What we've been thinking about and working on lately...

what we've been talking about

So I’ve just joined a new team – nothing to do with work – it’s a netball team.  I haven’t played in 25 years but I fancied a new challenge.

It’s very strange being the new girl!

I thought I knew the rules but perhaps unsurprisingly after 25 years a few had slipped my mind which may explain the penalties given away!  I have since googled the rulebook!

Next was my assumption that as a fairly athletic person I’d handle this no problem.  However, watching the other players who’ve been playing for years you see that so much of the game is instinct and an in depth understanding of your team mates – where they are going to be, where they expect you to be.  I was floundering.

So having had my mindset altered somewhat – I’m now loving the training.  Learning new skills is fun, getting to know the team is better.  Not getting told off by the Ref for a whole game is the aim!!

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As coaches we often find ourselves in discussion with clients about why people under perform, or behave in particular ways - and we find ourselves asking questions along the lines of 

  • How many people go to work in the morning with the intention of failing? and
  • When did you last get up in the morning and think “I’m going to do my best to screw up today”?

I have sometimes noticed people rolling their eyes as we share our belief that few people deliberately go out of their way to get things wrong, mess things up, or irritate their colleagues. I can almost hear them thinking “aha – well you’ve not met x”

I’ve had to take some of my own medicine recently. Working on a charity event, I found myself on the receiving end of some behaviour that immediately had my hackles up as I planned my revenge. I was particularly outraged because the offending behaviour was documented in email form – which somehow seemed to make it even more tangible and impossible to ignore.

After wasting a reasonable amount of time discussing and complaining about the situation  with a couple of my colleagues, I suddenly stopped and asked myself how helpful this response was either to me or to getting the job done. Of course the answer was “not at all”. I was wasting time, draining my own energy and increasing my levels of stress.

By this stage I was back in coaching mode and able to respond more rationally. The person in question had given up their own time to help – I really don’t believe that their intention was to upset or anger other people in the process. They were probably in a rush when they wrote the email etc.

So when you find yourself in a similar situation I would encourage you to do two things

1: Ask yourself what you think the other person’s intention is/was

2: And probably even more important – ask yourself whether your own response is helpful

And then decide if and how to respond.

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So what do those things have in common? Well it turns out that the people involved in all of those things have a great deal to learn from and develop each other. Let me explain - we've always known that:


a) Charities are full of passionate and capable people who achieve a remarkable amount with very scarce resources

b) Blue chip companies are full of intelligent people who would love to spend some time making a meaningful difference to charities

So I'm very proud this week to have been facilitating a session involving 3 teams of leaders from United Biscuits to work with 3 amazing charities* as part of a programme to challenge how they can apply their expertise and leadership in a totally different environment. And it turns out that when you get Sales, Supply Chain, Projects, Manufacturing, IT, HR and Finance experts together and have them look at a very different business and how it can grow, improve its' efficiency or transform its' culture, then they can have a huge impact.



Clearly charities do need funds to prosper and grow, but they also need expertise to help develop a strategy, create new sources of income and improve the way it operates - and a team of experts can make a big difference in a really short space of time. So next time you are tempted to give up your time to paint a wall at your local charity, then consider how else you could utilise what skills you have to really make a difference. It's very easy to do and the learning works both ways.

I look forward to catching up with all 3 charities in 3-6 months to see what has happened as a result of the session and how the action plans have developed the businesses.

* NOFA / Little Angel Theatre / Aspire

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Chances are you have had at least one point in life where you feel like you have reached your peak, or surpassed what feels like your learning ability (e.g. you have ‘been over your head’ in a work project or situation that has completely drained you and/or questioned your ability to deliver). It is not an easy place to be, nor is it much fun. The good news is that even in the midst of moments like these, we have an incredible capacity to continue learning and the ability to apply these learnings to different situations. 

Essentially, this is a bit of what learning agility is about – continuously learning new skills; being open to new ways of thinking and applying these to new situations. It is sparked by curiosity and the desire to challenge the status quo; putting ourselves out there to try new things where success is not guaranteed. In doing this, our focus shifts from curiosity to overcoming an unfamiliar challenge. This requires us to be fully engaged and adapt quickly to changing circumstances in order to deliver. And after delivery, we need to reflect and understand what/how/why we did what we did to deliver. Questions like: what are our takeaways, what would we do differently, what worked well & why, allow us to apply our learnings in different ways. This, along with some humility, allows us to continuously learn, develop and adapt to the ever-changing circumstances that surround us.

As a learning development professional who started out as an engineer, the essence and approach of development through learning agility really resonates. Not only have I had my fair share of ‘being over my head’ in work projects, I have also had numerous moments where I have thoroughly questioned my ability to deliver. There is a fear of failure that I need to push out of my way in order to welcome the unfamiliar challenges. Every time I do so I am reminded of the quote: ‘Nothing exciting ever happens in your comfort zone.’ Let’s face it – most development happens outside of our comfort zone. My question for you is, are you willing to go there?

by Nicole Mills

For more information on Learning Agility, I found these resources quite helpful:

White Paper: Learning About Learning Agility by Adam Mitchinson and Robert Morris

The Five Dimensions Of Learning-Agile Leaders by Kevin Cashman

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®)

www.tc.columbia.edu

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Last year I began volunteering with the Wave Project, an award-winning community surf project that helps young people improve health and education outcomes through surfing.  We work with young people from ages 8 up to 21 who are facing a variety of different challenges. 

They run a network of surf clubs around the UK designed to help young people develop both their surfing and life skills. It’s a simple concept, we surf, we encourage, we listen, and have loads of fun!  I’ve seen first hand how going surfing once a week has transformed lives, helping clients feel more confident and improving their outlook.  

TES, the world’s largest online network of teachers, published an article recently about the link between well-being and learning - it made me realise how much impact the Wave Project must have with young people, not just in their personal lives but in their education.  The article discusses a point of view that schools appear to think that making students happy is neither their business nor their responsibility and that this should be part of their core function. Author Clare Jarmy says ‘So students’ happiness is our business and our responsibility, because happy children are effective learners and teaching them is our job…Academic progress is not separate from well-being; it is part of it.  As teachers, we are not simply preparing students for the workplace, we are also playing a part in their flourishing.’

The official definition of ‘Well-being’ is ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy’. We don’t function or perform well if we’re uncomfortable, unhealthy, or unhappy. Well-being is pretty much the root to a fulfilled life, so why isn’t this core to everything we do?   

Well-being is the primary focus at the Wave Project because we know that when young people are healthy and happy, they do better in life.  We have the results to prove it! We’ve seen dramatic transformations in young people that are isolated, perhaps struggling at school or are labelled with a mental health problem, where after surfing regularly with us, their confidence has grown and they’ve found a new passion and excitement for life. And because they are happier and healthier this impacts on their education… 

Well-being in the work-place has been discussed a lot recently but I think we still have some way to go so I hope you, like I, will take some inspiration from the Wave Project. Our development and performance as adults is no less linked to well being than when we're at school age, so as schools have to recognise, so do businesses, that well-being needs to be addressed.

This recent HR Magazine article discusses the link between leadership, promotability and health & wellbeing. Hellen Davis says “…helping employees take responsibility for their health and wellbeing is good – but the direct link between career advancement and health and wellbeing is rarely discussed.”  Here are some tips on how to create a happier and healthier workforce from HR Magazine.

We all want to be happy and healthy, but what conscious steps do we make to get there? This week, do something different, perhaps an outdoor activity with a group of friends that will fill your lungs with fresh air, get your heart pumping and wash away the cobwebs!

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I am a member of our local surf lifesaving club – a club dedicated to training adults and children to be safe in the sea, to teaching lifesaving skills and to developing sport skills to enable members to compete on a local, national and international level. 

As a committee we are often looking at ways to raise funds, increase membership, improve facilities and generally make the club operate more effectively. 

It’s tough to operate a club with so many diverse members with differing agendas and which relies entirely on volunteers.  People come and go and over the years leaving rituals and beliefs which become engrained in day-to-day activities. 

So we’ve decided it’s time to stop and rethink our agenda – our mission, purpose and values.  We have a new committee following our latest AGM so now is a great time to really think about what we are doing and how best to do it.  Not that everything is wrong at the moment – there are many great things going on but as in any organisation it’s good to stop now and again and assess where you are at and where you are going. 

And so steps in Tinder-Box – well if you can’t make the best of those you know!  Jason and Carole (club members themselves) have kindly offered to run a strategy session with us.  I for one am looking forward to spending some time really focussing on who, as a club, we want to be and where we are going.  Time out from the regular sessions we run to really think clearly about the future of the club will be really valuable and with some pros to guide us anything is possible - so watch this space…

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So MasterChef is back and I for one am delighted.  Strange to love a show where you watch people cook impossibly difficult dishes and don’t even get to taste them but there is something about it that engages me.

I think it’s watching contestants with an obvious talent, really pushed and challenged to become the best they can be.  Plus of course the drama of a complete disaster, aka chocolate fondant all over the floor.  The creativity (or not) of the ingredients test – curried pasta anyone (that’s one of my own – it’s not good!).  And perhaps my favourite part - the characters that excel – not always the polished individuals who perform well on camera and have all the right words.  Sometimes the old school granny or as in last years winner the young DJ from East London who was so engaging, passionate and down to earth she was a true foodie hero in my eyes.

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Last week I was running an event and we had a great speaker providing some inspiring input about ‘How neuroscience will change the way you think about learning’. Amongst the gems involving stories about baby monkeys and brain scans, then we heard about the ‘Pomodoro’ technique. This was first pioneered by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980's, but there has been a resurgence in this idea due to some recent neuroscience work. Those of you lucky culinary fans who have one of the iconic ‘tomato timers’ in your kitchen (popular in the 80’s) will be in a good position to take advantage of this recommendation in how to learn more effectively and enhance your productivity...

So in essence it goes like this:

  • The brain works best in 20 – 25 minute chunks
  • It then needs physical activity to ‘digest’ the input or refresh itself for the next batch of output. 3 - 5 minutes is all

Brain scans clearly show the enhanced level of brain activity during an ‘active’ phase compared to a ‘passive’ phase (i.e. sitting at a computer).

So all you need to do is:

  1. Set your pomodoro timer for 20 minutes
  2. Start working
  3. When it ‘rings’ then go for a 5 minute walk or get a cup of tea
  4. Reset the timer for another 20 minutes
  5. After 4 ‘sets’, then take a longer break of 20 minutes.

We’ve long ‘sort of known’ that sitting too long at a desk is bad for concentration, posture etc etc, and now we have some ‘proper’ neuroscience to back it up. 

And in homage to this - I then tried it with this blog. I had a think, had some lunch, wrote it out, now I’m off for a cup of tea. Excellent.

So....give it a try for yourself. I’d be keen to hear from anyone who resets their calendar to have 20 minute meetings spaced 3-5 minutes walk apart, rather than 1 hour meetings........sounds very tempting doesn’t it!

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It always amazes me the reactions that ‘change’ can provoke in a business environment.  So where do you start?  If you are a business leader looking for inspiration from Google, the word change will present you with a list of 173 Songs titles and 38 Album titles that are simply called ‘Change’.  A word that has the power to inspire recording artists to sing deep passionate and moving classic songs, but disappointingly a word that doesn’t hold the same inspirational value when mentioned in organisations.  If anything when the word change is used, the most likely response is the non-verbal communication of raised eyebrows, deep signs and teeth sucking, actions closely followed by a mumbled ‘here we go again’ under the breath - and that is usually from the leaders!!

As my role dictates, I am a ‘change agent’ drafted into the manufacturing world of biscuit making, helping Leaders, Managers and Employees come to terms with the changing demands placed on their day-to-day activities. 

I was recently asked to attend a meeting of Senior Managers with a team of leaders responsible for the production of some of our iconic brands and products.  The subject was on the process of SMART objective setting and how to use coaching questions designed against our behavioural model to challenge individuals on their personal performance, with the intention of getting a balance between what is achieved and also how it is achieved.  To support this process we also have a simple ‘app’, which allows these objectives to be recorded and monitored.  As I finish my last input with the phase “any questions?”, the first question that is asked almost knocks me speechless – “when will we design an IT system that will motivate my team to want to deliver?”  Now, I was always taught that you must never answer a question with a question, however on this occasion I couldn’t resist!  So I responded with “Do you seriously expect an app to provide this?” Leader’s response “yes”.

Like Tom Hanks in the film Big, I would have had more respect if the response had been “I don’t get it” following my session - that would have been the honest response.  What this particular Leader had failed to recognise as so many others do, the process of change is more successfully achieved through addressing the behaviours that need to change to implement the change, and the first person to start with is you as a Leader.  The process of motivating people to change to deliver their best personal performance does not come from an IT application or from a Northern chick such as myself telling you how – it comes from the Leader showing their people how to achieve this change by demonstrating it through their own behaviour.  Like all learning experiences, I walked away from this session reflecting on my own performance and kicking myself saying when will I learn, never make the assumption that ‘they get it’ just because they have the words ‘Manager’ or ‘Leader’ in their job titles!

by Lisa McCandless, L&D Business Partner, Centre of Excellence at United Biscuits @g8lmc

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So I found myself working with a group in Birmingham last week. Part of what they are doing is creating business plans for 2020, and so I was helping them consider 4 different perspectives: People, Technology, Innovation and Customers. Aside from some of the interesting trends in each of those 4 areas (see previous blog post), what I especially enjoyed was the venue.

Now when I first heard ‘Birmingham Library’ as the venue, I was imagining some dusty facility with people tiptoeing around and ‘sshhhh-ing’ anyone with the gall to raise their voice. However, I was delighted to discover a fabulous new facility which has been recently opened and has been thoughtfully designed to ‘facilitate learning’ rather than ‘provide information’. I couldn’t help myself but grab a member of staff and quiz them about the layout and the operation and the intention. It is the largest library in the UK, the largest public cultural space in Europe and services 5,000 people a day.    

At the back end of last year, we designed an event around ‘The Future of Learning’ and this facility is a wonderful example of how to embrace peoples’ changing needs and leverage technology and design to inspire people to learn. If you haven’t been – make a side trip next time you’re in the area.    

As we start to plan our client work this year, it’s given me a timely reminder about ensuring the environment / location is carefully selected or modified to make it engaging for the team to learn. This can be an afterthought for many team events, but we have learned it can be critical – and so the search for interesting venues in 2014 commences.....

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A friend of mine attended a training course last week and came back with this gem of advice that really resonated with me.  

Always make sure you try and do new things; don't always go to the same restaurant or bar, don’t go to the same place on holiday time and time again, don’t always do the same run or exercise class.  Instead, learn a new skill, language or sport, eat new and different foods, speak to people you wouldn't normally speak to, visit somewhere new etc... 

When we are young time goes so slowly because we are constantly experiencing and learning about new things, as we get older time starts to fly by because we have learnt and processed so much information.  By doing, learning and seeing new things life will start to slow down – take the example of a weekend away to somewhere you’ve never been – when you arrive home you can’t believe it was only 2 days ago you left, it feels like a week because those 2 days have been filled with new experiences.   

Routine blends each day into the next so to live a longer life ditch the routine and try something new.

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So, 18 months ago I couldn’t swim 2 lengths of a swimming pool without having a coronary, I thought front crawl was something babies did across the carpet and the thought of swimming in open water utterly terrified me – you can’t touch the bottom, there are waves trying to drown you and there are other living creatures that can move a whole lot faster than you can! 

Yet last Saturday I swam 10k down a river and into an estuary (the Dart 10k) – and I loved it! 

It started with actually learning how to swim properly – I could stay afloat but had no clue beyond that.  A winter spent training and some serious coaching sessions turned me into a swimmer.  Suddenly I was passing people in the pool.  My times were dropping dramatically.  I even looked like I knew what I was doing. 

Then this summer with my technique looking better and my swim fitness good it was time to tackle the fear element.  My challenge to myself was to tackle a swim local to me – it is 2k and goes from one beach to another round a headland.  Terrifying in that once you start you can’t get out unless you want to scramble up a cliff.  Truth is it was a piece of cake – it was beautiful to be out in the open, to feel the sun and to see the cliffs and seagulls bobbing about every time I took a breath. 

A greater challenge was required – which was good as after a bottle of wine over winter I’d signed up for the Dart 10k!  It wasn’t so easy – 10k is a long way, but it was great fun, a real challenge and what a sense of achievement as I crossed the line. 

So old dogs can learn new tricks – if they put their minds to it, get some good coaching and have people to push you out of your comfort zone.

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I recently went on an outdoor adventure holiday where we planned to climb, swim, snorkel and surf.  In the run up to the holiday I was excited to explore new places and get an adrenaline rush with extreme sports!  Unfortunately on the first day of the holiday I injured myself to the point where I couldn’t walk and was told ‘No sports’ for the next month….   
 
I’m a very active person and had a big national competition the following week, so when I realised I couldn’t compete I was upset, annoyed and frustrated with the situation (I’m only human!). But after that was quickly out of my system I made a conscious decision to accept the situation and move on with a positive attitude.   
 
I really didn’t want to spend a week on holiday wallowing in my own self-pity, so I decided to make the most of my situation.  I didn’t focus on what I couldn’t do (climb, swim, snorkel and surf), I choose to focus on what I could do... I enjoyed a week of reading, drawing, listening to music, taking photos, admiring the scenery and relaxing!  I learnt that if you have a positive outlook in tough situations you can turn them around to your advantage and find opportunity lurking. In my case, I would never have given so much time to my art if it hadn’t been for my injury, I’ve never had such a creative flow before, so I found it to be a bit of a blessing in disguise!  I also really enjoyed how relaxed the week was, we weren’t rushing anywhere, it was so peaceful, I suppose that's normally what you want from a holiday! 
 
Our lives are the result of our choices. We’re all faced with problems or things that happen beyond our control and we can choose to let a problem bring us down, or we can choose to look for opportunities… Think about the last time you faced a problem and how you dealt with it.  Did you stay positive, find opportunity and learn from it?  

“There is little difference in people but that little difference makes big difference. The little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.”W. Clement Stone

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Would you be more inclined to go for a traditional Bloody Mary, a recently fashionable Mohito, or the rather more challenging sounding Squid Ink Sour?  How often do you step out of your comfort zone and mix things up? Which is something we asked a group of (apprehensive!) participants on the leadership development programme we are running for Penguin Random House to do last week.      

For the final module of the programme, two groups were set the challenge of working with either a Community Interest Company (Ladder to the Moon, whose ambition is to transform care services into happy, vibrant and flourishing communities) or charity (Magic Bus who enable some of the world's poorest families to move out of poverty) to help them address specific business challenges. In just under two days the groups had to understand their chosen organisation and provide recommendations and support to implement sustainable processes and activities to address their challenges.

The stakes were high for everyone involved. The organizations who were trusting enough to lay bare their operations (thank you!). The participants who wanted to deliver something of real value - while putting into practice the skills and approaches they had learnt over the last 6 months at the same time as working under strict time pressure with a group of people they don’t normally work with.

One person commented that it was a lot like learning to drive – trying to do lots of different things at once in the car, without taking your eyes off the road! And if the journey was a little bumpy at times, it was also exciting and both groups stayed on the road without any casualties. The benefits for the participants for putting themselves outside their comfort zones was a tremendous sense of achievement, a huge amount of personal learning and the cementing of a new and trusted network across the organisation. Not bad for a couple of days of mixing things up.  

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For the last 5 years we’ve been lucky enough to be invited to run a development day with the apprentice chef’s at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall. With the lovely weather this year we got to work on the beach. Note; the next client who uses the Insights mat with us might end up with sand in their conference room!

Read their blog about it here

Insights generously donate Discovery profiles to the group every year and we pitch up and help them unravel what it means for them. Don’t under-estimate a group of young people from Cornwall in their ability to pick up the concepts and run with them, they’ve just had a baptism of fire doing NVQ 1 & 2 at college and are then thrust into the kitchen of a busy restaurant to produce top quality restaurant food. They’re GREAT at learning! Combine this with the fact that every apprentice receives a scored and written appraisal against the core competencies every shift and you have a recipe for exponential learning.

Watch out for some fantastic new talent emerging in the world of cooking!

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Well let's start the new year with the holy grail : how to get really high impact development at very little price? If we can solve this one in January then the rest of the year will be a piece of cake (no more cake just yet!).

I wrote about this along with a few others in the recent article published below:

Managing the middle, askGrapvine, Jan 2013 (p44-47)

In essence it is about why the middle managers don't seem to get enough development and how to solve that. My own view is that a lot of the development $'s are aimed at people in transition to senior roles, senior executives, or the precious pipeline of emerging talent. All of these are highly valuable and worthwhile investments - but it doesn't leave much change to spend on the 70% of managers who are performing solidly and making a valuable contribution.

So I believe the answer is to make it personal. By that I mean have meaningful individual development discussions, and figure out between you what a critical development experience would look like for that person. This sounds:

  1. Obvious
  2. Time consuming

However a lot of what people articulate will really help them are budget friendly solutions such as:

  • Mentoring from a senior colleague
  • Timely, honest and constructive 360 feedback
  • Having the opportunity to get engaged in important projects with exposure to senior leadership
  • The opportunity to engage with 3rd parties and develop their influencing end networking skills

The last one in particular is a definite and emerging trend and in the last 2 months alone we have agreed with John Lewis and Random House to create ways for their managers to engage with social enterprises in a win-win solution. We'll be writing more about this Enterprise programme in the future - but it doesn't necessarily need a complex programme to set these wheels in motion.

So, make this the year of meaningful 1:1s and see how much further you can make the developmental budget stretch.

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