“Pay attention!” The teacher boomed at the lad who was staring out the window dreaming about the day he would become a rugby star. Shaken from his reverie, the young boy descended into a state he was becoming familiar with, another adrenalin fuelled sympathetic nervous response. With the boy’s gaze now fixated on him, the teacher resumed his droning about the events leading up to the battle of Waterloo. The boy’s attention was focused now but still not on what the teacher was saying. It was focused in anger driven by fear and resentment, on a wart on the teachers face. The battle of Waterloo might have been on another planet for all he cared.
Paying attention is the third characteristic of participation in a social learning space proposed by Etienne and Bev Wegner-Trayner that we have been exploring in our last three blogs. What they are suggesting here, is not, as the opening story is meant to illustrate, passively listening or simply observing what is happening. It is an “active stance” we collectively adopt to the responses that come back from our, equally active, participation in engaging our uncertainty. It is focused and deliberate. It begins from our very first interaction although we need to learn to become skilled at it.
The data that we observe can range from comments, questions and suggestions, that arise in our conversations about our uncertainties, to the rigorous and planned collection of specific metrics. Over time it will include observations on what is working (or not) in practice. It also extends to reactions and emotions such as doubt and concern.
The outcomes of paying attention may be factual correction , refined insights or new perspectives, revision of assumptions or goals, or a change of approach. Wegner-Trayner make the point that paying attention may not resolve uncertainty. Indeed, it may result in changed or even increased uncertainty and ultimately, a decision to ask new questions and/or gather more data.
In all of this, there is a risk of compromising the integrity of our engagement of uncertainty by allowing our cognitive biases and assumptions to creep in. This means maintaining our open-mindedness to what our engagement is surfacing, being mindful of our tendency to judge and not to submitting too quickly to our desire for resolution of the uncertainties we uncover.
In our work, we have seen several instances of a ‘slower is faster, less is more’ approach enabling organisations and teams to mitigate against these risks. Taking the time and focus to gain deep understanding has resulted in far greater clarity in what they needed to do. For example, after several cycles of investigation and trialling several solutions, a work team decided that developing a feedback culture was the key to them working towards a successful future together. Another example, involved an organisation having set out to explore external solutions for their personal and collective professional development. After taking a different perspective they identified that the major success factor was ensuring collegial support and leveraging all their practice from their collective purpose.
Whatever the difference that you are working towards making, honouring the uncertainties that you surface and the conversations or investigations they provoke requires truly paying attention to what comes back. Next time you think, “we have the answer!”, take the time to think again. What is the feedback or data really telling us? What further questions do we need to ask? What other perspectives to we need to listen to?
This is the last in our series about social learning spaces and learning to make a difference inspired by our time with Etienne and Beverly Wegner-Trayner. So, we will leave the last word to them.
“Social learning creates value for participants to the extent that they view engaging uncertainty and paying attention as contributing to their ability to make a difference they care to make.”
Enjoy the thinking time
Mary & Lab
The Bats team