Where are the Antifragile Learners?

Antifragile Education

Two years ago I read Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, and, ever since, I’ve waited to see some evidence that the undoubted common sense in this book would translate into the world of corporate learning. Taleb himself identified education as a bastion of fragility. He made a great case for real learning only ever happening when we take people beyond this state, into the realms where mistakes are made and all discomfort is not designed out of training, into the place where antifragility is developed. This week I pretty much gave up the wait and accepted that it’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

So what was Taleb offering that got me excited and made it worth waiting for? His thesis was that there existed, beyond resilience or robustness, a state called antifragile. For humans the key characteristic of this state was that within it there is the possibility of thriving and growing when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, risk and uncertainty. Growing in a way that could not be achieved if we insulated people from the potential for failure, error and the measure of discomfort that goes with this territory.

Antifragile Training Design

For me this spoke directly to my beliefs about how we design training,

 

If there’s no risk, there’s no engagement,

If there’s no engagement there’s no emotion,

If there’s no emotion there’s no depth of learning

If there’s no deep-learning there’s no discernible change of behaviour

And without a discernible change of behaviour the training has failed.

 

At RSVP Design I’ve always said that the training designs we produce are usually simple, but not easy. What I mean by this is that they are designed as learning tools that don’t rely on trickery or over complication for their effectiveness - what you see is pretty much what you get. But they are designed in a way that builds on a deep understanding of human behaviour, and it’s the predictability of how people react to their challenges that takes the experience beyond easy.

This means that failure is always a very real possibility. 

We would define this failure as a “lack of task-success” in that, in our world, “the only failure is a failure to learn”, but let’s not deny it, the participating group have failed to complete the task. We accept that this can make the participants feel bad, it can lead to harsh words being spoken, it can lead to a search for a scapegoat, it’s uncomfortable, particularly for adults who are used to success. And we’re probably not going to get the 5-rating that HR need to see on the ‘evaluation’ sheet.

But if the facilitator has the patience and strength to hold people in that discomfort, then they will begin to look for the real cause of their failure - what they did, or didn’t do, during the activity. We’re now talking about behaviour, and that’s where the real learning lies. If we can bring people to associate their behaviour with the results that this behaviour produces then we have the potential to explore this very same association in the workplace, “Maybe the results you experience at work are a direct result of what you do at work?”

Designing Training that Transfers

This profound learning just isn’t going to happen if we stick to safe, risk-free, purely cognitive learning, the kind of learning that comes with an over-reliance on lectures, case studies and death-by-PowerPoint. This type of training should never, ever, be associated with a set of learning objectives that make any mention of people doing things differently, the chances of that happening are remote to the point of near impossibility.

The Shocking Reality

So why, this week, have I given up on these facts being widely accepted?

We’ve just had a major piece of training design rejected. That in itself is nothing unique, we accept that we challenge our clients and sometimes that means that we don’t get the gig. Sometimes we’d rather we weren’t part of a training initiative that, by our terms, has little chance of succeeding as a profound learning experience. What made this situation different and harder to swallow was the reasons given for the design not being adopted:

“The participants might not be able to do it”

“They might not be successful”

“They don’t react well to failure”

So, were these children? Some kind of vulnerable group?

Nope, top-table leaders in a Fortune 500, financial-services organisation.

 

Talk to us today about how we can help design your training programmes