Narratives to Drive Exponential Learning

In our Big Shift world, the imperative of scalable learning is becoming increasingly urgent. If we’re smart about it, we have the potential to unleash the potential of exponential learning.

As many of you know, I have spent over a decade studying the long-term forces that are re-shaping our global economy, something that I call the Big Shift. There are many ways of representing the Big Shift, but one dimension is the need to shift from institutional models driven by scalable efficiency to ones driven by scalable learning.

Scalable learning When I talk about scalable learning, I’m not focused on learning in the form of training programs that simply share existing knowledge. In a world that is changing at an accelerating pace, existing knowledge rapidly becomes obsolete and the most valuable form of learning is creating new knowledge. Those who learn faster at scale will thrive in the Big Shift world, while those who just focus on sharing what they already know will soon be marginalized. To learn faster at scale, we’ll need to redefine work and cultivate business practices within front-line workgroups so that workers can learn through action by addressing previously unseen problems and opportunities to create more value.

Doing this at scale will require a profound transformation of our institutions – how they are organized, how they operate and how they are led. I want to spend this blog posting exploring the potential of opportunity-based narratives to drive exponential learning.

Opportunity-based narratives Those who have been following me for a while know that I make a key distinction between stories and narratives, even though most people treat these two words as synonyms, something that I’ve developed here and here. For me, a story is self-contained – it has a beginning, middle and an end. Also, stories are about me, the story teller, or some other people – they’re not about you in the audience.

In contrast, for me, narratives are open-ended, there is no resolution – yet. There’s some kind of significant opportunity or threat out in the future and it’s not clear whether it will be effectively addressed. The resolution of the narrative hinges on you, the listener. It is a call to action since your choices and your actions will help to resolve this narrative.

Narratives as a catalyst for learning Why are opportunity-based narratives so critical to learning? There are many reasons. They’re a call to action and the key to creating new knowledge is action – people who passively sit around, even if they’re thinking great thoughts, aren’t going to learn as fast as those who are actively trying out new approaches to create value and reflecting on the impact that’s been achieved so that they can refine the approaches to create even more value. Action is key to accelerating knowledge creation.

Narratives help to focus learning by framing a powerful opportunity that can inspire and motivate people to explore new approaches that are all seeking to address the same opportunity. While helping to focus people, narratives also make it clear that the best approaches are not yet known and invite many diverse efforts to frame approaches that can be more effective in addressing the opportunity.

Narratives are also a powerful way to bring people together. No matter how smart any individual is, they will learn a lot faster if they are working together to address a new opportunity. And here’s the real opportunity: institutional narratives are not directed at the people within the institution. They are a call to action to people outside of the institution – so they speak to a much larger group of potential participants.

One of the few examples of this kind of institutional narrative can be found in the slogan developed by Apple in its early days: Think different. Unpack the slogan and it’s a powerful narrative. It started by describing the early impact of digital technology in taking away our names and giving us numbers, putting us in cubicles and making us cogs in a machine. It then suggested that we had a new generation of technology that for the first time would enable us to express our unique individuality and achieve more of our potential. But that wasn’t going to happen automatically. We all had to think different – that was the call to action and it spoke to such a deep aspiration that it’s the reason why, for many, Apple became the equivalent of a religion.

It inspired many people to explore how to think different, so that they could achieve more of their potential. It also inspired a growing number of third parties to develop software applications that could help people to think different and become more creative. And, of course, it inspired the employees within Apple to find ways to develop products and services that could support this quest. Groups began to come together, connecting people both within the company and outside the company, inspired by the opportunity to find ways to think different and to create the tools to help people to think different.

Effective opportunity-based narratives are not just about inspiration. These narratives can often become catalysts for a much deeper form of motivation – a specific form of passion that I call the passion of the explorer, that I’ve written about here and here. The combination of a powerful opportunity that hasn’t yet been addressed and the ability to come together with others to explore ways to achieve that opportunity can draw out the passion of the explorer in many of the participants. These people are driven to find ways to have more and more impact as they embark on a quest shaped by the opportunity ahead. Without this passion, people can certainly learn, but they will not learn as quickly or deeply as those who are driven by this passion. Passionate explorers are unstoppable.

Going exponential Opportunity-based narratives have the unique ability to drive exponential learning because they harness the power of network effects where, the more people who participate in the effort to address the opportunity, the faster everyone learns. The pace of learning doesn’t just improve linearly, it accelerates to the point where learning begins to improve exponentially. In a world that’s increasingly shaped by exponential change, the ability to unleash exponential learning can be a significant source of advantage.

It’s worth noting here that, if we continue to focus on learning in the form of sharing existing knowledge, there’s no way that form of learning can go exponential. In fact, sharing existing knowledge has diminishing returns – the more knowledge we share, the longer and harder we have to work to share that knowledge to a smaller and smaller pool of people who have not yet received that knowledge. By focusing on learning in the form of creating new knowledge, we unlock the ability to go exponential because there is no limit to the new knowledge that can be created and people can learn much faster when they come together.

What can help learning to go exponential? Two things – a cellular form of organization and a zoom out/zoom in approach to learning.

Cellular organization The most effective form of learning occurs in small groups of 3-15 people who get to know each other very well and develop deep, trust-based relationships with each other. That deep trust helps the participants to ask for help and to be more supportive of each other’s efforts to take risks and learn faster. Once you get more than about 15 people in a group, that deep form of trust is much more challenging to build, which is why the most effective cells tend to stay small.

But, if it were just about individual cells, there would be no ability to harness network effects and go exponential. The key is to connect these cells into broader and broader networks so that participants in cells can look beyond their cells to observe the impact achieved by each cell and learn from the diverse experiences as more and more cells seek to pursue new approaches in addressing the opportunity that brings everyone together. They can also reach out to participants in other cells when they have specific questions or needs that their own cell cannot answer.

What I’m describing here are creation spaces, a very different way of organizing than the hierarchical approach that defines most institutions today. And here’s the thing – these creation spaces can and should extend beyond the boundaries of any single institution. Individual cells might even include participants from both inside and outside the institution, but cells will increasingly form both within and outside institutions as the opportunity-based narrative inspires more and more people to join in the quest to address the opportunity.

These creation spaces naturally form in arenas that display sustained extreme performance improvement, ranging from extreme sports like big wave surfing and extreme skiing to online wargames. They are a powerful way to accelerate learning.

Zoom out/zoom in Opportunity-based narratives are very effective in helping people to zoom out and see a big, long-term opportunity. But the zoom out/zoom in approach that I’ve championed in the business strategy arena is relevant here as well because it focuses participants on two horizons simultaneously.

In addition to framing a compelling long-term opportunity, this approach encourages participants to zoom in and identify the two or three things that they could do in the next 6-12 months to accelerate their movement towards that longer-term opportunity. This is important because it helps to focus participants within each cell on what they can do to act now and begin to learn from the impact that they achieve. Without this zoom in focus, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by such a big, long-term opportunity. And, the sooner participants in each cell can begin to see impact from their efforts, the more they will be motivated to put even more effort into evolving their approaches in their quest to achieve even more impact and to learn from their actions.

Bottom line If we’re not learning faster, we’re going to be increasingly marginalized in the Big Shift. The most powerful learning is in the form of creating new knowledge. To accelerate that kind of learning, we need to find ways to harness the power of opportunity-based narratives. The power of these narratives can be augmented by creation spaces and a zoom out/zoom in approach that helps to strengthen the commitment of participants. If we get this right, we can watch learning go exponential and create value in ways that would have been unimaginable with more traditional models of learning.


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