Provision #737: eXperiments Matter

Laser Provision

One might say there are two ways to learn: theory to practice and practice to theory. The first way, known as deductive learning, starts with a set of accepted premises and applies them to particular situations. The second way, known as inductive learning, starts with a set of experiences and generalizes them into a way of doing things. Both ways of learning are constantly at work in both children and adults, but inductive learning • practice to theory • is clearly the original genius and instinct of us all. Young children are insatiably curious and inveterate researchers. They learn by conducting experiments. Great leaders would do well to rekindle that spirit in our people. Don’t be afraid: the benefits far outweigh the risks.

LifeTrek Provision

It’s hard to write this Provision, at least in the USA, on September 11, 2011 and not think back ten years to the moment when I was in a meeting at The Ohio State University, in Columbus, OH, and everything came screeching to a halt. Somehow, word came into the meeting about the planes flying into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and, soon thereafter, about the plane flying into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, DC. I remember leaving the meeting to comfort a friend, whose future husband was working for the federal government in DC. His safety and whereabouts were not known at that time.

The meeting could not continue. There was too much confusion, uncertainty, pain, and anger. We urged each other to be safe and then returned home to our families. At the time, my son was in high school and he came home for lunch, as he often did, with some of his friends. I remember watching the horrific scenes coming out of New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, over and over again, as the news media as well as many officials attempted to make sense of what was happening. Who? How? Why? What next? Those were the top four questions then and, in many ways, they stay with us yet today as the alert levels escalate on this, the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

One of those high school students who was sitting in my family room that day has gone on to serve multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was his way of responding and making sense of it all. Others, like my son, went on to college and to careers that have contributed in other ways to our post-9/11 world. Still others, like myself, have wrestled with the ethical and spiritual consequences of framing the world in terms of good guys and bad guys and of filling our minds with so many enemy images. It’s never that simple and it often escalates the spiral of violence when we approach our problems and other people in that way.

So what’s a person to do, let alone a leader? The answer lies in the title of today’s Provision: eXperiment. The French philosopher, •mile Chartier, once quipped, “Nothing is as dangerous as an idea when it is the only one you have.” When leaders become attached to one course of action, to one way of viewing the world, or to one desired outcome, we become much more demanding, much less open to possibility, and even dangerous. That is when all manner of terrible stuff can be done to others, all in the name of such otherwise positive values as loyalty, due process, and patriotism.

Compliance is not the way to excellence. That takes a very different mindset and culture. I have shared with you once before a Dilbert cartoon that illustrates the conundrum that many leaders face as well as the resolution that many of us unfortunately choose in this regard:

That’s not the right balance to strike if we hope to learn from our experiences. Getting punished for mistakes quickly communicates that the environment is not safe and that trying new things is not worth the risk. Today I had a conversation with a banker at a community event that illustrates the point. She was telling me her strong preference for small, community banks. In fact, this preference has prompted her to move multiple times in the wake of the seemingly inexorable march of mergers and acquisitions in the banking industry. Sooner or later, when her small, community bank gets gobbled up by one of the big, national banks, the culture changes and she finds she can no longer happily or effectively do her job.

“What’s the difference?” I asked her. “The big banks don’t let you think,” she replied. “They have policies and procedures that define how everything is to be done. Even if you know a better way, even if the company way doesn’t fit the needs of a particular customer, you’re not allowed to think outside the box and invent a unique solution. If I can’t think, then I’m not happy and I can’t do the job for my customers that they want me to do for them. That’s when I know it’s time to leave, to go back to a small, community bank, where I can figure things out the best way I know how.”

She didn’t use the word, but what this banker was saying was that in big, national banks she was no longer free to experiment. Try this. Try that. Try multiple possibilities until something good emerges that will meet the needs of her customers, her bank, and her own sense of professionalism. Unless she is free to experiment, with no fear of punishment, she is just not able to do the job she wants to do.

I wish all leaders would get that basic truth. Experiments are hard-wired in the human psyche. Ask any parent of infants and toddlers. How do they learn to talk? How do they learn to walk? How do they learn how to do just about anything? They don’t read an instruction manual or search for the information on the Internet. They just try stuff. Sometimes it works. Great! Sometimes it doesn’t work. Fascinating! As long as the experiment doesn’t do too much damage, they recover to try again another day (or even just a minute later).

That’s because experiments are fun and learning through experiments is a great adventure. Young children don’t know anything about “trial and error.” That’s a concept that has to be taught. Young children learn through “trial and correction.” They experiment with doing things one way and if it doesn’t produce a desired result, they experiment with doing things a different way. “Trial and correction.” There is no fear of failure, judgment, or punishment. There is just the natural curiosity of trying to figure out how the world works.

Understanding this, competent and compassionate parents provide their young children with safe and supportive environments where the children can conduct their learning experiments with reckless abandon. We don’t want a young child learning how to walk on the edge of a dangerous precipice. And we also don’t want to blame or shame our children whenever they fall down. What parent, in their right mind, would do that? We instead clap and cheer on our children’s efforts. We want them to be successful with their experiments. And, sooner or later, most children figure things out. 

Unfortunately, something changes as life goes on and we become increasingly less inclined to take risks. Criticism, condemnation, and consequences take their toll on what Tim Gallwey refers to as “natural learning,” in his classic book The Inner Game of Tennis. We develop an inner voice that sounds an awful lot like that of the pointy-haired boss in the second frame of the above Dilbert cartoon. “Watch out. Don’t take too many chances. Remember: ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ Find out the right way to do this and stick with the playbook. Don’t be a hero. Just do your job.”

The voice in the head goes on and on and on. But it doesn’t have to have the last word. Gallwey writes: “There is a natural learning process which operates within everyone • if it is allowed to. This process is waiting to be discovered by all those who do not know of its existence. To discover this natural learning process, it is necessary to let go of the old process of correcting faults; that is, it is necessary to let go of judgment and see what happens.”

Many people find it hard to believe that suspending judgment, having fun, and conducting experiments is the best way to learn. Don’t we have to analyze what’s wrong in order to solve the problem? Don’t we have to bear down and crack the whip to get things done? Isn’t it easier and better to have an expert just tell us what to do?

That is certainly the stance many leaders take and the way many leaders lead. We walk around like “snoopervisors” instead of supervisors, marking off what people do wrong and requiring them to do things the way we want them to do things. At our worst, such leaders are micromanagers who drive people crazy. With the best of intentions, we undermine both our own effectiveness and the effectiveness of others.

Fortunately, there is a better way to lead that taps into the natural learning of people. By suspending judgment and creating a no-fault zone, people relax and become more creative in their work. By encouraging experimentation and having fun, rather than taking an overbearing, know-it-all attitude, people discover for themselves how best to do what needs to get done. It is a transformational stance that every leader would do well to adopt.

That is why in our evocative coaching model for transformational school leadership we talk about conducting experiments more than about setting goals. Unless your goal is to conduct an experiment, it’s easy to imply that something has to be accomplished or done in a particular way. There is less freedom and learning associated with the word “goal” than with the word “experiment,” and that loss of freedom, experienced by that banker as the loss of the freedom to think, can interfere with not only learning but with performance and enjoyment as well.

Encouraging people to conduct experiments has the advantage of being a great way to communicate our trust in their ability to figure out what needs to be figured out and to get things done. Even when people go about it differently than we might do ourselves, such experiments are more likely to lead to effective action.

Another way to put this, to use Gallwey’s language, is to recognize that there is less tension associated with the word “experiment” than with the word “goal.” It’s possible to fail at a goal; there’s no way to fail at an experiment other than, perhaps, to not conduct it at all. That’s because the point of an experiment is to learn something valuable, and learning is always possible when we go from practice to theory, no matter how things turn out. It is the frame of “trial and correction” rather than “trial and error.”

When we trust the natural learning process, when we allow things to happen rather than force things to happen, then our leadership truly rises to the level of mastery. It empowers people to develop and offer their very best in the service of desired outcomes.

Although written in the context of tennis, Gallwey’s conclusion and recommendation speaks to leadership in every arena of life: “The preceding theory should be tested and not taken on faith,” Gallwey writes. “You must experience for yourself the difference between making yourself do something, and letting it happen. I suggest that you devise and conduct experiments to discover just how much you are willing to trust yourself, both when rallying and when under pressure.”

Coaching Inquiries: How much are you willing to trust yourself in the action-learning process? What kind of experiments would you be willing to conduct in order to find out? How could you become more venturesome in conducting experiments? What is one thing you would like to explore and try out in the week ahead? How could you plan that out right now?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob

I was wondering what you were going to do for Provision titles when you came to the Xs. Now I know! Very creative.

I found Qualms Matter insightful and thought-provoking • most assuredly a worthwhile rumination for leaders and coaches of any sort. I am in the process of introducing myself to your resources. I’ve ordered the book and am looking forward to starting the reading in preparation for the course on coaching in leadership.

I was in Chicago when I read your Provision, Qualms Matter. As you know, my appreciation for you and Megan and all of the creations the two of you produce is immense. Independently, you and Megan shine so bright, but together you light up the world! Your partnership is such an inspiration to me and my husband and I just wanted to say, “Thank You” for all the ways in which you lead and guide us! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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