Action Learning – The Delegation Test

The delegation test: can you let your staff or children learn?

Legend has the father of Action Learning, Reg Revans, sitting in the HQ of the newly nationalised coal industry. In the brave new world that was 1946, people were enthusiastic about modernising about a thousand (!) previously privately-owned mines with pretty variable standards of this and that. There was talk of improving those standards, talk of training, talk of a University of Coal.  Revans decided to see if there were good things happening already – out in the field.

What he discovered was that highly productive mines tended to occur in clusters and that their productivity wasn’t a function of geology (i.e. the mines all tapping the same rich veins of coal). What he unearthed, so to speak, was that in the productive clusters the Undermanagers (that’s what they call the chaps who manage what’s under) had formed the habit of getting together for a pint on a Friday night to talk over the week’s problems.

This is what later became known as an Action Learning Set: a group of people running similar operations, meeting regularly to listen to each other’s problems and to offer advice. Action Learning is as simple as that. Later some argued for the presence of a facilitator, but my view is that the ale and atmosphere of the local pub are facilitation enough. There is a temptation, for all parties, to turn the facilitator into the authority figure who guides the discussion and has the answers – to the detriment of ideas and ownership.  I’ve watched it happen.

Excited by the power and simplicity of his finding, so the story goes, Reg sought an audience with the Cabinet Minister in charge of the Coal Industry. Going into the Minister’s office he met the Vice Chancellor of one of the great universities coming out. Bubbling with excitement he told Reg that a group of universities he represented had just been given £100 million to set up a University of Coal. In vain did Reg try to explain to the Minister that he could save him £100 million and get better, quicker results. The idea of Action Learning was altogether too simple to be believed.

Whether in a huff or not, Revans moved to Belgium where he headed the Inter-University project, set up to improve the ranking of Belgium in the OECD. Working with 5 universities and 23 of the country’s largest businesses, Revans succeeded in raising Belgium’s industrial productivity above that of the USA, Germany, Japan and, of course, Britain.

If you are indulging in a bit of ‘typical!’ and mentally castigating our Minister and his ilk – think on the following. Gather any bunch of senior managers and ask them what they advise for the development of their juniors and the talk will turn to training, coaching and MBAs. Then give them the privacy of working in pairs, with a flipchart, and ask them ‘When in your life, and under what conditions did you grow the most?’  A common story will emerge: ‘I was given a project that was important to the company, dropped in the deep end and left to get on with it.’  Support often came from a senior figure who gave his attention and encouragement but didn’t interfere.

What’s going on? Why do we experience the success of one thing and advocate something else? Similarly, ask a group of people what advice they would give to a recent graduate on picking an employer – it will be based on logical analysis, it will sound right. Ask those same people how they got their first job? ‘My mate went there’; ‘My Dad used to work there’; ‘I met someone in the pub’. It doesn’t sound quite good enough does it?

So we have a tendency to prefer things that sound right, that have an easy logic, that have an immediate appeal. Things that are intangible or that require us to think a bit – they come a poor second.  Does this matter? You bet it does.  We have the daily spectacle of political leaders having to deliver ‘soundbites’ that have appeal.  Failing that, they play safe with empty phrases.  If they dared something a bit more thoughtful, the next day’s headlines would be sure to find in the thoughtfulness something to tear them apart.  And these people are running nations.

At an individual level, our ability to delegate rests on our willingness to let people get on with it in their own way. This could be a way that may not sound right to us, a way without an easy logic or an immediate appeal. Directors of a company I advise were locked in a pattern of criticising each other until I pointed out that there was nothing wrong with the results each was currently producing, merely the manner in which they did it – which didn’t conform to the way that some of the others would have done it.

Delegation, letting people find their own way, is one of the key factors in productivity and innovation. Google allow their employees one day in five to do what they want – so long as they record the results. 50% of their new stuff comes from this day; not just ideas – products. From 1757 the East India Company hired the sons of the British middle class and sent them off to India to rule over bits of it the size of Wales. The only stipulation was that each ‘Deputy Commissioner’ had to send a monthly report to London. Any advice that might have been offered in return would have been irrelevant by the time ships and horses had delivered the mail. Yet this organization of DCs stayed in place for 100 years and – by the standards of the day – they were resoundingly successful.

The East India Company’s approach may have missed the getting-together aspect of Action Learning but it had the trickiest part of it – letting go and letting people learn from doing important things. The monthly report served as a fair replacement for the discussion of problems. We don’t just learn by doing; we learn by reflecting on what we have done. However busy an executive you are, I advocate keeping a daily journal, or giving yourself time for some form of reflection.

On a different front we are now discovering that children below the age of 5 – long thought to be incapable of learning in an ‘adult’ way – have learning abilities that surpass adults. Babies and young children are exquisitely designed by evolution to change and create, to learn and explore. Yet within a few years, with notable exceptions, they will be subjected to the formal input of the classroom. Why? Because formal sounds right, informal is difficult to defend. It’s good to see that the UK’s great love affair with university degrees is beginning to be tested. More young people are bypassing the system, failing as it is to guarantee them jobs. (Whoever believed that it could or should?) And I wish I had a tenner for every executive of the construction industry who has shamefacedly admitted to me that he (construction is a male world) didn’t go to university. They wanted to get out of the education system and ‘do something’. (For followers of Myers Briggs we are talking Sensors – half the population.) The shame rests with a society that allows itself to be ruled by what sounds right.

So here we are, back to Action Learning. The next time your children or your staff seem to you to be in need of learning – find them something important to do and let them get on with it, preferably in the company of others, and under the eye of someone high-ranking who knows how to encourage without interference. And ‘important’ means something that you think only you know how to do, something you obviously need to tell them how to do, something that you can’t afford to have fail.

Easy isn’t it?  Far too simple really.

“Unless your ideas are ridiculed by experts, they are worth nothing.” Reg Revans

In this article the events and their sequence are not totally accurate.  The lessons to be drawn, however, remain so.  I am indebted to Alistair Mant (Google him) for his contribution.

©Brian Chandler 2010, revised 2017

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Norfolk Nights – The Tale of Albert and Eleanor

 

It helps the tale if, in the reading of it, you pronounce Albert in the French way ‘Al-bair’, and know that Eleanor, despite bearing a name that comes from France, was actually English.  They were both in the autumn of their years, or at least the late summer.

Eleanor had the kind of unworldliness of someone who had never had to worry about money.  She didn’t actually have any, well not much, but her faith in the world coming right for her was boundless.  Swiss finishing school had probably helped.

Albert (don’t forget – ‘Al-bair’) was a French peasant, a man of the soil.  He was a very rich French peasant and the soil he was a man of was his own vineyard.  Being a man of substance and a widower he was constantly ribbed by his friends and neighbours in Beziers: ‘You must marry again Albert, and settle down’.  In reply he would explain that he was waiting for a blonde he was being sent, from the North.  That is where blondes come from as you know.

Eleanor was a regular visitor to the Rookingham Centre in East Anglia where she bought the occasional antique from Roger.  Rog ran an emporium stuffed with Afghan rugs, and antiques from France.  His wife Sue ran the restaurant.  Their relaxed atmosphere caused people to drop in just to have a coffee, browse the antiques – and see who else was visiting.  It earned the name of The Vortex amongst regulars.  Sooner or later you got sucked in.

In the days when a lot of English people were buying houses in France, Rog would take their furniture over to them in his big van before refilling it with antiques bought at the French ‘brocantes’ and bringing them back for sale in England.  On one of her visits Eleanor asked Rog if he would ‘move’ her when she found a property she liked.  She said she was heading for Beziers, for no better reason apparently than she liked the sound of the name, and the climate was warm.  It so happened that Eleanor was blonde.

Eleanor sold her house, put the contents into store and gave Rog the details. The inventory started with ‘2 bricks’ and ended with ‘single bed with 3 legs’.  Once you connected the two items it made sense.  Had she been to Beziers?  No.  Was she going directly?  No, she would make her way down through France with her two dogs and two cats.  She offered to pay Rog up front.  Sensing a degree of uncertainty in her planning Rog suggested that she paid when she sent for her stuff.

Crossing the channel, she made her way slowly south.  Her finishing school French served her well and she made friends wherever she stopped.  She was a great correspondent and her letters to Rog and Sue charted her course through France.  Her copperplate handwriting was so good to look at that Sue kept the letters.

In one of them she told how she had met a farming family who had a house that they were having difficulty selling.  The house had belonged to an uncle who had grown old and died in it and the house had grown old with him.  The utilities were primitive if not dangerous, and the house was built into a hill, so on that side, the rooms had stone walls.  Who would touch it?  But the contents of every room had become antique over the years even if they hadn’t started that way.  And the garage housed a 2CV that might have been the first one made.  Eleanor knew immediately who would be interested and put the local notaire in touch with Rog.  18 months later (French property can be tricky to buy) The House in Gouex became a regular feature of Vortex conversations.  But that’s another Tale.

Eventually arriving in Beziers Eleanor met Albert and Albert met Eleanor.  They met when walking their dogs.  Dogs are great socialisers.  Soon they were walking them together.  When Albert heard that she was living in a hotel, his farmer’s thriftiness prompted him to invite her to stay in his house.  On an introductory tour of his estate she noticed him picking up a large snail that was in danger of being stood on, and placing it carefully to one side.  His thoughtfulness sat well with Eleanor’s nature.  She ran a shop in Glastonbury that catered to those who believed in the healing power of crystals.  When she discovered that Albert also believed in such things, it was not long before Rog and Sue received a copperplate message asking for her furniture to be brought to Beziers.  However, it seemed that the 3 legged bed was not required.

One day, when Albert judged that their relationship was strong enough, he took her to the tiny courtyard at the side of his house that was cool and sheltered from the sun.  Opening a small door in the stone wall he showed her the substantial collection of large snails that were enjoying the dark, the damp and the heaps of herbs.  They would, he explained, be in fine condition to be part of the feast which would mark their marriage.

Sue still has the copperplate invitation.

 

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‘Poker Face’ – and the second language of communication

There are many things that happen to us that suggest adopting a poker face would be a smart move.  You may be teased when young, or you may suffer bullying, and showing that you are affected is the last thing you want to do.  The transition from primary to secondary school is rich in occasions when we don’t want to show that we are upset.   Although, in adulthood, there are still situations where this is useful, mostly it’s more effective to let your emotions show.  And we’re not talking about being ‘emotional’ which is the way we describe people who get easily upset and display acutely negative emotions like anger and despair – normally inappropriately.

What we are talking about is the rich range of day-to-day emotions like surprise, amusement, disappointment, disbelief etc.  In fact, academics in this field have listed more than 400 separately identifiable emotions, whose appearance in our faces creates a second language of communication.  This second ‘language’ – our ability to tell what another person is feeling (and thereby guess at what they are thinking) is not something we have to learn, it’s something we become skilful at as young children.  In fact, not developing this skill at around 12 months is one of the symptoms of Autism.  However it’s something we tend to suppress.  Telling someone that you can see how they are feeling, and therefore thinking, is not exactly encouraged in our society.

So bringing this skill back into play and letting more emotions into your face will have a number of benefits:

  • It will make you more accessible to others; people will warm to you, there will be better ‘chemistry’.  A real negative emotion is more attractive than a plastic positive one.  (Whatever you think of ‘Reality TV’ – this is the basis of its appeal.)
  • You’ll be more in touch with your own emotions and better able to guide your accompanying reactions and decisions.
  • It will help you become comfortable in using your ability to read reactions in others.  Exploring someone’s emotional reaction, thoughtfully and carefully, may feel awkward but is seen by the recipient as understanding and helpful.
  • It will open the way to appearing more mature, and developing gravitas.

Find a role model who appeals to you, or just watch for characteristics in others that you like and add them to your portfolio.  The trick in executing any part of your emotional portfolio will be to allow the mindset that would underpin it.   Don’t try to control your actions; we’re talking method acting here.  Just be that way.

We are worse at concealing our emotions than we think, and better at detecting others’.  Our emotions are there for others to see just as theirs are plain to us.  We don’t mind each other’s emotions; it’s the masks that cause distrust.  (Horses, who read human emotion, are at ease with people with Autism and Asperger’s – what you see is what you get.  It’s ‘normal’ people who are pretending one thing and feeling another that spooks them.  Ask a regular rider.)  And as Laurence Olivier is supposed to have said ‘If you can fake sincerity – you’ve got it made’.

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Interviews – who’s in charge? (being a successful interviewee)

You are about to be interviewed for a job you’d really like to have and you desperately hope you come across well.  Stop worrying about your performance, you just need the right interviewer to bring it out of you.  Worry instead about their performance.

Interviewing is like sex, learning from watching someone else is unusual, and it’s unusual to get feedback on your own performance.  Not surprisingly, standards of interviewing skills are not high.  So stop worrying about how well you are going to do as interviewee, and start entertaining the idea that you may have to, gently, influence the event.

It starts with the job ad.  Most are so full of guff about how wonderful the organisation is that they tell you little about the job and the qualities of the ideal candidate.  So start researching and imagining.  Not just about the job, and the organisation, but the industry that it is in and the pressures on it.  Anybody going for a job in the nuclear world has to know how beset it is with safety regulations, and for a job in a knowledge business like newspapers or libraries, the challenge of competing with free information from the internet.

Not only does the job ad fall short but interviewers have been so busy with the day job that they haven’t had time to figure out what they are looking for.  ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ is a familiar cry.

So have a list** of things that you would be looking for in a candidate in terms of the job, the organisation and the understanding of the industry.  And then rehearse stories of how you fit them, ready to pop out in the interview for them to see.

The second pitfall for the busy, unprepared, interviewer is that they grab your CV gratefully like a safety blanket and proceed to talk you through it.  During the process, when they will home in on gaps, or short duration jobs, they will be playing Sherlock Holmes – making their deductions – rather than asking you to explain and give proof of your abilities.

The third pitfall, although it often drowns the rest, is that they start to tell you about the job, the organisation and their experiences – and never stop.  A lesser but similar crime is to find something that you have in common and have a really good chat.  In a way, this is the worst crime because it can leave both parties feeling that they have had a good exchange but with little evidence to support your case when comparing you with others against the requirements of the job.

So have your list** and, if you have to, draw the conversation back to the stories of how you fit the bill.  No need to be pushy: ‘I imagine that you find (X, Y or Z)  difficult.  Am I right?’; ‘I’ve had some experience of … Would this be relevant?’

And I’ve mentioned stories a few times.  Most interviewers will just ask you if you know about/have had experience of/what you think about …  They may accept reassuring but empty noises – what you have to do is tell them your ‘War Stories’ :

Pull to mind 12 stories about you: memorable stories that illuminate your strengths, particularly in relation to this job.  Rehearse them until you can deliver a 60 second sound bite for each.  Write them down if this helps.  Include negatives ‘We didn’t see the solution straight away’  ‘It was tough keeping the team together’:  the negatives will make the positives believable.

The ability to deliver a corroborative story succinctly will establish three things about you in the minds of your audience.

  1. You’re smart – the stories themselves convey that.
  2. You’re articulate – they don’t know how hard you’ve practised.
  3. You’ve got strength in depth – if you can come up with one example off the top of your head, there must be lots more where that came from.

And if your stories are memorable your interviewer will be able to recall them when convincing management that you are the person for the job – despite you salary demands!

And remember, from your own times as an interviewer, you actually want the candidate to succeed.

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Heroics At A Human Level

Last month I attended a re-union of the training department of what used to be one of the big accounting firms before they all merged to become the Big Four. People came from Scotland and Singapore (and via Southern Rail) and the outpouring of emails after the event spoke of the warmth and familiarity of a team coming together a quarter of a century after they were closed down.

 

Reunions aren’t normally like that.  They tend to be alcohol-fuelled attempts to regain a bygone age, if you go to them at all.  So what was different?  My sister in Australia recognised it.  She had been one of a bunch of ordinary folk who came together at the setting up of the Swan Brewery in Perth.  Mostly unqualified amateurs, they soldiered together to make it the best of breed in the brewing industry.  People came from all over the world to learn from them.  And then Alan Bond bought it, whose fame and fraud caused its closure.

 

“Camelot” is sometimes used to describe the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Something admirable but cut short.  My sister can tell you about Swan Brewery (and its reunions).  This is about the Camelot of our training department.  What made it admirable?  Well, we did all those things that you read about in textbooks but here’s a bit of what it looked like:

 

As a 30 strong department that wasn’t in the front line we were a soft target for providing summer jobs for the offspring of partners or their friends.  The newbies all got a talk from me which was ‘don’t expect special treatment, make the coffee, man the photo copier, do anything to help until someone notices that you’re OK.  Then you might get something bigger to do.’

 

I got a call from the father of one of our young charges.  He was the finance director of one of our top clients and he was outraged that his son was doing donkey work.  I told him politely that there would be no preferential treatment.  He went off muttering about speaking to someone about me.

 

His son did well with his donkey work, building his credibility with our people and building his own confidence.  Eventually, he got trusted with putting together the boxes of materials for a three day seminar that was to start the following Monday in Beaconsfield.  The course co-ordinator asked him if he would like to go to the hotel on Sunday night and check that everything was in place for the instructors to start the following morning.

 

Filled with pride at his first operational trip he arrived to find that the hotel could not locate the crucial boxes.  Faced with the prospect of failure he turned around and headed back to London HQ – to do the job all over again.  By one o’clock on Monday morning he had finished.  By two o’clock he was confronting his angry parents (in the days before mobile phones).

 

I do not know what he said.  I can only imagine that they could see that this was important to him.  That he had accepted a responsibility and he would not let go.  His dad got up at dawn and drove him to pick up the boxes and deliver them to the waiting instructors.  The seminar started as planned.

 

So the reunions of the Brewery and our training department were full of folk who had the luck to be part of something that helped them on the road to discovering what they were capable of, who they were, and what was important to them.  And when you’ve got that, you’ve got a group of people who are comfortable with themselves and with others.  Small wonder that it was a warm and rewarding evening.

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Tough But Fair

tough-but-fair

When I was designing training for one of the big accounting firms, I assembled a group of young managers to be my panel of advisers. “What’s the best advice you’ve received on how to manage?” I asked them. One response remains with me to this day: “find a junior and frighten him”. Back then I was appalled at the barbarity of this advice.  These days I realise that it has value. After any promotion you have to gently separate yourself from your erstwhile peers and establish your authority.

It happens in other fields: there comes a point in every aspiring athlete’s life when they have to decide whether to join the rest of the squad at the pub or do that extra bit of practice and eschew the alcohol. Camaraderie is nice but it doesn’t get you better performance.

Those of you familiar with the Leadership Development Framework (LDF) will recognise this as the graduation from Diplomat (seeking the security of being the same as others) to Expert (deciding what is right for you as an individual). And you don’t need the LDF to recognise that it is one of the transitions that has to be made if you’re going to be a manager.

Does that mean we’ve all got to give up being nice people and become the kind of inconsiderate, arrogant jerk or standoffish bully who plays favourites that we clearly have too many of already? No it doesn’t, and here’s a clue to how to make the difficult transition easier.

Ask anyone who their favourite teacher was at school and most will tell you that it wasn’t the nice ones, it was “Ms Smith – because she was firm but fair”. And we readers instinctively know why. The nice ones sometimes had to turn nasty to control an outbreak that their niceness had encouraged. And the innocent quite often got caught up in the nastiness. With the ones that were ‘firm but fair’ you knew where you stood.

tough-but-fair-the-good-boss

And “knowing where you stand” is the key.  The good boss lets his people know what he expects of them and what they can expect of him.  He initiates conversations, models behaviour and may even write some rules.  With that understanding in place, being tough is not the same as being nasty.  Being tough is expected.  Being nasty is exercising your boss power without the explanation represented by the box at the third corner of the relationship.  And a remarkable number of bosses continue to operate in binary fashion: partly because it’s easier and feeds their ego to be the sole decision maker; partly because its difficult to decide ahead of time what the rules of the game should be.

tough-but-fair-purpose-and-sanity

So here’s another  clue.  Most of the important contents of the third corner come from a proper understanding of what’s important to the organisation.  Strict time keeping is a given where everyone needs to be present for the process to work: factories, restaurants, retail etc.  But it has much lower importance in knowledge industries with their patterns of people working to their own schedule or working from home.  Hoseasons, the holiday booking company, will fire staff who are 10 feet from a phone on the fourth ring.  “If we don’t pick up the call a competitor might.”  Lloyds Bank spent millions on a TV ad promising their customers that their calls would be answered by the fourth ring.  But a bank’s customers are largely locked in.  Having standards that are not linked to the purpose of the organisation is worse than none at all.

I am indebted to my friend Alastair Mant for Tough but fair.  The illustrations of it are from his book Intelligent Leadership.

©Brian Chandler

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Golf is a series of mental breakdowns.

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20 years ago I phoned Tim Gallwey, author of the Inner Game books, to see if he could work with me on a client. “Sorry Brian, I’m finishing my next book (The Inner Game of Work) but you could try Pete Shoemaker”. Pete and his brother Fred ran a programme called Extraordinary Golf in Carmel, California. I called and explained that I wanted to use the mental side of the game to get the management team at one of my clients to look at their business differently. “Sure Brian” said Fred “golf is a series of mental breakdowns”. What?

Fred explained: you have expectations for every shot you play, and very often the results don’t match. When that happens you have a choice: get annoyed/blame your clubs/your luck/your partner … and hang on to your hopes for the next shot – or allow your mental ‘set’ to break down, accept reality and allow for some learning.

In the Cold War of the 1950s when the USSR’s nukes were to be delivered by bombers, the defence of the USA was in the hands of fighter pilots guided by radar operators on the ground. The intensive training they were given hit a snag – in simulated exercises they weren’t downing more than 50% of the bombers. Not a bad result in a WW2 setting but not great in a nuclear world.

The USAF called in the famous RAND think tank. They pulled the trainers and any other form of authority out of the war-room and left the operators to be confronted by the results of their actions.

To begin with they indulged in behaviour later labelled Blame-shedding (‘It’s not our fault, we did our bit’). When it became clear that this was getting them nowhere, Blame-grabbing emerged (‘If it will move things forward, we’ll take the blame’). When 50% remained the best that they could do, they began to hunt for a Magic Solution (‘We’re missing something, there must be a trick to this).

Even after rejecting the first two behaviours, the pressures for the ‘quick fix’ of the third are hard to resist, particularly as they often come from the top. One has only to look at the number of ‘initiatives’ launched by politicians to realise this. Only with effort do those trying to solve the problem arrive at a fourth way: Dealing with reality (‘Those are the facts, now let’s all just do the best we can.’)

More than anything else, getting to the fourth pattern of behaviour requires dropping defensive barriers and collaborating in an open and flexible response to reality, Fred Shoemaker’s ‘mental breakdown’ if you like. That done, the 50% barrier melted and fighter pilots and radar operators found their way to levels of performance that had been thought impossible.

Fast forward 20 years and we’re watching four doctors who are running a podiatry (foot) clinic. They have taken themselves off for a couple of days to tackle the problem of their ever-lengthening waiting lists. The walls of their hotel room are covered in flip charts: SWOT and PEST and BCG and, and … nothing looks remotely like solving their problem. Head in hands, one of them begins to cry. This is serious stuff, it’s his life, it’s his patients’ lives. They’ve been at this for two days. One way or another they all break down.

Feet

Out of their despair they come together ‘Why don’t we …’; ‘If we changed … ‘; ‘I’m sure they’d …’. And they begin to see the reality behind the endless waiting lists: they were part of a community that needed their help to take better care of its feet. So began outreach clinics; school visits; secondments from the staff of local gyms. And the waiting lists came down.

Anyone reading this who doesn’t need a mental breakdown from time to time?

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