Decisions = learning that lasts

This week I was reminded of the importance of lifelong learning and further convinced that a well-framed decision is one of the best ways to pass on skills to others.  I found myself on this train of thought after reading an intriguing post concerning the challenges that my grandsons face in today’s education system, “9 Elephants in the (Class)Room That Should Unsettle Us“.  I traveled farther down that track as I worked with my marketing team on a Content Management System (CMS) decision.

My conclusion: Nothing teaches practical skills more deeply or lastingly than a well-framed decision.

I’ll use a few of Will Richardson’s Classroom Elephants to illustrate.

We know that most of our students will forget most of the content that they “learn” in school … because the curriculum and classroom work they experience has little or no relevance to students’ real lives.

I saw just the opposite behavior when helping my marketing co-ops with the Content Management System (CMS) choice.  This is a real decision; important to us all.  I teed up the problem, i.e. framed the initial decision “question” and generated a list of criteria that define success from my perspective as a business owner.

By doing so, I taught them several important life lessons well-beyond the scope of this one decision:

The need for teamwork – that different folks play different roles that contribute to making a great decision.  Stakeholders “own” the problem, technologists conceive or deeply understand potential solutions and analysts/evaluators pull together the relevant knowledge from multiple sources (e.g. SME interviews, web research) to inform the decision. Success in business or life is rarely the result of individual heroics.

Completed staff work – I was exposed to this management principle in my first professional job as a result of a CEO memo sent to all employees. “In Completed staff work, the subordinate is responsible for identifying the problem or issue requiring decision by some higher authority. In written form such as a memorandum, the subordinate documents the research done, the facts gathered, and analysis made of alternative courses of action. The memo concludes with a specific recommendation for action by the superior.”

After my initial hand-off to the team, I quickly faded into a background role as a content source, but avoided day-to-day involvement in the decision analysis process.  I had identified an important criterion, SEO Effectiveness, but I left it up to the team to research the various metrics used to express this in quantitative terms.  I suggested some initial CMS alternatives, but left it to the team to elaborate them into fully-formed, creative solutions.  I’m dodging direct participation in scoring alternatives; I want the team to assess the relative effectiveness of the alternatives against each criterion, to summarize the differentiators between the competing solutions and to judge when they have sufficient data to pull the trigger and make a recommendation.

We know that deep, lasting learning requires conditions that schools and classrooms simply were not built for.

Richardson highlights the conditions that lead to great learning:

  • an interest and a passion for the topic,
  • a real, authentic purpose in learning it,
  • agency and choice,
  • fun learning it even if some of it was “hard fun.”,
  • impact beyond the classroom walls.

Turning a team loose to attack a challenging decision sets up most of these conditions for anyone with a pulse.

We know that grades, not learning, are the outcomes that students and parents are most interested in.

In business, there are no simple grades to give.  There are few clear-cut right-or-wrong answers – everything is a trade-off.  Answers can’t be generated at one sitting; most decisions require some level of experimentation or prototyping that stretches out the analysis timeline.  Even when a decision is made, it may take months or years to experience its outcomes.  There’s no teacher with a red pen waiting to assign a grade to your work at the end of the hour.

We know that separating learning into discrete subjects and time blocks is not the best way to prepare kids for the real world.

We live in an interdisciplinary world.  Decisions are the integrative mechanism through which knowledge from diverse disciplines is brought to bear on a shared problem.  In my Electrical Engineering and Physics courses at Rose-Hulman, I learned how to “plug-and-chug” my way through numerous equations, but didn’t realize at the time how those numbers were blended with other quantitative or qualitative judgments from other disciplines to make real-world decisions.

All of this reinforces my belief that the best thing you can do for an employee, co-worker or grandson is to give them responsibility for meaty decisions, challenge them to maintain a Top 10 Decisions List for their project(s) and help them see their job/life from the creative context of a set of decision patterns.

Do so and you will stimulate deep learning that lasts.


About decisiondriven

Innovator in Decision Management, Systems Thinking and System Engineering methods and tools
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