Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Dangers of Autopilot

Following a recent discussion on #lrnchat around habits it was clear (for once) that I actually agreed with the majority of learn-chatters that when we fall into habits it can hamper learning.  I'd go quite a bit further on this one and say that those habits we form tend to lead us into a form of autopilot.  What I mean by that is by living our lives by doing what we always do we tend to disengage from thinking about things - it becomes a subconscious act similar to breathing.  Autopilot through our work means that we don't think so much we just do, and that means that the opportunities to learn and improve are obviously reduced.
Thing is we all have habits, these aren't necessarily good or bad, they're just things we do over and over to allow us to drop our concentration levels.  There's plenty of information out there and self-help books that talk about how to break habits and form 'good' habits, but I'm not sure I subscribe to any habits as a best state to be in.  It boils down to one simple concept and that is that if you're doing something out of routine (however positive some may view it) you're not fully awake, and then you're not fully in a position to learn and improve what you're doing.  Let's give an example here, if you were to form a good (?) habit of spending the first 30 minutes of your working day going through a planning exercise to prioritise what you would do for the day you may actually miss something that required instant actions to take advantage of - or maybe some feedback that would allow you to change your approach to that planning, or even just answering a call that would mean saving hours of work later in the day.  It doesn't mean that planning is a bad thing, it doesn't even mean that having the intention to do the work then is a bad thing, it just means you maintain the flexibility to change.  You can only do this if you don't routinely enter your planning stage by shutting off your active mind to other things.

I hear a huge amount of criticism of multi-tasking and some of it I think is justified - there really are some tasks that require your full attention.  But as a general concept I think keeping an active mind that's open to more inputs is a good thing not a bad.  When I'm at work I have my door open and welcome interruptions even when I'm deep in work - I can usually hit my stride again fairly quickly and I like to be there for others - the interactions they bring often contribute to the work I'm on and can lead me in new directions.  That doesn't mean I always work this way - sometimes we get very tight timelines, sometimes I say 'I'm into something right now - give me an hour please' and sometimes I even hide somewhere else.  I also don't push paperclips aound the desk (the habit of clockwatching) when I'm done or can't concentrate I change what I'm doing, regardless of the schedule (I don't make it a habit to walk out of meetings, but yeah, otherwise I subscribe to if it isn't working then look at alternatives).  What I do isn't perfect and I'm open to improving it, that's the point though, when we set rigid in our habits they stop us from looking for improvements.  My last post was on the idea that continuous improvement needs to be continuous, that means always having our eyes and ears open to the way things could be improved.

A great example of this was when a student inadvertently walked into a meeting I was having with a head of school on Friday.  The student had no idea who we were and thought it was a break out room and had a quick chat with us - he then went on to tell us about two courses he had or was studying - one was great and the other was poor and he gave us some unsolicited feedback on what was going on.  If we had announced this was a meeting and turfed him out, we'd have missed that great feedback.  If we'd have been on autopilot, we wouldn't have even had a situation he could have walked in to and again we would have missed out.

Learning is pervasive.  It's in everything we do if we have our minds open to it.  I know some people schedule time for their learning, I can see some sense in scheduling time to learn a particular thing, but the truth is learning is (like most things it seems) an attitude.  That means if you do schedule learning for 2pm on a Monday and a learning opportunity pops up on Friday do you just ignore it?  If you see something when you're in the gym on a Wed lunchtime do you park it because it's not part of your schedule? This may be good news for those of you who like or have to stick to schedules, because if learning is an attitude it can happen at any time even if you're life is heavily structured.  The key is that you have to be prepared to break those routines if you want to get the most out of learning and that can be difficult.

Thinking back to my teaching days, you had to schedule what was being taught in each lesson, but I never let that stop me from realising great opportunities such as responses or ideas from my students that could take us in new directions. Sure it was a pain and I may have to jig the schedule around, but the gains of taking those inputs and external factors into consideration way outweigh the inconvenience of the scheduling.

In summary this isn't a fully formed idea I have and I welcome your ideas.  I think habits are a dnagerous thing, particularly when they take over and you don't bother thinking and observing what is going on around you.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Seeking Continuous Improvement.... continuously!

I'm having a blast so far in the tertiary educational sector in New Zealand - I've got to admit it's all new to me having spent the last 20 odd years in a variety of educational and training exploits from secondary school teaching through to my more recent corporate experience in the corporate learning technology sector.  One thing that gripes me a little though is that the attitude towards continuous improvements can be a little... well, stilted.

When we talk continuous improvement, we should always be asking 'how can we do this better' - or sometimes even 'how can I do this better'.  When we stop asking that question we stop improving.  As a newbie to the sector I've asked that question a fair few times already and I've loved the response I've gotten... but when we go wider beyond just our organisation I'm worried.  When I ask the regulatory body why they do things the way they do (and hopefully I ask this in a non-threatening way as a newbie) they shut me down - this is the way we do it.  That sounds dangerously to me like 'we've always done it this way' and that's about the worst thing to hear for anyone who wants to hang their hat on continuous improvement.

Thing is, we need to remember that the thing about continuous improvement is that it's not limited purely to the area we're looking at, it also needs to be in everything we do - especially the standards we measure others by.  What that should remind us is that it's not good enough to have  a plan for continuous improvement in our academic areas, we also need to apply the principles of continuous improvement to the area of continuous improvement.  For me that means asking that 'how can we do this better question' - and if you forget to do that then you end up doing things the way you've always done them.

Don't get me wrong I'm not advocating change for the sake of change or 'churn' as I like to call it, but we should always be seeking ways in which we can improve, in everything we do.

Call me a bit coy here but we're on another one of my principles.  Continuous improvement is not a 'thing' - it's not just a process or a tick-box exercise or even a part of your QMS - it's an attitude.  I heard someone today ask why so many polytechnic's were working on their QMS right now - I could easily argue that you should be constantly working on improving your quality so it would seem weird if you weren't looking at ways to make it better.

In short quality is about continuous improvement and there are two key areas there - sure, improvement but also continuous.  It's not okay to improve and then stop improving... it needs to be continuous.  So next time you seek continuous improvement, seek it continuously.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

When Working Out Loud isn't really WOL

So Working Out Loud (or WOL) is a pretty big buzz these days and if you've not picked up on it there's plenty of information out there telling you all about how to be working out in the open.  In simple terms it's about being far more transparent in the way we work, sharing and showing your work both the good stuff you do and other material too - learning opportunities if you will.  As with all buzzes though there's a fair deal of misinterpretation about what WOL actually is and what it refers to and perhaps even more importantly how to do it.

Here's a few areas that I think people are going wrong when they talk WOL:

1) "It takes me three times as long to work out loud.  I need to reproduce and present everything now, I've got to edit, re-edit and then post it up".  If that's you, stop, take a breath and reflect on what you're doing.  WOL isn't about presenting anything, but that's probably the biggest misconception.  WOL is about working in a visible space not preparing and presenting in that space.  If you're working on a document for instance you could work on a Google doc or a doc that others could contribute to, rather than turning that into a presentation for the sole purpose of 'working out loud'.

2) "I don't like to boast about what I do".  Unfortunately a lot of people misinterpret WOL and end up using social media (among others) to spread the word of just how wonderful and successful they are.  Think about some of the issues with Facebook and how it can make some people seem like they've got perfect families and jobs and wow, look at me.  Instead when we work out loud we share the reality of what we do.  That means spending every bit as long on the difficulties and learnings as we do on the roaring successes. We absolutely should share the success stories, but I don't think I've ever seen an example of a perfect project or points when we couldn't have used a little help.  If you're sharing success that's great but it's not the end of the story - how can the success help others in their work?

3) "I don't have time".  This is fundamentally incorrect for me as I think WOL is not about blogging and presenting but an attitude. I've blogged before that time is never the reason we don't do things, it's about priorities; if it was important enough to us we'd re-organise what we do.  Me, I don't always blog - in fact I've been nearly a month without writing about learning in one way or another in a blog. In a Twitter chat last week one of my peers commented on the fact that I wasn't working out loud, but I don't agree with this. Blogging is one medium for WOL but it's not the only way - in fact some people write blogs as a mouthpiece or as a bragging example (see 2 above), me I don't think I do - they're conversational and they're my take on the situation - I think blogs are a great form of WOL if you do it this way and then interact with the comments on your blog.  But if I don't blog that doesn't mean I'm not WOL.  I was in a meeting today and I continually asked questions and started forming views out loud with the team.  WOL is a way of sharing and exploring in a public arena - that makes it an attitude, and you always have time for the right attitude.

4) "I don't do Social Media".  Somebody out there still says this right? I hope not, but even if this was your stance there's a huge misconception that WOL is limited to social media like blogging tools, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.  I WOL as a practice and I do this in the office, on my whiteboard, in the collaborative tools I use and even when I speak (I've been known to form new ideas, change them and take new directions whilst actively involved in conversation).  This comes partly back to my previous point that WOL is an attitude and partly down to the fact that the media for sharing and collaboratively working is less important than the action.  Share and learn, wherever you choose to do it.

5)"WOL is just a buzz-phrase, so I don't".  I hear you, not sure I like it myself, not long ago I called it "blurting", I've called it learning out loud (LOL - lol!) or just life really.  It's less about the label or a 'thing' and more about an attitude or a way of working.  I love working out loud and the benefits it brings to me, sharing success and learning opportunities along the way. If the buzz attracts others to a more effective way of working I'm cool with that - if it puts them off then they were unlikely candidates for truly sharing this way anyways...

In short, WOL is a really good way to work in a more collaborative environment beyond yourself, beyond your self chosen network and out there in the open.  If you don't agree I'm cool with that, comment and maybe I'll change my mind - that'll happen in the public arena too of course :)