Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Activate your learning and enhance your performance

Emergency sirens and lights tend to draw attention, and fortunately so. They are designed to  disrupt,  drawing our attention and forcing our unconscious reactions.  Our head moves to track the source of the sound and lights, we move to get out of the way of the vehicles, or search for exits .  Our awareness  of the situation and responses precede our desire to know what has happened.  Our thoughts then begin to question what’s next?  Will there be more vehicles? Are we in danger or is this merely a warning or a drill? 
Our motivation and action, the essential ingredients in performance, does not require perception. It’s not the nature of the task as much as the triggers that predispose our behavior. 

  Smiles in contrast, generally don't stimulate fear or surprise, but they do trigger instantaneous behavior.  Like the light and sound of the siren, smiles also generate emotional responses without requiring conscious perception.  Thanks to the work of researchers in psychology and biology, our understanding of the functional relationships and neural mechanisms  between stimuli that arouse emotional and other behavioral responses continues to grow; and yet the applying this evolving understanding has been far too limited. 

For example, Sunday’s NY Times story about willpower by Greg Walton and Carol Dweck raised some good questions about the evolving research of the role of glucose on our ability to exercise will-power.   Mental models, mindsets and even mindfulness are not uncommon references in everyday conversation.  How often have you been told that success will follow those who put their mind to the task.  Do you really believe what you've been told?  What exactly does it mean to put ones mind to the task anyway?


Carol Dweck,  in her lifelong work on mindsets,finds that our sense of self, our capabilities and capacities  predisposes our behavior, our willingness to take on a challenge and or continue to learn.  From birth and into early childhood, the rate of assimilation of new information or “learning” is astonishing, primarily because the number of associations or relationships between stimuli and response are numerous. It takes time to build the initial database and link elements that become shared knowledge, common language, or the experiential knowledge base that enables us to routinely decode stimuli  and produce appropriate, contextual responses. 

At any given moment the perennial stream of thought running in our heads is a series of questions to help us get or keep our bearings, for example we wonder what's coming next, what has just happened, who is that etc.  People predisposed with a growth mindset respond positively to continuous change and smile or feel elation at the prospect of something new. In contrast, people with a fixed mindset are more wary, even fearful.  Different circumstances will cause us to revert to growth or fixed.  The Growth mindset however is what allows us to adapt and keep learning.
Carol Dweck’s work demonstrates how its possible to foster the growth mindset.  My own work in organizational change directed toward innovation uses story to surface and then address the unconscious barriers and circumstances present within an organization’s culture that foster fixed mindsets.   

For example, consider the difference perspectives makes.  The story of Goldilocks, which unlike the majority of fairy tales does not end with all the characters living happily ever after. The Bears have their routine and  and Goldilocks, the interloper proceeds very systematically to meet her needs.  The peaceful and gentle home environment where  the three bears comfortably reside is turned upside down. The bears have an ordinary problem, their porridge is too hot. They choose to take a walk and make good use of the time they need to wait until the porridge cools.  Goldilocks enters the now vacant house and proceeds to try everything , eliminating the extremes and always settling on the middle option.  She begins trying out each of the three available chairs, then samples each bowl of  porridge, once sated, she sleepily seeks the beds(too hard, too soft), finally she is just right.  How and what does Goldilocks learn? In her solitary exploration she is immune from expectations and just keeps trying until she finds a good fit.  The context suggests that Goldilocks approached the empty cottage and her adventure with a learning mindset, She had no obvious prior knowledge to keep her from entering the house or recognizing the subsequent danger posed by a house of bears.  The simplicity of the story can be told from the perspective of possibility, and the device of repetition creates expectation and cues readers to realize that given three choices , one will always satisfy.  The story doesn't end there, its ending with the bear's discovery of the disruptor, Goldilocks who then runs away never to be heard from again.

The narrator or storyteller stops short of a lesson.  What happens to the Bears and what happens to Goldilocks is left to the reader to ponder or ignore.  IF Goldilocks is the emergency siren, merely a temporary disruption that once passed, the bears in all liklihood return to their routine. 

Dynamic Learning
Framestretching©,a strategic planning tool I use, invites  you to put your own organization into the story framework.  In this case we invite you to spot a disruptive agent to play Goldilocks. Identify who are your organization’s three bears and more importantly the three services or products that define your activities.  The exercise asks you to align your realities as closely as possible by stating What IS the status quot.  Then consider what disruptions have come and gone with no obvious impact?  Over the period since you first noticed the disruption, has your performance changed or that of your relative market position? Or has your own culture snapped back to its routine?  Stretching the framing of your reality to the story makes it possible to see and discuss the environment without making it personal.  Using the story frame to stand in for your own organization consider what if the three bears had not left the house? Or been less efficient with their time and didn't return while Goldilocks was sleeping?  Or perhaps had been more resourceful in solving the hot porridge problem and never left the house open and unattended?   Could they have avoided the impact of the disruptor?  What if Goldilocks had  simply gone upstairs to bed not tipping off the bears to an intruder in their midst?

Now there’s a method to the madness of these questions.  The more you twist the simple story around, the more naturally new possibilities open and organization practices questioned.  Uncovering where and what to change is never a good approach to developing strategy, it’s merely a tactic or means to help you turn your presenting problem around.  Was Was the presenting problem the bears faced the real problem? What made porridge too hot their issue?  Again the simplicity of the story is what makes it effective, for its easy to imagine the underlying motives and reasons and recognize them as projections of our own experiences.

By nature, a disruptor will appear with our without a welcome mat.  They should be great wake up calls, and prevent the cultural snap back to routine, but only if you take the time to share the experiences.  A post disruptive review or Goldilocks session can engage everyone, win some grins and foster a learning mindset putting your organization on the path to higher performance.  

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1 comment:

  1. Rachel,

    The concept utilizing the stories as metaphors is interesting. Symbolic communication has been used in other fields such as Ericksonian hypnosis to good effect.

    Would the bears have avoided the problem by locking their door? This would have kept the disruption threat out, but isn't there a burying the head in the sand issue if they pursued that course?


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