A LinkedIn contact and fellow member of the Society for Cybernetics in Organisations recently contacted me to ask if we could have a conversation about the connection between training and systems thinking. We did not have much of an agenda, so our discussion weaved around various ways where I had found systems thinking concepts of value what I do my professional life.
One concept that kept coming back was that of Ross Ashby's variety. In the context of what people do in their working lives, variety means the stuff that is different every day, different customers, different situations, different applications and so on. People are constantly dealing with variety, finding ways of getting their job done. And, in the process, learning, although from the traditional Human Resource Development perspective, it is not necessarily learning that counts, because what is important is training. Training is the centrally-driven, formal way of trying to get people to learn, but one of the problems it has is its inability to deal with variety. Throughout my career I have seen countless examples of ill-conceived training programmes, based around the delivery of information which often fails to recognise real, operational variety. Of course, ensuring some consistency and conformity with standard procedures is important, otherwise things could go badly wrong. So what is needed is a balance between the variety-constrained central message and the variety management of local delivery. In complexity theory, the edge of chaos.
But often training courses fail to recognise this. Designed by people remote from everyday variety, based around a fixed agenda, and perhaps delivered in a trainer-centric manner, they satisfy the need to be seen to be doing something but don't necessarily achieve very much.
At this point in our conversation I thought back to one of my early experiences of abandoning this approach. I had been asked by a humanitarian organisation to help with developing the training skills of their security officers, and as a result found myself sitting in a hotel restaurant in Freetown, Sierra Leone, with two ex-special services security men - I'll call them Bill and Ben. Not far away a quasi-civil war involving Liberia was raging, and next to the hotel was a military base where helicopters constantly took off and landed. I felt a little uneasy, but Bill and Ben felt even less comfortable as I had suggested that we abandon the military precision of their training agenda and hand the running over to the participants of the workshop we were going to be running over the next few days.
The approach that Bill and Ben had developed for the training was to stand behind the overhead projector with a pile of transparencies on the left-hand side, placing them one by one on the projector, talking through the content, then putting the finished slide on the right-hand side. Keeping everything under tight control, managing the agenda, finishing on time, covering everything they want to cover under the protection of the overhead projector. My suggestion was to abandon the slides projector, and to ask the group questions. One session stands out in my memory. The topic was how to survive being taken hostage: not a regular topic in business training, but relevant in this context. Bill and Ben had a set of slides may be organised around the different stages of hostage taking and negotiation, but I thought what might be more interesting would be to ask the group the question, "How many of you here have been taken hostage at some time?" About half the hands in the room went up. Okay, I said, you are already experts, you have survived. Let's split up into smaller groups and discuss what happened and then get back together. There was an instant buzz in the room as people started talking, and Bill and Ben wandered around listening, contributing, answering questions. At the end of the session we prepared a local guide to surviving a hostage situation.
Back in the restaurant that evening, Bill and Ben talked about the day. They admitted to having been sceptical about what I had suggested, and nervous that it would all go wrong, but that in the end they had had a really enjoyable time. Rather than feeling nervous about managing the situation, they had been able to relax and join in with the various conversations going on, and feel respected as professionals. I admitted that I had also been nervous about letting things go, but drawing on my experience of working with groups felt reasonably confident that it would all work out eventually. Which it did.
At that time I had not come across the idea of variety in its systems thinking context, but I now realise how powerful an idea it can be in the learning context. Variety is real to people, it is something they have to deal with every day. Grappling with variety means that people have to interact with each other, they learn socially through asking questions, seeking clarifications and considering how different ideas can adapt to different situations. They can come to understand how these ideas can integrate with, and often innovate on and improve, the centrally-provided 'solutions' that come from the training approach.
So, adapting the words of the famous self-help book, feel the fear of embracing variety, and do it anyway.