Tag Archives: volition

Foundations of Excellence

I was thinking about the concept of becoming excellent at something.  My son is a budding artist.  He and I had a conversation a few months ago about talent or aptitude.  I said to him that I felt that aptitude is only latent: you need to put effort into something in order to expose your talent.  He was concerned that he didn’t have any aptitude because he had to work so hard to become better at drawing.  I compared him to myself and my brother, Alexei: when we were growing up, we both put a lot of effort into drawing.  Quickly, I fell behind my brother in skill.  He clearly had aptitude.  But he also put in a lot of effort into exposing that talent.  I was reminded of all this because my son is struggling with math.  He has aptitude, but he hasn’t put much effort into it.  I was wondering why?

Then I realized that aside from aptitude and effort, two more things need to be in place to achieve excellence: willingness and confirmation.

Willingness is the internal drive, usually motivated by an unconscious set of factors, but sometimes also coming from a strong conscious decision.  Willingness can come from unusual combinations of circumstances.  I was extremely willing to learn mathematics in my youth.  This came from two experiences.  One, in grade 2, was when my teacher told me that I shouldn’t be learning multiplication (my dad had taught me while on a road trip).  I was upset that I shouldn’t be able to learn something.  Then, in grade 3, I had a puppet called Kazir (a gift from my babysitter who told stories about space adventures with Azir and Kazir the Baha’i astronauts).  I brought Kazir to school one day and while doing math problems, I pretended that Kazir was helping me.  Suddenly I found math easy.  These two events plus a few others contributed strongly to my desire, my willingness to learn math.

Confirmation is the set of environmental factors that helps keep us on a path of learning.  These environmental factors are sometimes mimicked in the corporate world with bonuses and gamification, but these are really distant shadows of what confirmation is really about. Confirmation is when the stars align, when everything seems to go right at just the right time, when the spirit inspires and moves you and the world to be, in some way, successful.  The trick about confirmation is that success is not usually about monetary success.  It’s usually about social, relational or even sacrificial success.  As an example, when I was in grade 7, I was chosen with a small group of people in my class to do accelerated math studies.  This was a great honour for me and was a confirmation of my interest in math.

In organizational change, and in particular in changing to an Agile enterprise, we need to be aware that excellence requires that these four factors be in place.  Aptitude is, to some degree, innate.  We can’t trick people to have aptitude.  If someone is just fundamentally bad at a certain thing, despite vigorous educational efforts, then that person likely doesn’t have the aptitude.  Effort is about both having time and resources, but also, then about willingness.  And willingness, in turn, can only be sustained with confirmation.  Too much discouragement will break a person’s willingness.  The Agile enterprise requires a great number of skills and abilities that are not normally part of a person’s work environment prior to attempting to adopt Agile.  Keeping these four things in mind can help people in an organization to reach excellence in Agility.


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Amplify Learning

Learning is the result of both encountering new experiences and deliberate experimentation. Learning creates new knowledge, increased volition and improved action.

Some of people’s best learning comes from “failure”. An essential component of learning is feedback.

Learning and feedback can be amplified in several ways. Provide opportunities for learning through books, training courses, coaching, deliberate exposure to diverse work, and deliberate experimentation. Frequently ask the questions “why?” and “how?” and answer them honestly and deeply. Increase the level and quality of communication among the stakeholders and team members. Inspect work in progress frequently or even continuously. Learning accelerates greatly if a culture of learning is created where individuals feel free to experiment and take initiative even on critical aspects of the work.

Learning and feedback support all three agile principles. People become more effective creators as they learn. People are better able to adapt to and embrace change as they learn. And a person’s span of perception increases as they learn. Any increase in learning or feedback leads to an increase in the manifestation of the principles.

Learning and feedback can be amplified rapidly, but an empowered team is necessary to effectively take advantage of this amplification. If a team is not empowered, then rapid learning can lead to frustration. Amplified learning and feedback result in excitement, enthusiasm and playfulness, rapid problem solving, high quality work results and satisfied stakeholders.

An excellent analysis of learning at a social or group level is presented in Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan. In this very well written book, Laudan takes a look at the history and philosophy of science and develops a model for learning that is applicable to the development of agile methods.


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