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Focus on learning: do something different everyday

- Hear from Paul Smedley, Founder, and Phil Anderson, Director, from our sponsor The Forum.

Our purpose at The Forum is to help professionals realise the difference they can make. We are a learning organisation. We want to help your learning by creating and sharing new ideas, through our four professional communities, not just in formal training. In short, we invite you to do something different every day. In particular, when the world is uncertain and ever-changing, we ask you to consider how you develop your potential and stay relevant, ready for your moments of truth. For a professional, the world of work is a fantastic place for learning. Yet, we can’t just wait for others to make this happen for us. We need to take responsibility for ourselves.

1. Consistent, every day learning

The danger is that if we stand still for too long, we will find it very hard to adapt to new realities. This doesn’t mean constant changes of direction. No, we need to have a consistent purpose and direction, but become highly skilled at learning along the way. This means being very aware of where we want to be in the new world and making the necessary adjustments. This does not mean just following what others do. You need to be able to notice, and adapt, what is useful to you.

Moreover, our learning needs to be as regular as clockwork. Keeping accurate time, means the second hand must be constantly working. The seconds look after the minutes, which in turn take care of the hours. Making every second count means time looks after itself. We are wanting to promote the right behaviours, a constant ticking second hand, a heartbeat of improvement. This will help us to be prepared for whatever happens next. Regular learning gets us ready for each moment of truth.

What else? We need to step forward as professionals, by developing new skills in agile learning and coaching that help us inspire, lead and support those around us as well as ‘leading ourselves’. Are we always ready to face the next ‘normal’, as we respond to succeeding phases of social, economic, or ecological crisis? We may anticipate challenges, especially in customer operations where the traditional route to developing new skills, knowledge and capabilities still relies heavily on formal training sessions or directed learning.

2. Move beyond directed learning

Back in April 2021 at our Customer Strategy & Planning Conference, Ivan Smith, Head of Support at Motability Operations, spoke about five levels of learning. Over the last year, we have adapted this into a framework that encourages members to shape their own future as professionals. The Learning Pyramid (see diagram on the next page) starts with directed learning at the base. This is a foundation on which we can build. We may start with mandated learning and then, as we gain in skill and confidence, we learn to create appropriate areas of focus ourselves (self directed learning).

All of us will have experienced mandated learning at some point in school or college. Perhaps we are told “you need to get better at this” or focussed on a specific topic or task, and asked, “how will you do that?”. We may still expect this personally; there is a lot of it still in some member organisations. At the same time, more modern approaches to training now enable self-directed learning, the next stage where we take responsibility for identifying our own learning focus. Those in our Learning Academy at The Forum will recognise this. Many of us will also have experienced this with project work, for instance, or in other areas of life, like parenting, sport, or performance arts.

In learning, direction is important. Know what you want and focus on how to do it. In business, a coaching culture will invite us to build self-awareness and draw up our own areas of learning focus. In this way, we learn to take responsibility for ourselves. We learn to say to ourselves “I want to learn more about this” and “how do I do this?”. Much ‘coaching’ that is undertaken around performance or quality is not really coaching in that sense. So it’s brilliant to increasingly see great work by members in moving away from mandated to self-directed goals.

3. Understand the stages of learning

The first stage of learning is to focus on what matters most. Start by becoming aware of what you are not understanding or doing (see diagram). This will help you to identify things you didn’t know you didn’t know — or things you didn’t know you couldn’t do. These are our ‘unknown unknowns’, or blind spots. In the same way, we genuinely see ‘failure’, or lack of progress, as the chance for learning. Carl Jung, the psychiatrist, said that we cannot change anything until we accept it. “Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” This isn’t about putting a ‘brave face on’.

To uncover blind spots, we need to assess our current starting point from an honest perspective. This gets us to the first base, a clear focus or goal for learning. We can do this consciously, forming desired outcomes and strategies, or unconsciously, with well-grounded hopes and dreams guiding us to learn along the way. Our community of professionals at The Forum offers a safe environment to support you. You may also set up buddy groups or a mentor relationship in your own organisation. You can compare your operation against a framework of best practice, so see what is similar or different. You can explore what a particular working method is intended to deliver, so you can test against the outcomes. Sometimes you may just need to ask someone else. We find this a lot at our network groups. Hearing that you share similar challenges can be reassuring. Hearing a challenge described by someone else can help you to see this from a different perspective.

The next stage of learning is to practice new skills or apply new knowledge. In learning circles, this is often called ‘conscious competence’. We have to work at it before the new skills becomes embedded, natural, or automatic. If you are actively learning in sports, crafts, or music, you will understand this. You need others to encourage and support you. You may need to allow more time to do certain tasks in the new, different way. This applied learning is the key to being a highly skilled learner. This is what we look for in those seeking accreditation at the Specialist level. Likewise, in an operational world, we embed learning into operational playbooks or alternative operating models. We call this operational or organisational learning, which is as important as personal learning. This is where we can stand out as professionals.

4. Learn by exploring & networking

We have already talked about the significance of moving from directed to self-directed learning, the first stages of the Learning Pyramid. When we move to look at the higher levels, we can see that these are vital skills in a fast-changing world. When we ‘remove the blinkers’, suddenly our minds can focus more broadly. We become inquisitive about all kinds of seemingly random things that we can unconsciously link back to what we are working on or the issues we are facing in other areas of life. We may ask ourselves more open questions like “let’s see what I can find out” or “what can I now do differently?”.

Our professional community at The Forum opens up a world of opportunity. We exist for you as a learning organisation for all kinds of professionals, to raise standards in customer operations. Equally, don’t limit yourselves to what we provide. There is so much available within and beyond your own organisations. Search online and in a myriad of business networks.

In his keynote Ivan Smith talked about this as like beachcombing, looking at what is there and picking out things that catch the eye, as of particular interest. Of course it may seem to the outsider that this is random, but it really is not. There is something in our mind that is directing our attention and we can cultivate this as we become more and more highly skilled as learners. Why does this matter? Because the world of work today does not allow much time for stopping and staring. Time and again, we hear members bemoaning the lack of time for learning. So beachcombing may feel more like an activity for holidays. Yet, if we wait for ‘time out’, it may never happen. So, ironically, beachcombing needs to become our job! That’s why we say: make it an everyday activity and be really consistent. We need to become adept at spotting the learning opportunity fast. We need to be regular and disciplined about our learning habits. Otherwise we risk becoming stuck in the past, increasingly irrelevant to the future.

5. How high can we aim?

I love this quote from Tony Robbins, neuro-linguistic trainer, and speaker. “Most people overestimate what they can do in a year, and they underestimate what they can do in two or three decades.” This feels appropriate right now, as I’m sure we are all desperately trying to do too much in our workplace, frustrated with the uncertainty or under pressure to make too many changes, too quickly. The reality is that too often we overestimate what can be achieved in the short-term. We end up spinning too many plates, making sure they don’t drop and smash, instead of embedding long term change. At the same time, if you look back over the past five years, you will see a huge amount has been achieved. Look back over ten years and you may not even recognise the same business! We need to focus on the small steps but keep our sights on the larger goals. I call this being both optimistic and realistic, at the same time.

Typically the higher up the learning pyramid we stretch ourselves, the more we find the joy of learning. Ivan speaks about challenge when you go off the standard set pathways, like when you try the fast, dangerous, downhill runs on a bike. We find members get plenty of this kind of challenge at work – which is why work can be such an exciting place to be as a professional today, so long as it does not start to overwhelm us. The level of challenge rises as we start to really innovate. We may ask “what happens if I combine these new ideas in a new way?”. “What if?” is a really powerful question.

We can also train ourselves to identify drivers and be able to confidently say “if X then Y”. If we can change the focus of our roles, away from just reporting the past, towards shaping the future, we start to power transformative experiences and change, as we explore in the fourth chapter of this 2022 Best Practice Guide. So, how do you experiment at work? What do you do that helps you successfully test new approaches? How can you emulate and adapt ground breaking behaviours you may see around you? We can ask ourselves “what would be a totally new way of doing this?”. We can be truly daring and creative at work, not just outside work, and be paid for it!

6. Is purpose shaping your future?

We all need direction and purpose, whether taking responsibility for ourselves, as professionals, or leading a business, project, or team. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you get there? Of course, we’ve probably all heard someone say, “you need to look at the bigger picture”. Yes, it can be annoying, in a David Brent way. It can also really motivate others to come along with you. Sometimes we forget this basic truth as technical specialists or operations leaders.

People listen when you can show how your work, or your proposal, will make a tangible difference, or how your actions make possible some much bigger goal. Taking small steps doesn’t mean getting lost in the minor details, the niggles that still exist or the workaround still required. Consider the ancient story of labourers on a building site. “What are you doing?” they are asked. “Building a cathedral” they reply. They don’t say they are just cutting stone or mixing mortar. Like JF Kennedy talking with a janitor mopping the floor at NASA. “What is your job?”, he asked. The janitor replied, “I’m helping send a man to the moon.” That way dreams become real.

We all want to make progress, which can be difficult. If you don’t know where you want to go, how do you know you are making any progress? Or, if you are forever competing with conflicting priorities, don’t you feel you’re going nowhere, fast? Whether we are aiming towards a goal or away from a problem doesn’t matter. As a minimum we want to know three things: the direction to go from here, the areas where we are making progress, and how close we are to our goals.

7. Build your own learning pyramid

You will need to understand purpose and strategy as you develop further, to see where today fits in to achieving your long-term vision or dream. Pyramids are a great tool for helping to think this through with others. For instance, do you have your own personal learning pyramid with your life goals and dreams at the top? Mapping this out for yourself can make a huge difference in how you approach everyday life, and how you learn. When you identify what is truly important in your life, you can prioritise your time to achieve this.

A great starting point is to look back at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see diagram). At the base are basic needs like food, water, rest, security, and safety. Working on these can feel like a chore unless we are in imminent danger. The higher levels are our stronger motivators for learning. The clearer we are about what we want in life, the more we can devote time to achieving this and live our lives at the top of the pyramid. This is where the real joy happens! We feel accomplishment, we are realising our potential.

In business, members often use our Strategy Pyramid at The Forum (see diagram). When there’s a clear purpose, supported by a robust strategy, it becomes much easier to set objectives. Things get joined up around the four lenses: customer, colleague, commercial and compliance. There is no doubt that this is one thing all our Innovation & Transformation awards winners have in common: strategic alignment. This shared vision creates togetherness, collaboration, and a strength in numbers.

8. Evolve a healthy learning mindset

Our outlook plays a huge part. If you want to fail, have a bad day and pick up on all the mistakes and problems, you will find them. However, if you want to succeed, have a great day, identify new opportunities, and learn every day you can. You need to own this. No one else will do this for you! Being optimistic is having the mindset that you will improve, to be prepared for whatever the future holds. Being realistic is being able to set expectations that are reachable, with the right amount of stretch, to push you out of your comfort zone, without putting on excessive pressure that can create panic.

Why not take a moment now to look back over this last 12-months and reflect how you have unlocked opportunities? Please consider how you have changed your attitude and the way you respond to change alongside the new knowledge that you have found. Remember to watch for small tweaks and alterations, not just the big step changes and transformations. When we ask students in our Assisted Learning Programmes to talk about their personal learning journeys, this is often the hardest thing to remember, the key habit to build.

A consistent everyday rhythm for learning is vital, because not knowing what is next is difficult for our brains and our decision making. We can find ourselves in panic mode, making knee jerk decisions or frozen into a state of staying still and not doing anything. It’s also really important to not worry if you have felt this at some point in the last 18-months. In many ways, it’s more worrying if you haven’t felt like this!

9. Do something different every day!

A rhythm of learning is like a heartbeat. We need to process everyday challenges. This creates certainty because every day there will be learning. We don’t process it as failure, because there is always the chance to do something differently tomorrow. The important thing is to remember how much we are capable of if we look to the future.

In a fast-changing workplace we need to build everyday learning habits that help us adapt new ideas rapidly. Maybe we bring ideas into our regular 121 or team meetings or set up buddy groups. Perhaps we put aside times each week to try ideas. Or do we create a ‘sandbox’ or ‘proof of concept’ or ‘model office team’ where this is an expected part of the job? Can we rotate people in and out of such roles so that learning becomes natural and instinctive in every professional?

So, our top tips are simple, but effective. Keep an open mind and be inquisitive, with far-reaching goals and realistic next steps. When you keep the bigger picture in clear sight, then the detail is all learning on your journey. Be consistent in promoting the positive behaviours which will lead to your intended outcomes. Keep yourself, and others, motivated to learn, by stretching up to all levels of the learning pyramid. If we continually explore, network, and innovate, we will become truly ground-breaking, confident to succeed as customer professionals.

Author: Paul Smedley & Phil Anderson

This article was first published in the 2022 Best Practice Guide - You Moment of Truth: Confident to Succeed

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

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