April 16, 2021

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Rethinking L&D thinking habits

Thinking about thinking!

Learning leaders are no strangers to the brain- in recent years we’ve been exploring cognitive science, heuristics and bias, mental models and metacognition impact our work and our ability to improve our connection with the workforce

But how often do we explore the thinking habits that influence our own professional decisions?

We know that our thinking processes influence our responses, our decisions, our feelings, and our actions. Whilst as learning leaders we spend a lot of time thinking about how others think and behave, rarely do we turn the mirror on ourselves.

On a personal level it is likely that we have danced with the thinking habits that influence our health, our relationships, or our wellbeing. But to what extent do the thinking habits related to our professional identity influence our responses, decisions, feelings, and ultimately the impact that we have in the workplace?

'Challenge your assumptions, think differently, stand on your head'

This quote from Anne Bartlett-Bragg was one of the many golden nuggets surfaced last year when Michelle Ockers, Shannon Tipton, and I interviewed 34 global learning leaders as part of the Learning Uncut Emergent podcast series. We designed these conversations to explore how learning leaders can emerge stronger from disruption- what do we need to stop, to start and what practices do we need to accelerate?

We had plenty of smart recommendations from forward thinking practitioners during the podcast. But whilst the circumstances of the past year have been unprecedented, the advice that emerged was familiar - that disruption has provided an opportunity for learning leaders to align, to listen, to reinvent and redesign, to freshly connect at the point of need, to adapt and more!

What struck me from the conversations was that those who had already embraced these principles in their professional practice had been much better equipped to pivot during disruption. They hardly missed a beat when the world changed.

Michelle, Shannon, and I knew also that these principles were not new. They consistently surfaced as factors that correlated to better business impact in my own research have been extensively used in Michelle and Shannon’s own practice. Modern learning strategies have been explored and celebrated for decades at global conferences and through prolific publishing (check out 21 for 21 for a taster of some of the great resources out there!).

Many talk the talk; few walk the walk. Why?

How do you think about you?

Anne's challenge last year to think differently, got me thinking differently about what prevents learning leaders from embracing changes in our practice. For decades, I tracked the reasons that many leaders provided for lack of progress. This included lack of business commitment, poor learning culture, no budget, poor team size, characteristics of the sector.

When analysing the podcast interviews, what stood out for me was the attitude of the practitioners, not just their practice. They faced similar challenges and organisational complexities reported by others before the pandemic, but they approached them differently. They were in the habit of thinking differently.

Maybe it is time to shine a light on our own thinking practices.

So how do you think about you? About the value you bring to your organisation. About your role in the organisation? About your relationships with others? About your responsiveness? About risk or innovation?

We know that our brain is super smart in developing patterns and pathways. Our natural thinking habits, built up over time through repetition and reinforcement, are brilliant in helping us deal rapidly with routine and avoid cognitive overload.

Our established thinking habits are not right or wrong, and many have served us well. Research has also shown how our habits shape our identify and vice versa.

Occasionally those same thinking habits might also work against us and prevent us from seeing new opportunities as they arise. When that happens, it’s time to think again!

The image above presents a simple map of potential of thinking habits that emerged from the podcast series. It shines a light on the established patterns that might influence our professional decisions. Consider the last few major decisions that you made as a learning leader: - can you pinpoint which thinking habits shaped your response?

5 alternative thinking habits for L&D

How do you think about the value you bring to your organisation?

A Learning First thinking habit develops when we define the value we bring to our organisation through our intervention, a habit that is reinforced by positive feelings when we can respond to a request for a programme to meet a need. This habit can put us under pressure when we face the fact that our go-to solutions are no longer viable.

At the other end of the scale a Business First thinking habit where learning leaders apply their talent to solve business problems. A Business First habit helps L&D emerge stronger by prioritising what really matters to business. It releases us to confidently ask different questions and find new ways of driving business value when it is needed the most.

How do you think about your role in your organisation?

Our traditional role of being the ‘sage on the stage’ or more recently our expertise in instructional design and learning experience has been positively reinforced by our happy sheets and impact scores. Our unconscious habit of seeing ourselves as Knowledgeable Expert can also hold us back. Sometimes it can blind us to the change needed (Check out the principle of 'trained incapacity' introduced by Thorstein Veblen back in 1933- a state where our abilities also function as our shortfalls!)

The Empathetic explorer thinking habit shifts the emphasis of our role to prioritise listening to help us understand the needs of the individuals, teams, and organisations that we support. It is a thinking habit that keeps us open to spot opportunities, staying relevant and able to continually adapt and grow our expertise.

How do you think about your relationship with others?

Our Independent thinking habit as learning professionals is often reinforced by the siloed nature of our organisation’s structures, where each of us is brought in to do a job and do it well. If this is our go-to habit for working with others, it can let us down when we need to connect and collaborate in a complex system.

At the other end of the scale, the Interdependent thinking habit continually focusses on bringing the outside in. It celebrates the opportunity to break down silos and welcomes the chance to co-create business value. A shift to the right of the scale helps us surface new business opportunities by welcoming alternative perspectives.

How do you think about timescales and responsiveness?

I confess that this is probably the most controversial part of the map! L&D's reputation for designing quality programmes and long-term planning for future skills and capability has established and reinforced an Act for the Future thinking habit. This habit can hold us back when the business needs us to move!

At the other end of the spectrum, the thinking habit of Act Now means our go-to behaviour will be to respond rapidly to changing business needs with agility and speed. Helpful in driving business value through the pandemic and for establishing a responsive, business-oriented reputation.

By holding a mirror up to our go-to behaviours we establish the habits that we are most comfortable with- the challenge is then spotting when we need to move!

How do you think about risk and innovation?

The celebration of our past achievements can reinforce and establish a Hold on thinking habit where our approach to future opportunities is defined by the success of the past. During times of stability, this can serve us well, reducing risk.

A Move On thinking habit will acknowledge the usefulness of experience and the insight gained but will let it go to embrace alternative models and services that better serve the community today.

Michelle Ocker' surfaced more thoughts and perspectives on the 5 thinking habits that we need to strengthen in order to emerge stronger from disruption in a series of interviews:

The map is not the territory!

This offer of a map of professional thinking habits is just that, an offer and an incomplete one at that! Some aspects of these ideas will resonate as the above set of interviews show. Certainly, all need developing! There are clearly complex systems to navigate when supporting organisational learning, particularly during times of disruption, and this simple map does not explain that the complex external factors at play.

However, as individual learning leaders, we are not outside of the system; we are part of it and our thinking habits may constrain or liberate our contribution to our organisation’s success. The thinking habits at each end of the spectrum will serve us best at different times. The ability to flex ingrained habits will take effort, but it is important to recognise when they no longer benefit us and might even hold us back.

I want to thank all the podcast guests for their insight and to those who have contributed to this thinking about thinking! I offer these examples of professional L&D thinking habits as a map and a mirror to encourage personal reflection and, as always, welcome your thoughts!

Have you enjoyed this edition of #Learningchangemakers? Let me know and do share with others. If you want access to an ebook to explore the thinking habits further, just respond with 'curious' and I'll get the link out to you.