Discovering the Future through Learning

Discovering the Future through Learning

Discovering the future through learning

Guided Discovery is a structured and systematic process that enables your business and your employees to cross the gap from the past to the future.

Danela Ezekiel (GP Strategies) & Jonathan Yudelowitz 

The key to a successful transformation from past to future resides with your employees – with their hard-won wisdom and experience. A process of Guided Discovery – respecting them as responsible adults – will reveal what they – and your business – need to unlearn and leave behind, and what skills and knowledge they need to learn, so that they take on the future with confidence. Guided Discovery is a dialogue between the old and the new, between what has worked and what will work.

There is an unspoken belief that change means unlearning. This is not completely true. What your business knows is invaluable. Your past will inform your future in ways you cannot appreciate right now. The vast amount of wisdom and experience, far from being baggage that you will ditch on the side of the road, will help you bridge the gap into the future.

No matter what the challenge, we hardly ever start afresh, as if the past is of no value at all. On the contrary, we piggyback, all the time, on the past.

There is a way to systematically access the wisdom and experience in your business to make them relevant alongside what is new. They reside, in large measure, in your employees, the people you will be asking to cross the gap with you. What will be valuable for the road ahead is waiting to be drawn out of them – and put to good use.

Is it easier said than done?

  • What process or strategy will work, not in theory, but with the very real quirks, challenges, and context of your business?
  • How do you make sure that the original intention of that process or strategy is not lost or corrupted when it is implemented? You don’t want it to become devoid of meaning, but you do want to optimise the value of the insights and ongoing situational and practical learning that arise from its implementation.
  • How do you respect the role of the designer, originator or expert, whilst harnessing the opinions and context-specific insights of your people who will be using it?
  • How do you bridge the many gaps – between designer and user; decision-maker and implementor; expert and generalist? The gaps must be negotiated and dealt with deliberately.

Interrogate in a deliberate and systematic way.

You cannot interpret your challenges in haphazardly, carried away by your enthusiasm. You need to be responsible and measured.

Your context is everything.

Change does not happen in a vacuum. A new way of doing things cannot appear out of a manual or from a glorious case study from the other side of the world. A one-size-fits-all strategy is inadequate. Your business must factor in the nitty-gritty of its own real-life context.

  • Why the change and why now?
  • How is this different from what others were doing and what came before?
  • How do we avoid crude measurables by finding the most appropriate ways of tracking real progress?

 Guided discovery – the way to get there.

Adults take on new skills when they embark on a journey of guided discovery. Respect your people for what they already know. Together, you will discover what your business – with its very specific context – needs to learn. And, to be clear, what it needs to learn, needs to be learnt not only by your employees, but also by you. You don’t yet know what it is you need to know.

Overcome anxiety. Create curiosity.

Your people are anxious. Not only about the future, but about their own ability to reinvent themselves for it. Are they about to become obsolete?

Upskilling is the answer, of course, but that comes with its own challenges. Anxiety is the key signal that things are changing and that one needs to adapt. If anxiety is denied or explained away, it will overwhelm or immobilise people. If it is properly channelled, it sharpens their wits; especially about what to avoid or what may be at stake.  Anxiety thereby becomes an integral part of the learning process, together with curiosity. Guided Discovery ensures this will happen.

Guided Discovery engages people’s curiosity and their enthusiasm for the new. It is of enormous value for your people to know that they, themselves, are key to the future of your business.

Neither ‘pure discovery’ nor ‘didactic discovery’ work.

Pure discovery – leaving employees to their own devices, in an unstructured learning process, does not work. The hope that they will find their way is naïve and wishful. But, at the opposite extreme, you dare not instruct adults as if they are back at school. You cannot stand over them and say, “This is what you will do from now on.” They respond as children and teenagers do, by rebelling or withdrawing.

Learning and upskilling need to be systematic.

Guided Discovery provides the best of pure didactic and pure self-discovery. It is a systematic process, a dialogue between the existing and the new. It allows both parties – expert and learner, manager and employee – to find out how a new way of doing things relates to what they already know. It is grounded in David Kolb’s experiential learning work. In brief, there are five logical steps.

  • Encourage an employee to experiment with something new. They may fail overall, but they will succeed in some way. That’s important. Trying something new is not enough without learning the art of observing and using the insight gained from refreshing your initial approach.
  • Get them to reflect on their observations. Ask them where they need guidance. How can they improve? But also, how can their coach improve?
  • Look at the rules. In context, rules and procedures now make sense. How do they help? The old and the new are compared and contrasted. Your people will now apply their own judgement in ways they are not normally taught.
  • Get them to try again, this time with new insight. It will transform their engagement with the new systems and processes. They will feel empowered and will perform with clarity, intentionality and reliability.
  • Eureka! The result will be a series of inspiring moments when they get it.

When learners face something new for the first time, they often have two problems. One, the subject matter may appear to be complex, even if it is not. Two, they encounter concepts that defy clear definition purely because they are new.

With Guided Discovery, learners interact with their manager / expert throughout the upskilling experience. They ask questions that access the manager / expert’s tacit knowledge – knowledge they didn’t even know would be useful to the learners. The learners literally learn from their experience, without having to repeat their mistakes. (Of course, mistakes are unavoidable and often useful in their own right.)

Learning won’t happen by default.

You could say that learners guide themselves through the experience of discovery. They discover for themselves what they need to learn – and how to learn it. Learning is not an innate skill – the ways of learning need to be made overt. Learners’ own judgement of what they need to understand creates the difference between mediocrity and excellence, allowing them to be agile and adapt what they have learnt to new contexts.

But there is another benefit to the Guided Discovery methodology – this time for the manager or expert. The process helps them make explicit subtle design principles they hadn’t realised had informed their judgement. It helps them pass on those refinements that distinguish mastery from mere competence.

Guided Discovery is however not a silver bullet. It is a process of respectful engagement. It takes time. It requires discipline and thoroughness. But when it is followed, your employees become part of the conversation. They feel motivated, not intimidated.

You need active participants, not passive recipients.

When you engage your employees with respect, as valued travellers on your journey, they become active participants in creating the knowledge you need. They are treated, in a word, as adults. Intelligent, experienced, responsible people who have something new to learn, with an important role to play, particularly in times of discontinuity.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  W.B. Yeats


What could possibly go wrong?

Even the smallest “No” can prevent the successful implementation of a new process. Ask your people what could go wrong. This vital step in the process allows them to say the unsayable, to voice the politically incorrect. You will get an insight into the small, seemingly inconsequential “No’s” that could prevent your entire upskilling programme from rolling forward. They, in turn, experience a catharsis because they have been open and honest.

Are we there yet?

Understanding what the outcome needs to be is not difficult but agreeing on the indicators of progress are needs more focus. What exactly are the indicators? Are people on track? Again, if you treat your employees as adults, you will empower them to internalise a way of checking their own indicators of success without constantly needing feedback from a manager.

What your business already knows will empower you.

As a business leader, you face a perennial challenge. How do you move forward into a future that will be markedly different in some respects, remarkably similar in others, and you have no idea which will be which?

Whatever the future, you must lead the way. You must prepare, participate and shape. And when you do, it is reassuring to know that what your people already know is a great base from which to work – they will empower you.

As Margaret Haffenen asserts in her recent book Unchartered, “Without a sense of the past, we cannot have a sense of the future. It’s how our brains operate. We draw from the past to imagine what lies ahead.”


Sign up for the free webinar on Guided Discovery: the method and philosophy in the next upcoming weeks.