The power of learning questions

The most applicable, useful and sustainable learning is question based learning. This is learning that is inspired and organized by the natural evolution of people's questions.

When people learn how to form and act from their learning questions, they are intrinsically motivated to learn. Learning becomes a natural driver of sustainable performance improvement. When people are continuously learning, they work with a growth mindset. Teams and organizations only grow when people work with a growth mindset. Our best people begin their job search on LinkedIn as soon as it's clear they can no longer learn.

Learning questions can focus on new levels of work-related knowledge, skills, abilities or qualities. They can address anything people want to get better at, make easier to do or have more impact in. They can take on many forms:

  • How can I...? 
  • What would it look like to...? 
  • How many ways are there to...? 
  • What are best ways to...? 
  • What do I need to know about...? 
  • What don't I know about...? 

It takes very little time to teach people how to translate their work experiences, feedback and outcomes into new learning questions.  

We make formal learning more relevant and useful by basing on people's learning questions. We make collaborative learning spaces and learning marketplaces more dynamic and useful when people know how to share their learning questions and support these with new insights, supports and resources.

When people work with learning questions, they work with passion. Their potential becomes unlimited.  

Why leaders can be unrealistic

Given the wide range of tangible and intangible costs of being an unrealistic leader, why would leaders make a habit of this path? 

Sometimes they are unaware. They think they're being realistic because their actions align with their beliefs. When their beliefs go unquestioned, they can be unrealistic and not know it. If our beliefs are firmly formed, it becomes less possible to even know when we're actually wrong, or right. 

It can be the good fortune of success. Narcissistic leaders believe their expectations are the root cause of whatever success happens in their world. This is incentive to never question how realistic their beliefs are, reinforcing the delusion that if they see success their expectations by definition must be realistic,

When people they have power over passively succumb in compliance to their unrealistic expectations, they can inaccurately conclude that their expectations must be realistic because no one questions them.  

Until they find out for themselves what are more realistic expectations, they will be unrealistic leaders. When they become even slightly curious about other perspectives, hope lives. 

The assessment and impact of mindsets

One of the simplest ways to assess for growth and fixed mindsets is to ask people what about their work they think they could get better at and what they think they can't get better at. The former reveals their growth mindset and the latter reveals their fixed mindset. 

What's important is helping them have realistic expectations about each. In some cases they need to discover they in fact can get better at things they feel are outside their control or not adaptable to learning. This discovery empowers them more in their work.

Realistic Leadership

As much lip service leaders give to squeezing the most out of their people, the vast majority of employees worldwide are significantly disengaged and work without passion. People daily fuel their hope for escape to greener pastures on LinkedIn. This cuts across industries and professions, education and salary levels. No amount of management bribes have the power to prevent or turnaround the disloyalty from work that fails to engage joy.

In this world, people don’t do their best. Low engagement and passion mean low levels of creativity, collaboration and learning.

After decades of coaching leaders and teaching graduate level leadership, I’m inclined to take an emphatically compassionate approach to the problem as a leadership problem. Leaders who struggle to be effective do not have bad teams. They are not bad people or bad leaders. They are simply unrealistic. Fortunately, being realistic is a learnable mindset and skillset.

Realistic leaders work from realistic expectations. This creates credibility with everyone they interact with. They work from agreements rather than assumptions, resulting in the kind of trustworthiness that gives them a natural charisma of influence. They don’t struggle or falter in unrealistic plans. Best of all, their wide open eyes and heart see more possibilities than other leaders who are otherwise unrealistic. Realistic leaders understand the power of being so.


Empathy rules

Empathy plays a vital part in the impact of products and services. That things work as promised matters. Just as, if not more, importantly is that they solve the real problems of real people. This is where technology meets sociology. Everyone contributes well when emotional intelligence is strong.

Growth without goals

As much credit as we ascribe to goals for organizational success, goal achievement is more rare and not definitively related to happiness at work. The failure rate of performance stretch goals in organizations is around 90%. People feeling like they’re failing 90% of the time leads instead to lower performance. 

Harvard researchers indicate that recognition of progress not success is most related to meaningful and engaging work. As much as we hope goals inspire us, every day we don’t reach our goals, we are failing. Progress is different. Progress is possible every day.

Ironically, progress doesn’t necessarily require measurable goals. It can be a function of four key questions: 

  • What’s the good we want to see? 
  • What would represent progress towards that now? 
  • What strengths and habits can we grow and strengthen to support progress?
  • When and how can we identify our progress and learning from it? 

Exceeding what would have been a goal becomes possible with progress that has no end. 

Those darn millennials

A leader recently unloaded her frustration about the millennials on her team she finds suprisingly rigid and resistant to change. Her tone spoke to a sense of being betrayed by their careless disloyalty to her position. Among other things, there are many assumptions and agendas at work here. Her question is the old question of “How can I get them on board?” After all, they’re supposed to be young risk takers. Right?

If I was coaching her, I would offer a different question: What does it mean to engage people as co-authors of meaningful change?  And there are others. What would they love to see possible in their work going out as far into the future as they want? How would they critique changes in their areas that have and haven’t worked well? Are there any forms of acceptable failure from experiments possible in their work?

The deep work in teams

The deep work in teams is trust.  

Trust is complex. When trust is perceived as a condition dependent feeling, it can feel non-actionable. Trust matters because teams move at the speed of trust. If you want to accelerate anything about a team, you have to grow trust within the team.

We now know how to do this. 

We teach teams to work by trust building agreements rather than by tension building assumptions. We teach them to share stories of struggle and progress that grow their sense of mutual connection and belonging. We teach them how to use social technologies to become more inclusive and transparent together. All of these build trust. This is the deep work of teams.

Strengths-based leadership development

In a strengths-based approach to leadership development, we engage and align existing abilities in new ways. We come from the reality that when leaders grow, it's because they have learned how six things:

  • How to understand leadership as an art in order to identify areas of leadership impactable by learning
  • How to form new learning questions focused on their interests in growing their leadership as art
  • How to get feedback on where they are succeeding and progressing in their learning questions
  • How to work on their learning questions by combining existing abilities in new ways
  • How to to turn new combinations of abilities into new habits
  • How to make new habits more normative for leaders by creating agreements on engaging them

The alternative to role playing

The idea of role playing is to simulate an interaction for the purpose of practicing specific skills. It's useful when we have discrete interaction skills to practice and master, like presenting specific kinds of information or asking specific kinds of questions. 

When we want to help people learn more than mimicry, we use Scenario Mapping. We use selected scenarios to map out five key interaction elements.

  • What to expect and prep for
  • What to listen for
  • What information and questions to share
  • What could go wrong and responses
  • What to follow up and follow through on

This helps people form a mindful and agile approach to new, complex and challenging interactions in their work. The most important part of the process is the learning based critique following live practice in real interactions. A learning based critique is structured around 6 questions:

  • What went well and why?
  • What was unexpected? 
  • When did you feel most and least confident? 
  • What do you know and assume about how well you did? 
  • Could you get better feedback on how well you did in the future? 
  • Based in what you learned, what would you do or try differently? 



Managing perceived work overload

What does it mean when people on teams express they're overloaded? It means it's time to explore and inquire more. Here are some of the maybe's: 

  • They're not asking for or offering help enough  
  • They don't know there's a more efficient way to do things  
  • They spend more time trying to get what they need than doing what they need to do
  • They do a lot of rework because of less than useful requirements  
  • They don't spend time together experimenting with ways to accelerate work  
  • They work in a low-trust and low-freedom culture that slows things down

The more we know about actionable contributors to overload, the more we can manage it intelligently. 

What to never do in whiteboard sessions

If you want an engaging process, where people are actually smarter and better together, never have one person control the marker, no matter how smart or important they or others think they are. Make sure everyone records everything they think and say. If you want to cluster and sequence ideas later it's faster to use cards on a table as the whiteboard. This approach reduces and often completely eliminates dominating, disappearing and derailing. It keeps everyone optimally involved. 

The trust-creativity connection

Being creative together takes trust. Creativity together exists to the degree we share trust. Trust happens when we can depend on others to respond to our contributions with curiosity, appreciation and adding value to our ideas. A space of weak trust makes us less creative together. Trust is the magic of collaborative creativity, 

Why non-profits can struggle with boards

Honestly, it's because they don't always need them. 

Boards were inventions of a different age. There is no logic to the story that they should be a useful construct today. We need to keep network weaving community resources to support the success of non-profits in whatever flexible and inventive ways we can. 

Assessing growth capacity

Neuroscience makes it clear now that our brains have unlimited learning potential. When it doesn't seem that way, about ourselves or others, it's because we can have stories that we don't. We tell ourselves and each other stories that we have limits.  

Growth capacity becomes more clear to the extent we work on learning new things that matter to us. We don't know what we can do until we give time to learning and practicing. This is true for us and others. What we have done so far is not a reliable assessment of what's possible.

What to do with a boss who struggles with leadership

There are many varieties of bosses. There are those who struggle more or less just with being human beings. Some come with more baggage than they or any relationship could sustainably carry.  Some have grown into wonderful leaders skilled in helping others grow in positive ways and with positive impacts. 

When we have a struggling boss, we can  be a source of positive feedback to them. We can help them make and keep small promises. We can help them become less unconscious of when they impact their world in positive ways. We can build trust by making and keeping small promises. We can model what we want to see. None of these are magical. They simply create the conditions that can support their growth. If they don't have sufficient growth capacity we might need to move on to a boss who does.

Making learning core to performance

Learning comes in a variety of forms. There is learning of discovery, improvement, improvisation, experimentation, research, imitation, storytelling, practice, feedback and mastery. Learning is expanding our knowledge and know-how. 

When learning grows, performance grows. It's that significant. Everything we do in work can focus from an intention toward ubiquitous learning. Without exceptions. 

What we should do about our unconscious biases

We could begin arguing that biases, conscious and unconscious, protect us from the uncertainty of the unfamiliar, the stranger. They have tribal utility. 

In diverse urban social-ecosystems, biases can preclude the kind of collaboration that makes us smarter, better and faster together. People do their best when they feel included in how things work. People support and invest in what they help decide and create.

Reality is, some biases will stubbornly remain unconscious because of our belief systems. And we will have conscious biases that will stubbornly remain in tact because they override considerations of data. 

This being so, one of our choices is to include and collaborate even with people we view through the lens of inherited and invented biases. Only when we act on these purpose, whatever our feelings, can we discover what realities lie behind the confines of our assumptive prejudices. It is unrealistic to expect that bias purging can precede actions of including. 

One best way to deliver feedback

Feedback to others doesn’t need to be delivering our sincere or manipulative judgements, assessments or observations, especially when they shut down openness to learning through confidence depleting defensiveness or inflated self-esteem. 

We can deliver feedback simply by expressing what we want to see possible. It is expressed in the positive and feels to people like a fairly to mostly realistic ask. We show interest in how our ask could in any way be a concern to them. And we offer to help make it as easy as possible, unless we edit our ask to be more accommodating. 

The magic and media of instrinsic motivation

We know that one of the differences between higher and lower performers is their motivation. Higher performers tend to work with internal motivation. Lower performers who need more leading tend to work with external motivation.  

Focusing on leader praise, contests and tangible rewards fosters external motivation. Four ways to support intrinsic motivation include: storytelling, learning questions, habit building and feedback. 

In storytelling, we share stories of things done and gone well. Learning questions are the questions that represent what people want to discover, improve and master in their work. Habit building is the growth of habits that support metrics. Feedback is what supports learning questions and helps grow habits.