Can we ‘capture’ experiential learning processes? Should we even bother?
How do we sum up key actions for a group when most of the work we have valued in a project has been about enabling deeper level connection, understanding and communication?
Today I had the final session of a team facilitation process, our last half day of four. The sessions have, we all feel, gone well. There has been quite a lot of movement in a relatively short intervention, healing some painful, historical relationship breakdowns. The founder now has considerable clarity that it is now time for him to move on, and team is showing great generosity to help him do this at a pace and time that works for everyone.
Our sessions have been emergent sensing together and responding to whatever presented itself as most important to pay attention to. We have also made good use of Peter Koenig’s excellent and helpful work on Source – to clarify long term areas of confusion and conflict around people’s roles, areas of responsibility and authority.
This has been a fluid, impactful and at times quite touching series of explorations and conversations. Much of the value has been in establishing new patterns of connection and relationship. The team now has a felt sense of what it is to listen well, to let barriers down and to open up.
How on earth do we record this as a series of points?
The idea hadn’t particularly occurred to me at all until in our check in today one of the team said, that while he had found the process valuable, he really wanted to record key points for them to remember and return to. He asked me if I planned to write a report.
I said that ‘no’, I didn’t plan to write a report.
Why I (usually) don’t write reports at the end of projects:
I outlined the following reasons why:
- Because they the team, not I, will be the people making use of the report, it makes more sense that recommendations or principles are written by them in their language rather than in mine.
- Reports very often struggle to convey the richness, depth and quality of the human exchanges, insights and new experiences that have happened. Then there is a tension between a lived experience of depth and value – albeit one hard to pin down, and a list of neat points that relate somewhat to the experience but somehow lack energy and miss the mark.
- Because of this, any written report subtly focuses attention onto the words not the It may then lead people to disregard or devalue their learning from embodied experience. A report or list which fails to convey the richness of the process (as reports almost inevitably do) moves attention away from what is most important to remember.
- In a limited budget I think it is much more valuable for clients to have more of my time with them, and not pay for my time when I am not with them, writing down things that I think about them. I’d much rather use budget spent on a report to visit them again in a few months, and again a few months after that to help them reflect together on how the learning is (or isn’t) being lived.
- Reports very often recommend ‘actions to be taken’.It is quite easy to agree a new action and often very hard to do it. This is basically because our actions arise out of our beliefs, assumptions and worldviews. If these are not also included in a plan, then it is very likely we will, despite our best intentions, revert back to habitual actions, because we maintain our existing worldviews and habits of thought. So any list of points should ideally include at least as much about ‘ways we will be different’ as ‘different things to do’. New action arises from new identities. But despite plans and lists, old actions will continue to emerge from untested or unchanged basic identities and beliefs.
- I don’t like writing reports half as much as I like being with people.
Nevertheless, I also respected the expressed need for some sort of written list of points ‘for us to go away and remember.’
So how to do this?
A tool for consciously planning identity shifts (not just actions):
I introduced to the group to a model called the Learning Pathways Grid.
As the graphic shows, this distinguishes three areas of activity: outcomes, actions and the underlying frames or ways of thinking. Outcomes arise from the actions we take (individually and collectively). This is why planning so often focuses on actions. But actions also arise from somewhere – and in this model they arise from Frames – an underlying set of beliefs, assumptions and views. Change the Frame and new actions become not just possible, but quite likely, even if they have not been recorded.
One team member works in a different city and has a specific technical expertise and network. A repeated theme in our team discussions was about his connection and communication (or lack thereof) with the rest of the team. In action terms, it was easy enough for him to generate a list on the basis of our conversations thus far – ‘spend more time in Bristol’, ‘find time for occasional overnights’, ‘reach out to connect and share with the team’. So far so good, if a little clichéd.
When he explored the underlying frames – comparing his current modes of behaving with how he would really like things to be, he was honest enough to come up with these current underlying beliefs:
“My work is more important that other people’s”
“My work is better if I do it by myself.”
This led to a lovely, honest conversation where he received feedback from the CEO that often she felt her role was to energetically ‘take him down a level or two.’ And that she didn’t like doing that. It prompted a beautiful conversation about value, respect and hierarchy in the organisation.
He ended up with his own (new) desired frame to try on:
“My work is even better if other people get involved”
“My work is really important, and so is other people’s”
Of course, this is a desired frame. It will take conscious work to act, decide and communicate from this new space. (Actually if he really operates from these new frames this will mean a deeper shift in his identity – his sense of who he experiences himself to be.)
Our eventual individual and collective ‘bullet points’ was less a list of actions to sign up to (they may do that themselves later) but rather a list of ‘desired ways of seeing things’ which they could all sign up to and use as a gentle, ever present guide to navigate through challenges and activities ahead