When we think about “Learning” in a business setting, the primary focus lies in the domain of performance: the ability of people to accomplish particular things and to behave in particular ways.
But what does it really mean to “learn”, particularly in today’s “VUCA” world? What’s actually going on when find ourselves truly “in over our heads”?
To start to look at this question, consider the following as a not uncommon organizational behavioral objective:
We collaborate well as a team in order to leverage and synthesize the totality of our unique strengths and abilities.
The key phrase, “we collaborate well as a team”, suggests a number of key skills and competencies that we would expect people to be able to exercise. Among these are:
- We can give and receive useful feedback
- We can adjust our communication style based on the situation and the people present
- We can navigate conflict in ways that help us focus on task rather than on personality differences
- We can interact with others in such a way that they feel emboldened to bring their best qualities forward
- And so on
What we soon discover, as we and others endeavor to learn these kinds of skills and competencies, is that they are not very sticky. That is, while they may be easy to understand (especially in a rarefied workshop setting), and it may even seem as though we’ve learned them, what we find is that, in the heat of a given moment, we find ourselves unable to consistently translate that learning into actual action and behavior.
Why is that?
Because, there exists in people a deeper meaning-making layer that determines our where-with-all to not merely understand something, but to be able to act—in the very heat of any given moment—from that knowledge, organically and spontaneously.
To see this more clearly, let’s invoke a simple, even if rather dry (and somewhat inadequate), metaphor:
Imagine the human being as a kind iPhone.
Using our actual iPhone, we launch a variety of apps to accomplish particular tasks, such as video conferencing, listening to music, and managing our bank accounts.
In metaphorically-like fashion, we as humans engage in a variety of behaviors and actions (human “apps”, you could say) in order to accomplish particular tasks within our lives and work. Such behaviors and actions could include things like speaking, listening, creating stuff, working with others, and so on.
All of those “apps” (whether iPhone or human) require an underlying operating system (OS), without which those apps could not possibly run. For the iPhone, that underlying OS provides a set of services to all apps that, in the end, determine how, how well, and even if, those apps can run.
In like fashion, a similarly metaphorical underlying operating system is at work for us as human beings, one which provides a set of cognitive, emotional and even spiritual “services” which determine how, how well, and even if, the apps which constitute our actions and behaviors might run.
Developmental psychologists refer to this underlying human operating system as our “meaning-making”. “Meaning-making” refers to a stratum of human consciousness which, in a matter of milliseconds, parses through the complexity of inputs, sensory and otherwise, in order to render within our consciousness a more sensible psychological organization. All before the blink of an eye and all beyond the reach of our conscious awareness.
Given this, you could say that much of what we encounter in the world “out there” gets constructed in the world “in here”—that is, in our minds. And, for the most part, we don’t notice that that’s what’s happening. We think we’re seeing the world as it is, when, in fact, for the most part, we’re seeing the world the way it gets constructed in our meaning-making.
That is, the world is as much made as it is found.
Now, here’s the big question:
What if the way in which we make our world, both individually and collectively, is insufficient to the complexity of the world we actually find ourselves in?
This is similar to the situation with the iPhone in which we find that certain apps no longer run as well as they used to; or that a new version cannot launch. In our case, the complexity of the environment in which we must be able to act—social, technological, even political—is greater now than it was. Therefore, we must, necessarily, raise the complexity of capability of the meaning-making OS within the context of which we can act effectively.
We need to effect, within ourselves, an upgrade of the meaning-making OS by which we make our world.
As we do so, our capacity for effective action—and the skills and competencies it calls for—in the face of the greater complexity grows significantly.
In order to grow within ourselves the skills and competencies needed in today’s world, we need also to upgrade the inner operating system on top of which those skills and competencies must run if they are to accessible in the heat of any given moment.
How might we endeavor to bring about this integrated upgrade in both skillfulness and meaning-making?
Enter the notion of the deliberately developmental environment (DDE for short).
The DDE defines a set of distinctions and conversational practices that enable people—both individually and collectively—to reveal, and thus free themselves from, the cognitive and emotional constraints imposed by the underlying meaning-making we may be holding, in relation to a particular situation or challenge. In this way, the DDE enriches their capacity for more effective action, especially in the face of situations that are otherwise confusing, overwhelming and more generally inhibitive of their performance capability.
One key conversational practice here is the shared sensemaking conversation. In most ordinary conversation, we focus almost exclusively on the “content” of that conversation. By contrast, in a shared sensemaking conversation, we of course give attention to that “content”. But we also pay attention to:
- The beliefs, assumptions, theories and emotional triggers that may be operating in the background which determine how we are making sense in relation to the “content”
- The relational and interactional patterns which dominate the conversational landscape
This turn of focus shifts the meaning-making context in which we come to make sense of the situation we are discussing.
By foregrounding the hidden beliefs, assumptions, theories and triggers that determine how we make sense of a given situation, we start to see the situation in an entirely new light. New possibilities that would not have occurred to us before suddenly become readily apparent, yielding a whole new domain of action. Situations that were once overwhelming become more manageable—not by changing the conditions of the situation itself, necessarily, but by shifting the way in which we see it, whether collectively or individually.
The deliberately developmental environment encapsulates a more general approach to organizational learning; one in which “learning” embraces the full meaning-making context by which organizational performance—and the process of learning by which it is tuned—is determined. Such an approach to learning constitutes a necessary turn for organizational performance in the 21st Century.