Posted by Stuart Herbert @ 6:31 PM, Mon 15 Feb 10
Filed under: You
The Cycle of Self-Improvement requires changes to our paradigms. We cannot persist with what we had; we must evolve to find the new. This evolution is a process of self-education, but simple book-based learning is not enough to truly know something. For that, you have to put the work in, but it has to be the right work at the right time.
A Model Of Educational Development
Although there are many different ways of learning any individual skill or knowledge, the path we take from learning to mastery of a topic always follows the same three simple steps: instruction -> coaching -> collaboration.
- We start off by being told what to do, and how to do it – and then we do it, repeating the tasks over and over. At this stage, to quote from a popular television series from the 1990′s, “understanding is not required, only obedience.” When we are learning something new, we may think we understand it immediately, but that is simply because we’re not aware of how ignorant we truly are. “I don’t know” is often the hardest phrase to say, especially if you have to mean it. Explicit instruction and task repetition together help us begin to form models in our heads of the work itself and the environment in which it exists.
- Once we have evolved a model – once the penny has dropped, if you like – then the learning experience shifts from instruction to coaching. At this stage, we are making decisions for ourselves, and through being asked to find the answers to the right questions we are learning to improve both our decision-making and technical skills.
- Finally, once our model is mature and we can consistently use it to deliver results, we make the shift to being able to work on this task with others in a collaborative manner. This is our ultimate goal.
This model applies to our education as managers, and to the education we need to provide the teams and organisations that we manage. Today, we’re focusing squarely on our own improvement; we’ll come back to using this model with those we manage another time.
Do Not Think Outside The Box Too Soon
One of the popular mantras of the last upteen years has been the dreaded phrase “thinking outside the box.” Whilst the sentiment of being able to see a problem from new and interesting angles is worthy, there’s a good reason why this phrase is a regular occurrence on what are politely called buzzword bingo cards. Why? Because people don’t understand anymore that there ever was a box in the first place, because they’ve never worked inside it.
This is not a good thing. The box represents the traditional, tried and trusted ways of doing things, handed down and refined from one generation to the next through what were traditionally called apprenticeships. It earned a bad name through the global stagnation of the 1970′s, where the energy and creativity of the 1960′s ran out. During this time, what was traditionally a means of getting a solid grounding in the fundamentals of a craft or skill solidified into a slavish jobsworthian inflexibility, and since then we’ve been coping with a succession of backlashes as newer generations turn their backs on the skills and approaches of the past.
A lot of innovation has come out of this renewal, but a lot of self-inflicted failures too. A lack of understanding and appreciation of the fundamentals undermines any efforts for sustainability.
There Are No Shortcuts
Instructing new staff – literally telling people exactly how to do their jobs – is something many managers of all levels of experience do not enjoy doing. It is extremely time-consuming, and is difficult to do without upsetting the members of staff being instructed; the manager has to know how to teach adults. The manager also has to know how to do the job that their staff have been hired to do; some managers do not know this either.
Many managers therefore either choose (or are forced) to bypass the instruction step altogether, and jump straight to coaching. And, as coaching is also an all-to-rare skill, some managers go immediately to collaboration, or attempt an approach that is neither coaching nor collaboration.
The result is inevitable: staff who do not know their jobs well enough to do them consistently, and a company that is constantly struggling with the quantity of work required and the quality and applicability of work produced. Without consistency, the business becomes non-determinstic, and impossible to optimise over time.
You can avoid this by having a layer of junior management (e.g. team leaders) below you who do know the job well enough to handle the instructional phase, provided they understand that is their role and they are trained and suited to the task.
You Have To Start With Yourself
If you want to develop and improve your own mental models, you have to work within the box. It cultivates a certain discipline that is very healthy for you, and it tempers you mentally for future experiences.
Your own long-term maturity in a role relies heavily on your improved decision-making. The process of instruction -> coaching -> collaboration allows you to develop more mature models that are fundamental to improving your maturity. We’ll look at maturity in the next article.