Last week, I published the second of my three-part series of “gentle rants” on facilitating learning in groups. The title was, “Documenting Is Not Learning.”
That piece was widely shared on various social media channels, and it also stirred up some controversy. A few of my close colleagues raised their eyebrows when they saw my title. One of those colleagues was Dave Gray.
On my personal blog, I described how I know Dave, why I respect him so much, and what I’ve learned from him over the years. His credentials — founder of XPLANE, author of Gamestorming and The Connected Company, creator of Boardthing — are impressive, but they don’t do him justice. Dave is a great thinker, practitioner, learner, and teacher. He has a deep understanding of collaboration and innovation, and he is a brilliant visual thinker. These are what his notes look like:
He might claim that this is a polished version, but I have seen his “rough” notes, and they look essentially the same.
Dave read my post, and he understood and agreed with my overall message. But he rightfully had a beef with my title, and he called me out on it. I felt like I needed to write a followup post to clarify what I meant, but I thought it would be much more fun to have a conversation with Dave on this and related topics, and to let the content of that conversation essentially become the post.
Yesterday, we spent about an hour talking on a public Google Hangout. (The video of our conversation is below.) To my delight, we had about six people listening in (including my wonderful and wise colleagues Nancy White, Seb Paquet, Beth Kanter, and Natalie Dejarlais), and we all took collective notes using Boardthing. I want to highlight a few points here.
Documenting Is Learning!
In my quest to make my title punchy and provocative, it lost importance nuance. The process of documenting is absolutely a great way to learn for the person doing the documenting. I tried to make that point in my post:
Externalizing our knowledge can be a valuable way for individuals to reflect and internalize, but it’s only valuable for peers and colleagues if they take the time to absorb it.
It’s even more powerful when the act of documenting becomes a collective process, which is what was happening during our conversation on Boardthing.
My rant was essentially about people’s assumptions about why or how artifacts that result from documentation can be valuable for learning. In my conversation with Dave, I shared the three dimensions in which I think about artifacts:
- Transcriptive. A detailed, chronological capture of a discussion or thought process. The video below is an example of a transcriptive artifact.
- Interpretive. A synthesis of a discussion or thought process. This blog post is more interpretive than transcriptive, but it’s still somewhat transcriptive. The same goes for the resulting Boardthing from our conversation. (That also gets special status, because it was collectively as opposed to individually created.) Dave’s image, on the other hand, is highly interpretive and not very transcriptive.
- Evocative. Something emotional that triggers a memory. I told a story about how my photographs from various projects often serve a more useful role in triggering learning than my writing, because they elicit an emotional response. I probably pay more attention to Dave’s idea stream than to other colleague’s because his notes are so evocative.
Focusing too much on the transcriptive and interpretive dimensions of documentation prevents you from designing effective learning processes.
(As an aside, understanding and experimenting with the role that artifacts play in high-performance collaboration is a foundational question for me. I’ll write more about it in future posts.)
Dave and I talked a lot about the nature of learning and knowledge. The truth is that learning is wonderfully messy and contextual, and it’s often done best with others. Attempting to abstract learning into a series of information transactions is not only wrong, it’s harmful.
Dave described how Visual Thinking School (one of the inspirations for Changemaker Bootcamp) came about at his previous company, XPLANE. As an experiment in encouraging more cross-organizational and enjoyable learning, they had decided to designate two-hours a week for people to learn from each other. They wanted to make it optional, but they also wanted to demonstrate a real, organizational commitment to the experiment.
They decided to schedule it on Thursdays from 4pm to 6pm, which meant half of it was during work hours, but the other half was on people’s personal time. They also told managers not to schedule meetings during this time, so that people’s calendars would be clear to attend if they so choose.
Listening to Dave describe the thinking behind Visual Thinking School felt like a case study in how to design effective learning processes. It wasn’t about trying to get people to write down what was in their heads. It was all about creating a delightful space in which learning could happen, facilitating stronger relationships within the company, and focusing on the true nature of craft.
We ended our conversation the way we started — exploring the realities of how we learn. I told Dave about how my parents would always say to me when I was growing up, “We don’t want you to make the mistakes that we did.” Later in my adult life, I decided that I disagreed with this. Sometimes, you absolutely do want people to make the same mistakes, because that can be the best way to learn. You just want to minimize the negative effects of making them.
In response, Dave shared a story about the four kinds of horses that he used to tell to his students who were failing his class:
- The first kind learns to run effortlessly.
- The second kind learns when it sees the shadow of the whip.
- The third kind learns when it first feels the sting of the whip.
- The fourth kind only learns when the sting of the whip sinks into the very marrow of its bones.
Everyone envies the first kind of horse, but only the fourth kind truly understands what it means to run in the very marrow of its bones. There is something deep and wonderful about that kind of learning, painful though it may be.
Many thanks to Dave for provoking this wonderful conversation and to all of my friends and colleagues who engaged with us on our call and on social media!