building relationships

I remember leaving university age 21 being pleased with the thought that I would never go back into full-time education again and somehow thinking that I had learnt all I needed to learn. I had a change of heart 8 years later when I took a year out of work to do a full-time MBA. After that, I didn’t think I would need to do much more learning. Roll on 22 years later and I am learning all the time. Perhaps more than I ever did. My role is one long search for clarity, understanding, making sense of things. I won’t say a search for the truth, because when dealing with human beings and human systems there is rarely one truth, usually a range of possibilities.

I have noticed that my colleague, Su Freeman, and I will often have a debate where one of us has one opinion and the other has a different opinion. We will be debating the same topic a few weeks later and I will suddenly notice that we have switched positions – we are now both arguing the opposite of what we had a few weeks ago – and this is not from a place of indecisiveness, but rather, much like Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”, we want to ensure we explore the issue from all angles. This is a long way from my original academic training – I did electronic engineering at university – which involved lots of right or wrong answers.

In public services the term ‘Transformation’ is used a lot – transforming the system from one state to a new different state. It is particularly liked by the NHS. I used to be comfortable with this approach, but am becoming less and less so for a number of reasons. Firstly, many systems are just too complex to transform, they need to be evolved. Secondly, if we spend a long time planning out the future state and when we get there it doesn’t work, we can end up with a bigger mess than we started with. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it implies that we will get to a future perfect state and then we can stop, hang up our boots and go home.

I think we need to use a different lens – incremental learning. We need to be on a learning journey, constantly asking ourselves – why are we doing things like this? Is there a better way? What can we tweak? Who can help me? We need to use our curiosity in all that we do, with a view to learning how we can do things better. I have certainly had to learn a lot to switch from my early career as an IT project manager to the CEO of a charity role that I play today.

As you may know, I have been very inspired by the Human Learning Systems body of work. In the first instance, it was the Human and System bit that I instinctively understood. More recently I have come to appreciate the Learning part – but I still have a lot more learning to do 😊. Here are two of my favourite quotes about Learning from their recent report:

“Pretending that the world is simple, and that learning can be done centrally and exported to others, is what creates waste. It wastes everyone’s time implementing approaches that cannot be reliably assumed to work. By placing learning centrally, rather than close to the work itself, we waste everyone’s time and resources.”

“It is possible to measure for the purposes of learning, or it is possible to measure for the purposes of reward/punishment. It is impossible to use the same measures for both purposes, because, as Campbell’s Law highlights, measures used for the purposes of reward/punishment “tend to distort and corrupt the processes they are intended to monitor”. Research evidence strongly suggests that once people choose to use measures as part of performance management systems, such data becomes untrustworthy. Such measures are therefore of little use for learning.”

From the e-book: Human Learning Systems – Public Service for the Real World. It’s a jolly good read. And I’m not saying that because Surrey Youth Focus is one of about 30 case studies on which it was based. Honest.

For more information about HLS learning, see www.humanlearning.systems/

Thank you for reading, I’m off to learn something.

– Cate Newnes-Smith

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