Friday 27 February 2015

Reflections on Story

I spent three days last week involved in media training as part of the Cardiff Futures programme. Our media experts, Karen and Kevin from Mosaic were excellent, as ever. They started by pointing out the time and attention constraints that mean that in a media story, you have to present your key messages as early and as concisely as you can. In fact I was reminded of what Andrew Derrington has been drumming into me about Assert-Justify in my writing.

My natural style is to use more of a narrative approach: crafting a tale with a start that intrigues, a middle that develops ideas and escalates the tension, and then a satisfying ending that, I hope, delivers a memorable message with some impact. This is closer to the approach of the novelist than the journalist. The difference is clear if one considers how The Times and John le Carré would tell the same story: one would use the name of the traitor in the headline, the other only reveal it in the final chapter.

Both approaches have their place, of course. But what I was reflecting on is that the use of the word story seems to obscure the differences. And that led me to think about the other way in which I use the word story, particularly in the book I am writing. In that context, I use it to refer to the understandings we construct from our experience to make sense of the world.

I use the word story very deliberately, to emphasise that these understandings are a construct, an interpretation, and thus are malleable. But that is not the only link. Every now and then, the story we have created in this manner is so good that we feel we have to share it, and we do so in one of the two styles mentioned above: either in brief headlines, as it were, or as a well-crafted narrative. It is these stories that fuel the organisational grapevine, and their tenacity is a tribute to the power of story as a way of communicating.

Saturday 21 February 2015

The Problem with Learning Styles

I first came across David Kolb's learning cycle many years ago, and it seemed to me (and still seems) a useful way to think about how people learn. 

In the first place it has quite high face validity: I can think of specific occasions when I have learned like this. But immediately, that introduces the risk of confirmation bias:if I look for such occasions and find them, I start to believe the model. A better test is to look for counter-examples: times when I have learned which do not fit the model - and I can identify some of them, too.

So it may have some validity in some contexts, but is not, perhaps, a complete or universal model. And that is fine.

In fact, why I like it, as a trainer, is that it reminds me to design learning in ways that include both theoretical and practical aspects: that seems to lead to a richer learning experience, and one that people with different preferences can enjoy.

That word, 'preferences' is key here, I think. There is no doubt that some people prefer theory and observation to practice, and some prefer experience and experimentation to theory. But my take on that is that these preferences should not limit how we learn. 

We can shortcut this learning cycle unhelpfully in two ways. On the one hand, I could cycle between reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation, without ever actually engaging in trying things out in practice. One might label that, somewhat unkindly, the 'ivory tower' syndrome. On the other hand, I could cycle between active experimentation and concrete experience, without ever pausing to reflect. An unkind label for that would be the 'headless chicken' syndrome.

Insofar as the model alerts people to those risks, and to a consideration of including both theory and practice in their learning and teaching, I think it is helpful.

However, when people start to label themselves theorists, pragmatists and so on, I think the problems start. Both Kolb, and later (and with huge commercial success) Honey and Mumford developed Learning Style Inventories or Questionnaires to help people to determine their preferred learning style. And my question is, to what end?

In the introduction to Honey and Mumford's Learning Styles Questionnaire, they make a leap from the claim that some people prefer one way of learning, to some people learn more from one way of learning.

The evidence does not seem to support that hypothesis, any more than it supports it with regard to other learning style preferences (such as the Visual, Auditory, and Kinaesthetic model, so beloved of NLP).

In fact, proper research experiments to test these hypotheses are remarkably thin on the ground, given how widely the theories are promoted; and the majority of the experiments that have been conducted that properly test them demonstrate no correlation between learning style preference and better learning outcomes.

Where it gets really unhelpful, though, is when people are taught that they learn best in one way, and cannot learn in another. I came across someone recently who refused to try to learn from a practical exercise (not on a programme I was running, as it happens) on the basis that 'I'm a theorist. I can't learn from things like that unless the learning goal is explained first.' The worst thing was, the individual concerned is also a trainer and coach.

The problem is that such a belief risks being a self-fulfilling prophecy: and that in such cases, the Learning Styles movement, far from helping people to teach and learn better, is teaching people that they can only learn in particular ways, and thus disabling them from a huge range of potential learning.

In fairness to Honey and Mumford, they also say that the learning cycle should be completed in all cases, and that the preference indicates where someone should enter the cycle. But the earlier statement seems to stick fast and is profoundly unhelpful.

Monday 16 February 2015

Learning to Write (cont...)

One of the things that Andrew Derrington has been coaching me about is the use of the assert-justify structure in my writing, rather than argue-conclude.

He found a classic example in one of my chapters he was reviewing the other week: 'You start here saying what's wrong, and then, where is it, four, five, six (!) paragraphs later you say what should be done instead! Don't do that!'

I think he is right about this, in the type of book I am writing. However, where I think he is wrong is in his (I suspect somewhat tongue-in-cheek) next comment. 'You're humanities, aren't you: I think humanities people write like that because they have nothing to say!'

I think I write like that because so much of what I read is written like that. After all, it is how novels and drama work. They set up the suspense precisely by delaying explanation and dénouement. It provides narrative drive. 

All of which reminded me of a wonderful speech in Tom Stoppard's play Hapgood (Stoppard, of course, is a master-craftsman as a writer). The speaker, Kerner, is a Russian physicist, who has defected, and got tangled up in the spy world (incidentally, part of the play is based on Heisenberg: the act of looking determines whether an agent is a double or not...).  Anyway, here is what Kerner has to say:

Safe house, sleeper, cover, joe… I love it. When I have learned the language, I will write my own book. The traitor will be the one you don’t like very much, it will be a scandal. Also I will reveal him at the beginning. I don’t understand this mania for surprises. If the author knows, it’s rude not to tell. In science this is understood: what is interesting is to know what is happening. When I write an experiment, I do not wish you to be surprised, it is not a joke. This is why a science paper is a beautiful thing: first, here is what we will find; now here is how we will find it; here is the first puzzle, here is the answer, now we can move on. This is polite. We don’t save up all the puzzles to make a triumph for the author - that is the dictatorship of the intelligentsia.
So what I have to remember is that my book is more in the line of a Haynes Manual than an Agatha Christie whodunnit.
My job is to help the reader to understand and to be able to do certain things that I believe will be helpful in order to accomplish specific desired outcomes; not to provide a thrill-a-minute or a gradual build up of suspense and a cathartic resolution.

Thursday 12 February 2015


Another of those perennial issues which many of my clients find it helpful to discuss and work on is delegation. So here are my summary notes. As always, I am interested in discussion and am open to learning. 

Delegation is giving a member of your staff the responsibility and the authority to carry out part of your role, while retaining accountability.

Note that delegation is giving part of your job away: telling some typists which things to type is not delegation, it is work allocation.

And that is why it can be scary. On the one hand, it is your work, and naturally we all assume that they can never do it to the same standard that we can. However, it is important to delegate for two important reasons. The first is to free you to have the thinking time to do the most strategic parts of your role properly.  The second is to develop and grow staff, which is both enriching for them and important for the organisation.

Note in particular three key words in that definition:

1  Responsibility means that the individual is responsible for deciding how and when to do the tasks (within limits set by yourself: eg a final deadline).

2  Authority means that the individual may use resources, gather information, and take decisions, as though she or he were you, (again within limits set by yourself: eg talk to you before spending more than £X).

3  Accountability means that the buck stops with you. If your member of staff makes a mistake, it is up to you to take the blame! There are two reasons for that: one is that it is part of your job that has gone wrong. The other is that if something goes wrong, you have probably not delegated properly.

Control Mechanisms: Because the buck stops with you, you will need to set some control mechanisms in place: eg limits beyond which the individual cannot go with out checking with you, and agreed times for progress checks.

These should relate to the individual's confidence and competence, and the importance of the task delegated. You want to give the individual as much freedom and room for action as he or she can manage, without taking undue risks.

Once the control mechanisms are established, let the individual get on with the task: don't hover, interrupt, offer unsolicited advice....

Delegation Checklist

What parts of my job or project cannot be delegated?
(Eg because they are confidential, involve disciplinary or other sensitive personnel issues etc.)

What shall I delegate, and to whom?
(Consider developmental needs of staff, tasks which are likely to recur etc)

How shall I brief, train and support them?
1 What context do they need to understand? 
2 What are the desired results? 
3 What are the guidelines? 
4 What resources are available 
5 What training or other support do they need? 
6 How will performance be measured? 
7 What control mechanisms are appropriate? 
8 When will progress reports be given? 
9 What are the consequences of accomplishing or not accomplishing the results? 
10 When will we review the work (and learning)?
Who else needs to know that I have delegated this task?
(eg other managers with whom the individual will interact on your behalf)

How will I build the trust necessary for effective and empowering delegation?


Be brave!

Friday 6 February 2015

Weather, Dog-walking and Progress

I have just sent the revised drafts of the final chapters of my book to Andrew Derrington, who is kindly acting as my coach/editor and external conscience.

That feels like a very positive achievement, although there are a couple of caveats.  The first is that I thought I had a complete draft of the book last January: when I sent it to Andrew at that stage, his comment was that it was not so much a draft as some notes for a book... Alas, he was right. Thanks to his help and support, it is very much better now than it was then.

The second caveat is that although I have practically finished the last chapters, I have still got a lot of work to do on the first.  That is deliberate: we agreed that it made sense to edit the introductory part of the book once I was clear how the rest was turning out.

That proved wise, as I have recently removed four chapters that were essentially digressions. They are interesting (to me, at any rate) but detracted from the focus and clarity of the book. I will post them as blog posts on the new, dedicated blog I plan to launch when the book comes out. As I put it to one friend and colleague recently: 'Generally, I’ve decided the book is for my half-formed thoughts. Quarter-formed ones will go on the blog!'

It is perhaps no coincidence that the work rate on the book has accelerated recently: the very cold weather here has meant that it has been less tempting to skive off and walk the dog, and more inviting to stay by the stove and write. 

I should make it clear that the dog is still getting plenty of exercise, just not quite as much (on writing days) as she used to.

So I now have the early chapters to revise, and then there is some work to be done on graphics, illustrations and so on, and then... well don't hold your breath, but I am hoping for an announcement later this year...