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VanderPalette

designer / student of human nature

Learning from experience is an art

Boston Public Library_palette lady_crop

Most of what we need to know about life is learned through experience.

Artists develop the habit of standing back from their work to study it from different viewpoints. Likewise, we gain fresh perspective on life by standing back to view our experiences.

The artist’s palette can be seen as a symbol of blended elements and unscripted possibilities. Artists develop their strengths through a blend of practice, experiment and observation.

In addition to acquiring technical skills, artists “feel their way” forward by “sizing up” situations and “figuring out” what to do next. Solutions emerge through a process of trial and error: this works, that didn’t work so well.

Artists tend to be lifelong learners. Lifelong learning is about continuing to grow as a person, in addition to acquiring technical skills. This pursuit requires both formal and informal learning.

Formal learning is best for conveying technical knowledge, when we must depend on instructors to tell us what matters most and what we need to know.

By contrast, human skills are best absorbed informally through experience. Informal learning is an organic, natural way to grow—which is generally how artists develop their talents. Artists are purpose-driven. They formally acquire some technical skills, then learn by doing. They see their whole world as offering potential takeaways.

Making the most of day-to-day learning opportunities is a crucial skill for the future. This involves being guided by purpose, learning in action and discovering our own takeaways. Social learning clubs can show us how to see more lessons in everyday life.

-Sharon VanderKaay

photo: Boston Public Library, sculptor: Bela Lyon Pratt, 1912

Big learning from micro-situations

cerithwynevans

How can we gain more life experience from our everyday encounters?

Learning how to learn in action is an essential meta-skill for the future.

Mind the Say–Do Gap

Knowing what we ought to do in difficult situations isn’t enough to change what we actually do. Defaulting to old habits is normal. Finding ourselves in these predicaments, it’s not unusual for there to be a Say–Do Gap between good intentions and our actions.

Best practices and theories about people skills might make us smarter, but that’s not enough to change ingrained patterns of behaviour. If we want to continuously develop our communication and collaboration capabilities, we’ll need more than knowledge. We need to regroove our neural pathways.

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As Jerry Sternin has observed, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.”

Stepping back to observe how we wrestle with slice-of-life situations gives us a fresh view of how we make hundreds of day-to-day decisions. Noticing more details and possibilities for moving forward, we become more empathetic, and confident in our judgment. We make real progress in narrowing our Say–Do Gap.

When thinking about social learning clubs, it’s helpful to understand the benefits of learning in action by wrestling with micro-situations.

-Sharon VanderKaay

 

 

 

Why social learning clubs?

The Alternative UK @AlterUK21 is a platform for imagining what civil society can be. We share a belief in the need for lifelong learning models that advance this purpose on a day-to-day basis. Read their recent editorial on the potential for Social Learning Clubs here.

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Social learning clubs in 3 bites

Below are links to three short stories on how to prepare for the future of work:

A Simple Path to Upgrade Human Skills

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The Problem with Problem-solving

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The World Needs More Detectives

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The tight-loose alternative

tight loose graphicTight or loose management – which way should firms respond when projects are not meeting their objectives? Should we clamp down to achieve better results? 

These are the wrong questions…old school questions.

Instead of a tight or loose?* we should be asking: Which aspects of our business require us to adhere to rules, and where do we need room to move within boundaries?

To begin this conversation, let’s think about the true nature of work today (along with how we need to respond):

  • Work is unpredictable (so we need to create a flexible way forward)
  • Work involves messy human relationships (so we must nurture cooperative interactions)
  • Work depends on discretionary effort (so it’s vital to understand what motivates people to do their best work)
  • There’s a yearning for meaningful work (so should define the firm’s purpose, as well as each project’s purpose beyond meeting schedule, budget and scope)

When we apply tight management to the wrong aspects of business, we stifle initiative and potential. Likewise, the misapplication of loose management results in wasted time and effort. “Loose” does not mean sloppy, haphazard and uncaring. In any case, striving for a uniformly tight mechanical system of management goes against human nature and leads to endless frustration.

Let the conversation begin! Which aspects of your business are tight-appropriate and in what ways do you need more room to move?

– Sharon VanderKaay

* I first encountered the concept of tight/loose management in Tom Peters’ and Robert H. Waterman Jr. 1982 book, In Search of Excellence – and yet we still wrestle with this issue.

 

Be a student of human nature

people at Light Fest_2

Today we can all benefit by becoming students of human nature. Each day is filled with opportunities to improve how we relate to others. But we need to know what to look for in order to extract the most valuable lessons.

Mindful learning from daily experience can become a habit. These five questions help us diagnose what’s really going on:

Learn more_questions

ACTIVE LEARNING BY DESIGN

Most of the knowledge we need to do our work is learned informally. To thrive in an unpredictable world, we can make the most of these informal learning opportunities.

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Above quote is from The Economist article: ” Lifelong learning is becoming an economic imperative

photo at top: “Run Beyond” by Angelo Bonello, Italy, taken at Light Fest 2017, Distillery District in Toronto

-Sharon VanderKaay

 

Design thinking at work

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An active learning approach to design thinking

Design thinking helps us get unstuck. It reveals hidden options so we can take action with greater confidence and impact.

Active learning (vs. passive learning) is a mindful approach to leveraging on-job experience.

When we combine active learning with design thinking, we have a powerful framework for continuous progress.

Learning Faster from Experience_vanderpalette

As the integration of AI grows in every kind of job, human-centric skills are in growing demand. But critical thinking, judgment and decision making are difficult to teach.

Design thinking offers an optimistic, strengths-based approach to learning. It works because it encourages our natural human curiosity. In essence, we can learn to design our way through messy situations at work—while staying one step ahead of the robots.

Here’s a slide summary of these concepts:

What questions should we be asking?

luggage rejectionNew ideas are often ignored or rejected. How can better questions make a difference?

Let’s begin by imagining how the invention of wheeled luggage might be met with a shrug.

For many months after receiving his patent in 1972, Bernard D. Sadow’s idea of a wheeled suitcase (pulled by a loose strap) was rejected. As he rolled his sample from meeting to meeting with various department stores, he was greeted with indifference.  Eventually he sold his invention to Macy’s, and the market grew quickly as this story in The New York Times recounts.

But it wasn’t until 1987 that Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath invented the roll-aboard suitcase which was pulled in an upright position using a long handle. Plath at first sold his Rollaboard to crew members, then his invention became a hit with passengers who saw it in use by flight attendants.

The initial rejection of wheeled luggage demonstrates a pattern of clinging to the old, difficult way when a better way may be under our noses. What kinds of questions would have changed how people viewed such an opportunity for innovation? What questions would have exposed unmet needs?

The New York Times reported:  “Mr. Sadow recalled the strong resistance he met on those early sales calls, when he was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said.”

So, for example, these questions might have been eye-opening at the time::

  1. Who makes the suitcase buying decisions?
  2. How could the experience of moving luggage be improved?
  3. What if travelers could see a wheeled option in use?
  4. What are the trends in air travel and ground transport links?
  5. What assumptions should we verify before we say no to this idea?

It’s a stretch for us to imagine the idea of wheeled luggage being rejected. But this exercise helps us see how unasked questions may continue to hold up progress today.

-Sharon VanderKaay

 

 

 

Move upstream: interview your clients

London move upstream_cheese grater

Most clients don’t really know how to evaluate design firms. Also, due to the large sums of money they are spending on projects, they’re scared of being blamed for making a bad choice.

Imagine how you might apply empathy to this tense situation. Rather than react to every onerous RFP, why not meet with potential clients well in advance of the selection process? Why not ask if they want your help in writing the RFP? Your inside knowledge can help them avoid pitfalls.

Interview your clients

Instead of talking about your work for most of that intro meeting (Me! Me! Me!…oh right, you), what if you used this time to understand where they’re coming from (You! You! Me!).

Yes, we should bring our portfolio and be ready to tell a story that demonstrates our depth of knowledge. Yes we should focus on a relevant example that paints a picture of what it’s like to work with us. But we can enrich relationships and gain an edge by interviewing our clients. Maybe we can help shape the content of the RFP and be the proverbial firm with the inside track. I have been in this advisory/winning position several times, so I know it can be done.

Empathy-driven questions for a client might include:

1.  What are your biggest challenges?

2.  What do you look for when choosing a design consultant?

3.  What problems do you seek to avoid?

4.  Do you have any dissatisfactions with your current RFP process?

5.  How important is the fee in your selection?

-Sharon VanderKaay

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