Unlearning to Learn

[wp-svg-icons icon=”spinner-5″ wrap=”i”] How might we re-envision the role of schools in preparing students for the real world?  This is a question that Beaver Country Day School in the Boston area is actively considering.  To read the article that appeared in the Boston Globe, click on the link below:


Unlearning to Learn

Marga will be speaking about Unlearning at SBSW Conference

When faced with a new problem, we often rely on our old habits and past experiences to guide our decision-making process; we tap into existing schemas and leverage things we already know to reach a solution. This panel will undo all of that. We’ll explore the power of unlearning and why it’s a crucial tool that is unfortunately underutilized. Panelists will discuss questions to use in determining if you’re facing an unlearning challenge, and offer suggestions on how to unlearn an existing way of thinking that may be impeding your problem solving. What impact does unlearning have on educators? Students? Curricula? This panel will show you. Come unlearn with us.



Can reading the mind of a mind reader help with coordination?

cristal ballIn the game ” win as much as you can” the title says it all.  How you get to your goal is left up to each team.  Do you disclose information, do you cooperate, how do you know if you can trust the agreement you made? Each team gets to make a decision on how much they will cooperate in each round of the game.  The dynamic is predictable – once a member of the team makes an agreement and votes differently in public, trust is broken and figuring out the best move becomes increasingly difficult because you don’t know what the other person will do.  This type of situation happens all too often in organizations and leads to the lack of cooperation when it really matters.

A recent study co-authored by Harvard graduate student Kyle Thomas, and professors Steven Pinker, Peter DeScioli and Omar Haque, looked at the effects of common knowledge  — “the shared understanding in which two or more people know something, know that the other one knows, know the other one knows that they know, and so on — to coordinate their actions, and how people’s efforts to cooperate may fail without this infinite level of shared beliefs.”  The key to cooperation may hinge at least in part in better understanding what promotes common knowledge.

In organizational life, especially those with cross functional teams or matrix structures,coordination between individuals and groups is essential to effective performance.  Yet this performance hinges on being able to predict what the other person will do but that depends on what what you do.  So in effect we are asking managers to be mind readers.  Results of the study showed that when participants chose to keep knowledge private, only about 15% of participants chose to cooperate.  With shared knowledge, researchers found that about 50% of participants chose to cooperate.  And finally when participants had common knowledge, 85% chose to cooperate.

What opportunities do you see for establishing routines that lead to a culture of common knowledge in your organization?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Start meetings by asking what has changed or what people know now that they didn’t know at the last meeting
  • Before making decisions, go around the table and ask everyone to state what data they are using for decision making.
  • Use “thinking routines” that promote reflection and a common understanding such as “I used to think and now I think.”
  • Establish a culture where project relevant information  is readily available and shared rather than controlled by specific individuals in the organization.
  • Promote a culture that is fueled by genuine curiosity and invite participation rather than one that runs on assumptions and maintaining the status quo.
  • Encourage boundary spanning rather than boundary building.

Six Chairs for an Ideal Meeting

I recently read an interview with Lew Cirne, CEO of New Relic.  What struck me was his candor about how being in tune with the emotional aspects of leadership are important characteristics of an effective leader, how he prSix Chairsioritizes his time making sure he stays in touch with what nurtures him and how we ensures that he provides input to those things were he can make a difference.  The level of self awareness he demonstrates in this interview are rare in most leaders and yet so critical to being an effective leader and mentor.  How often do you set aside time for reflection?  Who provides you with feedback?  What do you do with that feedback?

Here are a few quotes from the article that were particularly striking:

  • “I prefer small meetings.  It’s really about my self-awareness and recognizing that I get de-energized and often lose focus and excitement when I’m in a large meeting…I have a table in my office.  It has six chairs around it.  And if the meeting is too big for that table, I won’t go to it unless its a board meeting.”
  •   “Most people would say that’s impossible for a C.E.O. to do, but I will book an innovation week months in advance. When I come back, some of my ideas are duds. You’ve got to be prepared for that. But some of those ideas have been fundamental to creating next acts for our company. And when I come back, I’m energized. I have a prototype to show people, and they’re motivated by seeing where our product is going. So that’s how I try to have an impact.”
  • “One of the lessons is that, as a C.E.O., sometimes you can do a lot more harm than good coming into the office that day. So I try to be aware of where I’m at emotionally, and I ask myself whether I’m really going to be able to contribute energy to the company. If all you can do is criticize without offering solutions, maybe it’s best to just go for a long drive.”

To view the article click here

Why are some teams smarter than other ones?

team and mazeWorking with others is a standard practice in organizations and yet, we leave our formal educational settings having a strong background and knowledge of a domain but no one ever tells us what it will take to work well with others. So its not surprising that some teams work better than others.  In their recent study, Anita Wooley (Carnegie Mellon University) and Tom Malone (MIT) provide a glimpse at specific characteristics of teams that exemplify what they call “collective intelligence.”  Anita  suggests that successful collective groups exhibit a characteristic level of intelligence which is – distinct from skills of individual members– predictive of future performance.  These are:
1.  They benefit from both connectivity and diversity
2.  They exhibit connectivity through multiple conversation and attending to the inputs of others from within the group and,
3.  They achieve diversity through the composition of the team members and by scanning more options in the environment.

To paraphrase their work, “Its about listening, empathy and more women.” So if you are putting a team together, take a look at how many women are on the team.  Teams with more women on them exhibited a higher degree of collective intelligence.

To read an article Anita Wooley wrote that appeared in the New York Times, click this link

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others.

Patriots As An Example of Flexible Expertise

PatriotsLove them or hate them, the Patriots approach to selecting, developing and using players has proven to be a core strength of the organizations.  Malcolm Butler is just the most current example of how the Patriots under Bill Bellcheck’s ability to spot talent where others don’t see it.  Players understand that they need to develop to be experts at their role and that they are expected to apply that expertise in flexible ways depending on what they see on the field.   “I saw Wilson looking over there,” Butler said. “He kept his head still and just looked over there. So that gave me a clue, and the stacked receivers. I just knew they were going to throw. My instinct, I just went with it, just went with my mind and made the play.”  The plays are designed to be both rigid and flexible, keeping the opposition guessing what will come at them. Martha Feldman’s (UCI) research on how routines enable creativity backs up the way the Patriot’s approach the game.  The coaching staff does so in part knowing the potential of the players, by putting them through practices where they try out endless possibilities that may come up during the game and then   In that way, players are prepared to step in and apply their expertise flexibly.

How might this translate to organizations?  Many organizations hire experts just to tell them that their suggestions won’t work in this organization.  Work is often codified into inflexible work processes that are expected to be implemented as stated in the manual.  This leaves little opportunities for a rookie with little playing experience to step up and make the big play.  Or worse, it makes people hide the real way work gets done so that they won’t be found out.  Routines that can be updated through the actual work that gets done and where individuals can share their own practices with others fuel creativity and make for a winning team.