you do to keep a crucial conversation on track and solution-focused?

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, you’ll learn how to recognize when someone feels unsafe in a conversation, and also what you can do about it. You’ll learn strategies to continue a dialogue toward a successful outcome, even when emotions begin to run high.The authors use examples that are easy to connect with, and demonstrate how different types of responses can influence outcomes when conversations turn crucial.

 

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Fitting in on a new team

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We’ve all had the experience of being the “new kid” at one time or another. Whether it was the first day in a new school, moving to a new neighborhood, joining a new sport team, starting a new job, or countless other things – it can be intimidating. As humans, we have an instinctive need to belong, and the chance that we might not fit in to a new situation can be a little frightening.Fitting in

When a group forms, everyone takes part in the process of “fitting in.” This happens whether it is a newly formed group, or just one or two members have changed. The group dynamic is altered, and so is the performance level of the group, even if only temporarily.

When a new member joins your team, do you have a process to welcome the new member and make him or her part of the team? What do you do to ensure that both new and existing team members belong? Does your group rely on the mere passage of time to bring the group together into a cohesive unit, or are you more purposeful about it?

We tend to teach the way we were taught, and lead the way we’ve been led, whether consciously or not. If we don’t think about it, it’s easy to fall into the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” trap without even realizing it. Recently, when I asked a group about what they do to make new members feel part of their team, I was greeted with puzzlement. Being intentional about building cohesion was just not something they’d experienced before and the idea was foreign.

So how can you be more purposeful in developing your team, creating a sense of belonging where every member fits in?  Here are a few ideas. Consider how you might apply them – whether your team sees each other in an office every day, or members work remotely:

  • be clear about the purpose and goals of your team
  • talk about group norms and expectations
  • create opportunities for interaction among team members
  • show each member that you value him or her as an individual and as an important part of the team
  • make the environment psychologically safe so that team members are comfortable sharing ideas and voicing concerns
  • remember to make this an ongoing process, not a one-time effort

What would you add? What have your experiences been? Have you experienced, as I have, a well-planned first-day welcome, followed by … nothing? I’d love to hear your stories!

 

What makes a team a team?

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What makes a team a team? You’ve probably been a part of many teams throughout your life – through school activities, sports teams, work groups, project teams, or volunteer organizations, to name a few. It’s just a group of people, right? Well, no, it’s really not.

So what is the difference between a group and a team? Sometimes work groups reporting to the same supervisor are labeled “teams.” Is that all it takes – a label? Sometimes we act that way. As if giving something the name that represents what we want it to be will make it so. And while that can be a good first step, developing a team requires far more than just calling it a team.

A team is a group of people working together toward a common purpose. Sounds simple enough. On paper. But when it comes to the actual level of effectiveness of a team, differences can be extreme. You’ve probably encountered a wide range in your own experience. Because their performance is highly visible and outcomes are well-defined, sports teams offer great examples of teamwork and team effectiveness. Last year, as I watched the LA Kings become the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Champions, I was struck repeatedly by the teamwork that propelled them to the top. Along the way, I also observed teams made up of highly-talented individuals who seemed to lack cohesion or were distracted by conflict, and failed as a result.

Team effectiveness
Teams can achieve great heights when members work in areas of strength and support each other.

Effective teams consistently exhibit certain characteristics:

  • clear understanding of mission and purpose
  • trust in the intentions and capabilities of members
  • open communication – all voices are heard
  • willingness to question ideas or actions – of self and each other
  • inclusive atmosphere
  • seek diverse perspectives
  • leverage strengths to support each other

 

 

It’s true that over time many groups will naturally gravitate toward team behaviors and characteristics. But why wait and just hope for that process to occur? The process of transforming a group into a team can be greatly accelerated through purposeful activity and discussion. Next time your group gets together, try including an activity to reinforce a certain aspect of teamwork. Here is an example of an activity that requires no props, can be done in any setting, and offers an opportunity for a rich discussion about how team members communicate with each other.

 

 

For more detailed instructions about how to use and debrief this activity, check out Teamwork & Teamplay by Jim Cain and Barry Joliff. Or contact me – I’d love to talk with you about this or other activities for your team!

 

Too much time in meetings?

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Is your team spending too much time in meetings?  Does it sometimes feel like nothing actually gets done, other than having meetings to talk about what needs to be done?  Most of us have found ourselves on this seemingly endless treadmill at one time or another.

Here are five tips for getting off that treadmill and engaging your team to get the results you want from your meetings:

Icebreakers:

Include brief icebreaker activities at the beginning of your meeting as well as after any significant spending too much time in meetings?break such as lunchtime or on subsequent days of a multi-day event. Even groups who know each other well will benefit from activities that re-connect and energize. Just a few moments of engaging in this way helps attendees to be more present and focus their attention on the meeting at hand, rather than all of the extraneous things going on in their lives.

Icebreakers don’t need to be embarrassing or stressful. They should be fun and encourage interaction. An icebreaker can be as simple as asking each attendee to share what they were listening to on the way to the meeting that day. Or it can be something more complex, possibly using props or other materials. Check out this Wilderdom site for a wealth of ideas to help you get started!

Objectives:

What is the purpose of your meeting?  It seems like a simple enough question, but is sometimes overlooked. Are you having this meeting simply because it’s Friday morning and you always hold a meeting on Friday mornings?  Or do you have a specific need for gathering people together?

Set clear, realistic objectives for your meeting, and share them in advance with attendees so they have the opportunity to prepare and gather any relevant information or resources prior to the meeting. Consider how much time you’ll need based on the scope of the objectives. Will you need a full hour (often allocated by default), or even a longer block of time?  If more than one meeting will be needed, define the specific goals for each, ensuring that they support your overall objectives.

Ground rules:

What are the expectations for behavior and interactions at the meeting? Is it okay to step outside to take a phone call? Should attendees raise their hand or just speak out? What are the guidelines for computer use, texting, tweeting, instant messaging, etc?

Asking the group to define the ground rules is a great way to learn what is important to the members and ensure everyone’s commitment. Post these ground rules to increase awareness and adherence throughout your meeting.

Be inclusive:

Ensure that all voices are heard and everyone has an opportunity to contribute. Depending on the meeting objectives and the styles and personalities of attendees, you may find it effective to have attendees work in small groups at times. Or, you may go around the room in an intentional way to allow each participant a chance to speak. Another payoff from using icebreakers at your meeting is that they increase participants’ comfort levels, resulting in higher levels of participation, particularly from those who may be more introverted and reluctant to speak up about their great ideas.

Wrap up:

Have you ever experienced a meeting that felt so productive at the time, and yet ultimately did not result in the expected outcomes? Why does that happen? Often it’s because of inadequate or non-existent wrap-up. In closing your meeting, be clear about what agreements and commitments have been made. Exactly what is to be done, by whom, and by what date? What are the specific next steps? Who will follow up and how will they do so? Without clarity about what is supposed to happen after the meeting, the result can be… nothing. Nothing happens, and you’ve wasted a lot of everyone’s time – for nothing. Use your wrap-up to make sure that life’s obligations and distractions don’t prevent your team from achieving its goals!

 

The Power of Story

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The Power of Story

What are the stories that you tell yourself?  We constantly have stories running in the back of our minds, explaining what we do and why we do it. In The Power of Story, Jim Loehr helps us understand the role those stories have in our happiness and success.

Loehr shows how managing energy, not time, is the key to achieving goals. Managing physical energy has to come first, laying the foundation for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual energy. The book takes you step-by-step through the process of identifying old, potentially flawed, stories and rewriting them to the new stories, grounded in individual purpose, that lead toward your goals.

How does your team make decisions?

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Think about the last time you made a decision as part of a group. How did it go? Do you think the decision was a good one, one that will result in the desired outcome? Are you satisfied with the way the decision was made?  Do you feel that all viable options were given appropriate consideration?

Whether it’s your family trying to decide which ride to go on first at Disneyland, or your organization deciding on a launch strategy for a new product, you’re likely to encounter similar challenges. When you’re part of a group and you need to make decision, how do you do it? Do you follow a set process, or is it different every time? Do a few people (or maybe just one specific person) always take the lead in making the decision? Or does everyone get a voice?

When team decision-making works, it can propel a team to remarkable levels of achievement. The team will act quickly, confidently, and effectively to accomplish tasks, find solutions, and generate new ideas. Unfortunately, when decision-making doesn’t work effectively, it can create enormous obstacles.  Team members who have no voice in a decision may lack commitment to achieving the goal. Delays become the norm, concerns are not brought to light, and small issues may turn into big problems.

It’s not just the big decisions that trip people up. Every day, team members make dozens of decisions, whether individually or collectively. When the decision-making process is dysfunctional, so is the performance of the group. So what can you do to ensure that your team is working together effectively as it makes those large and small decisions each day?

Team decision-makingExperiential learning activities can be a great way to help a team discover and improve its group process for decision-making. In their book Teamwork & Teamplay, Jim Cain and Barry Joliff offer an activity called 2B or Knot 2B. In this activity, participants need to decide, as a group, which one of several ropes is holding all the others together. Through the activity and debriefing discussion, participants gain awareness of how they interact with each other when making decisions, and learn how their actions either moved the group forward or hindered its success in solving the problem. This type of discussion becomes a springboard for change as the team works to develop new and more effective ways to interact.

Back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post – how did it go the last time you made a decision as part of a group? Would you like to improve on that experience? If so, perhaps experiential learning techniques can help!

Six strategies to achieve goals

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Have you ever built a sandcastle at the beach or in a playground? Did it turn out exactly as you wanted it to? Bringing your sandcastle vision to life is lIke achievement of any goal, it’s not always as easy as it may appear to an outside onlooker.

Successfully achieve goals

The type of sandcastle you see here is not a casual undertaking. Success depends on the same strategies needed to achieve goals in other areas of life and work: vision, planning, resources, collaboration, adaptability, and tenacity.

Vision:

Do you have a clear vision of the outcome you are trying to realize? What will it look, feel, smell, taste, and sound like to have achieved your goal?  The clearer your vision, the more you will be drawn toward it and the greater the likelihood of achieving it. Consider the old proverb: “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”  Are you trying to get just anywhere, or do you have a specific destination in mind? What kind of sandcastle do you want to create? Is your team envisioning the same sandcastle that you are?

Planning:

What are the steps you need to take, now that you are clear on your goals? What is your overall timeline, and are  there interim milestones that need to be met? How will you sequence the steps? What role will each team member play? What other support might you need?

Resources:

Do you have the resources you need to be successful? Supplies, funding, training?  Do you have the right people on your team, with the right skills and attitudes? Are all of your resources organized in a way that supports you and your goals?

Collaboration:

Are team members working in their areas of strength? While we all have weaknesses, those are minimized when workng together as a team, at the same time that each individual’s strengths can be maximized. Have you ever seen the teamwork exhibited by children building a sandcastle while the tide is coming in? It’s remarkable to see what they can accomplish. Also consider who else can help you as you work toward your goals.  Collaborating outside your immediate team makes everyone stronger.

Adaptability:

No matter how clear your vision is or how well you’ve planned, there will likely still be times when you need to adapt.  The unexpected happens, circumstances change.  Be mentally prepared to adapt and foster this mindset with your team. Ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” during your planning stages.

Tenacity:

Challenges are expected on the way to achieving any goal. Don’t give up!  Take advantage of your team for support when times are difficult. Even though you may experience a setback or two while building your sandcastle, persistence will help you to ultimately achieve your goals.

What strategies have helped you to successfully achieve goals?

Looking for ways to say “Yes!”

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How often do you say “no” automatically, when the answer could just as easily be “yes”?  How might things change for you and those you work with if you were consistently looking for ways to say “yes”?

Recently I spent time with a family whose overarching philosophy is to say “yes” Say yeswhenever possible. To be sure, this sometimes results in muddy clothes or unorthodox uses of household items.  But really, why shouldn’t a water bottle be converted into an ant-farm or bee-house? And because of this parental mindset, the very young children in this family are curious, creative, courageous, and glowing with confidence.

How can you build these traits in the people you are developing at work? One thing you can do is to consistently and persistently look for ways to say “yes.”  Maybe it’s a suggestion for a new way to handle a long-standing procedure, or a change in the office layout, or introducing new items on the lunch menu. Whatever it is, try thinking first about how it might work, rather than how it can’t work. “No” shuts down communication and blocks creativity. An employee, or anyone for that matter, who expects to hear “no” as an answer will soon stop asking.

That being said, of course there are times when you do have to say “no.” It’s important to think ahead of time about what is non-negotiable for you and your organization and then make those things clear to others up-front. Getting a “no” response when you’ve crossed a line that you were previously aware of is a much different thing than experiencing a limiting environment where “no” is the pervasive mindset.

Think about your week so far.  How many times have you said “no” when you might have said “yes”?  How might you approach things differently going forward?

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