Do we need to start thinking differently, perhaps more creatively, to reengage your people with organisational learning? For many, a perception exists that traditional approaches to organisation training have become stale. It’s imperative for learning professionals to remain curious and open minded towards new techniques and methods, in order to get the best from their programmes.
Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests: Andy Hoang, Founder of Beyond Blocks; Rita Isaac, Learning Coordinator at CIPD; and David Hayden, Learning Content Manager at CIPD, as we discuss how L&D professionals can incorporate the element of surprise and tap into human emotions to help people learn more effectively.
Nigel Cassidy: This month, tales of the unexpected.
NC: Yes, how springing surprises can help more of your learning sink in.
NC: Now, I was reading a crime novel on holiday last week and I was stunned by a clever plot twist that I really didn't see coming. All my preconceptions about what might happen next were right out of the window. Surprise is a powerful emotion, it stops you in your tracks and gets you thinking and training, learning and development really ought to do that more often too. So this month we're all about how to fire up those synapses by ditching the predictable and the formulaic. Get ready to be surprised by three guests full of ideas on harnessing the power of the unexpected. It's time to ambush your people with memorable training, that can help knowledge to stick and creativity to flourish. With us, Rita Isaac, an author and artist with an academic background in painting and art history, but also with a decade of customer service and visitor experience in the commercial and museum world and she's now CIPD's Learning and Development Coordinator. Hello.
Rita Isaac: Hi.
NC: You could have done us a picture, but a bit wasted on a podcast maybe. Next we've a learning technologies specialist, who helps teams nail their design creativity and builds simulations using, wait for it, Lego bricks. He's Andy Hoang.
Andy Hoang: Hi Nigel.
NC: Can you really build an MRI scanner out of Lego?
AH: Most definitely.
NC: And it's the return of CIPD Learning Content Manager and Author, David Hayden. Hi David.
David Hayden: Hi, Nigel, hi, everyone.
NC: For whom every day is a learning day. I nicked that phrase from you, David.
DH: It certainly is, it certainly is.
NC: So set the scene, David, if you would. Learning's evolved rapidly, hasn't it? Especially through the pandemic. But it is often formulaic and predictable and I know that you say part of the answer is, you've just got to get people doing things within minutes, you've got to spring surprises.
DH: Yeah, so if you think about a traditional training approach, whether it be online or whether it be face to face, it starts with the same approach, hello, tell us who you are, tell us what you do, tell us your role, maybe if you're lucky, you get to say, tell us what you're expecting from this course. Or if you're doing something online, it's just so anonymous, and it's a wave of predictability when we go on any kind of learning intervention, we know what the setup is going to be. So if we can do something right from the off that's a little bit different, whether we're opening a webinar with people saying, what colour socks have you got on? To opening a face to face event where we're getting people up drawing things, then that stimulates that bit of surprise, oh, this is different, and maybe we'll talk about, a little bit later, about what's going on in the brain when that happens.
NC: Absolutely. Rita, it is sad, isn't it, that in many organisations the chance to learn something new, or take part in a training course, is met with such a groan? Why do you think that the unexpected, disarming people, as we've been hearing from David, is the way forward?
RI: I think that we do it on a daily basis, we might just not realize it and I think that we need to harness it further. We need to weaponise the element of surprise almost. Although I do not have, I don't think I share the same grim vision of webinars and online sessions. For example, we just had two suppliers delivering their engaging sessions during Learning at Work Week, one of them surprised everyone by starting just saying, I have no presentations, no slides, here is me and it was one of the most engaging sessions we've had in a long time. We've had people going out of their way to send emails, messages, everything. And another one that his presentation was mainly photos of him growing up and linking that to ally ship and inclusion and diversity training. So I think that there are people already doing it, I think that we can do it better. I agree that the element of surprise is really important, because we know that it involves some emotional connection and if we are emotionally engaged, we know that, that is powerful in terms of retaining memories, attention, focus, all of that. So I think that we can definitely do it better, I think we can plan spontaneity, I think we can definitely design for surprise.
NC: It sounds to me, Andy, as if this could be a lot to do with the trainer. If some people can actually produce surprise and the unexpected without doing anything fancy, that's fine, but maybe some people don't have the personality to pull it off.
AH: I think surprise is actually, it's surprising for the recipients, but not often surprising for the person who's delivering the surprise. So I don't think that you have to be, it's not something you're born, that you have to be born with, but you can plan a surprise into your workshop. Going back to the question that you asked Rita, I often hear it said that learning happens outside your comfort zone and I do think that when we go in and we say, right, we're going to teach you something, you're going to have to learn something today, we are asking people to be uncomfortable because that's where learning happens. If you were comfortable all your life, then you probably wouldn't, you probably wouldn't learn a lot I feel.
NC: Has it got to be fun Andy? Because I know you said to me when we were chatting before that some people can't make things fun.
AH: That's a great question. I don't think it necessarily has to be fun, but I do think that with the topic that you've mentioned today, if we're centering it on surprise, we talk about the element of surprise and I think that the element of surprise is only an element, it's one small part that makes up good training. We need to take that element of surprise and say, now that I've surprised you, I've got some real substance to back this up. Whether that be fun or not, well actually I feel that fun comes from having expanded your brain. When you've learnt something, you get that sense of reward and I don't necessarily feel it has to be fun per se, but learning has to be rewarding in some way and often I think that because it's often so predictable, we can easily switch off and say, I know what to expect, so I won't be uncomfortable, so I'm going to switch off. And so a little element of surprise can throw that whole circuit out of whack and get people to take things in.
NC: Do we actually know, David, whether organisations often get as far as evaluating, whether it is the lack of creativity, surprise, the unexpected in the delivery, that's to blame for disappointing learning outcomes?
DH: Yeah, so we know from our research, we've got a piece of research coming out in a few weeks’ time from the CIPD, about the challenge of evaluating and measuring impact that a lot of organisations have. It is that, are we linking the right things in the first place, before we even create a learning programme, to be able to measure them afterwards? So there's a whole piece of work to do around that. But I just want to come back to the question that you asked Andy about fun and absolutely, there are some programmes where you can't necessarily start with, hey, we're going to have fun on this course today, because of the topic. But you can, as Andy said, create an environment where people are engaged and people are drawn in and when they're at the end of it, say, do you know what? That was a difficult subject, but I had a good time because of A, B and C. That's not the same as having fun, but they had a good time and absolutely out the comfort zone and learnt something.
NC: And before we leave you here, David, what about the learning theory? Without going too much into the deep sort of psychology of it all, why does surprise work?
DH: On a very basic level, when we are out of our comfort zone, when we do something different, our brains are heightened to protect us. So it all goes back to that ancient part of the brain and the fight, flight, freeze and form element and all our senses are heightened when something different happens. So that's when we're at our most attuned and looking out for what's happening all around us. So, yeah, it absolutely ties into that from a neuroscience point of view and links in with other elements of learning theory that link to the humanistic approach to learning, relating to people on a human level, looking for allies within the learning environment, that kind of thing. So, yeah, there's a few things what stem from that.
NC: So Rita, we've shocked people a bit at the beginning, we've got them out of a comfort zone Where do you take it with people next, what has the training got to do if you're going to take advantage of this initial kind of flurry of interest?
RI: I think that when planning any learning intervention or when developing, we need to factor those moments in. So create times in the same way that we would want diversity of media, you want to have some videos, you want to have activities, breakout rooms, whatever it is, in the same way we can plan for that surprise, or fun, or shock and that can be either with the content, or the way you're delivering it, or obviously you can add both. When I say this, I mean content, things like examples, facts, shocking statistics, any grim facts that are connected, people will retain those and you will basically whip them in, into the conversation and in terms of the how and how you can create those points, basically using things that we already know about, but trying to look at it from a different perspective. So things like gamification, challenges, hands on experiences, yes, action learning, but make it clear what's in it for them, get them to bring real life examples. Obviously, if it's in house training or learning that you are developing, do your research, make sure that you understand how people can leave with a toolkit, give them something to action, because that's also going to retain that attention and that element of surprise throughout. They might be even surprised by how useful it is, or how engaging it is. Storytelling, such a powerful thing and at the moment it's basically a buzzword, everyone is talking about this, but once again, why do we do it? Why is it so important? How can we make it better? Instead of doing it yourself, you might want to get people from the organisation to tell the stories. I was using this example the other day, some companies are using sitcoms to deliver their compliance training, because it taps into the whole binging series and getting into a storytelling mode almost.
NC: When you say sitcoms, you mean that they're getting people to act them out, or they're watching sitcoms and then analysing them in some way?
RI: They're getting people to act out scripts of compliance, so GDPR, cybersecurity, things like that. I do appreciate that not everyone has a budget to go out and hire actors, my point is not that, my point is maybe instead of just having a dry presentation or a script, you can have your data governance team recording nice videos with interesting facts. Maybe you can even get some of them role playing, or IT role playing cybersecurity situations. So there is this element of storytelling that you can tap into by engaging the learners themselves in a way and the people that they know, to explore that emotional connection and further engage them into surprise.
NC: Well some people may have seen, there's a recent example of this isn't there, this reminds me, the Meta company has, their legal department has created a Netflix style training series with reoccurring characters, involving shadowy hackers and gaming convention, essentially to get compliance staff to learn how to perform tasks better. So they stop the action and then talk about what they might do. I can imagine though this role playing stuff does, it's not for everybody, is it? Some people find role playing very, very difficult. Let's get back to that in a minute, because I want to bring Andy in to just sort of think about doing it a different way. So you go into the training room and there is a large pile of plastic Lego bricks. So broadly, how do you find this works in training? In other words it's, people are learning more than just how to make the model itself.
AH: Yes, I find it's really interesting the reaction that adults have to walking in to see a pile of Lego bricks on a table. I believe it raises their inquisitiveness. OK, what's going to happen here? How am I going to make sure I don't make a fool of myself? And so, when you go into a new situation like this, with a table full of Lego bricks, you need to make sure that all of the participants in the room feel safe, they're ready to use this heightened inquisitiveness, this heightened alertness, to actually go and benefit their learning.
NC: Because of course, because some people are dexterous, some people aren't, some people can build brilliant things with their kids with Lego, others, you just build the same house or swimming pool or something every time. So there is a, quite a wide variation, but I was amazed to see that you could even get people to tackle how they would deal with an HR issue using the Lego.
AH: A few years ago I developed, what I fondly remember and call, the Lego HR game and with the Lego HR game we built a model of a startup and the startup was a little hat factory, and the idea was that with a limited amount of money every year, so in every round you would have about £10,000 to spend and you had to decide on certain things that you could buy. So it would be different policies or procedures that you might want to put in place in your new startup business. Obviously because we put in the sort of budgetary constraints you are only allowed to buy a certain number of items, buying those things, let's say you bought diversity and inclusion training for example, but you didn't buy health and safety, then in the first round a member staff might chop their finger off for example and you'd have all the attendant consequences. So when the participants would come into the room and see a load of Lego on the table and it was built like a factory, with little minifigs and conveyor belts and stuff, yeah, the first thing they thought was, what on earth is going on here and the next was, all right, how do I win this?
NC: So kind of taking it on from this, David, what could you say about how you ensure that the game doesn't become the thing, that everything you're doing arcs back to what you're trying to achieve with your learning and development?
DH: Yeah, and the key what Andy said there was around well planned activities, so not just something thrown in, so the well planned element includes a number of a number of things. So the well planned is, is there a link to people's reality within the game? In this case, the Lego building. Is there a good level of debrief around making those connections, If not, people can't immediately see those connections, is there a good debrief from the activity to people's reality? And then is there a call for arms around, what are people going to do as a result of that activity? So that honing in on that well planned. One of the common phrases in learning and development is, steal with pride and I would change that to, steal with purpose. So we may see an activity happening in someone else's domain, but we can't always lift and shift that and put it in our domain, because our context is slightly different. And that's one of the reasons why a number of people have a reaction to things like icebreakers, because the icebreaker at the start of a learning session may have nothing to do with the content and people's reality, it's just something that the trainer's seen work somewhere else and thought, oh, that's a good game, I'll steal that and use it. So it's steal with purpose and context.
NC: And Rita, we mentioned the role playing and people's reaction to that, the slightly simpler one that you touched on before is storytelling. Can you just talk a little bit more about how you get people to open up in that kind of way?
RI: Of course. Can I just say, in regards to the role play, it doesn't always have to be the traditional cringe feeling role play. As David just said, if you do it with purpose, you will pluck real life activities and you will get people, almost like a learning community, action learning, you will get them to work out through simulations basically, activities that will allow them to experiment, make decisions and even assess possible consequences of their actions, in a safe, controlled environment. So this is role playing in a way.
RI: In regards to storytelling, I think that there is an element of it that if you are asking people, attendees to share their stories within the session, that there has to be embracing that vulnerability and there has to be a psychological safety that is considered also while planning. So, if I'm doing this in person, where is it going to be, how can we guarantee that this is felt? Who is attending, is it everyone from the same team, do we have people from different teams? What kind of training is this? All of this comes into play when planning. If we are doing it in an online environment, things like ensuring that you don't record it, there are no transcripts, you can take outcomes from the sessions, but you do try and create that sense of comfort. But a good part of storytelling does come from this comfort, I think it's just a matter of, for the facilitator and I think that this is also the key here. We're thinking of how to include surprising training, but actually learning has evolved from training, we are not trainers, we are learning facilitators, so we've moved away from that, so we just need to create an environment and plan an environment where people can learn from each other as well and surprise each other. And I think that for that, we can make ourselves vulnerable first by sharing experiences, making ourselves and our experiences relatable to, showing that we're not just talking from a completely unfamiliar place. There is some power to that.
NC: What do you think about that Andy? I know you wanted to come in earlier on, something David said struck a chord with you.
AH: Yeah, actually, both your speakers have struck a chord with me there. So Rita talked about psychological safety and David talked about purpose. And for me, I've seen so many really poor surprises where, just in the middle of a training session you'll get a surprise, you'll get to the end, you go, that was a bit weird, that was a bit icky, and I don't really understand what that was for. So if a surprise is delivered and there's some purpose, the key here is that reflection piece. I think what happens is when you've got a session that you think is quite predictable, suddenly you've got this surprise, you're now in the hands of your trainer, because your trainer's thrown in this thing that's a bit uncomfortable, so in my case, it'll be Lego, I've thrown in Lego, I've said, right, we're going to build with this. Now for the next half an hour, I'm going to make you a little bit uncomfortable, but the purpose of making you uncomfortable is to get you to learn something and by the end of it, you'll pop out the other side and during that time, you will be psychologically safe, I'll make sure you have all the skills you need to build with the Lego. So you don't have to build a Bugatti, or the most amazing Lego piece, because the purpose of our building is to learn something, so whatever you build is acceptable within the parameters of this room. Then when we get to the end of the session, when we reflect on that and we say, look at how we've connected the Lego model that you've built to the purpose that you came in here for, there is this overwhelming sense of relief.
NC: And of course that works, because clearly when it comes to the Lego you're really good at doing that, but David Hayden Not all training facilitators have this creative streak, Rita has it too with her art and with other things that she does, so how do you make all the magic happen, if you're much more comfortable just with your old interactive training videos and your lecture notes?
DH: Yeah, so there is an opportunity for a number of us in the profession to really role model how we've developed in that space. So to shout out about it and there are people regularly online on LinkedIn, on Twitter and other platforms, talk about their own journey for learning to be a better facilitator. And it may be around people recognising themselves that they're going through the same routine, opening a PowerPoint and typing in some slides without necessarily making connections around the topic. So I'd encourage people to take a step back, if they're in a design phase, we talked on a previous podcast around design and taking that purposeful pause to think around what it is they're designing and what links they can make. But also, if we think about, not just in the delivery element, but in making links with evaluation and the learning needs analysis in the first place, where can we maximise that element of surprise as we go through the whole training cycle?
RI: In regards to what David was saying, obviously, if you are in stages of planning, yes, plan, prepare, try to gather as many tools as you can to have those elements of surprise throughout the training. But also, I would say leverage who you have, not just what you have. So guest speakers, guest experts, not everyone charges to come and speak and share their expertise and even if you don't have the budget, or you don't have anyone that is relevant to the matter, once again, talk to people across departments, get your in house experts to come and give a little bit of a storytelling moment. So that's one way of overcoming that facilitation challenge, if you don't feel so confident about, or so creative about it. In terms of overall challenges, I think that a big one for this is still the evaluation point. We all know how important informal learning is and I think that the element of surprise comes with that as well, the natural, the organic, spontaneous, but we also know how difficult informal learning is to measure and I think that, that, it's almost, we need to surprise ourselves almost in that sense. We need to look at outside of the box as well, to see how can we actually measure those things or make the intangible more tangible? Are we talking to all of the stakeholders in the business that can help measure behaviour impact? Can data analysis or data governance team actually give us some ideas on how to collect data from existing points? Can we use AI to measure satisfaction and change in sentiment and satisfaction at work after learning interventions? So can we get creative? Can we surprise ourselves with planning? And this evaluation needs to be planned as well, as David was saying, it has to be set and contracted from the beginning and I think that that's something that we need to be better at as well.
DH: I like that. So I say a lot around, use what you've got, but you saying there, use who you've got as well, is a good addition. So that's my learning bit for today, thank you, yeah.
AH: What I was going to reflect on there actually is, you've got two people who on the surface of it look really, really creative, a Lego person, an artist, if you're looking at the sleeve notes of this particular episode you're going to say, I couldn't do that, couldn't be creative, couldn't surprise people, but I actually think that surprise doesn't come in your personality. I have a load of students I see every week who I come in and they say, what have you got for us this week? They know I've got a Lego box, because they come to Lego class, right? So if I don't have a surprise for them, then I'm, I've got it coming, right? But what actually this whole thing is about for me, is that a surprise is about knowing your audience. If you don't know your audience, you ain't going to be able to surprise them and then the end result of a surprise is either delight or disgust, you either say, yeah, that was an amazing thing that you did, we made a, we redesigned our entire business process, or you get to the end and go, why did you do that to me? You made me feel really uncomfortable and then you came away delivering nothing. And so that's kind of key, is that I think knowing your audience is the difference between surprising them and delighting them, or surprising them and disgusting them.
NC: So, Rita, what is really all this about, in using these surprises, what are we trying to create and achieve here?
RI: I think that, as David mentioned before, it's tapping into that natural mechanism of retaining more information and engaging with the information that comes with the element of surprise and surprise, shock, any of that really. But also, and I think that this is the part of connection, that we make emotional connections with facts and with information, but also with people. So, for me, using that and using those connections between people and what they know and what they can share, is a way to ensure that they also have an opportunity to surprise others. And sometimes we see that happening in a session, we see how much someone shares and I'm thinking of virtual learning, for example, in online sessions that we have, someone shares something on the chat while we are delivering content and all of a sudden you have ten, 15, 20 people adding to it and sharing links and plugging more information. And that there in itself, it's surprising for the facilitator, for the attendees, but also, that is learning in action, that is happening and that comes from connections, connecting points, connecting the dots, connecting solutions, connecting people, it all comes from that.
NC: Well that's a positive spin on online and remote learning, which we might have tended to think is a bit of a second class option. David, I know you're obviously very keen on getting people together in a room, but you have to acknowledge that, as Rita says, it can work very well online.
DH: Absolutely can work and yes and whilst I can love all the things you can do in a room with people and make use of that space, I absolutely can make use of the space online, even if you've only got the chat facility enabled, you can do some amazing things in that and getting people, firstly surprised and then engage with the reason for that surprise and the outcomes for it. So, no, absolutely, use the tools you've got, use what you've got and as Rita said, use who you've got.
NC: Well I think you've all made the case very well for learning professionals to be more open minded and creative, to devise programs that have this one particular thing in common, that they incorporate an element of surprise. I think we've learnt it's all about disarming people, instilling a sense of wonder and a spirit of inquiry and as David said at the beginning, it needs to be right from the get go when you work with people. Now I should say there's a learning methods fact sheet and some other resources on the CIPD website to get you started on some of this. But we'd like to thank Andy Hoang of Beyond Blocks, Rita Isaac and David Hayden from CIPD. Until next time, from me, Nigel Cassidy and all of us here, it's goodbye.
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