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Posts from the ‘Learning’ Category

“I know enough for my age already”

My mom once asked a six-year-old neighbor boy, after his first day of kindergarten, what he thought of it:

Mom: So how was your first day of school?

Six-year-old: I guess it was OK, but I’m not going back.

Mom: Why not?

Six-year-old: I know enough for my age already.

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Our production-line version of schooling* tells us year-by-year whether we have reached the “right” level of knowledge and skills throughout our step-by-step progress through the education system. I wonder whether this doesn’t leave us with the impression that if we’ve completed the grade or passed the test, then we “know enough for our age.”

My question is whether there’s any such thing as knowing enough–at any age. Do we assume that when we’ve received the diploma or the degree, we’re done? What about when we get the corner office or the C-level job. Are we done then?

My guess is that the six-year-old turned out to be a fine citizen and contributor. (This was many years ago.) But I doubt that–unless he eventually got over the idea that one can ever “know enough for his age”–that he made a very good leader. Beware the leader who knows it all, or is done learning. In this age, how can any of us ever know enough?

*See Callahan: Education and the Cult of Efficiency, an older (1964, but still in print) but still relevant history of how the structure of our public schools (public or private, magnet or charter, with few exceptions) evolved during the early years of the 20th century by borrowing concepts from industry at the time. These concepts, as applied to schools, are now taken largely for granted but are worth another look.

A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing

Colored Light 11To close out my obsessive series of posts about the perils of substituting superficial learning for the deeper kind that really makes a difference, I refer you to someone who said it all much better in the 18th century. This is Alexander Pope (that’s “A. Pope” for you Davinci Code fans), whose poem on the subject follows:

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts ;
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise !
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky ;
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last ;
But those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthened way ;
The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hill peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise !

From Calendar Soup to Counterfeit Learning

Calendar Soup refers to a couple of earlier posts on substituting a superficial imitation of personal learning for the real thing (August 29 and September 4).

A more serious metaphor for the organizational and social costs of “imitation learning” is counterfeiting: the production and use of currency that lacks real value. Counterfeiting is attractive to miscreants because it costs less to manufacture fake money than to earn the real thing. Of course, this depends on using the fake stuff unrecognized–in exchange for currency or goods with real value.

One of many reasons that counterfeiting is illegal–as is even the possession of counterfeit money– is that Gresham’s Law applies. This law is sometimes abbreviated to: “The bad drives out the good.” Because counterfeit money costs less to acquire but can be exchanged for the same return as the real thing, people will naturally hold onto (or “hoard”) their good money in favor of using the bad stuff. Over time, only the fake money is in circulation. Those with the real thing–under these conditions–can only lose if they use their stock of real cash in the marketplace, if they have access to the other kind and its use is not constrained in some way.

When leaders in an organizational setting pursue some kind of important learning that promises to move the business forward, they have a choice about how deeply to engage in the new thinking. Think lean/six sigma, change execution management, customer focus, design thinking, any performance improvement methodology, etc. It’s feasible to go to the four-hour executive briefing and, as a result, to think “you’ve got it.” As any Black Belt (for example) knows, that’s not really possible.

Over time such executives can begin to believe that they have adopted lean thinking, or customer relationship management, or the learning organization–when all they have done is encounter the topics and dip a toe or two into the water. There’s nothing wrong with the four-hour executive briefing nor with the need to start small when tackling deep learning. The problem arises when this is taken–either by the executives themselves or by their constituents–as full understanding.

When this happens, the organization pays the price in two ways: first, in underutilization of the new thinking. The senior level can endorse the new way, but if the required shift in thinking is transformational enough endorsement is insufficient. If the new thinking is different enough, then everyone–including the executives–must take it on. The learning can’t simply be delegated to others. Just hiring a lean engineer or a six sigma Black Belt doesn’t change the organization, as many have found.

The second price to be paid–an even larger one in the long run–is that the bad drives out the good. If the executives feel–on the basis of their executive briefing–that they have been there and done that with a new way of thinking or deep learning, then the door to getting deeper into it begins to close for the organization. “We tried six sigma [for example] and it didn’t work” will be the claim, and opportunities to embed the thinking behind six sigma into the DNA of executives and others are now exhausted, at least for awhile.

In terms of organizational learning, Gresham’s Law might be rephrased in a number of ways:

The superficial drives out the deep.

The briefing drives out the real learning.

The imitation drives out the real thing.

Perhaps you can suggest others. Interestingly, Gresham did not originate his eponymous law. It goes back at least to Aristophanes, who in The Frogs made mention of the bad driving out the good in stark terms related directly to leadership:

So with men we know for upright, blameless lives and noble names.

These we spurn for men of brass…

More on Calendar Soup: One explanation of why we settle for the superficial

In an earlier post (On Serving Calendar Soup at the Leadership Luncheon, August 29, 2013), I offered up Calendar Soup–an image from a children’s book in which the pages from a calendar that show tasty ingredients are boiled into a nutrient-free stew that substitutes for the real thing–as a metaphor for some leaders’ preference for superficial “learning” over the hard work of deep change.

Thanks to finally digging into Daniel Kahneman’s recent book Thinking Fast and Slow, I now have an explanation (on page 35) for why we seem to enjoy Calendar Soup:

A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.

Another serving, anyone?

The best thing anyone ever said about learning

At least this gets my nomination. First made known to me years ago by my brother Bill, of whose independence of mind, resourcefulness, and creativity I have always been in awe. Thanks again, Bill.

The best thing for being sad . . .  is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.

The Wizard Merlin to the future King Arthur, in The Once and Future King by T.H. White

On Serving Calendar Soup at the Leadership Luncheon

When I was very young, there was a book in our home called Lazy Bear Lane by Thorne Smith*. I haven’t seen the book in over 50 years, but one passage has stuck with me ever since. The main characters, for reasons I’ve forgotten, were stuck with no resources and nothing to eat. But they did have a printed calendar, each page of which contained photographs of vegetables and other foodstuffs. They boiled up a pot of water and carefully tore out page after page from the calendar, wadded these up, and dropped them into the pot with anticipation and with close attention to the pictured flavors, textures, and aromas. The resulting soup, they found, was delicious.

While I suspect the intended lesson of this episode (this was a book from the depression era–before my time) was one of “mind over matter” or of the benefit of a positive mental attitude, a different lesson now occurs to me. Leadership, learning, and change are hard. How tempting it is to settle for appearances–for the veneer or superficial imitation of the real thing.

When accomplished and experienced people are exposed to new thinking, it’s not easy for us to adopt it fully. Doing so means that we didn’t know it all already. There’s a natural vulnerability in learning something new, and this vulnerability may be hard to accept–and even harder to admit to others.

So we settle for Calendar Soup. We take credit for a full belly and a satisfying meal–when nothing much has really happened, and we’re still hungrier than we think we are or can admit.

*Thorne Smith was also the author of the Topper series, made into very successful films, radio and TV programs in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Our family copy of Lazy Bear Lane disappeared over the years–unfortunately. A copy today is worth several hundred dollars.