Behavioral scientist and operations expert, Dr. Bradley Staats is a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. With a focus on learning and analytics, he integrates work in operations management and human behavior to understand how to improve individual, team, and organizational performance.
He’s also a speaker and author of the award-winning book, Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself and Thrive, which is essentially an operating manual for becoming an effective learner and thriving in the new world of work.
In this episode – recorded down the road from Leading Learning headquarters at Kenan-Flagler Business School in Chapel Hill – Jeff and Brad discuss key concepts from his book, including the idea that we are our own worst enemies when it comes to learning, and what we can do to overcome this. They also talk about the important roles of authenticity, curiosity and humility when it comes to leading and learning.
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Listen to the Show
Read the Show Notes
[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Jeff interviews Dr. Bradley Staats, author of Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself and Thrive.
[01:56] – You might consider the reflections questions below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull a team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- Early in the interview Brad makes the point that, when it comes to learning, we are often our own biggest enemy. As you listen, consider ways in which you may be creating barriers to your own learning. What steps might you take to remove those barriers?
- Later in the interview Brad offers his advice on how to design and facilitate learning experiences in a way that will help participants be better learners. To what extent are you following his advice? What else are you doing to empower your learners?
[03:05] – Introduction to Brad and some additional information about his background.
A Focus on Individual Learning
[04:09] –I spent a lot of time in business schools in the past (a couple decades ago), and at that point there may have been a focus on something like organizational learning but I don’t recall the focus on individual or team learning—that seems like a new wave that’s coming along. Is that right? Is it becoming more mainstream or are you sort of an outlier?
Brad says there has been organizational learning work through the years but what we’ve seen over the past decade plus, is an appreciation that organizational learning comes from individuals.
He talks about how he fell in love with the learning topic as an MBA student when he saw operational improvement with the Toyota Production System. This offered a way to help people do their work better and this kind of “people and process” intersection has a small segment that is in it deeply. But there are a number of people scattered throughout the world that see just how important it is to help people be successful to (hopefully) lead to organizational success as well.
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Challenges Related to Learning
[06:33] –As you point out in Never Stop Learning, most of us just aren’t all that good at learning. Can you explain what you mean by that? Why that is such a problem?
Brad admits this is something that has fascinated him and much of his research is kind of “me-search” of stuff he does wrong and wants to try and fix.
He points out that you can put the best processes in place (this is what has worked elsewhere, this is what will lead people to learn) but then we see it doesn’t work for an individual.
So we have this challenge that when it comes to learning, we are often our own biggest enemy.
When it comes to why this is, he says there’s nuance in each of the individual practices, but fundamentally we focus on getting things done, on the short term, where learning is frequently an investment. It sometimes means we need to slow down to go fast in the long run. And we have to make ourselves uncomfortable.
We often have a bias against learning, which we – individually and organizationally – have to try to fight against.
Becoming a Better Learner
[07:56] – I would characterize Never Stop Learning as basically an exploration of how we stop being bad at learning. We obviously can’t cover the whole book but what are some of the practices/techniques covered or just some areas where people need to be a little more conscious to become better learners?
Brad starts by talking about process and outcome. We often focus on whether something worked (also called an outcome bias). If it worked well, we think we followed a good process and if it worked poorly, we followed a bad process.
What effective learners recognize is that it’s about the decision, about the process, rather than what just happened. He does a lot of teaching around analytics and says what’s fascinating about it is that even if you do everything right, you’re typically not guaranteeing your success, rather you’re increasing your likelihood of success. And this is a nice way to think about learning in general.
One of the tools that Brad is increasingly a fan of is a decision journal or process journal. The idea being that when you’re working, you can lay out why you think something is going to work and what your rationale is. This can improve the work before you submit it and then after the fact you actually have something to compare it to. So you can try to be a little more rigorous in your After Action Review (AAR) because of what you’ve done beforehand.
See our related episodes, After Action Review of the Leading Learning Symposium, Part I and After Action Review for 2017 Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD) for a couple examples of the AAR process.
Brad further explains that there’s kind of a before and after self. And what’s interesting about learning is that after something occurs, we forget some amount of that before and have motivated reasoning to forget it. So separating before and after can really help the cause.
Reflection and Learning
[11:24] – So there’s definitely a healthy dose of reflection involved (and reflection is something you get into quite a bit in the book)?
Brad says a learning leader is a reflective leader. A learning leader is an acting leader too so we can’t completely tie ourselves up into being a thinker. And his research showed that most people don’t think enough.
He shares about a study they did around reflection and how it showed that the group that was asked to engage in reflection (15 minutes for 2 weeks out of a 6 week program), performed about 25% better on a test at the end. They also performed better operationally as well.
As they’ve studied reflection in lots of different examples, they’ve found that people tend not to want to do it and try to avoid it. But Brad says it’s such an important piece of what you did, what you learned, and how to put it together.
The Power of Authenticity
[12:43] – Is there anything you’ve come across in your research – whether for this book or otherwise – that you find surprising about things we should be doing to help ourselves learn but we’re not doing (like reflection)? Or maybe just aren’t aware of?
Brad discusses how interesting it is that we often know we should do something or that it’s powerful but just don’t make time for it in our day. But the one that’s surprised him the most is the power of authenticity—the power of being ourselves.
He discusses a research study they did around onboarding and how they were asked by the company to help reduce attrition immediately. In the study, they randomly assigned people to three conditions: the control group (employees joining on day 1 that got the same onboarding process), a group that got a treatment that was an hour the first day but was focused on the individual, and a group that was similar but focused on the organization instead.
The study showed a 30% difference in people staying at the firm six months later who had gone through the individual condition. Brad admits it blew him away that they effect was so big and that it worked. But it shows that we have such a need to be ourselves and learning is such an empowering way to do that.
But sometimes that gets beat out of us (figuratively), or we don’t give ourselves that freedom. He says this study was eye opening and shows what an opportunity this is to hopefully make some lives better.
Jeff notes that this reminds him of Carol Dweck’s work because beyond growth vs. fixed mindset, it’s all about the belief in yourself—that you’re worthy and able to do it. And that’s somewhere baked into that whole idea of authenticity.
See our related episode, Maximizing Learning with Mindset.
Brads adds that there’s two pieces he’d tie with this—the analogy of the Little Engine That Could and the recognition that finding what we want to do/finding our passion is an exploration, a development process. And the mindset work tells us that since improvement is constant, if we find things we like then we start getting better at them and then we can figure out if we keep wanting to make that investment. So it goes back to that iterative loop, which he says is so important.
[18:07] – Another area you cover in the book, particularly relevant for Leading Learning listeners who often plan events focused on learning, are the challenges of learning from/with others. Can you comment on that?
Brad points out there are a few things going on but we often think about learning as an individual sport sometimes, especially if you went through the U.S. educational system. What we recognize is that while there’s clearly this component for individual learning (things like reflection), our eventual success is so dependent on that interaction with others.
He discusses how they’ve done a bunch of work looking at teams/team learning, and what they see again and again is that team performance is driven as much and sometimes more by that coordination piece—that if you work with someone repeatedly, your chance of success goes up dramatically.
So that goal of how to bring more of this in and help participants realize it’s not just trying to make work for or entertain them. There’s that natural pushback to think learning is about “me”. But Brad points out, learning is about you andabout “us”.
Taking an Amateur Mindset
[20:33] – What can possibly be done to motivate people to interact with others in productive ways to make that group learning experience more productive?
Brad suggests a few ways to do this:
- Awareness– seeing and hearing how vital this interaction is to success.
- Try to change your mindset– really successful learners/experts are willing to take an amateur mindset to try and learn what they don’t already know.
He also talks about how the more we learn, the more connections we see. So as we’re learning, we’re taking the blinders off. And even if something new wasn’t created, it’s new to us. This is where really successful experts differ because as we learn more there’s this big push to being specialized or narrow, which is important because we need depth.
But we also have to be willing to ask that question about what we don’t know, what’s going to be important going forward, and how not to get blindsided. And one of the tricks is trying to approach things like an amateur, which can often spark some really interesting questions.
Jeff notes that this brings to mind his recent interview with Wanda Wallace about the expert leader versus the spanning leader. It also brings to mind this combination of humility and curiosity, something discussed in our interview with Dr. Francesca Gino, who actually works quite often with Brad.
Brad shares about a big project he’s working on with Francesca for a multinational consulting firm regarding their leadership model and trying to understand what effective (and ineffective) leadership is. And two of the key elements they’re talking about are curiosity and humility.
Brad says there’s been some very cool work out recently on the topic and he’s reasonably confident this is a thread that’s going to take off.
While self-confidence is clearly important, we have to be comfortable leaning in and trying new things. As we get higher in organizations, the confidence kind of comes on it’s own…but do you have the humility to admit you might be wrong, to ask what you don’t know, and model the right practices when you fail? What we see is effective leaders have that—and certainly effective learning leaders are going to have that.
Helping Customers Be Better Learners
[25:56] – What are some of your top tips for designers of learning events/sellers of learning experiences for helping their customers be better learners?
Brad recommends the following:
- Be very clear about your learning objectives. He quotes Dwight Eisenhower saying, “planning is everything, the plan is nothing.” We often have incredibly long planning documents, but did we actually start with, when they leave here what do we want them to do differently? And actually push ourselves to answer that rigorously. Then having that as a theme throughout.
- Measure the learning. Ask questions before and after—and hopefully see a difference because your programming has lined up to that point.
- While some sessions will be very explicitly about that theme, think about how to incorporate that and others so the thread carries through.
Technology and Learning
[29:19] – What’s your perspective on technology helping us be better learners?
Brad thinks we’re in the midst of figuring all of that out. He talks about how technology can nudge us for the right behaviors (setting reminders, goal commitment devices, etc.) and then we also get into more of the immersive technologies and he says those get really exciting.
At Kenan-Flagler Business School, they’re doing a lot with video-based tools and virtual reality. Brad admits he is absolutely a technology optimist. But the one cautionary note he makes is that sometimes we have technology without that underlying plan of what we’re trying to learn/what are we actually doing so we end up with the bells and whistles without the core content.
[31:37] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education?
Brad shares about his experience completing a summer internship for his MBA, which opened his eyes to the value in closing doors (what he now calls “hypothesis testing”). He had an idea of what he thought would work, tried it, and it didn’t. This kind of rejection of a hypothesis is important because effective learners come up with a hypothesis and they look to reject it, not to confirm it.
He recommends you think about whatever work you’re doing right now, what’s the hypothesis that sits behind the path you’re going down, and how could you reject it—and if you don’t, then keep going as you look to get better.
[34:05] –How to connect with Brad and/or learn more:
[34:39] – Wrap-Up
- When it comes to learning, we are often our own biggest enemy. Consider ways in which you may be creating barriers to your own learning. What steps might you take to remove those barriers?
- To what extent are you following Brad’s advice on how to design and facilitate learning experiences in a way that will help participants be better learners? What else are you doing to empower your learners?
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[36:54] – Sign off