[Shoppers Stop managing director Govind Shrikhande (right) with a leadership team from South Africa’s retail sector during an immersion session at Hypercity, Malad, Mumbai. This was part of a week-long immersion into the Indian retail market, designed and curated by Founding Fuel. It took participants to the scene of the action to find new perspectives to old problems. Photograph by Confetti Films Corp.]
A couple of weeks ago, a close friend confided in me about how he wasn’t able to find the time to learn. That’s a phenomenon I see all around me. A sizeable majority of people go through their entire business career harvesting what they learnt more than a decade ago, and don’t expend energies to learn new skills.
After having studied leaders for the better part of my career, I’ve come to believe that the onus lies on you to create new learning opportunities for yourself. And this year was no different. In fact, as the year winds down and I reflect on my learning journey, I have reason to be pleased with the outcomes. For me, it turned out to be an excellent year, largely because I was able to develop a deep understanding of a whole, new way to learn. There may be various ways to describe it: experiential, immersive, action learning, learning by doing, innovation through human-centered design. The labels aren’t important. What is important are the principles that hold it together. And by integrating ideas from a host of new approaches ranging from Design Thinking, continuous learning, coaching and facilitation, I believe we’ve been able to create a blend that’s both distinctive and relevant.
So here’s a peek into how enterprise learning could take shape in the years to come.
But first, a bit of context. My rich pickings came from a variety of learning opportunities this year. First up, Founding Fuel was invited to design a customer experience strategy for a global financial services firm in Bengaluru. We then had an opportunity to design and curate a set of distinctive immersions in the Indian market for a few leadership teams from South Africa’s retail and telecom sector. I then attended a two-day workshop by Kimberley Bain on the power of facilitation in strategic planning, which turned out to be a great way to learn about how even large teams could learn how to co-create strategy. I also signed up for a course in leadership coaching, led by Alan Meyne, director at Coaching Lighthouse, something that I always wanted to do. And finally, we set up a learning hub in Mumbai for a diverse group of entrepreneurs as part of an intensive, critically acclaimed 8-week MITx online course, Leading from the Emerging Future.
So what did I learn from this diverse mix? Let me attempt to distil the precepts and look to build a quick and dirty cheatsheet:
1. Dig deeper through conversations: A large majority of people still believe in asking direct questions, deploying questionnaires and believe that if they engage with a large sample size, they’ll get the real insights. The say-do gap bedevils such attempts. Instead, real insights come when you develop empathy, listen deeply, observe and learn from the consumer’s own context. Just how many people are comfortable having a conversation with consumers? We found ethnographic research as a great way to immerse oneself in the stakeholder’s world.
2. Look within: There’s so much knowledge trapped inside the heads of employees. Yet instead of harnessing that, a great many companies rush to consultants to look for new ideas for growth. What if there were creative and collaborative ways to tap into that reservoir of knowledge? For us, Design Thinking provided a common language and a more visual and iterative approach for teams to innovate. There’s no better way to dramatically improve trust and team-work, without sending off your colleagues to a river-rafting expedition in Rishikesh.
3. Train through work: Loads of money is often spent behind training that’s completely disconnected from real work. That’s why leaders are forced to attend training programmes, kicking and screaming. Instead, if you throw a set of business challenges at your teams, help them frame the problem, share a bunch of tools to solve the challenges and support the process through team-based coaching, the magic can be infectious. Not only do you get a chance to test your leadership bench, it also moves the needle on things that really matter to your business. I’ve discovered how the principles of coaching can help self-organising teams ask powerful questions of themselves and achieve breakthroughs.
4. Build communities of practice: My experience with the coaching course and at our U.Lab learning hub taught me the value of practice. Or as Kavi Arasu, our Director-Learning and Change would say, imperfect practice. New skills are best learnt and honed through a cycle of constant practice, feedback and reflection. And these learning groups also provide the vital local context that most Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) seem to lack. There’s every chance I would have dropped out of the MITx course, if it hadn’t been for the energetic, passionate participation of the other participants in our hub.
Another thing that worked well for us at the U.Lab prototyping project was the sheer diversity of the team. Each of us had pretty remarkably different backgrounds. And when we began our stakeholder interviews, the team benefitted enormously from the multiple perspectives each one brought to the table. Here's a glimpse of the process.
5. Look outside your comfort zone: If the source of innovation oftentimes lies outside your business or your industry, how often are you tuning into those new learning opportunities? Cross-industry learnings can be a huge mind-opener. Seeing is, after all, believing. And carefully curated immersions that take you to the scene of the action can bring new energy into the learning process and throw up new perspectives to old problems. It could take many forms: we’ve designed home visits, store visits and a half day trip to a cool start-up or a dinner talk. It is about making learning fun and engaging.
6. Build your own knowledge network: It isn’t enough to read books and attend courses.
Often, the most valuable form of knowledge for practicing managers is experiential, and it remains inside the mind of entrepreneurial leaders. Directly engaging regularly with an extended network allows one to surface this tacit knowledge.
I often get asked: how do I reach out to influential people? I always say: Keep it simple. Simply drop them an email. Or find someone to introduce you. Muster up the courage to explain your purpose clearly and succinctly. Most times I’ve found it works quite well. If you have the intellectual curiosity to learn, it’ll show through and that’s the best hook to strike relationships of trust.
For the last couple of years though, I’ve been lulled into believing that WhatsApp and Facebook groups were a possible substitute for face-to-face conversations. Thanks to the exercises in deep listening in our U.Lab hub, I realise just how specious that logic is.
That’s why next week, as things wind down for the holiday season, I’m off to Pune for a two day learning journey, where I’ve set up a series of conversations with a diverse bunch of entrepreneurs, business leaders and social change-makers.
(A shorter version of this column was first published in Business Standard)