The importance of unlearning: report from the Think Tank

By John Helmer September 21, 2015

finger point to sign saying Think TankL&D faces a seemingly impossible task: equipping millennials to lead in a future organisational context of which they may have even less visibility than their millennial learners. New learning strategies must be adopted to meet this challenge – and a certain amount of instructional ‘baggage’ jettisoned. These were insights that came out of the third of a three-part Think Tank discussion we held recently in London.

Millennials are now the largest single generational cohort in the workforce and assuming leadership positions. To discuss how we can best support their leadership learning, and respond to the points raised in our recently released insight paper, Leadership, learning and the connected generation, we assembled an invited group of L&D leaders and now report their discussion under Chatham House rules.

Delegates were from organisations including Belron, The Home Office, IEDP, Lloyds Banking Group, MOD, Pragma Consulting, Rolls Royce and Vodafone. Most of our delegates have day-to-day contact with workforces that include large numbers of millennials, and some were from organisations whose workforce is drawn almost entirely from this age group.

Here’s what they had to say.

For the time-challenged … key points from our Think Tank discussion

  • The trend towards flatter (and even managerless) organisational structures changes the nature of the employer/employee relationship, creating a new and unprecedented context within which millennials will have to lead
  • The accelerating pace of business creates a sense of impermanence around knowledge: leadership models become more useful as conceptual frameworks, rather than instruction sets of what to do in specific circumstances
  • A more complex organisational context, together with the trend towards smaller business units, will expose millennial leaders to difficult choices that may seem often seem like dilemmas
  • Millennials might have to learn to temper their hyper-connectedness, or else become more selective, as they assume senior leadership positions
  • With so much unknown about the future organizational context that millennial leaders will face, L&D should favour enquiry-led learning and listen hard to what their millennial learners have to say
  • The future is blended, but L&D must move beyond the linear, course-based model of blended learning – while engaging millennials with creativity, storytelling and game-based forms
  • Some things fall away, while certain fundamentals endure – and change involves an amount of unlearning for both trainers and trainees

When millennials take charge

A time will come when nobody talks about millennials anymore. And that will be the time when they have truly arrived – when they have become the centre of gravity in organisations and in government and are calling the shots.

So what kind of world is it that they will lead – and how will they lead in it? More specifically, how can we begin to prepare them today for the responsibilities they will have to assume?

This is the questions we asked our delegates to address in this third part of our Think Tank discussion on millennials and leadership learning. It is not any easy one to answer. Nobody feels that confident in predicting the future. However it is possible to identify macro trends in the way organisations are changing that give some indication of the context within which millennials will learn to lead.

Changing management structures

According to one delegate we have been living through the ‘reinvention of the corporation’.

There has been a move away from any idea that there is such a thing as ‘a job for life’, and a diminution (if not disappearance) of the old model of a paternalistic capitalism. This brings in a different set of assumptions on each side of the employer/employee compact. Employees are less loyal, more mobile; employers keener to ditch those who are seen as less productive and engaged. Leading in this context has to be different.

In a sense, this is old news: jobs-for-life began disappearing in the 1980s. Just bear in mind that millennials never knew a time when it was different.

Hierarchical structures are being dispersed, and organisations have become flatter; but this hasn’t necessarily increased the sum of human happiness. ‘The problem with the flat management structure is that basically everybody’s [unhappy] except the top tier people … who are all earning big bonuses.’

The next stage in this process of flattening is perhaps represented by the online shoe retailer, Zappo’s, who have a workforce almost entirely composed of millennials. ‘What they’ve done is to get rid of managers. There are no managers in the organisation and everyone works in groups, and decides and makes decisions in groups.’

Although this radical approach has apparently led to an uptick in sales, nobody knows as yet whether it is just a fad, or the shape of things to come. But if you happened to believe the latter: that Zappo’s managerless model could become mainstream within the next ten to twenty years, surely your leadership learning for millennials would have to take account of it?

Another powerful trend we have seen alongside this flattening of organisations has been the accelerating pace of markets, product cycles and, indeed, knowledge. This leads to a sense of impermanence in what can be known that produces a sense of everything being temporary and contingent. It goes along with agile, flexible development processes, but also plays to the rather faddish, buzzphrase-driven mindset that prevails in L&D.

The ability to discern become paramount; to separate the wheat from the chaff as it all blows by. And finding a leadership model to hold onto might be more a matter of establishing a framework for how you work – rather than having an instruction book that can tell you, in any given situation, exactly what you should do.

Changing leadership skills

This is the organisational context within which millennials have to lead – and also, since there is always a forward-looking character to leadership learning for younger employees – the context that poses what one of our delegates called earlier ‘the adaptive challenge’ for L&D.

Because while leadership has something eternal about it – and a lot of leadership fundamentals remain fairly constant – there remains the difficulty of interpreting those fundamentals and applying them to new and emerging situation whose future trajectory might be more mysterious to the trainer, in some ways, than to the trainee. What stays the same; what falls away?

There are aspects of this changing context that seem bound to bring millennials up against searching questions.

One of these is the change in the relationship between people and the organisations that employ them. Under the paternalistic model the individual sacrificed a certain amount of power in exchange for security and protection against the vicissitudes of a changing market. ‘As long as you kept your head down and your nose clean, you knew you would be more or less all right … Now you don’t expect that at all.’

Nowadays, organisations are less to be trusted – however, to be fair, they don’t require anything like the same level of trust from their employees. The ground of the employer/employee compact has shifted – in quite explicit ways (zero-hours contracts being a case in point), and in many other that are more tacit. It is assumed that the modern employee will be more self-sufficient, and to a degree more self-motivated.

Leadership, however (or, at least, the authentic variety) involves an appeal to common values; whether this is a matter of holding the organisation to its own professed beliefs, or to a more general, human set. The purely self-motivated employee says: ‘I’m doing this for myself’. The authentic leader, by contrast, says ‘I’m doing this because its best for my team’.

Situations where values conflict can become much less clear-cut in the modern organization. Sometimes what is good for the team isn’t good for the wider organisation. And vice versa. Leaders face not just choices but dilemmas. It comes with the territory: ‘if you’re in that dilemma of team or organisation, you’re already in leadership’.

Such dilemmas seem likely only to increase, given another organisational trend, which is to look at smaller, self-sufficient units of 50-80, human structures being felt to have an inbuilt tendency to fall to apart above that number. ‘These are the dynamics of the future’.

Another potential leadership flashpoint for millennials lies in the very connectedness of this connected generation. Organisations might well be in cut-throat competition with those around them, but they still see the value of collaboration across organisations and sectors: benchmarking, best practice and knowledge sharing are vital activities in today’s fast-moving, ever-changing business environment. And millennials are more connected across organisations and sectors than any previous generation, by virtue of a recourse to social networking in solving any problem that is, according to our research, endemic and reflexive.

But as millennials grow into leadership positions where the never-ceasing quest for competitive advantage becomes their personal responsibility, and where not showing your hand to the opposition too early assumes mission-critical importance, can they still remain so open, so connected?

Changes in leadership learning

The challenge that all of the above throws down for L&D professional is twofold:

  1. How to understand the business context in which millennials will have to operate as leaders
  2. How to provide leadership learning for millennials that is relevant and engaging, given the unknowability, in large part, of that context

It can seem like a steep challenge, and for one delegate at least, it felt like an impossible task. The people around the table, he pointed out – his peers – were all of an age and seniority that barred them from knowing many of the things that millennials know – including both tangible things such as new social apps and behaviours that could have a big effect in the forseeable future, but also new understandings and aspirations of this generation which, while plainly obvious in many ways to those who share the same cohort, have yet to be articulated and made explicit in a way that can capture the attention of their elders in the business world.

A more simple way of putting this last point is that stuff just seems to come out of nowhere for many seniors – stuff that millennials are far more likely to have encountered in its earliest, ideational state. And the implication is that learning professionals face an audience of millennial learners who are more knowledgeable than they are in many ways about the business context in which they will have to lead.

It is a humbling perspective – but strategies for dealing with this challenge also came out of the discussion.

One was the importance of listening to learners, a theme that had featured strongly throughout the three parts of the discussion. We need to look at how millennials learn and what they naturally do. This would include, of course, the sort of survey work undertaken by benchmarking organisation Towards Maturity in their Learning Landscape Audits, but also interactive forms like reverse mentoring.

Secondly an open-ended, enquiry-based learning approach was recommended, one where the endpoint of learning is not predetermined, and learning objectives, if they are set at all, should be seen as a strawman, open to change according to what is learned. The baccalaureate system used in many schools (especially those of the elite variety) was cited as a high-quality educational system that is based on enquiry.

There has been much talk in L&D circles of how trainers have to stop being ‘the sage on the stage ‘ and become instead ‘the guide on the side’. In an enquiry-led learning process, trainers are very much guides on the side. Much of leadership is eternal, and those eternal verities are an important part of what the trainer brings, but the job of interpreting and applying these principles to an emerging, uncertain future should be a joint project of investigative learning.

We mentioned earlier that millennials are impatient with narrative-based forms such as training courses, and indeed the trend in many organisations is to look beyond the course to more bite-sized forms of learning accessed at need. However the central importance of storytelling within leadership learning was reasserted. Scenario-based learning, case studies, war stories, games-based learning ­– all these were cited as important ways of engaging a generation which, as well as being highly social, and driven by search as a primary method of gaining information, also exhibits high rates of consumption when it comes to movies, games and TV.

We mentioned earlier in the discussion one delegate who uses films such as The Matrix to point up leadership lessons. Movies and TV (and even books) can provide common cultural reference points between the generations, opening up leadership issues for debate and discussion.

In all this talk of digital media, however, it would be wrong to overlook the primary importance and value of face to face encounters; of coaching, mentoring, events and, yes, classroom learning. Millennials value direct human contact, require it, and are all too liable to feel they are being fobbed off with second-class learning when denied it entirely.

‘We’re talking about blended learning, aren’t we?’ said one delegate at this point, occasioning some wry expressions. Blended learning has a bad rep and cannot be mentioned in some quarters, it seems, but that is essentially what were talking about here – bringing a host of opportunities and letting the individual pick and choose.

‘—But do we really know how to do it?’ The problem with blended learning for many is that it has tended to remain stubbornly linear. There is pre-learning, then a face-to-face-workshop, then assessment … all strung together in a very traditional, course-based linear structure. Meeting the new needs of millennials, in enquiry-led learning programmes, is going to take a far more innovative approach than just supplementing or replacing a traditionally shaped course with online resources.

There is going to have to be some unlearning to do on both sides.

Millennials will have to unlearn some things they have brought into the workplace with them from school – slavish adherence to the tyranny of the peer group perhaps being one of them. Leadership is about stepping up, poking one’s head above the parapet and taking responsibility. This is possibly something every generation has to do.

L&D professionals, for their part, might need to square up to square up to a few sacred cows: learning objectives, Kirkpatrick levels, ADDIE, etc.

Both sides have a lot of learning – and unlearning – to do.

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