Some Thoughts on Play and Learning

Many people get caught up in the seriousness of their work and find it very difficult to learn as a result. They wind up in the same patterns of behavior and generally don't do enough differently to make it a learning opportunity.

Keith Cowan (e-mail) shared some thinking on "Barriers to Learning - Avoiding Looking Stupid!" in the Learning Organization listserve - (LO22034 - 6/29/99) and it makes sense to repost it here:

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arno Penzias wrote:

"My first boss at Bell Labs - and one of the smartest people I have ever known - once confided a terrible secret: he felt overrated. As he spoke, I realized we shared exactly the same feeling. I could readily picture me saying those same things about myself. 'The people around me think I'm smarter than I really am... They don't suspect that I learn things more slowly than they do and less fundamentally... When I listen to a presentation on something new, the only thing that keeps me from appearing stupid is not asking questions about things that others obviously already understand (I know they understand it because they're not asking any questions)... The things I know about are really easier to understand, almost simple by comparison to my colleagues' areas of expertise.' Since then, I've found that such monologues are common indeed.

"What happens when a secretly insecure person explains something to another with the same secret self-image (or, worse yet, to a group of them)? Since A has labeled what he understands as 'simple' by self-definition, A can't insult B's intelligence by going into excessive detail. A's original estimate is reinforced by the obvious ease with which B appears to take in the material - nodding occasionally and never asking for additional clarification. Accordingly, A speeds things up even more, with no change whatever in B's demeanor. Off B goes at the end of the meeting, resolved to learn what A was transmitting during the exchange, wondering if A suspected his lack of understanding. "In my experience, the attitudes that underlie this wasteful under-communication between technical colleagues often carry over into interactions between technical people and the rest of society. If engineers and scientists fear a public display of their 'ignorance,' of course nontechnical people rarely question technical presentations enough to get the information they need.

"Many technical meetings are saved by those who feel free enough to ask questions. When a question is asked it's easy to spot at least half a dozen heads going up, others who would like to know the answer but couldn't ask for themselves.

"In discussing this subject during a recent college lecture, I mentioned my daughter Mindy's asking how flipping a car's rearview mirror produced a new image. I went on to recount my explanation, as well as her response. 'I'm really glad I asked,' she said. 'I thought I was the only one in the world who didn't know how it worked.'"

From "Ideas And Information," Arno Penzias.

People are people are people and they can tend to get most serious when involved in a work situation. They may have to act, think, talk seriously all day, every day with bosses and peers and subordinates and often feel like they cannot make a mistake or they will look foolish.

So, if you want your training to make a difference, you MUST challenge them in a positive way to step back from their wagons. This is why simulations and games that have specific learning outcomes and clearly defined goals can have great impacts.

YOUR personal development as a trainer or consultant also means that you must more than occasionally stretch your comfort zone. Otherwise, you'll feel either bushed and stuck or over-rated. By pushing the envelope, you get more tools for the toolkit and more personal satisfaction from your efforts.

Games are not only about having fun -- games such as Lost Dutchman are very powerful tools for organizational and individual learning if you have the time to allow reflection and discussion and link the tools closely to the development initiatives needed. You can generate problems with interaction and communication, team interaction and collaboration / competition, or any number of things.

At another location on the website are a long series of exercises based on LEGO. You have permission to go there only after you thoroughly review the materials here! ;-)


A few Learning Points on Play

Leaders ARE isolated in the workplaces for a variety of reasons. But they are also used to that or assume that it is as good as it gets. By using games, you can create a discomfort that senior managers do not often perceive (and that they often give to others lower in the organization!). Games that have practical learning links are thus valuable tools for generating change.

Visions and missions and resources and a focus on the dis-un-empowerment of others are quite important for success. YOU are the leader in the simulation, yet people will NOT ask for help or advice. This can be reflected back on the group in the exercise and discussed -- how do THEY build trust and generate improved communications with their people.

Motivation comes from having clear goals as well as sufficient resources. Working in teams, having some color and music and fun backgrounds is also a positive contribution. Sharing the risks and rewards among the team is also a good motivator. Focusing on the benefits of collaboration and recognizing the normality of competition as opposed to working together often generates ideas for making changes in the workplace.

So, go out there and use the fun stuff to increase the impact and the learning.

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