You have many demands on your time and budget. Why would you want to add to that by adding a conference or two to your schedule?
Having just attended the AEE’s incredible 43rd Annual International Conference, I can share some of the reasons why I already have next year’s Association for Experiential Education conference on the calendar, set as a high priority. Connecting with others who share your interests, and at the same time bring diverse perspectives, is powerful! It:
stimulates fresh ideas
provokes new ways of thinking
provides endless opportunities for learning
stretches comfort zones
Are these things worth investing in? Absolutely! You are investing in yourself.
How will you invest in yourself in 2016? Whether you choose to attend a large conference or get involved in local events that connect you with things you are passionate about – whatever you do for your own growth and development is worth the investment.
Whether we set out to intentionally learn something new, or just experience the world day-to-day, we are always learning. Sometimes it’s a small and subtle understanding, other times it’s an “ah-ha!” moment. How can you make the most of your learning opportunities every day?
In The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, Josh Waitzkin tells his own personal and fascinating story of achievement, as he reached elite levels in both chess and martial arts. Through his journey, he discovered that what he most excels at is learning, and he shares his methods here. One thing that struck me was Waitzkin’s habit of reflection, and how powerful that can be in helping each of us reach deeper levels of understanding. Dealing with failure, channeling emotions, breaking things down, keeping focus, and more – find out how these can help you excel!
Assumptions. They’re dangerous, and yet we make them all the time. When meeting someone new, for example, we may make assumptions about the person’s thoughts, actions, behaviors, or beliefs, simply based on external factors such as: age, appearance, clothing, skin color, or the type of work the person does. Our perceptions are filtered by our own self worldview, usually without us even being aware of it. Our previous experiences and personal histories influence the way we interpret new experiences, interactions, or information.
New situations are fertile ground for assumptions. Here’s an example: It’s your first day on a new job. Most likely you are making dozens of assumptions without even realizing it. Assumptions about how to dress, how to communicate, schedules, supplies, chain-of-command, the meaning of co-workers’ behavior, and on and on and on. As the day progresses you may find that some of your assumptions were correct, while others were not. Perhaps you assumed that you’d be welcome to walk into the boss’s office any time, since that’s what you did at your last job… But when you tried it you found that your new boss doesn’t welcome unplanned visits.
Sometimes our false assumptions are never corrected. Unlike the new boss who will probably let you know you’ve done something based on a faulty assumption, in many other situations inaccurate assumptions may never be surfaced or corrected. And that’s what can get us into trouble. While it may be a common human trait to fill in the gaps when we don’t have all the information we’d like, when our assumptions go unchecked, we make decisions or act based on “facts” which may be completely inaccurate. Think about the story of Romeo and Juliet. How many false assumptions were made on the way to that play’s tragic ending?
I’m a little embarrassed to say that I once thought I was quite good at “connecting the dots” when I had incomplete information, just by using logic and imagination. What I learned, though, when I started to test my assumptions for accuracy, was that the dots didn’t actually connect nearly as well as I’d thought. My assumptions were often flawed! And there are usually many different options for connecting the dots that I hadn’t even considered.
In a group setting, hidden assumptions can wreak havoc on the group’s ability to perform. They erode trust, inhibit effective communication, hinder problem-solving, and stifle creativity. What can you do to reverse this? Team development activities can help. By taking a group outside of its normal environment and engaging the members in purposeful team activities, hidden assumptions are surfaced so that they can be addressed. Check out Tom Wujec’s TED Talk on this topic for a great example.
Here’s an exercise you can do to start testing your assumptions right away. Select an activity that you’ll be participating in later today. It can be anything – an office meeting, an errand you need to run, a visit with a good friend. Between now and the start of the activity, see if you can come up with at least 10 unchecked assumptions you have about the location, the people involved, or the activity itself. Now think about how you might test those assumptions for accuracy. Are there questions you can ask for a better understanding? Different perspectives you might take to see things in a new light? What new insights do you get when you explore your assumptions further?
Yesterday we brought home a new puppy. Exciting and wonderful – yes! Absolutely. And also, perhaps, just a little bit scary. Any change, whether perceived to be positive or negative, holds unpredictability. Is this experience going to be as wonderful as we think? How will this change our lives? Change means risk.
In her podcast Creativity and Risk Taking, Amy Climer talks about how we experience a sense of risk when the outcome of what we are doing is uncertain. So even when engaging in something we think will have a favorable outcome, it can feel risky. Any change can be stressful.
As individuals and as members of groups, we encounter change constantly. Some changes are small, others more significant; some work in our favor, others may work against us. Sometimes we cope with change better than other times. Think about a recent change that you’ve experienced. What are the things that helped you to be most successful at managing that change?
Here are some of the things my new puppy is teaching me about successfully managing change:
Learn as much as you can about the upcoming change. Read books, talk to people who’ve had similar experiences, talk to others who have expertise in situations like yours, use technology to broaden your understanding.
Prepare! In addition to learning all that you can, prepare your environment in advance. Consider the supplies you need and have them ready. Make a plan for how you will integrate this change into your daily life. Who is going to be responsible for what? How might your schedule or activities need to be modified? What support will you need from others?
Trust your own instincts. Listen to the experts, and at the same time, remember that every situation is different and yours may not fit neatly into the examples provided by experts.
Be ready to adapt when something unexpected happens. It always does!
Pay attention to what your experiences are teaching you and apply those lessons going forward.
Forgive yourself when things don’t go exactly as planned. There are almost always setbacks and mistakes along the way. Learn from them and move on.
I’ve learned a lot in just one day. Imagine how much more I’ll be learning from this puppy in the years to come!
Have you ever thought about your brain’s remarkable capacity to solve problems? How does it do that?? And how can you develop habits that make the most of your creative capacity?
Tim Hurson answers those questions and more in Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking.Hurson offers a six-step process to improve the way we think about problems and how to solve them. Using practical tools and techniques within each step, you’ll discover how to gain clarity about what the actual problem is, generate a wide range of solutions, and take effective action to solve the problem.
“Comfort zones are often expanded through discomfort.” – Mimi Solaire
Why would you want to expand your comfort zone? The comfort zone. It’s a safe place, probably one in which you feel confident. You know what to expect, how to behave. One might conclude that this is a good place, one to hang out in all the time.
I would argue “yes” and “no.” Yes, it can be a good place, one where you can restore your intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical energy. But no! Not a place to be all the time. Why not? Well, it would get boring for one thing. But more than that, learning isn’t happening in the comfort zone. It’s comfortable there because you’ve already learned what you need to know to get along there. Something else happens after too long in the comfort zone. You may have seen or experienced this yourself. Complacency, gradually affecting work, relationships, or health.
What happens when you expand your comfort zone? Your capacity to learn and develop grows. And, each step you take along the path from beginner to expert expands your comfort zone that much more. As you think about all the things that come naturally to you now – perhaps things like walking, writing, driving, or typing – try to remember the awkwardness you felt when you were first learning, when these things took you out of your comfort zone. It took time, but the discomfort was worth it, right?
When you are developing a team, you are likely to push team members outside their comfort zones at times. This is good, because just as individuals experience growth outside their comfort zones, so do teams. The path to high performance is challenging and involves taking risks. It is anything but complacent. Purposeful team-building activities accelerate a team’s development and ability to perform at high levels by intentionally and persistently expanding comfort zones.
When I’m faced with something that takes me outside of my comfort zone, I find it helpful to focus on the things I’m going to learn from the experience, and how it will help me grow. What about you? What helps you get outside your comfort zone?
A couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting for new members at my local Chamber of Commerce. One thing typically done at this meeting is an introduction of the Chamber’s staff. This is important because of the role the staff plays to ensure that members have access to all the resources offered by the Chamber. It’s an important part of a meeting jam-packed with valuable information for new members. I bet you’ve experienced something similar before. It can be difficult to keep your head from spinning!
But here’s what was different about this meeting – the meeting-planner recognized that without context the staff introductions would have little meaning to the new members. So instead of a random introduction, the staff members were presented to us in the way a new or potential member would encounter them. For example: “Hello, I’m Scott. I’m the first person you talk to when you call us or come into our building.” “Hello, I’m Kathleen. Scott would transfer you to me to talk about becoming a member of the Chamber.” And so on. As the staff members were introduced in this way, I could see nods of recognition from meeting attendees, as they remembered their initial experiences interacting with these people. It was a brilliant strategy.
Experience and learning. They are inextricably linked. Providing context helps us make sense of new information. Incorporating the learner’s prior experience with purpose and intention always makes learning more impactful.
What does learning look like in your organization? When things change in your organization and your team members need to learn something new – how do you approach it? Are they flooded with information in one unrelenting torrent? Are they learning in a vacuum, or is the material framed in a way that provides context? How much detail are learners given, and when? What mechanisms are built into the training to allow team members to apply what they are learning? How is the new information connected to things they already know? How involved are team members in their own learning? Do they set learning goals for themselves or self-evaluate progress? Is time allowed for reflection and processing? Are different learning styles or preferences taken into consideration in the development of training materials and delivery planning?
It’s a lot to think about. And yet, when you find a solution that offers context and mirrors the learner’s experience, it feels right, and you know you are off to a great start!
How have you used experience to make learning meaningful?
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.
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?
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & education (1st Touchstone ed.). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
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 thinking 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?
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?
Experiential 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!