On the Value of Systems to Frame Innovation through Learning

She was staring out the window, looking in the distance. My mother had a tall task and she did not know where/how to start. Dad had gotten together with two partners to go independent; he had asked her to become their administrator, keeping the books, etc. With only the eight grade, she would need to get an associate degree, pass an exam, and for a job she was not sure she wanted.

I was 15, with one year of high school under my belt. Math and physics were part of my curriculum: I had no idea how to approach accounting.

Nor frankly how to approach mom – our relationship was strained, at best (I was after all a teenager).

I did however know a thing or two about learning, and helping others figure the learning thing out. Middle school taught me how to work in groups, whether I liked it or not, that was the way it was, an experimental program. While I was learning to learn, I ended up figuring out how to help others learn.

It was not quite like The Breakfast Club; close.

Our work was graded solely in groups. Each month at least one or two group members in my group were focused more on having a good time than doing the work.

I quickly figured out I needed to reset expectations – the deal was we would rotate work tasks: conduct research, assemble the output, and present the results to the class. What I did not want, what I looked to avoid at all possible costs, was doing all the work and splitting the credit evenly.

The first couple of times it was a very painful process, trying to persuade and prod the less committed. Reporting issues pretty much guaranteed more attention on the group and more work, so that was not an option. Students literally had the responsibility – the opportunity – to make what they wanted of it.

I had two sisters close in age, so I was used to negotiating my way through splitting house chores. I figured it could go along the same lines – flip the situation, separate the actual doing into small steps, and make it like a game.

That’s what I did in class. When our group desks were assigned, we would kick the project off by moving them into a different configuration – asking for help in reconfiguring from other members. Make it “ours”. Then I would do the same with the assignment –asking questions about what people were thinking, instead of telling them what to do.

I just went first, and then let everyone else experience they could also go first, take turns.

  1. Changing the environment was step number one, reclaiming the group’s power to drive the project.
  2. Then, it was figuring out roles for the assignment – if someone really enjoyed exploring, they would become researchers, the presenters became explainers, and so on.

Like with my sisters, I knew I could not motivate my class mates to do something they did not want to/or perhaps know how to do. To go from start to success, I could enroll myself to figure it out with them.

High school was quite a change from that! Now I was solely responsible for my experience – school in the morning, and lots and lots of homework each afternoon at home.

Could I help mom while I was figuring out what would work myself?

First I had to figure out what parts of the process stumped her, aside from the material, admittedly very dry.

After all she was quite accomplished at running the house, getting us to the right place(s) at the right times (even if sometimes she forgot one of us along the way), she was involved in the school committee, and so on.

That’s where I started – asking her how she went about doing the books at home, keeping appointments straight, negotiating teacher-parent meetings, etc. What I learned stunned me. I actually gained a whole new appreciation for mom.

Then I worked with her to develop a framework, a ladder she could use to connect what she already did with the new information she could use to make it more efficient and (potentially) effective in a fun way so she could remember and retrieve it by using it in her day-to-day tasks.

It took us a few weeks to get going, then she got the hang of it: success, she passed the exam.

I was reminded of this story, which I shared #Inbound14 on the bold stage in abridged format, when I read this part in Steven Pressfield's post# about the value of great editors:

Great editors like Shawn develop systems. They evolve philosophies. They borrow principles from professional students/teachers of story structure. They steal tidbits from their own writers and from others. And they invent their own. Like scientists, they develop hypotheses and they test them against reality.

Systems and frameworks are useful tools to allow us to break down complex tasks into do-able chunks, and to learn things efficiently by getting us to boil things down to the essential components of what makes them work.

Creativity is a learned process, and an acquired taste. We may start by copying, combining, and collaborating; when we go into the other direction, taking away stuff, when we get to the core elements of why something works, we can then build something net new with it, just like Shawn Coyle, Pressfield's editor, does.

My mother has been following the process she learned since then. Years later, when she joined a class discussion for a course in human behavior with a friend who was preparing her doctoral thesis in criminology, the profession was incredulous to find out she was not a student of his, nor she had even completed high school; her comments and interactions on the material suggested a high level of critical thinking and knowledge. What happened next was both predictable and sad: he asked her to leave the class, and with it abandon the rich discussion she had started.

Learning together was the bridge that shifted our relationship into the positive and productive sphere, where it has gravitated since.

Systems allow us to learn with a purpose.

[image credit]


Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effect on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.