Learning contract evaluation

So as it is now January 2014, my individual learning contract time span has elapsed and now seems like an obvious time to review my progress. The learning contract was an essentially good tool, to take stock and reflect on my skill set and set achievable goals in areas I’d like to progress or further build on. Without the contract and the opportunity to break down, how exactly I was going to go about achieving the points, I don’t think I’d have necessarily tackled the personal development points or been able to evaluate my progress effectively. As such, breaking down the points, enabled me to reflect on general statements like “I’m not good at public speaking”, which in their generalisations are unhelpful. The learning contract enables the understanding of which areas of public speaking are challenging and the best way to approach them.

My first point surrounded improving my reflective writing by researching and testing reflective styles. I started off the semester without a structure to my reflective writing. I did initially adopt a structure, but it led me to set the objective to explore other structures as it did not suit my style of writing. By the 14th November, I had explored four different reflective writing structures and researched the practice. The research element gave me a deeper understanding of the practice of reflective writing and cemented further, its value professionally, personally and within business. However, I created my own structure stating, deconstruction, theorising and construction on the basis of my own personal preference.

After practicing my reflective writing and gaining further feedback, this structure seemed appropriate as it provided a structure that wasn’t too rigid and incorporated a prompt to construct something action related at the end of the reflection, which was an area I was previously lacking. Consequently, I think assess my reflective writing pieces through-out my reflective journal, my reflective writing has progressed and improved, stemming from the stages deconstructed in the learning contract. Whilst I will maintain this loose structure within reflective writing in all areas of my life, stating such a structure is only something I will continue to do within my academic reflective writing.

My second point focused on taking on something new and challenging within team tasks and not just relying on my preferences and known strengths, allowing me to fester in my comfort zone. I have consistently taken on at least one new task outside of my skill set, within group tasks. Within team tasks, I have engaged within pitching and presentations, an area I feel greatly uncomfortable in.  I have received feedback each time and been able reflect on my performance and incorporate my feedback into the next time. Moreover, the team were able to identify my experience and knowledge within pitching and utilise this in the team tasks.

I’ve also taken on designing tasks, designing presentations and flyers, areas that I tend to shy away from due to lack of confidence. Within one team task, I took the lead on organising the financial spread sheet model and delegating tasks. Through sharing out team (basic) knowledge and giving it a go, receiving feedback from Tony Blackwood, as a team and personally, I learnt a lot about how to approach the task in the future and what worked and what didn’t. Consequently, these challenges have acted as huge learning curves for me within the team and I’ve learnt far more from them, than sticking to what I already know. I’ve discovered hidden strengths in writing pitches and design that I never knew I had, to the benefit of the team; I also pushed the whole team to engage in a task I would not have normally led on and in which no-one had expertise in with great learning results for everyone and I’ve worked on weakness within my presentation style.

This has led me to a further point, of taking a stance within the team to provide ideas and to motivate but not to take over control of tasks when full team engagement is needed. As such promoting learning for the team becomes the priority and not just completing the task at all costs. Moreover, focusing on tasks that are more action orientated has enabled me to further progress and explore my lack of action of orientation; getting involved with the actual doing instead of researching and planning.

My third point surround verbal communication became more complex than first anticipated. I’d considered it was a problem within my preparation for meetings and not having my thoughts as organised as needed. However, one of my more recent reflections on verbal communication expounded, that the issue surrounded so many areas, including my learning preferences, my deep learning preference, my difficulties with verbal communication, lack of self-confidence within self-presentation and historical introversion within groups and frustration. Consequently, my progress on this point, is suggestive, that just approaching a meeting with six points to cover does not tackle the root cause of the problem but is something I could adopt. However, when I’m actually in the situation or under pressure I revert back to old practices.

My verbal communication reflection detailed my research and progress in the area with different practices I can adopt as well as understanding why I approach verbal communication like this. Consequently, it is more about thinking outside of my head and thinking strategically; the question is not “what do I want to tell them?”, but” what do they need to know?” and “how do I engage with my audience?” As such, whilst I feel I am more self-aware in regards to not only my own verbal communication, what effective verbal communication and presentations look like, but also how my poor verbal communication skills within a team meeting make other people feel and why they don’t effectively impart what I’m trying to say. Consequently, this point is a work in progress and I don’t think it can be ticked off as “done” within my learning contract, as what I thought was a singular learning objective, is actually a significant personal weakness that combines many areas I’m not particularly confident in. Whilst I feel more able to move ahead with this, I think I will be better suited to truly review my progress at the end of the year, after continuous feedback from my team as I incorporate and experiment with different communication strategies. Practice makes perfect.

To conclude, the learning contract is certainly a tool I will take forward and utilise professionally in semester two. It has enabled me to tackle three personal development points, further my self-awareness and brings these three points back into the team, engaging in feedback and utilising my learning within the team sphere.

 

New year’s resolutions – learning

As it is nearly the beginning of a new year, 2014, it seems timely to make some new year’s resolutions. I’m not a big believer in them essentially as I think they often set one up for failure, but as 2013 was such a transitional and challenging year, coming out of a very difficult 2012, it seems fitting to not only draw a line under it, in terms of personal challenges, but also new academic and learning challenges. Consequently, I have many habits and inefficient learning practices that I know I’m aware of but I have accepted up until now, as part of my process. But if my 2014 year, is truly going to be a year of change, it is important to not let self-awareness automatically become self-acceptance without good reason.

Learning Resolutions

  • I will stop letting my love of research, detail and planning get in the way of action – I’ve noticed that I allow myself to procrastinate under the guise of planning and perfectionism. I am only quick to act, when I have the support and push of a team as a motivator or when I have crisis. Consequently, I will use my team, a group of activists, as a driving force and stop procrastinating.
  • I will be more tactical about my learning with an awareness of when deep learning and surface learning is appropriate – I find everything interesting and I love furthering my knowledge. Sometimes, this is at the expense of whether it is relevant or not. Consequently, when I come to the point of writing an essay or compiling a report, I find I have a silly amount of information and wading through it, takes as long as the actual researching did. I need to be more restrained when researching so as to learn more effectively in order to stop bombarding myself and my team with knowledge.
  • I will take proper time off and do productive things – I’m a real workaholic, between my University and working 20hours a week running events. Consequently, the only real time I take off is when I am either ill or when I’m hung-over. Therefore, I never feel that I have a proper break away from thinking, doing other things I enjoy and this is to the detriment of my learning. Sometimes I have periods when I can’t concentrate but I force myself to sit and work. I also work for extended periods without having breaks, which is equally as unproductive. I want to start running again and to do things I enjoy outside of education and working, which I feel with restore the work life balance I am currently missing.
  • I will stop being distracted by distractions – When I reflect on my working practices through-out the day, I often conclude that what I’ve done in 8hours, I could have done in 5hours. This is usually because I have Facebook on in the background, I answer work/University emails and I text. Consequently, I lose little chunks of time, end up distracted and take a while to get back into what I was thinking about. I need to be really strict with my Facebook usage, take proper breaks away from the computer in which I can check my phone.
  • I will stop writing unrealistic, never ending lists – innovate more– I often set myself unrealistic goals and amounts of work to complete in the week and I feel constantly on the back foot. I not only overwhelm myself but overwhelm others in my team, by listing what we need to achieve. I challenge myself to not constrain myself with lists and plans, but to sit and innovate and discover and try the unexpected.

Brilliant Leaders excel at integrative thinking

Stating

The feedback session highlighted that my greatest weakness is my inability effectively orally communicate ideas or complex information to my business team. My oral communication strategy has been highlighted as ineffective, confusing and can overwhelm, disengage and demotivate my team mates on occasion. Within our team, where we are newly forming and exploring ideas, whilst being in different locations, ensuring effective communication is a top priority. In line with my personal learning contract and the feedback, I consider this to be a really significant area that needs to be addressed for the benefit of the business team, to enhance our ability to learn as a team.

Deconstruction

My ability to effectively communicate to my team effectively is crucial not only to our business but to our team based learning and engagement. My past experience and love of learning is a potential asset to our team but is ineffective if I can’t communicate back into the team. Moreover, when I come to communicate within the team I often feel like there is a preconception, and not a misconception, that I am going to launch into a long ramble, which is often true. Whilst I have tried to research different strategies and approach oral communication differently, I find in the moment, I make the exact same mistake.

This has led me to question my approach and thinking process, before the point of communicating orally. The problem seems to stem from the pragmatic issue, that I always have far too much I want to say, in far too much detail and once I start talking, I’m unable to effectively organise my thoughts, so they can come out disjointed and fragmented. In stark contrast, my written communication, as I am able to spend time considering it, is very organised.  As an introvert, I have a constant internal dialogue with myself, which in terms of academia and business, means I have the potential to over think, which can steer my thoughts out loud or mean I’ve have too many things I want to say.

When I come to write down my thoughts or prepare for oral communication, I go through an organisational process, where I brain dump all my thoughts and research, unrestrained  and refine them down into coherent, well-structured ideas. By preference, I like to research and explore unconstrained and make sense of the information I find in my own way and thought processes. Whilst I am aware, this method takes longer, it is one that I personally enjoy learning within its structure and has always enabled me to produce high quality work and research. Clearly, this process, heavily contributes to the fact that whilst I like an information overload, that when I start speaking on a topic or idea, it can be perceived like an information avalanche. As such, my way of working has always been to put all the information on the table and let people make sense of it and judgements however feedback has been so far that this is overwhelming and for some disengages and they are unable to follow. As such, I don’t actively seek out engagement; I wait for my audience to engage on their own terms.

Consequently, Hills (2001:105) defines effective team based learning, as being dependent on the whole team being able to contribute to created ideas and solutions. Pragmatically, my ineffective communication style stops this occurring.  As such communication within the group needs to be at a bare minimum understandable and straightforward before members can engage. During this early stage of idea incubation and business formation, it is crucial that as a team we build effective communication channels and utilise the knowledge each person is bringing into the team.

Moreover, within our coaching sessions, whilst I’ve taken huge amounts of time to prepare for knowledge sharing sessions, on reflection, my learning preferences dominant how I communicate the information back and I haven’t considered the learning preferences of my team.  As such, when I read journals, I like to really understand, to challenge and to question; I like to make sense of it in my own way. This deep level learning preference isn’t mirrored across my team mates and they become disengaged when I go into detail. Moreover, my coaches’ feedback has been that my interlinking of themes means that I attempt too much and whilst I understand, I lose my team.  Consequently I need to develop communication strategies that harness the way I like to learn and perceive things, but communicate the information back in a more accessible, coherent format; once which considers the audience.

Theorising

Ludlow (1992:2) defines effective communication as an active process involving the transfer of information which has the outcome of shared understanding. Ludlow’s definition is interesting as it highlights in its simplicity, the three areas in which my oral communication fails, as illustrated by my deconstruction. Firstly, the communication must be an active process on both sides, involving the engagement of both parties. This is a strategic issue and doesn’t just consider the imparting of information but how to ensure it is absorbed and engaged with, provoking an element of response. Secondly, the transfer of information is suggestive that the communication should have a clear, coherent message and shouldn’t consist of a myriad of concepts and ideas. As such the receiver should be able to pick out the main strand of information being communicated with ease. Thirdly, my misconception that communication finishes once the person speaking has finished, completely negating the fact that the end goal of effective communication must be that the information has been successfully imparted and understood (Ludlow 1992). As my oral communication is a distinctly one way process, involving the expression of a whirlwind of information in which I wait for the receiver to engage if they wish to, it is no wonder that it is ineffective.

As mentioned above, my communication strategies are dominated by my learning preferences and where I lie on the Kolb learning cycle (Kolb 1984). I prefer to reflect and think my responses are considered and researched. I hate being placed into situations where I have to respond to something I’m unprepared for; hence my reflective nature leans towards over preparation. This can lead to an overwhelming amount of information being imparted verbally, which to my predominantly activist team mates, is a completely ineffective approach. As such communication should not be about conveying a message in isolation, it should focus on the audience, their learning preferences and understanding their modes of perception and judgement (Ludlow 1992).

Moreover communication with a team with a learning culture has collaboration at its heart, as such communication should involve sending, then receiving, then understanding and then accepting; four distinct, active stages with prompts for engagement (Ludlow 1992). All parties involved including the sender, need to actively listen, to seek out signs of misunderstanding and disengagement. The aim here, isn’t just to deliver a one way message, Ludlow’s model seeks to involve, requires participation and facilitates the receivers to make sense of information with the sender.

Taking this to another level, Ludlow suggests a meeting structure in order to facilitate participation from large group teams, ensuring a common purpose and that multiple ideas are progressed through (Ludlow 1992). As such each point delivered could follow the same process:

  • Introduction and objectives of point – The outcome needed is presented to the team, whether it is a brain storm or a concrete end decision.
  • Introduction of broad themes and purpose – Point explained following communication model of sending, receiving, understanding and accepting as above- information and facts are clearly presented to the group.
  • Team engagement with themes – Opened up for discussion and exploration, to test understanding and to encourage collaboration of ideas. Group divergent thinking.
  • Integration of thoughts – Team movement to clear acceptance and convergent thinking.
  • Conclusion and action plan – Reaching the end objectives and moving forward.

This model within meetings and coaching sessions stops communication of information being a one directional process without engagement and stops tangents and potential incoherence, as the end point is identified at the beginning and at the end. This method further enhances our team’s aim of building a learning culture with high levels of psychological safety, as is invites collaboration of ideas, collectively breaking down ideas and rebuilding them as a team. Moreover, and most importantly, it effectively manages nine people’s contributions within a structure and enables the separation of facts, feelings and opinions into the relevant sections of the interaction, avoiding disengagement occurring as facts miscommunicated as feelings or vice versa. Such confusion is a pivotal cause of disengagement and misunderstanding within teams (Ludlow 1992).

Now with an effective model in place to ensure engagement and effective communication for the team, the next issue is to explore how to make sure my messages are clear and coherent. Lake (1997) points to the indisputable truth, that if 90% of what you say is perceived as unnecessary and overly complicated, then the 10% that is crucial to their understanding will be completely missed. As such, my personal challenge is to become more disciplined, more concise and to consider my audience.

My pitching has been an area commented on as strength due to its clarity and persuasive nature. Within pitching I adopt a completely different method of communication, developing key messages and objectives that I constantly refer back to using them to structure my pitch. As such Lake (1997) suggests a similar approach to all oral communication. This involves the same process I go through for a pitch, researching and organising my thoughts in any way I wish, but before I write the pitch, I pull out at three key messages for the audience ensuring I remain concise. The pitch therefore communicates effectively what I’m trying to say, as it hammers clear points home.

Furthermore, Lake (1997) suggests that preparation for any big or small presentation shouldn’t start with “what do you want to tell them?” as for someone that loves researching and exploring ideas, I can often want to tell my audience everything I know because I’m passionate about it. Instead, I need to start with the questions “what do they need to know?” and the realistic “what do they want to know?”  This is especially true within my activist team, as they don’t want to know the theory and details that I crave. As such whilst my learning preference is still exploited, the communication of the learning is about what the audience receptively wants to hear.

Lake (1997) proposes a model to approach oral communication preparation, that involves prioritising what the speaker says, a discipline I currently lack. Lake (1997) suggests breaking down the information into four parts…..

  1. What is necessary to say?
  2. What would be useful to say?
  3. What you’d like to say?
  4. What is superfluous?

Adopting this model, into practical use within my preparations, I consider whilst the first two should be included, point four should be dropped if the audience don’t need to know it or wouldn’t be interested in it. In terms of what you’d like to say, it should be approached with the view that it must have a significant supporting relationship to the core message and needs to be justifiable, over and above, than me just wanting to say it. Thus, I approach communication like I approach a pitch, with the mantra that everything I say must have an impact.

Another method of oral communication I’ve began to engage with is “story-telling” (Hills 2001:114) in order to convey more complex information. Relating a journal article or theory to a practical example, seems to restrain my train of thought, keeping it relevant and brings it to life, making it more tangible for the audience. This approach, whilst I’m testing it, certainly engages my team mates more than another other form of communication I’ve tried.

Conversely, whilst I am struggling and exploring this communication area, as a personal development area for the benefit of the team’s learning, Hill’s feedback loop could add some value to the process, which is a tool I’ve used within teaching and workshops I run before, but never within my business teams (2001). As a collective we make the assumption that we understand and that because we have spoken, the communication has been effective, however we constantly stumble across instances where there is complete miscommunication within the group, which is suggestive that ineffective communication is an issue across the whole team. Whilst, the models outlined above, provide a structure and potential solution, the feedback loop invites the team to repeat back information and assumptions, ensuring clarification and correct interpretation (Hills 2001). Such a method also promotes team engagement ensuring the correct communication models are in place and can be reflected upon, whilst providing a means to gain feedback in regards to my personal development in this area.

Construction

Successful communication relies on the communicator beginning with the response they want to achieve, which for my oral communication is to be understood, to be clear and to encourage the team to engage with I am saying. Consequently, I need to focus on the clarity of my message and the learning preferences of my audience. Pre-planning and preparation should focus on ensuring I’m effectively understood and engaging, not knowing every detail of the presented subject (Lake 1997). I need to embody Hill’s (2001:114) mantra, “seek to understand and then to be understood”. I need to understand my audience before I expect that they understand the information.

My learning style whilst effective personally, is ineffective within the team learning environment, consequently I need to step outside myself and ask the questions “what am I trying to communicate back to the team?” and “How can I effectively communicate this to them?” this process involves discipline. As such, I will utilise Ludlow’s (1992) interaction model and meeting module to shape my oral communication and I will utilise Lake’s (1997) approach to prepare for oral presentations.

Hills, H. 2001. Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lake, C. (1997) Open Learning – Communication. Oxford: Pergamon Open Learning

Ludlow, R and Panton, F. (1992) The Essence of Effective Communication. London: Prentice Hall

Feeding feedback

Stating

Feedback is a controversial process and one that was completely rejected within a recent session in our team.  The issue is how to imbed feedback into our team as a learning tool and create an environment where we feel comfortable to give and receive feedback within the team. This was a process, that as a team, we did not want to engage in and during the specific feedback session, it was a highly emotionally charged atmosphere. Whilst members felt their feedback was honest and considered, there was a real block in terms of utilising it as a tool due to negative preconceptions, feeling constrained by the model suggested to us and a sense of fear surrounding member’s reactions. Moreover, there was a stark contrast between my engagement with the task and the rest of my team mates; a few refused to participate at all.

Feedback I received:

Elliot

Stop

  • Rambling too long in discussions.
  • Doing so much work in comparison to the rest in terms of article reading.

Start

  • Being more precise with your ideas and concepts – deliver the headlines.
  • Listen to other people’s opinions about your ideas more.

Continue

  • Being organised and efficient
  • Being a planner and getting the team organised
  • Helping the team out with assignments, seminars and things they don’t know.

Alice

Stop

  • You know too much and it can be overwhelming to those who don’t know anything; this can worry people or demotivate.
  • Bombarding with information, it is too much to take in.

Start

  • Working on your communication skills, improving your ability to be concise and clear when presenting information – you’re already doing this!

Continue

  • You are very approachable and will help anyone, I feel very comfortable approaching you when I don’t understand things outside class. You explain things very well.
  • You organise and direct the team – reminding everyone of deadlines and setting agendas.

Dean

Stop

  • Using so much detail – sometimes less is more.
  • Doubting yourself – your experience is useful.

Start

  • You are a strong leader; time to start leading.

Continue

  • You put 110% into everything- it is inspiring.
  • Organising the team and forcing us to plan before-hand.
  • Using your experience.

Katie

Stop

  • She can sometimes go into too much detail, so the team loses the key points to holding on to.

Start

  • Being more concise.

Continue

  • Producing high standards of work individually and within the team; you always meet the deadlines.
  • Being really enthusiastic and motivating.
  • Being a very reliable team member.
  • Organising and structuring our meetings.

Deconstruction

Starting with the difference between my view of the feedback task and the team’s; feedback used to be a process I’d avoid. I perceived it as wholly negative making evaluative judgements of others or inviting negative judgements of myself. Moreover, I considered that I wasn’t within a position of any authority to give feedback and I viewed the process as unconstructively criticising. Consequently, I’d take feedback personally and I’d typically give a defensive response, deflecting it and justifying the behaviour without listening. If I gave feedback, I’d likely apologise for it and worry about upsetting the other person, reflecting my own views of feedback.

As I’ve progressed through my education and career, I’ve repeatedly encountered feedback as an unavoidable process and one that delivers the opportunity to improve and enhance self-awareness. I’ve developed a sense of self-acceptance and ownership of the consequences of my behaviour. Feedback has rationally become a personal development and communication tool and one that I see positively with the sole purpose of enhancing performance, an inarguably positive thing.  After all, you cannot change or continue doing what as an individual or team, you are unaware of.

Feedback, alongside reflection, has become a tool in which teams I have been involved with have rebuilt and enhanced their performance; learning at one unit as well as individually. One of the reasons many of my teams initially struggled was because they did not know why they were failing, regular feedback and reflection, gave the opportunity to assess and identify issues and deviations from plans (Bee 1998).  As such feedback became a non-threatening tool in which we could explore successes and communicate areas of development, all united under the goal of enhancing performance. Furthermore, I personally utilised this process as a way of improving and reflecting on my own performance and it was this feedback process within these teams that developed the leadership skills I have today. I always invite feedback on a regular basis, with the aim of imbedding it into any team’s culture.

Feedback became an essential tool in the identification of my lack of team playing during competitive tasks.  I used to simply focus on outcomes and team performance, above team learning. I received the feedback that if tasks weren’t being done to my specification, I took over the task ensuring the performance, instead of supporting the team to reach required standards. This led to team dependence on me and the lack of communication surrounding why I was taking over, was demotivating. However, I perceived I was only doing my best for the team.  Receiving the feedback that I was behaving in this way and the effect, enabled my own learning that I needed to give more initial guidance, but then more autonomy and to give feedback regularly instead of simply taking over a struggling task without communication. Engaging in the process was initially difficult, but this two way dialogue built a better team, one that made mistakes and learnt from them and made me a more effective leader.

Consequently, I viewed the team task to give one another feedback as a learning opportunity and I found it the least difficult within the group. Unlike the others I didn’t have an emotional response and viewed it as simply learning. The feedback regarding my struggle to present information in a concise manner has been brought to my attention before within the team. I know that it can cause disengagement or confusion and I experience personal frustration with myself for not effectively communicating. However, Ali’s feedback that I can “worry” people and bombard with information, was an effect I was unaware of and is clearly demotivating for some members. As such, I see this as a real area of opportunity in which I can improve on within the team.

Conversely it was positive to see that my strengths are being recognised; organisation, planning, motivating and hard work; that I’m adding value and a unique layer to our team dynamics. In terms of the feedback, I gave to the other members, I spent time making it justifiable with examples and I didn’t feel nervous to share it. I saw it as an opportunity to recognise certain members, who seem completely unaware that they are such a valuable contribution to the group. People like Ali, who underestimate and show a distinct lack of confidence in their own abilities, but yet get out there and always give things ago, try new things and add real value to our team projects, alongside the opportunity to be honest.

I can only deconstruct my own feedback experience fully and I can only make assumptions about why I believe the team rejected the feedback task. As a collective, our team rejected the process, with many members refusing to take part or exhibiting very defensive responses. Moreover, whilst the feedback was justified with examples, there was a distinct amount of back tracking and disowning the feedback via blaming the lecturer for forcing them do it. The process pre and post feedback was incredibly emotional, with members very worried that others were going to be upset or they may get upset. After the process, there was a sense of heightened emotion, dismissiveness towards the structure and that something unwarranted had been imposed. The dismissal seemed to stem not from the content of the feedback, as every member communicated within a following team meeting that they stood by what they had written, but the structured process it was being forced into was unrealistic.

However, as a collective, the exercise was useful to highlight key areas of behaviour that we identified with as part of our team identity and things we wanted to improve on (Harms and Roebuck 2010). Consequently, the feedback was tool for our team to explore the behaviours we’d like to see exploited and the behaviours we’d like to remove, as such the process further cemented the foundations of our team “culture” (Harms and Roebuck 2010:414). Subsequently, the team saw value in the feedback process as a learning tool, but the structure and negative preconceptions made it ineffective for our team.

Theorising

The team’s initial difficulty the majority identified it as a negative process, instead of as an opportunity to capitalize on strengths and develop weaknesses (Gratton 2008). Many individuals consider feedback “irritating” and negative (Harms and Roebuck 2009); consequently we are conditioned to see it as a critical tool highlighting negative behaviour. However Harms and Roebuck, consider that feedback must be used constantly to explore team culture, giving praise and highlighting ineffective behaviours, with the aim of improving performance (2009:416). Feedback within the team should only be the starting point of a dialogue and in order to add value it needs to be combined with self-reflection, providing information and support to an individual (Harms and Roebuck 2010). Our team feedback lacked the two way dialogue as individuals didn’t respond to feedback honestly as felt constrained by a structure, consequently dismissing the process before reflection occurred and mutual agree was only reached superficially because the model of feedback imposed agreement.

Moreover, as a team we proved Cleveland et al’s (2007) hypothesis that giving performance feedback is more difficult than receiving. There was a distinct anxiety about giving feedback, as it was viewed as unproductive and critical but conversely each member was willing to receive it. The struggle featured not only in the compiling of the feedback but also the delivery, in which members back tracked on comments. However, the team was willing to hand over the full feedback sheets afterwards, demonstrating the team was not comfortable making evaluative comments in a face to face forum (Fredrick T. 2008). This suggests our team has a lack of psychological safety and feared retribution disabling the feedback process (Hills 2001); consequently as a team we need to concentrate on building trust into our team culture so we can own it.

Our team unwillingness to engage, negates feedback as a crucial element of effective team learning, as such we need to accept it; ensuring that it is frequent, timely and imbedded into the review of performance within a team is not only the cornerstone to learning but the cornerstone to improved team performance (Harms and Roebuck 2010). As a collective, if we tackle the lack of trust within the team, which should develop over time as we concentrate developing our team culture and normalise the process, the team will be more willing to engage.

The next issue to address was the imposed structure and the difficulties surround it. The structure that was suggested to us within our feedback session:

feedback

The above visual depiction combines elements of Arnold et al (2010) and Hills (2001) writings on feedback. As a model in theory, it clearly structures the feedback, gives the process a clear purpose and ensures a two way dialogue. However, the model constrained our team and disengaged the majority of members from the process. The unnatural aspect of it and the rigid structure, stopped the fluidity of feedback in which, individuals are supposed to be able to reflect, respond and reject if they wish. The model turned an alien process to many, into a highly artificial process. Consequently, this model of feedback delivery, whilst it has merit, is not practical within our team.

Our team whilst wanting a structure for the feedback process wants flexibility and ability to make it into our own. Furthermore, we want a model that does not necessarily seek agreement at the end of the feedback process, but one that focuses on communication and reflection. Foster (2002: 112) feedback models embody all the elements of feedback as outlined by other academics, but they are simpler and less prescriptive. Foster (2002) depicts two feedback models, which concentrate on feedback as a positive learning tool; the two models are “BET – behaviour, effect and thank you, in which positive behaviours can be recognised. The second model is “BEAR-Behaviour, effect, alternative and result” in which negative behaviour can be presented to a participant, the effects communicated and the result is that the behaviour is reflected upon (Foster 2002). These models whilst directing the feedback, giving clear stages concentrating on the effects of the behaviour, allow participants to frame the interaction how they chose and it doesn’t force any conclusion or agreement; focusing on communication and reflection as their aims (Foster 2002).

Having the two models run side by side, engages with the idea that feedback should be predominantly about positive reinforcement, in which 75% of all feedback should be positive (Harms and Roebuck 2010). The “Bear” model has two different stages, surrounding alternative and result (Foster 2002). As such alternative modes of action can be suggested and the results of not changing outlined, but the recipient in this model, is left with the final choice.  As such these feedback models don’t exist to forcibly change behaviour or to induce superficial agreement through a restrictive structure, but to communicate, increase self-awareness and improve team learning (Foster 2002). Regardless of whether, the receiver choses to act on the feedback, they are now aware of the effects of their behaviour within the team and they can make a more informed choice surrounding how to behave. Consequently, “blind spots are eliminated” (Harms and Roebuck 2010: 422). Moreover, this model encourages a natural and honest response from the receiver, which is enabled through freedom and flexibility (Lake 1997).

Construction

The team rejection of feedback is a stumbling block within our team learning. But it is clear from the deconstruction above, why the team has rejected it, surrounding the two issues of viewing it as a distinctly negative process and one in which, a rigid, false structure was suggested to our team, one that didn’t suit us. Subsequently, using Foster’s BET and BEAR models, gives our team the opportunity to engage in feedback in the way we want to, focusing on communication and reflection, whilst utilising it as a mode of communicating predominantly positive behaviour.

In order to further imbed the process of feedback into our team learning culture, we need to embrace it as a regular and continuous process, featuring weekly in our team meetings as a reflective and reflexive tool, normalising the process (Hatton 2007). It is a tool that potentially enhances and steers team learning, communicating the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us (Armstrong 2006). This can only be a positive process focusing on improving performance, as illustrated with the feedback I received about my poor verbal presentation of ideas, I knew this was an issue but was unaware of the effect of it on members of the team. As such we intend to embody Arnold et al’s (2010) view of feedback as something that is mutually supportive, informative, constructing a stronger group and recognising accomplishment.

Furthermore, we need to confidently own the interactions as a positive method of improving performance, instead of disowning it as something we are being forced to do within coaching sessions, lessening its impact (Hatton 2007). Such ownership will embody our aims to become a “learning team” (Hills 2001); one that embraces feedback. Consequently, we need to deepen our team trust and believe in Foster’s models as an effective way to improve team performance and one that recognises we are all individuals with different levels of feedback receptiveness (Armstrong 2006). Consequently, we should assess the capacity to digested feedback; Bee 1998 draws upon the idea that some members will only take thimbles of feedback on board at a time, whereas other members will happily accept bucket loads of it. Subsequently Foster’s models don’t force agreement, leaving the individual with a choice.

Finally, reflecting on my personal feedback, I think I need to consider why I find the process of presenting information back into the group difficult and to research communication strategies to counteract this, to avoid demotivating and disengaging the team. Furthermore, it is a hugely positive step that the team see me as someone who shares back their learning and helps when others don’t understand, as this is truly exemplifying team learning culture and ethos, our team is trying to establish.

Armstrong, M. (2006) Performance Management. (3rd ed) London:Kogan Page

Arnold, J., Randall, R. et al. (2010). Work Psychology. (5th ed.). Harlow:Pearson

Bee et al. (1998) Constructive Feedback. London: Institute of personal development

Cleveland, J. N. et al (2007) Feedback phobia? Why employers do not want to give or receive performance feedback. In J. Langan- Fox, C. L. Cooper & R. J. Klimoski (Eds.), Research companion to the dysfunctional workplace:management challenges and symptoms (pp. 168-186). Northampton, M A: Edward Elgar

Foster, P. (2002). Performance documentation. Business Communication Quarterly, 65, 108-114

Fredrick T. (2008). Facilitating better teamwork: Analyzing the challenges and strategies of classroom based collaboration. Business Communication Quarterly, 71, 439-455.

Gratton, L. (2008) Counterpoint. People and Strategy, 31 (3), 9.

Harms, P. L., & Roebuck, D. (2010). Teaching the Art and Craft of Giving and Receiving Feedback. Business Communication Quarterly, 73(4), 413-431

Hatton, A. The Definitive Business Pitch. Harlow: FT Prentice Hall

Hills, H. (2001) Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.

Lake, C. (1997) Open Learning – Communication. Oxford: Pergamon Open Learning

Team learning contract v team culture in business

Stating

The development of our new team learning contract symbolically represented the concrete beginnings of our new team. It was an opportunity to reflect on the old, decide where our new group wanted to go and an opportunity to consider strategically in the short term, what exactly we need to learn as a team and where our learning gaps are. Drafting a team learning contract provided us with the opportunity to learn and to consider our business learning needs; a call to learning action and a new beginning. However, what could have been a positive process was intensely difficult.

As a team we really fought against a process that forced us to sit down and plan, considering deeper learning needs of our team and pin pointing them. There was a significant lack of motivation surrounding completing it and many voiced their concerns of it being too restrictive. As a collective, we fought against thinking about the things we might need to learn, preferring to just get out there and doing it. There were significant feelings of frustration and demotivation surrounding this activity.

Whilst the process was very slow, it forced us to strategically consider ways of how we could tackle the low motivation and to ensure that this painful process, really did add learning value in our team.  The contract our team submitted was something that everyone agreed on, contributed to and saw value in for our business. We made our contract a mixture of group learning objectives that were directly focused on starting up our business and several individual goals that the team would buy into sharing out the skill sets within the team and spreading out the learning within the team alongside learning from others in the team. However, after the team contract completion, there was disengagement within the group regarding the contract’s implementation. The old lack of motivation appeared and by some members, it was disregarded.  This is suggestive that the creation of a learning contract within a team alone is not enough to absorb the value from it and that something else must support it, in order to encourage execution.

Deconstruction

A learning contract is a leading learning tool that provides direction and offers a “flexible, individualised programme of learning (Gower 1998:1).” The learning contract undeniably has potential as a tool to plan learning, but when motivation to complete one is low and the focus is entirely on its completion, instead of its value, does it serve a purpose for our team? We were introduced to a structured template, in which we had to structure our future learning and objectives. The different elements of self-awareness in regards to personal skill sets and team competencies caused an issue in terms of identifying areas we needed to work on. Moreover, the level of imposition on the team and the prescribed, structured nature of it seemed to alienate many within the team. It was uncomfortably forcing the group to sit down as a collective and plan our learning, rather than just getting out there and doing it.

Our first draft was basic, completed quickly and was incredibly superficial. Moreover, it was completely action orientated, based on quick, tangible results above contemplating any learning to go behind them. Our contract also didn’t consider what the impact of completing the objectives would mean within the team and how we could use our learning strategically to strengthen the team. Our action orientation, within a group strongly led by activists, was not a surprise and is representative of our current team culture. Reflecting on this action orientation approach within the group, this was clearly an underlying issue; as a team, we had an action focused, quick results culture. Considering an intangible like learning in a long term sense, did not fit into our culture. Our culture is to complete the tasks and perform well, any learning is incidental and rarely reflected on as a group.

The beginning of our second draft, began with two questions; 1. What do we need/want to do? 2. What do we need to learn in order to fulfil those objectives? We selected two objectives that we wanted to complete as a collective, which would have direct impact onto our business planning, bringing about tangible benefits alongside learning. Secondly, we picked out areas that individuals would like to work on for the benefit of the team, e.g. pitching and how this learning would be brought back into the team and utilised effectively. Our overall goal was to build a stronger team, one that learned from each other and built learning into enhancing our performances.

Conversely, even this team contract remained very action orientated, but it was a compromise within our current culture. In order to get any engagement we had to build in results to complete the task. The learning within our contract, although more a dominant factor than our first draft, was still very much secondary. The lack of motivation concerning imbedding learning into our teams and our process towards the learning contract, evidenced how we viewed the learning process within our team and our team culture Consequently, whilst we have completed our team contract, it remains action orientated and the planned learning elements make implementation difficult.

Theorising

A learning contract can only be effective where the learner plays a “leading role” in its development; as such it is an active process (Gower 1998:5). Whilst in theory, it promotes independent learning and an increase in group skill awareness, its functionality, practicality and value lies within the attitude and commitment of the learners to the process and the team’s culture in which it exists (Gower 1998). Each individual involved needs to not only see the team value but the individual relevance to their learning (Knowles 1986). Moreover, as a team learning contract consists of different people, it needs to embody different learning styles, action and paces of learning; it should be a challenge to the team and the individual (Knowles 1986).

Furthermore, a learning contract is only as viable as the context in which it is expected to function within. An action orientated organisation, unaware of its learning needs, will be unable to see the value of a learning contract, as they are unaware of the need to learn and planning learning distracts from the action orientation and feels like stagnating (Gower 1998). Consequently, the contract in isolation is ineffective, it is about imbedding the process of learning into the team, embracing all the mediums our team members learn by (Pedler et al). As such the contract alone should only direct learning to reach specific objectives, there must be a willingness to learn and to try, in the first place; the awareness of the need to improve must exist (Hills 2001). Therefore, creating a learning team culture is potentially crucial to imbed learning within the team and encourage it as an active process.

Team culture is defined as cultivated and developed “norms” within a team and can be utilised as a competitive advantage against competitors (Hills 2001). A learning team culture is “a wish to increase independence rather than a desire to please” and one that “values being willing more than being capable” (Hills 2001:55). It signifies a desire for improvement and a learning contract sets out the means in which such improvement can take place (Gower 1998). Moreover, a learning team in the long term is one that has higher performance levels and remains in a state of constant evolution (Gower 1998).

Therefore our success in the long term is reliant on exploring and developing a team learning culture in which a learning contract could add value within our team, moving away from our action orientation and creating a learning environment. Cottrell (2011) highlights the key aspects of any learning team is one that encourages, collaborates, challenges, co-operates and critically analyses itself. She points to changing the culture into one that learns by doing from its own experience, one that stimulates thinking, accepts that people learn in a variety of ways and one that is internally motivated to learn from within the team.

Regardless of our action orientation, of team culture has developed markedly, changing from what was once a highly procedural team into a conceptual team that values not only what members do within the team but the intangibles they bring as a contribution (Hills 2001), consequently as a team we are capable of progress and change. More than ever, we are willing to explore ideas, learn from our peers and we are increasingly growing in independence. However, as a group we still focus on a power driven culture that seeks results and action, learning has to have an immediate tangible purpose (Hills 2001).

Consequently, our team learning contract exists within a team that currently doesn’t have a team learning culture, a compromise between action and learning; a learning contract alongside a strategic plan of action. This avoids the two problems that Revans (1980) highlights as endangering teams without a learning culture, task fixation and a lack of awareness of team learning needs. By combining the strategic planning process alongside the development of a learning contract, the team is able to construct a plan of what needs to be actively done to complete an objective and the learning contract, enables the team to consider what they need to learn and how they are going to learn it, in order to start implementing the strategic plan.

Within the team contract differing levels of awareness and competencies can be an undermining issue (Gower 1998). Gower (1998:26) highlights a competency awareness model which sees the learner to label their competences as an unconscious competence, conscious competence, conscious incompetence, or unconscious incompetence. Consequently, the team learning element adds an extra dimension, as a supportive factor and learning tool in which, unconscious elements can be identified and exploited as learning opportunities through a feedback process to the benefit of the team and the individual.

Considering current motivation within the team as a collective to change our team culture into a learning one, McGregor’s motivational theory is worth exploring. Potentially as a group, we have moved past the theory X stage and we are no longer looking for someone to prescribe what to do and sometimes we even rebel away from prescription, like with the learning contract; consequently we are no longer motivated by being told what to do (McGregor 1960). But theory Y doesn’t quite apply to us yet, because we’re not self-directed and open in our learning to actively seek out learning opportunities (McGregor 1960). Hence we fall in the middle and tasks that the group isn’t interested there is a lack of motivation within.

Constructing

Consequently, whilst our team learning contract is viable, there is a questionable element about the motivation to follow it through. The team learning contract will only add value as a tool, if we make a conscious effort to imbed learning into our team’s culture and lessen our action orientation; creating a learning culture. As such we need to slow down and reflect on our learning needs, creating a safe environment in which we support each other to grow and make mistakes (Hills 2001). Changing our culture is about changing our results driven mind-set and developing a culture in which our learning contracts don’t impose learning on to us, but help direct our already active learning process.  As such, we must equally take action, to change our attitudes in the team.

Cottrell, S. (2008). The Study Skills Handbook. (3rd ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gower, GB. (1998) A Complete Guide to Learning Contracts. Hampshire: Gower Publishing

Hills, H. (2001) Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.

Knowles, M. (1986) Principles of Learning : Learning Contracts. San Francisco: Jossey Bass

McGregor, D (1960) The Human Side to Enterprise. USA: McGraw Hill

Pedler et al. (1991) The Learning Company. Maiden Head: McGraw Hill

Revans et al (1980) Action Learning. London: Blonde and Briggs

Interview with Jules Quinn, founder of the *Teashed and entrepreneur

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The *Teashed – Jules Quinn

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Check out the *Teashed here.

1. What is the Teashed mission statement?
To take over the world, one teabag at a time.

2. What is your mission within that?
To be the UK’s leading speciality tea brand, bringing new ideas and concepts to the way we drink tea.

3. How would you define your product/service?
Quality, convenient and fun tea

4. How did the idea for the Teashed come about?
I was on a work placement making lots of cups of tea for a designer. I didn’t drink tea, but he used to send me out to purchase speciality tea. I realised that whilst there are lots of coffee options, there wasn’t fashionable, experimental tea.

5. How long did it take to realise?
It was about 1 year in development.

6. Did it organically come into being or was there a structured process to get from A to B?
I had a structured, researched business plan. I knew what I wanted to achieve from the beginning. My business plan has obviously changed as the business has progressed, many things I included within my business plan initially didn’t work out.

7. When was the moment you actually thought “hang on, there could be a business here!?” When John Lewis got in touch and they wanted to purchase an order. Before that moment, it had all been theoretical.

8. Why do you think the Teashed has been such a success so far?
Low overheads and minimal start-up costs. The business was able to growth as it needed to and wasn’t limited by needing large investment.

9. Do you do any market research before setting up the business to suss out your audience? Yes lots and lots. I needed to really consider who my target market was and prove that just because I thought it was a good idea, that it actually was a good idea.

10. Who is your audience?
25-35 year olds mainly

11. What are your expectations of the company within the next 18months?
Growth, international growth, new products, greater awareness of the brand; I want to rapidly growth the business and I have a plan to do so.

12. What would you do with unlimited resources?
Build a warehouse and pay for more advertising. At this stage of my business, I’m reliant on the advertising channels that I know and I can utilise.

13. What are the short term plans? What are the long term plans?
In the short term, I want to grow the business as large as possible. In the long term, I want to sell the business.

14. Do you have an exit strategy?
Not yet. I know I want to sell but I haven’t decided exactly when that will be. Nor have I developed the business enough to just hand it over, I’m putting structures in place now as I develop it, so it isn’t so owner dependent.

15. If you were starting again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?
I would not tie up so much money in products rather buy less at a more expensive price, rather than lots at a cheaper. I would have been able to sniff out what was selling, instead of ending up with too much of one and others selling out.

16. How much time do you spend working on the business in an average week?
48 hrs, often more.

17. Have you sacrificed anything for its success?
My social life/ being young. I spend every opportunity and moment I can working on the business. This means I don’t have the same free time as my friends as I’m busy building my business. But it is not just my business, my job, it is also my passion and hobby.

18. Have you acquired investment to expand or what is your funding strategy?
Not yet…I’m still considering my options and the best way to expand.

19. Your website is fantastic, were you ever dwarfed by the tech side?
No not really, you just tell the tech guys what they need to do. The key is knowing exactly what you want the website to do and how you’d like it to function. You need to know more than, “I just want a website”. Draw it out and remember once you have people on your site, what do you want them to do when they are there.

20. It is a busy market place with the likes of Charbew, etc…. What did you do to get noticed? Cool packaging, developing a brand, events, not worrying too much about other people and just doing your own thing. I really focused on getting the right branding and utilising the names, making sure that was right. It worked!

21. What is a typical day for you? Where does the Teashed fit in?
Wake up 7am. Check international emails straight away whilst having a cup of tea. Shower, get dressed. Then either spend the day working away at my desk, sorting orders or going to meetings.

22. What is an entrepreneur? How would you describe one?
Someone who isn’t afraid to sacrifice in the short term to gain in the long term. Someone who is not afraid of hard work and someone who is not afraid.

23. Would you define yourself as an entrepreneur? Or how would you define yourself?
No, I would just say I have my own business.

24. Which entrepreneurs/business people do you most admire?
Any woman in business. I love a bit of girl power!

25. Do you think anyone can start up a business?
Yes, if they have the right attributes. It takes a certain type of person with a certain type of skills and the ambition to do it.

26. Do you think some people are just born natural business people? Or do you think it can be learnt from experience/education?
No one is born knowing how to run a business; you learn those skills over time. But if you have inside you what it takes to run a business as that is your personality and that is quite hard to change. Some people are more enterprising than others and see opportunities.

27. You’re from a fashion marketing degree , what extent was your knowledge of business and entrepreneurship before the Teashed?
I have done little businesses since I was 14. Each one felt like a little practice for the Teashed.

28. What area of business do you struggle with the most?
Numbers, but they are a necessity, especially in the beginning, monitoring your business and growing it.

29. What inspires you? Motivates you?
To not have to work for anyone else and doing it on my own terms, my way.

30. Describe yourself in three words?
Business focused, happy and fun

31. What is success?
Being happy within your current position or seeing the path ahead of you as achievable.

32. Low point?
Loosing stockists and managing effective relationship with so many other demands on the business.

33. What excites you?
My vision of Tea

34. What are you most nervous about for the future?
Growing the business and losing control of it.

35. You work alone without a business partner…how do you find this? Do you have a network?
Yes, I pay for all the support I need as and when I need it. This works great for me. I think I would struggle to find anyone who has the same level of commitment and dedication who also shares my vision, so giving away shares wouldn’t work.

36. As a business person, what would you say your ideals are?
Work hard but be nice.

37. Do you think there is a successful pattern to becoming an entrepreneur?
Work hard, day and night. Never give up! Take knock backs as an inevitable learning exercise that is strengthening your business.

38. Before the Teashed, what were your career aspirations? In the long term, what are they now?
To have my own business, I just wasn’t sure what it would look like. In the long term, to carry this on and grow it, then start again.

39. What do you attribute all your personal successes to?
Hard work and family support.

40. What would you say are your strengths and weaknesses?
Weakness – numbers and Excel and strength – product development an design.

41. What set you apart from other students that made you take the entrepreneurial risk?
I only ever wanted to run my own business, so I knew I’d do it, just wasn’t sure when.