Feb 17


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Have you ever attended a workshop on coaching or leadership? Have you read a few good books which were useful to you as a coach or a leader? Do you consider you and your leadership team to already be “good enough” as coaches and leaders? Are your employees fully engaged? Have you fully tapped into their potential? Suppose you could learn a disciplined practice where you continuously honed your skills while leading your organization. Imagine each time that you exercise your leadership or coaching skills as a feedback opportunity, a chance for continuous improvement, a means to further hone your skills.

Consistently drawing a distinction between first order learning and second order learning can provide you a means to achieve these ends. First order learning is the ability to take in, comprehend, and recall information. Second order learning is taking what you have learned at the first order and using that learning to expand the results that you and your leadership team produce. Consistently drawing this distinction will empower you to choose to use any knowledge you have learned at the first order when that knowledge is useful at the second order in achieving the results that you and your company want.  Drawing this distinction will help you steer away from common thinking errors that hinder productivity and individual and organizational development. Welcome to a world where your leadership and coaching skills are honed through a continuous improvement process, a process which increases employee engagement and unleashes employee performance.

Historically, traditional schools have ingrained people in first order learning. Much of what was learned at the first order in school was likely not retained over time as learning, not subsequently referenced or applied, is usually forgotten. This type of learning in school helped prepare people to learn how to learn. It also unintentionally contributed to a learning disability (thinking error) as too often people confuse having learned something at the first order with “knowing it”. People can easily become closed to deeper learning believing they have nothing further to gain. Yet they may have never applied that learning in their work to produce results. And for those who have applied that learning, few consider applying that learning as a continuous improvement process. For example, most business leaders have received training and read books pertaining to coaching. Few are striving to be the next John Wooden of the business sector even though doing so provides a means to unleash the true potential within any given organization and gain a competitive edge.

Several years ago, as a county director within Indiana’s “welfare” system, I attended a two hour seminar about vision at a conference with professional colleagues. At the time, I was passionately striving to engage an entire community to realize a vision of a county welfare system that truly works for everyone. The session was useful to me in sustaining this vision over the course of seven years. One year after the first seminar on vision, there was another conference with another two hour seminar on vision. I was in the hallway with colleagues before the start of this session and personally looking forward to it. My colleagues were complaining that this session was going to be a waste of their valuable time. They had already attended a session on vision the previous year. They already “knew” this stuff. Yet not a single one of my colleagues was using a vision to impact their work. While they may have been able to comprehend and recall vision, they did not know vision in a way that was truly useful, a way that made a difference in their work let alone as someone striving to become a master in using vision in their work.

Project based learning has emerged as a means to educate students more fully. Project based learning challenges teachers to create scenarios where students can actually take what they learn in multiple subjects and apply that learning to solve real world problems. Project based learning helps students to learn at a deeper level and facilitates their ability to subsequently apply the learning in work and in life.

Second order learning is closely associated with project based learning. Second order learning focuses on applying whatever is being learned into your work, as opposed to project based learning’s focus on integrating the application of knowledge from multiple learning areas into one specific project. Project based learning is not second order learning until the learning is used again outside of the classroom in work or in life. While post-secondary education and trade schools incorporate second order learning into their curriculum, most people are still at risk of collapsing the distinction between first order learning and second order learning, especially in areas outside of their profession or hobbies.

I encourage you to see second order learning as a continuum, with an openness to the possibility that mastery can be achieved in a given area. Mastery can be considered a combination of knowledge, skill, and artistry. Through continuous learning involving disciplined practice, feedback, and process improvement, anyone is capable of expanding their effectiveness in producing results in a chosen area. A student with a yellow belt in karate may be readily able to break a thin board with his fist using a specific punching motion. A master with a black belt in karate, can use the same movement to break a concrete block with his fist. If you or I were to “learn” the same karate motion, practice it a few times, and then use that motion to punch a concrete block with our fist, something may break (and it would not be the concrete block). Coaching is one example of an area where mastery can be pursued.

I invite you to always examine first order learning from an inquisitive frame of reference. The key question becomes whether any acquired knowledge is beneficial to your ability to produce the results that you want in a given situation. For those in leadership positions, the question is also whether you can use this knowledge to positively impact others within your organization. I invite you to always examine the value of any learning at the second order and recognize that any knowledge, including theories, will either be beneficial to your ability to produce the results that you want in a given situation, have no measurable effect, or have a negative or limiting effect. Some knowledge may be useful all of the time. Some may be useful in certain situations and not in others. Some knowledge may never be useful in expanding your ability to produce results.

The invitation is to continuously learn, to think for yourself, and to selectively use what you have learned at the first order with wisdom and discretion in order to add maximum value to your organization and community. To quote Albert Einstein, “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution…. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old questions from a new angle, requires creative imagination.” Einstein achieved mastery in second order learning before the rest of us learned how to draw the distinction.

Like black belts in Six Sigma, you and your leadership team can earn black belts in leadership and coaching.  When the results of a leader’s team members fall short, a black belt will look in the mirror, assume responsibility for the results, and then alter his or her actions accordingly.  If you are interested in learning a disciplined practice to hone your team’s leadership and coaching skills through a continuous improvement process, then I encourage you to take action today!  Send us an e-mail so that we can have a conversation to consider how we can help your company to achieve these results.

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