My company is a consulting firm and on my CV I call myself a consultant. Consultants are experts that are hired to bring solutions to a problem or improve the functioning of a mechanism, process or organisation. They are expected to have all the answers and are paid by somebody to give them the right answers to their questions or solutions for their problems.
When I work with organisations and teams on complex challenges, I often do not feel comfortable in this role as a consultant or expert. Too often, I do not know the answers or solutions. Too often, I have felt that moment of panic in the plane on the way to a client that I do not really know what to tell them, that I do not have the answers they are hoping to get from me. As I have said and written before, intervening in complex systems is not about fixing things, like fixing an engine. Complex systems are evolving interconnected systems. Understanding these interconnections and shifting the context is a more appropriate approach to change. This always needs to be based on a deep sense of understanding the local context and continuous mutual learning.
Learning is the basis for change in complex systems
As I write on the ‘About me’ page of my website, “Learning is at the heart of achieving change and my aim is to provide a structure for more meaningful learning.” Hence, what I can do as external partner is to accompany organisations and teams through a learning and change process and share with them my experiences and understanding of complex change processes – while at the same time continually learn about their situation, context and possible ways forward. There is no step by step guide I can walk them through. Every situation is different so what I can do is learn together with them and augment their learning process. That’s accompanied learning.
But a good teacher, and a real expert, knows that they are in a process of learning themselves. They are not leaders. They are not making seeds grow … They are fertilizer, tending to the soil. (Nora Bateson)
The term ‘accompanied learning’ itself is a product of mutual learning, of a process of discussion and interaction between me and a group of people from “Organization Unbound“, an outfit that describes itself as “an attempt to re-imagine the way we think about and engage in social change”.
The result of this process is not only the term accompanied learning, but also a description of accompanied learning that I am sharing below. This definition is a slightly adapted version of what is published on the website of Organization Unbound. In their post, they also add a list of qualities for organisations to look for in a learning partner as well as a list of qualities for external learning partners to look for in organisations
Guided by a spirit of co-learning. A person or group within an organisation comes together with a person or group external to that organisation to learn together. Being in a relationship of mutual learning is the end goal. Because there are no recipes for transforming a living system, such as an organisation, we cannot plan it out or copy-paste best practices and expertise from other contexts. We can only collectively learn our way into the answers. Thus the primary role of the external partner is to be an exceptional co-learner (not to present their expertise, provide recommendations, propose solutions, guide a change process, or facilitate an intervention). They walk with organisational members as they experiment, probing for new insight and sharing knowledge and experience in response to what is emerging in practice. The Latin root of ‘accompaniment’ means to ‘eat bread together’, to satisfy a fundamental need. In the case of organisational accompaniment, this fundamental need is learning.
Focused on the day-to-day. Accompanied learning involves gently experimenting with small shifts in behaviour in the context of the organisation’s current work, rather than merely in separate retreats or through new structures or processes. It recognises that meaningful and sustained change unfolds in the micro-moments of organisational life. Instead of creating more work on top of people’s already packed agendas, the expectation is to work with what is already happening in the organisation. This more integrated approach allows changes in ways of being to evolve more naturally and to be initiated in a more distributed way across the organisation. It also reduces the level of anxiety and defensiveness often associated with organisational change.
Contributes to a broader field of learning. Accompanied learning is intended to feed development at all levels of the organisation, no matter where the inquiry begins (with an individual, team, department, etc.). It is also intended to contribute to the larger field of ‘organisational development for social change’ (via learning communities like Organization Unbound and The Barefoot Guide Connection). This coupling of an internally focused inquiry with a ‘greater good’ inquiry gives the learning relationship a deeper meaning. And this deeper meaning has a generative quality. The idea that through our learning we might be discovering insight that will help other teams/organisations is energizing and mind-expanding.
Organisationally-driven. Experiments are led from within the organisation (by anyone, no matter their formal position), rather than by the external learning partner. Because staff and volunteers experience their organisation on a daily basis, they have a more nuanced and intuitive understanding of its inner-workings. They are able to more clearly see leverage points for change and tinker with them in the context of their daily work. The external partner can share helpful examples, frameworks, and practices, but it is ultimately up to the organisation to decide if and how to apply them. The external partner does however serve as an important anchor and space holder for the learning relationship, ensuring that in the busyness of organisational life, it remains front and centre.
Whole-person centred. Accompanied learning involves engaging with each other as whole people, beyond our professional expertise and roles. Because much of how we learn is tacit rather than explicit, the collective intelligence of a co-learning experience is expanded when we relate to each other in richer, more subtle ways. Our joy, humour, sadness, discomfort, anger, love, and fear are not simply emotional states. They can be signals that something is shifting or needs shifting. They can be doorways to new insight. And they strongly influence our capacity to learn and experiment. Accompanied learning involves paying attention to the ebbs and flows of human experience and responding to them in generative ways. The intention is to grow, within the learning relationship itself, the kind of social field we want to see blossom in the organisation and in broader society.
Open-ended & emergent. There is no predetermined end-date, plan of action, deliverables, or methodology. The path is made by walking it together. The learning partners check in with each other periodically to see if the relationship is still relevant and, if so, how they would like to proceed. For some accompanied learning relationships, this check-in happens at the end of each encounter. For others, an intention is set to have a certain number of learning exchanges, followed by a check-in. The general aim is to be in a medium to long-term relationship so that there is sufficient breathing space to experiment, observe the results, and iterate based on those results. A longer term engagement also helps the parties get to know each other in more nuanced ways.
Multi-formed. A variety of accompanied learning constellations are possible. An individual can accompany an individual, a group of people, an entire organisation, or even a group of people that come together ad-hoc because they feel the need to effect change in their communities. An organisation can accompany another organisation. Or a team can accompany another team. And the constellation might evolve over time. For example, an individual might start off accompanying one person and welcome in others over time, as interest across the organisation grows.
Contractually experimental. Accompanied learning does not always involve a monetary transaction. It can be driven purely by mutual learning, if both parties are comfortable with that. However, if there is an expressed need for one person to earn a living through the value they contribute, then payment options are explored that enable the relationship to develop with as much freedom and flexibility as possible. For example, the organisation might hire the external partner hourly, on monthly retainer or agree to contribute a yet-to-be-determined amount at a later date, once the relationship has had time to demonstrate its learning value.