by: Erika Andersen
Let’s say someone wants to learn to build a cabinet. Imagine that person being encouraged to read a number of books about successful cabinet-builders, and what has worked for them in their careers. Then imagine that person sitting in a room with a bunch of other cabinet-making-hopefuls, listening to someone who has studied cabinet-makers share his or her theory of cabinet making, who then has them take a test to see whether they’ve understood the theory. Finally, imagine that the person working with a smaller group of novices to review a case study about a complex cabinet-making job, and decide how they would approach completing the job, given what they’ve learned from the books they’ve read and the professors they’ve heard. Their group is then graded on whether the teacher, who may or may not have ever built a cabinet, thinks their solutions are appropriate and feasible.
Sounds dumb, right? Why not just have the person a good “how-to” book about building cabinets, and then give them the chance to build a simple cabinet, under the supervision of an experienced cabinet-maker.
Unfortunately, the approach outlined in the first paragraph has been the way most MBA programs have historically taught leadership and business management. The result (from my observation over the past three or four decades) has been wave after wave of bright young MBA grads coming into the workplace and thinking they know all about leadership and management…but often having very little actual ability to lead or manage.
A colleague recently sent me a fascinating article about a new learning program at the Harvard Business School called FIELD: “Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development.” Started four years ago, it was a response to the HBS faculties’ acknowledgement of the weaknesses inherent in their world-famous case study approach. In the words of Alan D. MacCormack, faculty head of the FIELD program, “We are talking about the ‘knowing-doing gap. The very first time you put theory into practice, you learn all the challenges associated with applying the theory.”
The program gets Harvard MBA students out into the real world, to do the leadership equivalent of actually building a cabinet:
FIELD [is] a hands-on experiential learning program that has arguably revolutionized education at HBS more than any development since the introduction of the case-study method 90 years ago. In three modules—an intensive skills building boot camp, a global immersion field study, and a team-based entrepreneurial project designed to integrate knowledge from the first year curriculum—FIELD teaches students that what they have learned about business in the classroom doesn’t always hold true out in the world.
The students first spend five weeks getting a grounding in the human skills core to good leadership and management: feedback, listening, coaching, emotional intelligence, and team dynamics, among others – as well as participating in simulations geared to take them out of their comfort zone and learn to respond well to unlooked-for situations. Once that foundational work is complete, they’re sent out into the field to work with local businesses all over the world to develop new products and services – and approaches to producing them – that will work in the local market. Finally, after they return to the US, they put all they’ve experienced into practice by starting their own entrepreneurial businesses.
It’s learning to build cabinets by building cabinets. It’s how learning needs to happen – especially now, when the world – and the world of business – is changing second-by-second.
And it’s much less comfortable than listening to a lecture or reading a book. McCormack notes that the minute the FIELD students get out into the field, their assumptions start getting blown up. ”Often within that single day, everything they thought was the right answer becomes the wrong answer. Being there on the ground and observing yourself is different from learning something in a report from afar.”
He goes on to talk about how humbling it is for these kids – all of whom have done very, very well all through high school and college, and who think of themselves, I’m sure, as the best and brightest – to get out into the real world and discover that they’re not very good at this and have a lot to learn.
When you’re really learning – acquiring new skills or understanding, behaving and operating in new ways – you’re going to be a novice. That means you’re not going to be an expert, and you won’t have all the answers. You’ll make mistakes and have to ask “dumb” questions, and you’ll have ideas that you think are genius that will turn out not to work at all.
And becoming comfortable in that situation – staying curious and open and continuing to explore and improve – that’s the essence of real learning. And I suspect it’s the single most important skill these kids (and their professors) are acquiring.
Because the people who become great – no matter their field or area of endeavor – are those who are willing to be uncomfortable over and over again on the way to mastery. If you can continually challenge your own preference for being good at things, for being competent – and be willing instead to be in that awkward place of “I don’t really understand this right now”…well, then the 21st century is yours for the learning of it.
About the Author
I cover how people & organizations work, and how they can work better.
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