Productive Presencing - Six Hacks To Get Learner Ready

meditation at sunset by Arman_Zhenikeyev (Flickr)This is pretty much a rough guide of a plenary/workshop I am running at Melbourne Business School next week as part of the Future of Learning conference. My first experience of learners was a group of maximum security prisoners in three South African prisons – Pretoria Central, Johannesburg Maximum Security prison  and Diepkloof Women’s prison. The year was 1995. I was running what would become creative therapeutic workshops to build rehabilitation in prisoners. One thing I knew was that in order for someone to change they needed to believe that it was possible but also safe. How do you build the notion of safety in a place which is violent and frankly, very unsafe?

One thing I also knew was that institutional places are very much the same. They work by rule and repetition. In prisons, the repetition of the rule often serves a  place to break the spirit of people to mould them into something new – almost like what is done to first year students at art and drama school. Misguided, seering and very often deeply unsuccessful and counterproductive. I knew that if I could break the repetition for others that the possibility existed that they could change. My brief was to get prisoners to write poems for an event which would be headlined by Linton Kwesi Johnson. I had been asked to take part in it as a poet and was in this position because I wanted the prisoners who were being entertained to have poems of their own. I worked with them using a principle called synesthesia – it was useful to start understanding metaphor and also to help people break down assumptions of what sense could be used for. I would blindfold prisoners and get them to taste herbs and tell me what shapes emerged for them. I would get them to imagine colour in sound. We then looked at animating furniture and objects around them just with their imagination.

What was amazing for me was when prisoners started telling me of how this process had helped them. One woman told me that now when she had to polish the corridor floors which were always immaculate and certainly not in need of polishing she would listen to the sounds and build paintings in her head. Another told me that when she went to her cell, her blanket was her mother, her pillow her child and her chair her grandmother. I worked in these places for 3 years – it build into me the understanding that learner readiness – the ability to open others to learning and change was some of the most important work that could be done in the world.

I have moved to other places not exactly that dissimilar to prisons. They also have their own archaic way of working in sometimes senseless ways. This place is the world of work. The world of work has changed profoundly. It is no longer a place we go to think.Perhaps it is not even a place anymore we go to get things done. In the world of education, preparing learners to learn is critical. We have a raft of research on how to build readiness before delegates come on a programme and have to a large extent done a significant amount on work on building learning containers on the programme for people to help open up and reframe our thinking. But what about learner readiness for going back into the work environment? Surely this is the reason why we are running leadership programmes in the first place. It is for the traction for what we can build back at work. Or is it?

This became a critical question for me and is one of the driving forces for the direction this presentation will take. For when I started investigating the link between exiting programmes and entering work, the raft of research disappeared. It is almost as if this is a potential white space, not managed and certainly not well resourced which could become a rich source of innovation. It is a place which is between a formalised order of learning and a formalised place of work. This white space felt like it held an enormous possibility to build learner readiness. But something still made me feel uncomfortable.

First, I don't like the idea of learner readiness. It implies an event that someone is going to plunge into. Secondly, it assumes that the onus and success is the responsibility of the learner. I l have coined another term instead -  the idea of Productive Presencing. There has been much work done by Otto Scharmer on the notion of Presencing. But for him it is  a reflective place. The place you go to to stop the immediate causal relationship between observation and action. But what if you could create a state of being in yourself which embraced the fact that Learning is a Lifestyle, a way of Being which can in actual fact make you more productive and better at what you do? I like the idea of productive presencing because it acknowledges that the only place we are safe is in the present but that this is also a place where enormous productivity can flow.

With the socialisation of the workplace, the boundary between work and our private life has become blurred. We deal with our private lives at work but we also take devices which contain our worklife into our home lives. As the boundary between these worlds is becoming blurred what is the readiness we are preparing learners for. Perhaps it is presencing instead? It is certainly not just for the office and frankly the idea that the office is where you go to to get work done is also no longer tenable.

Perhaps it was the sense that for me, work is not a place where I personally get things done. I have a number of staff I manage, various stakeholders I need to engage and certain ideas that I have to get out during the day.

Work is a place I go to, to check e mail, connect with my staff but it certainly is not a place I go to work on ideas or deigns, or processes. So where is work. It is frankly often in my private spaces, on walks, in conversation over breakfast or a meal. In the bath. Perhaps this is a very particular space and not one which many people experience struggling in. For my work really is the generation of ideas. I spoke to others who are engaged in more administratively driven work. What I discovered was that the biggest challenge which they faced was being interrupted while performing tasks.

So what does this say for learner readiness? The office is not a still pond into which the sated learner is dropped. In actual fact it is everything other than that. If the world of work is not a calm, stable  place where tasks get done but rather a place forever changing filled with high levels of uncertainty and complexity should the learning we are doing not reflect this? Should we not be training our leaders how to manage teams in this environment - how to be productively present?

Why are we even still speaking about time management? Time is an infinite resource. It is our energy and our attention which we need to manage better in the sea of time we have. According to Galinsky (2010), we need to manage our energy and our attention rather than our time. Time is infinite but the energy we need to use in that time and the attention we need to focus on what we are required to do is critical to get it done. There has been much recent take about taking more breaks ad working in sprints rather than in long marathon like phases. I have been experimenting with Pomodoros[1]. I am in actual fact am writing this using the Pomedoro method (I have used 13 of my 25 minutes to write this thus far). It is a method that allows one a highly focused period of time to get a task done It does not allow for interruption, distraction or multi tasking. I think each delegate should be given a Pomedoro as they leave a leadership programme. At UCT GSB Executive Education we use the idea of tea in a related fashion.

For productive presencing is also about unlearning things. In order to learn more, develop agility and reframing and curiosity around what you do and engage with, one needs to be able to change. One of the conditions for change is to allow yourself to let go of particular positions or learnings. The story of the Zen Master and the teapot is an old one and has been massaged and recreated for many platforms. This is the version that keeps me humble and interested in  learning as a lifestyle. A businessman approaches a wise zenmaster and begs him to tell him all he knows. The zenmaster asks, in reply, “Can I pour you a cup of tea?” The businessman says, “No, no. That really isn’t necessary. I really just want to learn all I can form you as soon as possible. The zenmaster stares hard at the businessman and again, he asks pointedly, “Can I pour you a cup of tea?” The businessman allows a look of irritation ot lfit across his face and says to the zenmaster, “Alright, alright, just one cup”. The zenmaster starts pouring the fine tea into the businessman’s cup. After a while the businessman says, “Excuse me, the zemaster, but the tea is overflowing from the cup.” The zenmatser looks at the businessman and says, “Yes. That is like you, my son.You are too full of your own knowledge.  Go away and empty your teacup. For it is only then that I can teach you anything ”

The sense of emptying one’s teacup is an important lesson for leaders. We can only change our thinking, build our curiosity and develop agility by unlearning what we know often. This requires constant filling and drinking of the cup of knowledge but also being prepared to empty it again to learn other things.

Is this really the world we make learners ready for? I am not sure we do. So in the spirit of developing productive presencing for an age where nothing is certain, I want to suggest six hacks which have helped me and which we use to get learners ready for learning as a lifestyle and not as an event.

1.    Sprints

First, is the idea of Sprints. Sprints are what we use Pomodoros for. Realising that we get the most work done when we have tangible, measurable, time-bond goals for what we want to achieve.   So this would be SMART goals but it is using the understanding of our energy and attention to get it done. Time is literally used in this sense as a timer. I have looked at a number of research papers on what metrics to use for chunking out time. Some speak of 90 minutes as the solution (Schwartz, 2010), other speak of chunking tie into 25 minute sprints. I tend to like the 25 minute Pomodoro method firstly because 90 minutes feels more like a marathon than a sprint to me and there is something manageable about doing a task for 25 minutes taking a 5 minute break and then repeating this process another 3 times. So technically you use 2 hours in an incredibly productive fashion. The process can then only be repeated once again during the day. If I think of writing this particular paper, I had set aside the whole day because that it how long I estimated it would take me to write this. There is a belief in my own productivity which has allowed me to write faster and for ideas to flow because I know that I have a very clearly allotted time to do this in which also allows me to do other things.

2.    How to Breathe

The second hack is around how we use our breath. Linda Stone’s work on email apnea has been widely disseminated. Often when we read our e mails we hold of breath. What this does is to activate our sympathetic nervous system. This in turn activates our stress hormones and makes our prefrontal cortex shutdown. Now we are only focusing on immediate reactions to a very specific threat. It destroys any possibility of widened thinking, or of looking for other possibilities. Instead the advice for responding to what seems to be an instinctual reaction to a threat is to breathe. When one breathes through one’s nose, one activates one’s parasympathetic nervous system which is all about rest and recovery. It creates an expansiveness around our thinking and allows dopamine to flow into our bodies. Just this simple hack could help many an executive from putting on weight from stress which is literally what happens when your sympathetic nervous system is activated and coritsol and cholesterol are dumped into your bloodstream

3.    Ancestral Voices

One of the most important conditions to create for learner readiness is a sense of community, a critical mass that can be relied upon by the learner post the programmes. We attempt to achieve this on two levels. One is to use technologies like learning platforms that we custom build for our processes where learner can share and exchange ideas and challenges. Another form is to use telephonic engagement – peer coaching through the use of what we call a leadership council – were all learners call in and one person’s challenge is nominated as the issue for discussion. The nine shares their issue and each participant responds back not with advice but with stories from their own experience or observations that they make. Another mechanism we use which is perhaps on a different level is the calling of ancestral voices. I have been privileged enough to use this technique with a group of executives form East Africa and another group of executives from 11 countries in Africa as well as my own team. Its requirements are very simple but require an enormous trust and sincerity for it to work. The invitation is made to the group that they call on their ancestors to guide them on their journey forward. Each delegate says his or her name, whom s/he is the son/daughter of and who s/he is the grandson or granddaughter of. So in my case it would be: My Name is Elaine Rumboll, daughter of Frank and Adrienne Rumboll and granddaughter of Johannes and Elaine Badenhorst and Anne and Frank Rumboll. One can use a stik which can be passed on to do this process. It is incredibly powerful and has in some cases moved delegates to tears. It also sets the intention of a journey which is going to be contained by many for the group.

4.    White Spaces

I came across the idea of white spaces when I was running a process for Toyota in Kenya. One of our speakers was Erik Hersman, a known innovator in Africa. The idea of white spaces has affected me profoundly and I have already been working with my team to identify what we can use in our own department for this. A white space is a space which is rich for innovation in any organisation. It is a space which is not managed by anyone nor does it have a financial budget tied into it. A good example of how one could use  a white space is for example asking if the organisation has a Twitter account and who manages it

5.    Jamming Sessions

Meetings are another place ready for an overhaul. Much has been done through the work of Thinking Environment practise to get people’s voices in the room and to start listening to one another with respect and attention. Another mechanism that I have been working with is a process called Jamming Sessions. Meetings are more often than not also places where people take a position which can often be demotivating and destructive for many. A jamming session is a process which allows many perspectives into the room on a particular issues and takes the person out of the problem. How it works is like this: Create a few card with different words on them : Resource, experience, clarity, example, unspoken, fact, empty chair. Staff are then invited to sit on any chair and once the question is decided can go and give their opinion on it from any one of these places. If someone also wants to speak form that place they go and stand to the left of that person. Once the last person has spoken this person then takes that seat and speaks for that position. One can also have people standing in places of support. So if you would like to support someone’s position on something you may go and stand to their right and put your hand on their shoulder. We do it outside once a month in our garden.

The question is chosen beforehand and agreed on as an issue by the group. Whatever resolution which come out of the process are auctioned post the jamming session. It is important that once the jamming session is finished that each person has one final opportunity to give a perspective on what it is they have learnt from the process. Jamming sessions are also a wonderful way of responding to recent research findings which show that as soon as a position is publically stated it is very difficult to change someone’s perspective on it (REF). Therefore the longer you wait for someone to give a perspective or position on something the more likely they will be able to change their stance.

6.    Managers as Resources and Coaches

Perhaps one of the things which has changed profoundly in the world of work is the role of managers. In Jason Fried’s very persuasive talk Why work doesn’t happen at work he refers to managers as interrupters and in fact calls for their total demise.I would like to call instead for managers to be seen in a different role. Managers as Mentors and Coaches. What does this mean? He role of a coach is to ask incisive questions which gets the coachee to a place where they determine their own solutions. So the role of the manager in the 21st century is to help employees by asking questions which can help them think through a place where they may be stuck or allow them to start  thinking in an alternative direction. After all, answers don’t change the world questions do. The manager is also now in a position because they are not taking over the problem from the employee able to be deployed as a resource. What this means is that if the employee needs a stumbling block or obstacle to be moved for a goal to be achieved the manager is able to do this because their time has been freed up.

We have looked at six elements to create a greater sense of productive presencing in delegates. However the most important condition for this state is the ability to unlearn and relearn or reframe what one is thinking and doing. Without the buy in for this none of the other hacks are sustainable. Another realisation is that many of these hacks don’t require added financial investment to be applied.  In fact, this could be going on in your head without others really having to even know you are doing it. Similar in a way to the prisoners who are able to create another world which is not impacted upon by the pettiness of an institutional place of discipline.


[1] The interesting anecdote around its origin is that a programmer was wanting to get his work done in discrete spurts and borrowed his mother’s clocktimer which was in the shape of a tomato. It was a 25 minute timer hence the name Pomodoro and the discrete breakdown into 25 minute bursts with 5 minutes after for recovery.