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Learning Baggage, and the Art of Asking for Help

A weekly post in which I share thoughts provoked by (some of) the great content I read this week(ish).

Learning Culture

Let Go of the Learning Baggage – Farnham Street, Shane Parrish

We’ve been talking a lot at Actionable recently about what it takes to create a true learning culture, so I was thrilled to come across this short piece from the Farnham Street newsletter. Not only does it align with our vision of changing workplace learning, it also mentions Barbara Oakley, co-creator of the best online course I’ve ever taken Learning How to Learn (I’m currently taking her follow-up course, MindShift).

As this post outlines, Dr. Oakley’s work on neuroscience and learning references two modes of thinking our brain uses when learning: focused and diffuse. Focused is pretty much what it sounds like, and is used when we are actively engaged in subject matter, such as reading, listening to presentation, studying.

Diffuse mode is when we stop this intense, analytical focus on something, and our mind drifts. It might seem unrelated, or even counter to our learning objectives, but it’s a critical time when our brain begins to make connections between the information we are learning, and what we already know. This allows us to draw additional layers of insight and meaning beyond just the ‘input’ of the learning content, and to embed and enmesh it more deeply into the existing connections in our brain.

Relying solely on the focused mode to learn is a path to burnout. We need the diffuse mode to cement our ideas, put knowledge into memory and free up space for the next round of focused thinking.

Aside from just staring off into space, activities that can be done largely automatically are great opportunities for your brain to shift into diffuse mode. Most of us will have stumbled over the counterintuitive benefits of these activities. If you find yourself ‘unstuck’ after a walk or run, get great ideas in the shower, or have a rush of problem-solving energy after a workout, you’ve experienced them. Likewise, as Parrish notes, talking, reflecting, and experimenting in our workplaces or beyond also allows us to make further sense of learning.

And yet, most workplaces treat ‘learning’ as an event, not as something that should be integrated with other aspects of our work and life. Even fewer recognize the benefits of reflection time, unstructured discussion time, and the other oblique approaches to enhancing learning (sleep and exercise).

We are trained by our modern world to organize our day into mutually exclusive chunks called ‘work’, ‘play’, and ‘sleep’. One is done at the office, the other two are not. We are not allowed to move fluidly between these chunks, or combine them in our 24 hour day.

How can we foster more diffuse thinking in our organizations? And how can we dissolve the boundaries between work and learning?

If you aren’t the CEO or the VP of HR, you can’t magic a policy that says ‘all employees shall do something meaningful away from their desks each day and won’t be judged for it’, so what can you do to learn better at work?

Parrish takes the position that individually we each need to work on overcoming the guilt and anxiety we may feel when we engage in these (seemingly) non-productive, diffuse mode activities to enhance learning. I’d like us to think bigger than that, and I don’t think we need a policy from HR or the CEO either. Building a real learning culture takes longer than drafting a policy, but its benefits are significant. At Actionable, we believe that providing opportunities to learn has to be combined with creating a learning environment: the conditions to learn.

As my colleague Sara wrote earlier this month in How to Create Learning Culture:

Extend learning outside of work too, whether learning how to cook Thai food, trying rock climbing, or starting a vegetable garden—get out of your comfort zone, and share those results with the people around you. Ask questions and learn what others are passionate about. Embedding pockets of learning into each day will help develop the habit of learning into your life, and your organization.


There’s Got to be a Better Way to Engage Millennials– Javier Bajer

First, I feel compelled to remind you about how much I dislike the mindless overuse of the term  “Millennials”, which is an inexact label applied to an arbitrary cohort of diverse humans, and is frequently used as a proxy for “those young, entitled whippersnappers who are a problem to be solved”.  It’s been done, and more importantly, it’s just not a very useful construct.

That’s why this post from Javier Bajer was a wonderful surprise.  I found Bajer’s website via a share from Susan Basterfield, my host in LeadWise Academy (thank you, Susan). Bajer notes that the intense focus on attracting and retaining Millennials misses the larger point:

The truth is, it is not just the Millennials that we are struggling to truly attract, engage and deploy. It is about everyone, or 87% of the current workforce, to be precise. Millennials are simply honest enough to point out what has never worked anyway. Thus, what would happen if we take their messages seriously?

Bajer sees Millennials not as the problem, but as a potential solution to the larger engagement problem. He believes that the lesson for organizations is to look beyond perks and programs and instead focus on the opportunity for contribution.

 The Millennials’ answer to this question is very clear: they are more interested in what they can give, rather than what they can get.  It is not about flexible hours, healthcare packages, exciting careers, learning and travel opportunities, or other great perks that made that organisation a “great place to work”.  It is about the value that we can add and the knowledge that our work is contributing to something that is worthwhile.

It is about the footprint, not the foothold.

That last line gave me goosebumps…

There are conversations about this happening now, conversations about purpose and meaning at work. But too often these are still framed as things “we” (HR and org leaders) can create for people, usually as a means to an end (retention, additional discretionary effort, higher engagement ). Putting aside whether that’s even possible, or ethical, it’s still not inviting true, equal participation from employees.

I like how Bajer seems to suggest we stop “othering” Millennials and join them in their search to contribute to something worthy. I still don’t think that “Millennials” as a group have any more in common than Geminis do, but of course I accept that the world changes, and along with it the zeitgeist. I think many of us expect more from our work now, regardless of when we were born. And I agree that this is largely a good thing.

Let’s acknowledge it, we are not that different from Millennials. We have grown up in different circumstances and got used to the policies and structures than once worked well and served a purpose. Let us turn the page now or, even better, let us start a new chapter. Let us design organisations so that we do not waste so much time worrying about our belly buttons and can finally focus on what Millennials really brag about: creating value for society.


Art of Asking for Help – Samantha Slade

Week 4 of Leadwise Academy was focused on leading with generosity, and part of our weekly project was to give, and ask for, help with our project groups.

Perhaps you are highly adept at asking for help. I am not. And while some of this may be due to the fact that I prefer to figure things out myself (that is, I often don’t like to ask for help), this article convinced me that at least some of it is due to a lack of skill at asking for the right help.

Samantha Slade of Percolab, who was an Academy speaker a few weeks ago, shares the typology of help that her team use to cultivate a ‘help culture’.

Our awareness of the specific type of help we are asking for and the words we use to ask for help can be fine-tuned. Indeed, the more our request for help is precise the higher our chances of obtaining the help we actually want and avoid frustrations on both sides (feelings of not being heard or not being appreciated).

When I look at this list I realize how narrowly I have been thinking about asking for help, and how useful expanding my thinking about options for assistance and collaboration might be. [Here’s the first half, click through for the rest]

1. Ask me questions (coaching)

2. Show me how to . . . (demonstrate)

3. Tell me information or perspective (local knowledge/experience based)

4. Give me expert advice (expertise based)

5. Think creatively with me (idea generation)

6. Give me feedback on my idea, model etc. (enriching)

7. Be my audience/participant (practice)

8. Provide me moral support (emotion)

As a reference tool for a team, I’m really interested about how this might make collaboration more effective, rather than just increase it.

I’ve written a little about collaborative overload before, and while this particular avenue of musing definitively deserves it’s own blog post (it’s on the list, post-Academy!) my experience at a range of organizations has led me to think of collaboration as something that exists at various stage of maturity in orgs and teams. When we exhort employees to collaborate without taking the time to discuss what effective and valuable collaboration looks like (and that ineffective collaboration exists), I believe that we set the stage for frustration and a type of collaborative overload to ensue.

Slade’s list not only serves to expand our thinking on the variety of ways that we could ask our colleagues for assistance, it also requires us to reflect on what, specifically, we hope to gain from that request and the subsequent interaction. If you’ve ever been asked for feedback on something, only to receive a 26 page document with no specific questions or direction, you can probably agree that not receiving a clear request makes collaboration and assistance exceedingly difficult and time consuming.

Do you think that this kind of typology might be useful in your organization or team? Any great tips or tricks to enhance your own learning, at or away from work? Can we give this Millennial stuff a rest yet, or are we going to keep this up until they’re 50? I love it when people comment…

Image credit: Garrett Sears via

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