How can you make learning stick when returning to work from a training course?

How often have you been fired up by something you have learned on a development programme? You return to work the day after the course all ready to implement your new learning. Within hours, business as usual has swamped your resolve. You mention your idea to a colleague and she just rolls her eyes and says “just been on a course have you?”

Recently I was invited to facilitate the final session of a leadership development programme. The participants had been offered some radical new ideas and were being asked to make significant changes in their behaviour when they returned to work. I suggested that I teach them about ‘Action Experiment’, so that they could identify a single simple action, one which they would feel confident to actually do, and one which they would see as the start of a changed pattern in their approach to leadership.

Students exploring systems thinking with Martin Sandbrook

I felt it was important that I first gave some background. An assumption of systems thinking is that we are each an arc in any system of which we are a part. If I make a change, however small, there will be a response, both inner, in me, and outer, in the system itself. Since systems which involve people tend to be complex and hard to fully understand, another assumption is that it may be better to experiment forwards, looking for answers in action, rather than use an analysis of the past to provide a path into the future. This requires a systems way of being in the world. This involves an open-ness to what emerges, an ease with uncertainty and a willingness to let go of the need to be right.

There is a series of steps involved in developing an action experiment. The idea is to start small, with an action you can trust yourself to actually take. It is surprising how significant what emerges can be, from even a small step toward an aspiration for a different way of doing things. As Leonard Cohen so wisely says “there is a crack in everything, it’s where the light gets in”.

So, if you are involved in some kind of development programme which demands that you change your way of acting when you get back to your workplace, you might find it useful to try Action Experiment. This just might work to give you the bridge you need to get your new practice established before “system as usual” closes over you and all your good intentions are lost.

Martin Sandbrook is a Director of the Schumacher Institute and Programme Leader for Systems Thinking for Effective Action and Pale Blue Dot