Navigating your way through complexity in a rapidly changing, information-saturated world

The pace of change has increased, the growth in complexity has multiplied, and information has proliferated at an unprecedented pace.  We are in extraordinary times.  And unprecedented times call for unique and disciplined approaches if we are to survive and thrive. In this sixth of a series, I unpack a set of recommendations for strategies, processes, attitudes, habits, and disciplines to build into your lives and businesses in order to help us survive and thrive in these unprecedented times.

We need to make sure that we are building into our lives and businesses the proper infrastructure to help us survive and thrive – both personally as well as organizationally.

It’s like building a sailboat designed for treacherous seas – we need to create the proper sails that propel us forward, and, at the same time, build in the proper keels that keep us on track.  This dynamic tension between the forces that propel us forward and those that hold us back is what allows us to live a life of balance and fulfillment and guides our businesses to realize the potential they have.

So far, we’ve identified these sails – those disciplines, attitudes, and habits that propel us forward — and keels – those that hold us down to unchangeable principles:

So far, we have examined these sails:

We’ve also looked at these keels:

When most of us hear the word “learning” we often associate it with formal school, or perhaps seminars and company-sponsored training programs.  While these are all means of facilitating learning, they don’t capture the essence of what I’m talking about.

The kind of teaching/learning that is done in academia revolves around the transfer of information.  The focus is on what you know, and the measurement is the score on an exam.

For adults, on the job, the focus is different.  Here it is all about behavior change. I often tell salespeople in my seminars “I don’t care what you know. You are not paid for what you know.  You are paid for what you do.”

Self-directed learning is the ability, on the part of the individual, or the organization, to absorb new information about the world or oneself, and to change one’s behavior in positive ways in response to it.  The key is behavior change.  Learning without action is impotent.  Gaining knowledge that does not result in changed action is of little value.

Let’s say, for example, that you invest in a new software program.  You bring in the trainers and dedicate time to training your staff on the new program.  The trainer gives a final exam, and everyone passes with 100%.  The next day, no one uses the new software. They learned it intellectually but never made the leap to changed behavior. For adults, on the job, the knowledge that doesn’t result in changed action is worthless.

Self-directed learning manifests as both a personal discipline, as well as a strategic piece of an organization’s culture.

Understanding self-directed learning as a personal discipline

As a personal discipline, self-directed learning differs from the traditional approaches to “training” in that it requires the individual to assume complete responsibility for his own behavior change. In traditional training, the onus is on the trainer to instill some motivation, transfer knowledge, and initiate behavior change.  In self-directed learning, the responsibility is the learners.

I often illustrate this through the tool of a ‘learning list.’  It is exactly what it says – a list of what knowledge the learner should gain and the behaviors the learner should master. It can be used to organize a learner’s efforts for anything new –a new product, a new piece of software, a new customer, etc.  We most often use it to guide the onboarding of a new hire.  In addition to a job description, which describes what the employee should do, the learning list articulates what he/she must learn in order to do what you expect of him. Onboarding a new employee then, becomes as simple as handing over the learning list and directing the new employee to check with you at the end of every day and show you what he/she has learned. (You can dig deeper into the idea of a learning list here.)

In a world that is changing as rapidly as ours is, the ability of every individual to learn and grow, at least as rapidly as the world is changing around us, is one of the fundamental skills to help navigate these rapidly changing turbulent waters.

Key steps in the process

First, note that the title of this sail is “the discipline of continuous self-directed learning.”  The key word here is continuous.  That means it is not an event, but rather a process that you build into your routines.  A week does not go by without you formally and intentionally learning something.

In our proprietary Menta-Morphosis® process, we articulate a seven-step process to master self-directed learning.  I’ve simplified it below.

1. Fan into Flames the Motivation to learn

“The foundation of learning is really wanting to become something that you are not yet…If there is nothing you want to try to be, or become capable of, or do, or accomplish, there is no motivation to learn anything.” ~ Gislason

You have to establish and magnify the motivation to learn.  Remember, learning is defined as behavior change, and changing your behavior is hard work.  You need all the emotional energy you can gather. Another word for that is motivation.  Most often this comes from a negative or painful situation you want to extricate yourself from or avoid in the future.  For example, you may have an overbearing boss. Your aversion to working with him/her motivates you to learn about other positions within the company.

Or your motivation may be a goal you have identified. You want to move into management, for example.  That motivation prompts you to enroll in a part-time management development program at the local college.

One way to manifest this step is to create a personal learning list, a wish list, and o/or a personal set of goals.  Write them down and post them where you and others can see them.  This adds specificity to the list and introduces an element of accountability.

2. Engage in learning experiences.

A learning experience is an event at which you are exposed to new ideas, new insights, or reminders of behaviors that you used to engage in but have neglected. It’s an event or situation that causes you to face some new information, or that stimulates you to reformat information you already have.

For example, reading a blog post is a way to expose yourself to new information.  So is reading a book, listening to a podcast or watching a video, attending a seminar, etc.

Here are a number of ways to inject yourself into learning opportunities that will help you continuously improve.

Read books, magazines, and newsletters.

I’m often asked to recommend a book for a new salesperson to read.  I usually respond by suggesting that, after they have read all of my books, the inquirer go to the library and check out anything that looks interesting.  While clearly my books are the best ever written, if your attitude is right, you can learn from anything.  So, in one sense, it doesn’t make any difference what you expose yourself to, as long as you expose yourself to something.

Reading any book is better than reading no book.  With the proliferation of business books available these days, you can go to the local bookstore or library every couple of weeks and find new books to read.  Almost any book you can find will give you new ideas or, at the least, new ways of reformulating things you already know in more useful and practical ways.

Our economy is awash with programs of all kinds.  In an hour’s concentrated work, you could probably identify thousands of possible blog posts, podcasts, videos, and online programs.  The question is not where to find appropriate materials; the question is how to do it – how to interact with them to turn them into a learning experience.

Remember that it’s not enough to go to a seminar once a year or read a book every now and then.  Learning should be a regular part of your workweek. Consider doing something to expose yourself to new ideas every week.

Reflect on your failures.

You’re probably thinking, “Where did that come from?”  I have learned that my failures, both as a salesperson and in my life in general, have provided me with my most intensive learning experiences.  In fact, I remember all my failures far more vividly than I remember any of my successes.  As I thought about each one of them, I discovered what I had done to produce that failure, and I made specific decisions to change to prevent them from happening again.

Personally, I think that this practice has been one of the key reasons for the success that I have enjoyed as a salesperson.  You can do the same thing.  You are going to fail from time to time.  Everyone does.  The most important part of failing is taking the time to reflect on the failure and to learn from it.

Be sensitive to all your failures, large or small, and take the time to reflect on them.  You’ll find them to be potent learning experiences.

3. Isolate, prioritize and articulate new behaviors.

We have all had the experience of attending a seminar, watching a video, etc., and being overwhelmed with the possibilities. With too many things to do, most people don’t’ do any well.  I wiser strategy is to prioritize the most important, focus on it first, master it, and then most onto the next highest priority.

But, before you can make any change in your behavior, you must articulate what it is.  Just describing the new behavior in words is a major step toward mastering it.

4. Act

Sooner or later, you have to act.  That means you have to attempt the new behavior. Taking the first step is often the most important step.

5. Refine and repeat.

Once you’ve done the new thing once, you’ll need to repeat it until you feel like you have it down.  You may have to refine it a bit.  Regardless, when you have repeated it to the point at which it is becoming a habit, you can move onto the next behavior

Understanding self-directed learning as a strategic piece of company culture

It is one thing to master self-directed learning as an individual and it is quite another to embed it into a company’s culture.


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Here are four simple steps to start the transformation.

1. Develop a compelling vision for the company’s future and show your employees how they can be a part of it. (See Keel One: An articulated purpose or vision statement.)

A vision is a description of what the company can be in the future.  By describing a future that is different from today’s, you provide a reason for every individual to grow – the organization needs them to become something better than they are now.  The difference between your vision for the future and your current situation is clearly an opportunity for the different pieces of the business to grow and expand.

One of the core principles upon which purposeful learning is based is this: That adults don’t learn unless they want to eliminate some pain or achieve some gain.  As long as everyone is content with the status quo there can be no serious growth.  Your job, if you’re going to build this capability of purposeful learning, is first to instill some discontent.

The individuals within your organization must want to be something that they are not now.  The more challenging and exciting is that vision, the more likely it is that the individual will want to hop aboard and be motivated to change.  Here’s a great example.  Steve Case, the founder of America Online, has been quoted as espousing this vision:

“We want to be the most valuable and respected company on earth.”

How’d you like to be a part of that organization?  That’ll quicken your pulse.  So, challenge the organization with your vision of the future, and see to it that every individual knows that you expect him or her to grow in their job, so that they can be a part of it.

2. It is not enough merely to instill the vision; you must also enable the learning.

That means that you must invest time and money in the learning process.  That can mean something as simple as creating a budget item for “training and learning” and allocating money for this process.  It can also mean creating policies that reimburse employees for job-related learning.  It can mean investing in outside trainers, classes and courses, and continuous growth programs.  It can also mean policies that allow for released time for seminars, retreats, and training programs. Our X-I Community, for example, is a single source for purposeful learning, dedicated to B2B salespeople and sales leaders.

3. Begin to instill this capability in your organization by mandating personal growth.

Write into every job description a phrase that says every employee is expected to continually grow in their capabilities to do this job better as well as to expand their knowledge of other jobs within the organization.

Make learning a strategic initiative.  Manage it like he would any other strategic issue.  Give it lots of conversation.  Mentioned it in newsletters and memos.  Write it up in the annual report.  Talk about it at employee meetings.  Create learning lists for individuals and small groups.  This is a list of the things that they need to learn in order to do their job more effectively.  Let everyone know from the top to the bottom that continuous personal improvement, i.e. purposeful learning, is a necessary part of everyone’s employment in your organization.

Let everyone know that coasting along with last year’s knowledge and last year’s capabilities is no longer acceptable.

4. Lastly, be a model of the kind of behavior you expect everyone within your organization to mimic.

Let people see you learning and growing.  Let them see you invest in your own development.  Let them see you go to seminars, be involved in CEO round table groups, read books, periodicals, and go to training courses.  Become a model for the kind of active learner you want your whole organization to be.

Implement these four strategies, and you’ll begin to instill this powerful keel into your company and thereby strengthen its ability to survive and thrive in this turbulent environment.