I’ve got a friend who works for a London design agency. They’ve got offices in a trendy part of the city, in a converted warehouse. They put together brand guidelines and advertising campaigns for a whole load of high street brands, high end work, very big budgets and very visible results. It’s a painfully trendy place to work and she has some gloriously fancy title like ‘Brand Planner‘ or ‘Head of Complicated Thinking‘. In my mind, their office is full of cool Scandinavian furniture, bean bags, halogen lighting on thin wires criss crossing the exposed brick walls and several ping pong tables. I suspect they ‘do lunch’ a lot. This is my view of their reality.
Her reality is different. It consists of deadlines, tricky clients, frustration with suppliers and colleagues, arguments, long days, travel, socialising with old men in suits who flirt endlessly with her and occasional bursts of excitement in an otherwise difficult world.
Our two views are not very closely aligned: whilst she enjoys her job, despite the trials and tribulations, my view of her reality is different from hers. Mine is largely made up, based on stereotypes and imagination, whilst her is based on everyday experience and the reality of client demands. And this is true of all sorts of roles. We think we know what other people’s reality is, but, in fact, we typically get it wrong. Not wildly wrong necessarily, but wrong nevertheless.
So what, you might ask. Surely i don’t need to fully understand someone’s reality to effectively teach them something? Surely it’s enough that we understand a high level view of what’s going on in their role and what’s important to them? Maybe so, but the fact is that the more closely we can understand other people’s reality, the better we can understand their drivers and blockers, the better we can understand their constraints and opportunities and the things that are important to them, then the better we can design our learning solutions to work with their reality and certainly not to actively contradict it.
Take time. We all have twenty four hours in the day, but we all spend it differently. Some people work nine to five. Others do eight till four. Some people work night shifts and others have to balance working two jobs in two shifts with dropping two children off to two different schools and looking after two elderly parents. Whilst it’s easy to ascertain what time people are physically in an office, it’s not enough to just understand that. We need to understand what else it going on in their reality.
I once ran a project with a Bank where we had to ask people to sit an hours training. We thought that we understood their everyday reality. We knew that they were customer facing staff and that they often had to interrupt their training to deal with customers. We knew that they would be doing the training at their workstations, and that we needed to take a ‘no nonsense’ approach to the subject. In short, we thought we knew what we were doing.
But the population behaved differently from what we expected. For a start, they organised themselves so that the person doing the training could sit in the back office at a different computer and not get disturbed whilst they were working. We didn’t need to have broken the training down into such small chunks, because they actually preferred to do it all in one go, and they actually got frustrated with all the bookmarks and section breaks we put in. Many of them were also part time, in particular, the Bank had created good roles for mothers who worked from ten till three, around the school run. For these people, the overall length of the training was too long, it ate into their day too far, and we would have been better off making it shorter, even if only by fifteen minutes.
So none of this was disastrous: we completed the project on time and everyone passed, but what it meant was that, on balance, many of the things that we had deliberately done to make things easier for learners actually ended up adding a little bit of friction into their day. We didn’t make things much harder for them, but we didn’t make it any easier either. Effectively we missed an opportunity to do a great job and ended up doing just a good one.
We are only going to build the understanding that we need by spending time aligning ourselves with the people who are going to carry out the learning. This will sound obvious, but if i’d spent longer doing it on this project, we would have had a better result.
People’s reality isn’t just about the hours that they work and whether they are customer facing or not. It’s also about understanding what’s important to them, what worries them, what motivates them and what excites them. It’s about thinking what their individual journey is and how that aligns with the organisational journey and with what we are producing.
Motivation to learn is a very individual thing: it comes back to that question of “what’s in it for me” as well as “what’s in it for you“? Go back to the question of time. We all have the same amount of it, but we all choose to spend it differently. Some people will choose to take elective courses to further their careers, whilst others will take elective courses to learn knitting, or how to mend their car, or to understand philosophy better. The motivation is very different for all these different things. People who want to learn how cars work may want to be able to fix their own car to save money, or they may simply be curious because they don’t know at the moment. People who want to learn about philosophy may be curious because they are pondering the meaning of life, or they may want to score better in a rather specialist type of pub quiz. The fact is that, unless we ask them, we simply don’t know what their everyday reality is and, without knowing this, we are always likely to be slightly wide of the mark.