Some experiences provide more learning than others


In our series on cultivating learning and development in yourself and others, we examined how we learn from experiences last week. If you missed it, you will find it here.

The next natural question to explore is: Then do we learn equally well from any type of experience?

Obviously not. Taking the bus to work each day is normally not a great learning experience, nor is doing the weekend shopping with the family, unless of course there is a challenge involved.

When something becomes challenging, we have a great opportunity to learn. And often we quickly solve the challenge and then pat ourselves on the back: “Well done, you are making progress.” Or we pat our associates on the back and tell them: “Well done! Nice job. I see you are learning a thing or two.” The learning that takes place here we sometimes also refer to as external. We are learning something about how the world outside ourselves actually works. This learning is often also context specific. Under these circumstances, this is what one needs to do. But when the circumstances change, as they have a tendency to do, then that learning is not always so useful.

So quite frankly these are not the challenges that maximise our learning. True learning begins when we hit serious resistance. Things are not working out the way we hoped. Maybe we are even experiencing serious setbacks and even failures. These situations provide some really interesting learning because of our lack of success.

These are the situation where we learn about ourselves more than anything else. And the learning does not arise for the external event but from how we choose to respond to whatever is going on.

This is where we learn:

  • To resist the temptation to blame others for the situation
  • We see how stepping back from the situation helps us gain perspective and as a result, we learn how we are possibly contributing to the mess that is being created.
  • How to develop resilience in moving beyond the unpleasantness or pain of the experience and commit ourselves to do something about our personal limitations
  • In short, this is where we learn how to grow.

Challenges that start out as failures and setbacks thus provide som of the richest learning environments that we can possibly encounter. Most of us get this on a personal level. “Makes sense. I screwed up on that assignment but I learnt a lot.”

But do we apply the same tolerance and understanding attitude toward the members of our team who screw up from time to time? Do we see that as a valuable part of their learning process or do we see them as a problem?

Maybe our learning should start there…

BestThis blog post is the third in a series of blog posts where Mike is exploring: Why is it important to develop not just yourself but also the people around you?

Building capacity is at the heart of the Service Profit Chain. If you are not familiar with the intricacies of the Service Profit chain, we have a special treat for you:

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Teams are organic systems, and therefore, by definition unstable.

Team member

As we continue to explore team leadership as different from team management, we now need to look at another aspect of the team.

A team is also a system. And when we look at it from that angle, we need to recognise that systems come in many forms. One way to look at them is as either mechanical or organic. Mechanical systems are things like computers, cars and factories. Mechanical systems are by definition stable. You may feel that your car is moody – but that is probably more about you than the car. The car works or it does not work. If you stress it, it continues to work up to a point and then it snaps and is kaput.

Human beings – the core elements of your team are organic systems, as are cats, cauliflower or caterpillars. And organic systems are by definition unstable. They are always in transition from one state to another. Humans, go from happy to excited to sad. From wide awake to drowsy. From enthusiastic to reluctant and back again, on and on it goes. The only constant is change.

If we try and handle this instability with just management tools, we quickly get into trouble. The whole principle of management is that we can set up rules, and ways of doing things that can be replicated every day no matter what. Great idea if you are working with a stable system – quite tricky if you are working with an unstable system. Add to that, the complexity that these team members are not transitioning from one stage to another in an orderly and synchronised manner. While A is happy, B is frustrated, and C is indifferent. And tomorrow that may well be the other way round. It just depends…

The instability is not completely random. We typically shift to a new state as a result of some stimulus. This can be a change in weather, a remark from a colleague, a difficult task etc. the list is endless. Here you see the big difference with mechanical systems. Your car does not get sad when it rains, happy when we are going downhill – or frustrated by all the bigger cars on the road today. It just does its car thing in the same state no matter what.

Now all this may seem obvious to you. But in my day to day work as a coach, I keep running in to leaders who are assuming that everyone on their team is operating like a car and therefore have two states ‘off’ and ‘on’.

First step is to acknowledge and accept that this is what is going on. Learn to live with the fact that everyone around you is basically unstable – including you.

Second, if you are the kind of leader who is highly volatile or moody or otherwise prone to dramatic shifts in your states, you need to learn to manage your own states (I will be giving an online course on that in beginning of the New Year).

Thirdly, now that you are aware that this is what is going on, you need to help your team members better manage their states.

We will look at that in next week’s post.

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This post is one of a series where we are exploring the notion of leadership and how this is different from management. Our starting point is the Service Profit Chain and the understating that the management part of our job will only take us so far. If we really want to create an organisation that is capable of delivering outstanding customer experiences, we need to develop an organisation that delivers outstanding employee experiences – and that requires leadership. You can check out other articles of the series below:

  1. Are you an inspiring leader to work for?
  2. What does it require to be an inspirational leader?
  3. The something for something system is at the heart of the uninspiring workplace.
  4. How is team management different from team leadership and why should I worry?

What is your declaration of incompetence?


Learning and development is a key component in our overall wellbeing.

In order for you to learn – there needs to be a gap: A gap between your desired results/performance and your current ability. This was the topic of last week’s post where you can find a more detailed explanation.

You may of course not be getting the results you hoped for despite the fact that you have the ability. I.e. you know what to do but you are not doing it. That is not a learning challenge but a motivational challenge – the cure for that could be a bit of coaching but that is topic for another day.

We can look at our roles from two perspectives. There is a management perspective and a leadership perspective. Identifying the gap from a management perspective is often quite easy. In our roles as managers, there are typically some quite explicit expectations that have measurable metrics attached to them.

But the other part of our job – the leadership aspect does not come with the same set of quantifiable metrics. So how can we identify the gaps here?

One way of doing it is to use the DAC framework developed by Center for Creative Leadership. I wrote about that in a previous post that you will find here.

So to what extent do you feel that there is direction, alignment and commitment on the team that you are leading?

Take look at the matrix below and ask you self that hard questions on each of these. Where is my team and where would I like them to be?

Happening Not Happening
Direction – There is a clear vision of a desired future that everyone buys into.
– Team members are individually clear on what the team is trying to achieve as a whole.
– No agreement on priorities
– Team members feel they are bingo pulled in multiple directions.
– There is lots of activity but not much progress.
Alignment – Roles and goals are clear individually.
– There is a clear understanding of how each and everyone contributes to the larger picture.
– There is a sense that this is a well coordinated and synchronised effort.
– Deadlines are missed. Rework required and lots of errors resulting in double work.
– People feel disconnected from each other.
– Internal competition and blame games are the norm.
Commitment – Team members go the extra mile.
– There is a sense of mutual understating and trust.
– There are visibly high levels of engagement.
– Only the easy things get done.
– Team members are questioning what is in it for them.
– Individuals avoid taking ownership and responsibility.

Is there a gap?

So back to the learning – for learning to happen you must declare your incompetence. “I would like to achieve xyz but actually I don’t quite know how to get there.”

How does that feel? Scary, intriguing, motivating? Whatever you are feeling, what is important is that you are slightly out of your comfort zone – because that is where learning, growth and development actually take place. So if it feels a bit uncomfortable – great, you are on track.
There is a great learning opportunity.


If you have the curiosity to take a deeper dive into the subject of how we produce engagement on our teams, you are welcome to download my ebook Understanding Engagement.

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In this brief e-book, we will look at how the lack of engagement is to a large extent a function of leadership. And that if we really want to change the engagement levels on our teams, we will need to make radical shift in how we understand the world of work. The shift is all about moving from a transactional mindset to a transformational mindset. We will look into what that means, how it can help you as a manager and why it is so important.

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The price of success is often slow death.


In the early nineties, Prof. John Kotter conducted a research on what he, at the time, called “unadaptive organisations”.

The business school case of that time was Rank Xeroz who invented the photocopier, created a highly successful business with a dominant market share, only one day to wake up and find that the Japanese had eaten their lunch.

Kotter pointed out that there seemed to be a pattern in these cases of dominant companies that were suddenly seriously disrupted. (More recent cases of this kind of disruption are KODAK and Nokia; same story and LEGO was within inches of falling of the same cliff a few years back. “We had become arrogant—we didn’t listen to customers anymore,” says Mr Knudstorp.)

A great strategy/product leads to exceptional success.

But success sometimes has some unpleasant side effects.

It starts out with focus, that leads to tighter control, that leads to rigid procedures and rules and eventually just before it’s lights out, to arrogance. The arrogance means there is no room for new input from any of the stakeholders involved – The internal logic is we are successful and therefore we know best – don’t mess with it.

The reason this rigid focus does not work is because it presupposes that the world we live in is also stable or even stagnant – but when everything else around us evolves at an ever increasing speed, we need to evolve with it – that means changing and adapting the whole time.

So how do we mitigate arrogance?

The buzz word seems to be agility – But how does one become agile? We install a culture of continuous learning.

If we are always learning – we are in questioning the status quo – it’s what Peter Senge calls open mind. We are asking questions of ourselves and our surroundings continuously; questions that stem from genuine curiosity. Curiosity about what is going on, what others are thinking and feeling. If we then also take the time to reflect on the answers we are getting, pure magic happens.

You see, it is a bit of a myth that we learn from our experiences. If we always did, we would never make the same mistake twice, would we? So we only learn from our experiences when we take the time to think about them – when we pause for a moment of reflection.

So we need to develop the habit of reflection as the natural part of ending a meeting, ending the day, ending a project.

My favourite way of doing that – which is super fast, is to use the goals grid developed by Fred Nicols – you will find it here.

We ask ourselves two questions: do we have it and do we want it? Then we get four sections: Preserve, Achieve/develop, Eliminate and Avoid. I often do this on a napkin.

Goals grid
“So how did the day go?  what would we like to continue doing, do better tomorrow, eliminate or avoid in the future?”
“Thank you all for attending this meeting. Let’s just recap what did we learn today?”

Try for yourself – even on your own. At the end of the day, ask yourself: What did I learn today?

Implementing the Service Profit Chain requires a different state of mind.


As we have seen in previous posts, our state is influenced by how we see things – SeeBeDo.

The dominant way of seeing the world of work is called transactional – it’s the something-for-something system – and as we saw in my previous post, it is not madly inspiring.

But what is the alternative?

Is there a different way to look at the world of work that would produce a different state of mind and as a consequence, a different kind of leadership?

The short answer is yes – it is called transformational leadership and what is puzzling about this is that this way of seeing work has been around since the late 1970s.

Transformational Leadership was first coined by the historian and political scientist, James MacGregor Burns in the late 1970s, and was used to distinguish the inspirational leadership style from Transactional Leadership.

It was later expanded on by Bass and Rigio in their book “Transformational Leadership”

“Superior leadership performance — transformational leadership — occurs when leaders broaden and elevate the interests of their employees, when they generate awareness and acceptance of the purposes and mission of the group, and when they stir their employees to look beyond their own self-interest for the good of the group. Transformational leaders achieve these results in one or more ways: They may be charismatic to their followers and thus inspire them; they may meet the emotional needs of each employee; and/or they may intellectually stimulate employees. “

Transformational leadership includes four central components:

Idealized Influence being a role model that is highly regarded, valued, trusted, and deserving of emulation
Inspirational Motivation encouraging enthusiasm in others through challenge and instilling a sense of significance while promoting cohesion, harmony, and confidence
Intellectual Stimulation kindling creativity and inventiveness by encouraging novel ideas, questioning, and thinking outside the box
Individualized Consideration paying particular attention to the individual needs of each follower


At the core of this is a fundamentally different approach to what work and life is all about

Transactional Transformational
 Homo economicus – humans are rational, and
act only out of self-interest.Reward and punishment are the prime motivators.
  The integrated human works on developing herself
on many levels, physical, mental and emotional.Humans are driven by a need for purpose / meaning and a hunger for development and autonomy.
 The transactional manager works within the established way of thinking and does not question these basic assumptions about how the organisation operates.    The transformational leader is continuously
renewing the organisation by challenging existing
assumptions and implementing new ideas process
that question the status quo.
The employee and the  employer have opposite interested it a zero  sum game, I win/ you lose   The employer and the employee have common or
at least overlapping interest and concerns. It’s a
win/win or a lose/lose.


There is a ton of academic research that shows that the transformative approach produces superior results.  If we then drill down and try to understand what exactly it is that makes this significant difference, two things jump out.

  • Transformational leadership, more than anything else, creates a high level of employee enthusiasm / engagement.
  • In a rapidly changing world full of wicked problems – survival, let alone growth, is dependent on the contribution of everyone.

The transformative leader is distinguished by the ability to mobilise all the resources that are present in a given group or organization. And because people feel involved, included, and accepted for who they are, you get a completely different level of engagement. It becomes a self-reinforcing upward spiral.

Because of this, there are better relations and a much better understanding of each other’s perspectives. This also builds a culture where everybody feels like contributing and adding their point of view and ideas without being nervous about being criticized, ridiculed, or otherwise falling foul in the system.

This also means that the transformational leader is more humble in respect to other people and open to their ideas and contributions, because it’s not about the leader as a hero, but about a challenge, a purpose, that we need to solve together.

The transformative organization does better over time – they are much better equipped to handle change.

This also solves a personal inquiry I have had for a few years now: Why is it that some organisations implement the Service Profit Chain framework with a natural ease and subsequent amazing results, while others seem to get stuck.

The answer lies in their fundamental approach to work, is it transactional or is it transformational?

Even with the best intentions, if your fundamental state of mind is transactional, you will not create the kind of internal quality that is foundational for success when implementing the Service Profit Chain.

Are you the chief employee experience officer?


Focusing on the customer experience is the key to high customer loyalty – it’s well established.

That is also why around 70% of medium to large UK companies have a customer experience manager at the level of VP or equivalent. The current buzz-tool for developing these customer experiences is ‘service design thinking’.

So far so good.

But if you’re familiar with the service profit chain, you also know that the key to an exceptional customer experience starts somewhere else. We need to create what we call ‘internal quality’ – more popularly referred to as ‘a dream team cycle’.

So what would happen if we were to turn all this service design thinking on its head and focus more on the employee experience? When did we last sit down to analyse the employee journey as it unfolds throughout the day?

Do we know what the critical touch points are? Have we done some emotional mapping that could help us understand what the possible frustrations are during a day?

What are the learning opportunities? Does this job have varying challenges, or is it just the same thing day in, day out?

This idea came to me as I read Global Human Capital Trends 2016, published by Deloitte University Press. According to this latest survey, 92% of executives listed organisational design as very important and something they will be focusing on this year.

So designing our service organisations from the employee perspective should receive the same kind of attention and resources as we use when looking at the customer experience. Yes?

This leaves the question of who the chief employee experience officer is going to be in your organisation. Will they be part of HR, or will your organisation create a totally separate role?

I would love to hear your views on this, so please feel free to reply to this mail.