Tag Archives: learning

The Attractiveness of Work

“What is it that this game has, that is so attractive to your son, that he will go without food, water and sleep, in spite of discouragement from his mom (manager)?” I asked. “Your son has achieved a high level of competence in this video game without the traditional trappings of learning, without the traditional trappings of inducement. Yet he continues to play hard.”

“Well, for one thing, it must be fun, it’s play, not work,” Jamie explained.

“And, as a manager, what can we take from that, when we think about our teams and their behavior?”

“Yes, but work isn’t all that much fun,” Jamie protested. “People don’t like work. They like play, but they don’t like work.”

“Jamie, I have looked at your son playing a video game and it doesn’t look all that different than what some of your people do at work. They both sit at a keyboard, staring at a computer screen. As they touch the keys, things move on the screen.”

“I don’t see your comparison, they are two different things.”

“But if you could see the comparison, what would you see?”

Jamie had to think, but she finally spoke. “In the mind of my son, he is part of something bigger than himself, trying to achieve certain levels in the game. As he makes progress, he gets real-time feedback (automatically), so he can adjust his play. When he makes the level, there is a small electronic celebration on the screen.”
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Leaving Shanghai today, bound for San Francisco. Quick trip around the world in five days.

Didn’t Do It For the Money

The conversation was now personal. We talked about Jamie’s son and his behavior related to a video game. We had established that he never attended a training program, never read a training manual, was discouraged from learning the game by his manager (Jamie, his mom). Furthermore, in spite of all these front-end adverse conditions, he achieved a high level of mastery, in playing the game.

“So, Jamie, you also told me that you did not pay your son a bonus when he achieved certain levels within the game?”

Jamie started with a chuckle, but it quickly turned to an outright laugh. “You clearly don’t know my son. Paying him to play a video game is not part of our family culture. That would be a bit over the top. As his mom (manager), I would have to be crazy. He doesn’t play the game for money.”

“What? Teenagers don’t have expenses?” I asked.

“That’s not the point,” Jamie explained. “He doesn’t play for money.”

“So, what does he play for? What does he get from the game that has caused him to spend hours achieving a high level of competence, without external inducements for his performance?”

“Well, he must be getting some internal reward for it.” Jamie guessed.

“And how would describe that internal reward? What is it?”

“Motivation?”

I nodded. “Yes, motivation, and here is where the conversation gets interesting.”
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First day in Shanghai. This place is very Chinese.

Sacrificing Sleep and Food

“So, what gives?” Jamie asked. “Our company spends a lot of its resources on training, planning, development programs. Why do they always seem to run out of gas? You suggest we are missing something on the back end.”

“When I look at behavior, I think we, as managers, truly miss the boat. We are always looking at the front end of the behavior instead of the back end. And the back end, the consequences of behavior, are much more powerful drivers than the front end.”

“I am not sure what you mean,” Jamie responded.

“Jamie, you have a teenager at home, right?”

“Oh, yeah, somewhere in his room, beneath the glow of some Realm vs Realm computer game, I think there is a teenager in there somewhere.”

“Tell me, how complicated is that video game?”

“Oh, boy, I can’t make heads or tails of it. When I look at that screen, there is so much stuff going on, including multiple chat channels, voice over the Internet, status panels, swords, animals, shields, walking, running, flying, transporting, vaporizing.”

“So, to learn how to play that game, you must have sent your son to an expensive training class?” I asked.

Jamie started to laugh. “Are you kidding? He just sat in there for hours and hours, without eating or sleeping. I don’t know how he learned it, but it wasn’t from a training class.”

“You mean, you didn’t encourage him. You didn’t bring in a motivational speaker. You didn’t make him practice?”

“No way, quite the opposite. We discourage him from playing the game, sometimes we even ground him from playing.”

“So, let me get this straight,” I began, “your son has learned to play a computer game at an extremely high level of competence, without going to a single training program. Sometimes he skips meals and sleep to continue playing this game. He does it in spite of his manager’s (mom’s) discouragement. Everything that has been done, up front, violates everything we know about competence and mastery. So, what’s happening?”
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At this moment, I am likely in the air between Vienna, Austria and Shanghai, China. Presenting to two groups of managers on Levels of Work.

Even If It Wasn’t Effective Before

How do most managers manage?

Most managers manage the way they were managed, even if they hated it. Especially under pressure, most of us return to routine grooved behaviors, even if the behavior was not effective back then, even if the behavior failed back then.

Learning something new is only half the battle. The other half is changing your habits to integrate something new. It takes conscious thought and a bit of persistence. -Tom

Real Learning

“And that concludes my report. A well-thought out plan, perfectly executed.” Martin smiled. I knew he was lying. His plan may have been well-thought out, but life is never that perfect.

Carla was next up. She was nervous. Her plan was solid, but her team had hit some rocky patches. “I guess things didn’t go the way we thought,” she reported. “We had to make several adjustments as we went along. Our project required three additional meetings. In the end, we made the deadline and came in under budget, but it was tough. I will try to do better next time.”

Carla got a quiet golf clap from the room for her efforts. I moved up to confront the class.

“Carla thinks her project didn’t go so well. Carla thinks she should have had a better report for class tonight, but here is why her report is so important.

“You read these management magazines out there, about CEOs with well-thought out plans, perfectly executed. Some reporter shows up to write about every target flawlessly achieved. No pimples, no bumps, no bruises. Whenever I hear that, I know I have to get the guy drunk to get the truth.

“But, look at Carla’s report. Her team started out toward their first objective, they got off course.” I drew a line across the page with an abrupt turn. “It took an extra meeting to figure out where they went wrong, to get back on track.

“They met their first target, but immediately things went south again. Another meeting, another adjustment.” My line on the flipchart meandered across the page with another hard turn back to target number two.

“And it happened again, before the project was finished.” The flipchart now showed huge jagged lines criss-crossing the page. “And this is where the real story is. Not the neatly wrapped perfect execution. The real story is out here, where the team cobbled together a solution to an unanticipated event to get back on track. And over here where the client threw them a curve ball.

“And that’s why Carla’s story is so important. And that’s where real learning exists.”

Habits Help, Habits Hurt

“But habits can help and habits can kill,” I said.

“I don’t understand,” Muriel replied. “We just talked about how competence and habits go hand in hand.”

“Yes, they do and like many things, your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.” I could see Muriel’s face scrunch up, mixed in resistance and curiosity.

“Competence requires a set of habits. Habits help us, habits hurt us. Think about a new problem that must be solved, like that change in production last month.”

Muriel winced. “I know, I know. We practiced hard on producing that left element. We were really good at it, and it was difficult. Then we got the machine. Using the machine was even harder, so my team kept doing it manually. Someone even sabotaged the machine configuration that kept it out of the loop for two days. All in all, it took us three weeks to become competent on the machine, when it should have taken only five days.”

“Habits can sometimes be a powerful force in resisting change. Habits are grooves in the way we think. They can be helpful, but sometimes, we have to get out of the groove and it’s tough.” -Tom

Why? You Ask.

The most effective managers are not those who tell people what to do, but those who ask the most effective questions.

Yet, some people would rather complain about a problem they can’t solve, than execute a solution they don’t like. Or, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

You will never learn from questions you don’t ask. So, why do we hesitate?

  • It’s uncomfortable to admit we don’t know.
  • The answer is obvious to everyone. Or it should be obvious to everyone, even if it’s not.
  • Our assumption may be wrong, but to ask a question requires us to re-examine what we believe to be true.
  • We might be wrong, but no one will notice, unless we ask the right question.

Asking questions takes us out of knowing mode and places us in learning mode.

Homage to Lee Thayer and Wayne Gretzky.

Learning From Mistakes

A good bit of the morning had passed when I met Kim in the coffee room.

“Okay, I came up with a list,” she said. “It’s not a long list, but I was able to think about some specific things that were helpful to me when I was a supervisor. It’s funny. At the time, I didn’t realize how helpful it was, but now, I can see it clearly.”

“So, what’s the biggest thing on the list?”

“We were under some pressure to get a big order pulled for shipping. I was supervising the crew. Things were hectic. I commandeered a forklift that had been pulled out of service. One of the buckles on its safety harness was being repaired. I was thinking, how stupid, not to use a forklift for a few minutes just because it didn’t have a safety harness.

“Big mistake. I told one of my crew to use it anyway, just to move some product about ten feet over in the staging area. That part was okay, but when I wasn’t looking, the crew member took the forklift over and started moving other stuff. He figured it was okay to use the machine, since I said so. He was turning a corner and ran over something, his load shifted and he came right out of the machine.

“I was lucky. No one was hurt, nothing got damaged. In fact, everyone that was there, thought it was funny. Well, except for my manager. I thought I was going to get fired. It was a stupid thing I did.”

“So, what did your manager do?”

“He never yelled at me. I remember, he just came into my office that afternoon. He said one word, ‘Lucky!’ Then, he put some safety books on my desk, said he would be very interested to attend my safety meetings for the next three months.”

“So, tell me, how did that bring value to your thinking and your work?”

How Many Skill Sets?

“You look out of sorts,” I said.

“I am,” Marsha replied. “I have been at this job, as a manager, for almost 15 years. I have an opportunity to move into a brand new department. I would still be a manager, but I have no real experience in that area.”

“If you have no experience, why does the company think you can handle it? Why would you even be interested?”

“The manager of the department retired. My manager said I should give it shot. His boss said they would like someone on the inside to take it over, rather than recruit from the outside. It would definitely be a challenge, and it looks interesting. But, here is my question. How many skill sets can a person be really good at? In my current role, I have a handle on things. This would be new.”

“How many skill sets do you think you could be good at?” I prompted.

“That’s the big unknown,” Marsha nodded.

How Will You Learn?

The cherub faces in my leadership class looked up, all smiles, ready to take notes, write down all the answers.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“Well, to listen and learn,” came a response from the back.

“Listening to me will not make you a more effective manager,” I replied. “What I have to say is only my understanding, for me.” I stopped. “So, how will you learn? Listening to me will not make you a more effective manager. Reading my blog will not make you a more effective manager. How will you learn?”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Sometimes silence does the heavy lifting.

“What you learn will only get started in this room. The real learning happens outside of this room, when you take the words and try them out in your own problems and decisions. My understanding means nothing (except to me). What is your understanding?