15 November 2011

Reflections on Creating a Degree Program: Conversation Café 3

Among the “harvested” ideas that came forward from our third, and final, Conversation Café of this phase of developing our new Master’s degree in Leadership and Organization Development, and Executive Coaching was this: our program should have a “future-driving” orientation, in other words, it should create and enable change. Our eventual graduates will be asked to facilitate other individuals’ and organizations’ transformations, enabling them to move to a new place – literally, basho – rather than being satisfied with attaining new specific goals or objectives. But it occurs to me that the specific expression of this idea – future-driving – is not quite correct. Traditional leadership training is all about driving the future, creating the future, living in the future. Consistent with being in a UCaPP world, I think our greater concern, and indeed, our most pressing challenge, is how to drive, create, and live in the present.

In other words, our focus (as the Café participants also noted) might more effectively be directed towards the question of how to encourage leaders to appreciate, understand, and become comfortable with the “complexity of supporting the change that is happening right now.” How do we create the necessary learning to accommodate emergent change as a way of being, without feeling the need to control or “manage” the change in ways that might stifle the appropriate and necessary evolution of the organization? One key characteristic of UCaPP organizations is that their leaders have learned to become comfortable with complexity (ambiguity, uncertainty, and emergence rather than control). They embody this new-found comfort in ways that, in turn, create new forms of engagement and flexible modes of operating that are consistent with the newly emergent properties of their organizational systems. Thus, our program must create learning experiences that enable participants to become comfortable with ambiguity and complexity in an environment not devoid of structure, but not frozen by it, either. One participant suggested the neologistic metaphor of “cloudworks” in contrast to the highly structured, deterministic “clockworks,” connoting a looser structure of flow and emergent, but clearly discernible, form. This metaphor serves to identify the issue of how to create “complexity education”—learning environments appropriate for participants to embody and assimilate principles of complexity as a guiding model for understanding human dynamics.

When we speak of embracing values of social transformation and social innovation, we necessarily involve processes that substantially encompass more than driving towards pre-conceived goals. This concept represents a substantial shift in the notion of leadership for contemporary circumstances: leadership becomes embedded process rather than embodied role. One aspect of contemporary, UCaPP leadership exists as an “ongoing series of conversations around questions that matter.” So, too, must a program that will help to develop contemporary leaders and organizations. Conversations around questions that matter enable cultures of inquiry – invaluable when it comes to navigating a trajectory of intended effects amidst complex environmental interactions – that necessitate fostering a sense of curiosity throughout an organization. This means that organizational members exist in a space of curiosity that opens the mind to be able to imagine what is possible. In doing so, organizations eliminate the fear of failure—sometimes overwhelming, stress-inducing concerns of potentially not being able to achieve a specific end, goal, or objective. This does not mean that “failure” itself is not eliminated (and as reflected in our program, that all students will unconditionally “pass” irrespective of performance or lack thereof). Instead, it reconstitutes the notion of “failure” in a context of complexity, transformation, and innovation, alternative futures that become possible, and navigating for intended effects.

Our first Conversation Café provided the inspiration for a motto: “Transform the individual. Transform the organization. Transform the world.” This Café suggests “4 Ps” that might characterize the type of applicants and students we would want to encourage: those with Passion, Potential, Path/Plan, and Perception. Consistent with the ideas expressed in the previous paragraph, the “plan” would be a different sort of (complexity-oriented) plan than might be typical of a more conventional graduate program. In particular, we would strive to attract people who see the ethos of this program as a personal life goal integral to their passion. We would invite people for whom this program is personally meaningful in the context of “making a difference in the world”; for them, it would not merely be the “next employable thing.”

In traditional education and training, there is often a large gap between what is academically taught, and what is actually experienced (and adaptively applicable) in practice. “Real life” must intersect with “real play” in the learning environment to create transformative experiences that draw on the creativity of the participants. This observation from among our Conversation Café participants is yet another expression of the praxis principle in adult learning that will be embraced and embodied in the context, process, and content of this degree program. Participants introduced the concept of “Living Labs” that extends the common construct of a practicum in useful ways. Living Labs might sustain between courses, and perhaps involve a larger segment of a given cohort, instead of being an individual placement. Living Labs could be a possible way to create a vehicle that enables a more authentic intersection between “life” and “play.” Such extended, collaborative engagements could provide specific but larger opportunities that would enable students to apply, practice, and transfer learning to real world environments, in keeping with some of the transformative aspirations of our program. On an individual level, students would be invited, encouraged, and actively supported to engage in iterative reflective practices as a means of advancing and assimilating their own experiential learning. As an aside, how many contemporary university courses ask their students to write “reflection papers,” or keep some sort of journal, throughout the course, without providing specific guidance on what mindful reflection is really about? Among the “fundamentals” that underlie the overall learning, I would intend to remedy this common oversight in the service of enabling students to become truly mindful, reflective practitioners.

Many of the ideas shared by the Conversation Café participants reflect what are often understood to be good principles of Adult Education. Good adult learning derives from: embedded, embodied, and explicit knowledge, active incorporation of participant (that is, both instructor and learner) experiences; inquiry from within (in other words, reflective practices); hands-on, experiential learning in and from live situations; combined with feedback and feedforward that continually inform and evolve the program content and process. Thus, we create environments of co-learning. Everyone in the environment is both a learner and a co-creator of knowledge. Knowledge, wisdom, and insights exist throughout the room, not just at the front. As a consequence of these principles – co-learning and co-creation of knowledge – we would consider our program to be successful if our graduates can inspire leaders to create environments of co-learning within their organizations. One way of encouraging this is for students to create an organization within their cohort to put their learning into practice via Living Labs, as I described above. Taken together with principles of co-learning, this idea speaks to the true embodiment of learning, reflective practice, seeking transformation, and praxis. It also speaks to an intention towards social transformation within the organizations that our program will touch and hence, expresses the program’s tactility.

For our students, the profound experience of transformation in the context of the program will be embodied in the visceral experience of being simultaneously awe-struck and awe-inspired. But this raises an important question with respect to evaluation and assessment: In a practical sense, how do we jointly accomplish this transformational experience with integrity, that is, being true to both our and the participants’ aspirations, without abdicating our pedagogical ethos and responsibilities? A large part of the individual assessment will necessarily be subjective, collaboratively completed between participants and instructors, and qualitatively expressed via narratives that describe, for example, the circumstances of the student’s most compelling change process. This idea echoes an idea from our first Conversation Café in which students would be assessed not according to whether they achieved specific, pre-conceived goals, but rather according to the degree to which their goals transformed and emerged consistent with their learning experiences throughout the program. Included in such an assessment would be an understanding of how effectively learning is transferred to workplaces, both during the students’ direct participation in the program and thereafter, as a direct application of what has been learned during the course of the degree. In doing so, our students begin to introduce the process of praxis into workplaces in ways that begin to transform those environments towards becoming a true, reflective, learning organization. This, in turn, means that the design principle of praxis must be made explicit to our participants, incorporated as key element of reflective practice, and embodied as a way of being among our students and graduates.

Finally, our participants strongly expressed the notion that we must be in the business of developing the whole person “in relation” through a series of reflective considerations: Who am I; what do I value; what skills do I possess; what behaviours do I enact; what sort of environment do I enable? To support these critical self-reflections over the time of the program, it will be incumbent on us to provide specific guidance for our participants to manage “energy,” more than just time and resources. Mindfulness practices will likely play a large role here. There must be an explicit acknowledgement of the polarity between “tension” and “serenity” wherein the participants must live that balance during their participation in the program. Such active acknowledgement will enable our program to be sustainable, balancing the considerations of performance with renewal.

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