Tag Archives: Kolb Learning Cycle

Work Cultures–Not Like Amazon

fish jumpingWhen I read the recent New York Times piece on Amazon’s ferocious work culture, I felt sad– because it isn’t only Amazon. Americans are working harder, longer, and under fiercer pressures. Instead of being wowed by Amazon’s growth and dominance, let’s create workplaces where:

  • Work is creative and challenging AND
  • Values and practices support developing people
  • Policy and practice support balance.

Here’s a key: in organizations where work IS learning, work will be creative, and talent management will emphasize growth and development. What do I mean by “work IS learning?” Coming to work everyday, you tackle tasks that ask you to create, analyze, decide, plan, and act. If you intentionally think about how you will do a task, reflect on what you’ve done, and then ask questions like, “what can I do the same, differently, better, etc.?” that’s learning. And it doesn’t take extra time. If, as a supervisor, you are encouraging others’ learning, you help them work smarter and perform better.

David Kolb, the master of learning, says, “The process of experiencing with awareness to create meaning and make choices is what we call deliberate experiential learning. Deliberate learning requires…a personal understanding of one’s unique way of learning from experience and the ability to intentionally direct and control one’s learning. In short, one needs to be in charge of their learning to be in charge of their life.” (D. A. Kolb, 2015)

You take full charge of this learning by:

  • Understanding how learning happens
  • Knowing your unique way of learning
  • Tracking where you are on the Learning Cycle throughout the day
  • Making intentional choices about where on the Cycle to move to.

Understanding how learning happens
The Learning Cycle describes an orderly process for learning. To help our clients picture the Cycle, Kay Peterson and I show it as a compass.

Compass-4-Modes small image

The orderly process of learning goes like this. Moving clockwise, you:

  • Have experiences—due North on the Compass
  • Reflect on the experience, facing East
  • Step back, think, and reach conclusions, facing South
  • Decide what to do next and then initiate these actions, facing West.

To further illustrate how the Learning Cycle works, try this experiment. Re-read Kolb’s quote. Reading the quote is an example of what Kolb means by “experiencing with awareness.” We’ll use this mindful experience to prompt learning. Re-read Kolb’s quote now.

Ready to practice going around the Learning Cycle? Here is a guide:

  • What, if anything, struck you—both individual words or phrases in the quote, and also your own thoughts or feelings. You are now facing East on the Compass, where meaning-making begins with reflection.
  • Mentally sort through your reflections on the quote. What do they suggest? How do they relate to your work, to opportunities for your growth, and to yourself as a leader/role model? As you answer these questions, you are moving South, to “Thinking,” which involves analyzing and reaching conclusions.
  • Because Kolb is inviting us to be more intentional about learning, what is one thing you will do more of, less or, or differently? Now you are facing Compass West.

Knowing your unique way of learning
Thanks to Kolb, everybody in your workplace can “understand one’s unique way of learning.” The Kolb Learning Style Inventory 4.0 (KLSI 4.0) tells you about your learning style. The nine style preferences are habitual places we start from—like default modes on a computer. Unlike the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, for example, which uses complicated terms and four-letter Type codes that take awhile to understand, or Emergenetics, which uses color codes that users have to memorize, KLSI 4.0 is both profound and accessible. You can readily see how you typically operate in relation to other people. You can also learn to use the capabilities of every style. To use the compass metaphor, you can orient from any direction on the Compass, depending upon what a particular work situation calls for.

Tracking where you are on the Learning Cycle
Kolb is asking us to be explorers, noticing ourselves as both the subject of our experiences and an intriguing object of study. Understanding your learning style immediately helps you recognize the way you habitually operate. Once you notice how you operate, you can, following the the Learning Cycle, see and make better choices.

Nellie’s preferred style (called “Imagining”) accounts for the ease with which she thinks of possibilities and opportunities in almost every kind of situation. In a coaching session, Nellie uses her style to explore a frequent work challenge: When she faces a high stakes decision in her work as Director of Development, she easily imagines a hundred possible paths, and then has trouble deciding and acting. In my coaching sessions with Nellie, we co-create ways for her to practice deciding and acting.

Making intentional choices about where on the Cycle to move to

When Atul’s KLSI shows that he prefers quick and sure decision making (called the “Deciding” style), he understands why he gets so impatient when, as he tells me, “a meeting has too much process.” As teammates on an IT project, COO Nellie and Atul learn that they prefer styles that are exactly opposite. Now they see why they get impatient with each other in meetings. Acknowledging that there are times when he knows his decisions are rash, Atul gets curious about Nellie’s strong suit– Imagining. As for Nellie, she realizes she could use Atul as a resource when she gets stuck in a popcorn popper of possibilities.

Use the Learning Cycle and learning styles to help people take charge of their work. Doing so will energize them and expand the power of work–throughout your organization.

Take Time to Save Time

Where does all the time go? Not enough of it, too much good work to do, and the pace of change is fast.

shutterstock_207716527With such challenges, can we make space for “think time” so we learn from successes and missteps? Here’s the thing: if we DON’T make this space, we risk working in the same worn grooves and getting stuck in the same ruts.

A paradox: take time to save time

My experience is that making a space for reflection can actually SAVE time. How? Well, first of all, reflecting and analyzing are a practice, like doing yoga or playing an instrument. We get better when we have a disciplined approach.

My colleague Kay Peterson and I teach a framework that helps people:

  • Understand day-to-day work dilemmas, successes, and missteps.
  • Get perspective on one’s actions by seeing how we get stuck, find new choices, and move toward action.
  • Do things better next time–and continually learning over time.

Use a compass to navigate

We use a new version of David and Alice Kolb’s Learning Cycle (2011). We call the Cycle the Learning Compass because it helps us navigate. The Compass helps us quickly locate where we are, on-the-spot, experience by experience. Then it helps us decide which direction to move toward without either idling or racing our motors.

The Learning Compass shows four main directions, North, East, South, and West. These correspond to the four ways we learn, by experiencing reflecting, thinking, and acting. (There are actually nine “styles” or directions embedded in the compass–but that’s for another blog post.)

Compass-4-Modes small image
The Learning Compass

We begin in the North with an experience that is direct and concrete. Moving clockwise to the East, we reflect on this experience, for instance by thinking about our assumptions and how we feel, and noticeing the experience from different perspectives.

When we are ready to use more rational analysis of the experience, we move toward the South. In the southern hemisphere, we form a plan for our next actions. Moving around to the West, we take action, the result of which is a new experience that returns us to the North. A new cycle begins.

How Holly used the Compass

My client Holly recently told me about a perplexing work dilemma. She invited an employee to a planning meeting, and her offer was rebuffed. Because the meeting concerned the employee’s future at the company, Holly wanted to do all she could to lead in the very best way. The Learning Compass gave us a map for working through the situation.

Since the experience with her employee, in the Compass North, Holly had been turning the experience over and over, wondering what to do. She realized that she was getting stuck in the Compass East, in reflection. At the same time, as Holly told her story, I noticed that she kept pushing herself to find a quick solution, in other words, toward action, in the Compass West. Holly knows she is a doer–that’s one of the reasons she’s an effective COO, but in this case she was uncomfortable with the one choice of action she kept coming back to.

I suggested that we move back to the Eastern hemisphere of the Compass, to reflection. She played with looking at her encounter from different perspectives. She got curious about her feelings and indecision. Before long, she began to come up with more choices for what to do. Following her energy, I encouraged Holly to “move South” on the Compass, where she could decide which option made sense. This question resonated: “Going into the next meeting, which choice(s) will give you the greatest satisfaction that you’ve been your best self as a leader?”

Holly decided pretty quickly. She was ready for action, in the Compass West. After trying out this action, Holly can “debrief” the experience on her own because the Compass, with its different ways of learning, is easy to remember and use.