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How to learn at the speed of change

["In conversation with James Stanbridge" at Singapore Management University (SMU) on Friday 18th September - Singapore]

In our conversation today, I was happy to share with you some of the most important questions I have been asked during coaching/mentoring sessions. An important point right here in this paragraph – learn the relative importance of being able to ask a great question: very crudely, your career does require that you be able to find good answers, quickly; but the second half of your career will depend on how well you can formulate and ask the right questions.

"Learn at the speed of change" is the phrase I use in summary of all of these – you know by now that I subscribe fully to the idea that learning, and the ability to learn at the speed of change is each of our competitive advantage.

In 1988, Arie de Gues wrote

The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.

What does it mean to learn at the speed of change?

The generation graduating now is the first to know in advance that theirs will most likely be a "portfolio career" meaning that their degree or major will not be the basis for their job function in 10, 15, 20 years after graduation and that they will likely have 5 or more changes in job family. The significance of this is that change is a constant, a known factor. The implication of this is the need to embrace change, to be comfortable that being able to master change is a skill alongside any other.

In thinking about coaching to be able to embrace change, I know it's important to calibrate where you are in relation to the core, and the margin. Our comfort zone is when we are working at the core, the rules are well understood, process well defined and life is easy to control because there is so little margin for interpretation – it's like sitting in the middle of the orchestra – the music is written, well rehearsed and the conductor is ensuring everyone moves in a unified direction. The margin however, is where there is far less observation, definition – creativity is at the maximum as is the need for effective network and collaboration. Most importantly though, at the margin change is the most powerful currency, just look at the importance of the notion of "disruption" in today's startup language. The accountability when you are at the margin, is to always be pushing ideas and initiatives toward the core – the core needs innovation but it happens when pushed from the margin. It's more like an open mic night where you have no idea of who is going to be playing drums or sax or even singing, you are completely reliant on your own ability to collaborate, integrate and innovate.

Once you've pushed your initiative toward the core, let go and get back out to the margin – that is change.

Learn to observe your emotions and get out of your own way

Everyone else can see your emotion, the state of your emotions the moment you walk into the room – you can (and subconsciously, do) look around you right now and make a reasonable guess at the state of emotion in the people around you. It is strange that unless we learn the habit, we don't pay attention to our own state.

I frequently coach people to "get out of their own way" and what I mean by this is that when you are carrying emotions such as resigned, resentful or depressed you are choosing some outcomes and blocking the possibility of others. While we all feel these emotions – knowing that you are leading with them, that they are defining your presence and purpose at a meeting or discussion gives you a moment to make another choice. I work on bringing my playful, inspiring, hopeful self as these are the emotions I am happiest in – but learn to know your own, what you slide into and what you aspire to live in.

Learning to change in the context of vision and goal

Vision is the last thing you should change – edit and revise furiously when crafting one – but the aim of a vision should be that it expires once achieved but otherwise is a long term and persistent way-point that informs the tactical choices (goals) that you need to implement next. Goals on the other hand can be tweaked and optimized to suit the needs of achieving the vision. Time for some definitions:

Vision should be a big thought.

My favorite examples are Bill Gates and Microsoft in the 90's "to put a PC on every desktop" and J.F. Kennedy's for the Space Program, "To put a man on the moon and bring him back again".

Vision needs to be more than is currently achievable, but something that we will know and recognised when it is done. If you want to test your vision for yourself or your project – test if it makes you uncomfortable, that you don't know exactly how it will be achieved or in what timescale. The easiest tool to help refine a vision is to force yourself to simplify. Albert Einstein, Woody Guthrie and Richard Branson are all correct and I paraphrase them all – "any fool can make something more complicated, it takes a genius to make it more simple". Another great trick in thinking big is to expand the timescale – what would the impact be in 10, 100, 1,000 years?

Last thought on this, when you are creating your vision for more than yourself, make sure you are fully inclusive of everyone working toward that goal. The whole team has a right to be part of the 'critical mission'. Everyone at NASA knew they were working on the mission – no matter what their role, the vision was inclusive no matter if you were the Janitor or the Rocket Scientist.

Goals are the stepping stones to achieving a vision

The beautiful thing about goals or stepping stones on a journey is that you don't need to know every step of a journey before you set out – you just need to know the next step, and that there will be another step beyond that. I tell the story of sailing from one side of an ocean to the other – as much as you want to, it is not rational to predict the ocean currents, wind and other significant variables – but you can control when you leave the harbour and the initial heading. So many people are stuck waiting for perfect information, and never leave harbour. Set sail – get out there!

Goals do need to be achievable – Debra Chrapaty who has been my boss on several occasions in the past decade and who is a role model COO; always looks at goals a team is presenting to her and asks the whole room, "Does everyone believe these? Do we all agree we can get these done?" and she is so right. The goal after this one can be a stretch, more than we think we can do in this current step – and that's good too – but this next step must be something we believe we can do.

Develop the habit of learning at the speed of change by having a vision and goals that are appropriate to their task. At home and work.

Be authentic, be whole – especially as you embrace change

Be Authentic, be whole. A very common thread in coaching and mentoring is helping people who are struggling to be themselves, their whole selves at home and at work. This was one of the difficulties I had to overcome in my mid-career and I am both empathetic to how hard it is to do, and an evangelist for how good it feels once achieved. In talking to you guys at the beginning for your careers – if I can encourage you to be aware of this now, I can save you a lot of money with expensive executive coaches in 10-15 years time! Since change will be so close at hand, being rooted, grounded in your authentic self will be a huge help to you in bad times and hard choices.

Differentiation skills and habits to learn right now

My opening thesis is that learning at the speed of change is a competitive advantage – meaning, it will help to differentiate you from all the other talented and enthusiastic people around you, and there are few more general tips to differentiation I recommend:

I recommend you train yourself in the habit of being a "Yes, if..." person as a default behaviour. In the next meeting you are at count who the "No, because..." people are. You will most likely realise that "Yes, if" is not just a happier space to occupy, it will also be a differentiator – and a position with little competition! “Yes if…” is also likely to involve a change, a change of context or a of paradigm where “No, because” is likely to be the "don't change anything" position. As a change super athlete – “Yes, if…” should become your natural space.

You will be faced with intractable beliefs from time to time, and I recommend you learn to waste as little time as possible after you have brought the data and evidence that could reasonably change a perspective. When behaviour has been observed often enough it becomes a belief and these are hard to shift when you have limited resources to invest in them (resources such as time and energy). A little trick that works for me is to accept the belief, however outrageous it may seem to you. "OK, let's say black is actually white... but what are we going to do next? What would be the implication of this as truth?" Once you allow for someone's belief to not be the factor of contention, you can move onto discussing an agreed action more readily.

Action should always be an outcome.