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Inspiration is Not Transformation: Let’s Not Confuse Peak States With Stages in Vertical Development
I am sure every facilitator knows the sense of joy at the end of a long day of training, when participants leave the room with a smile on their faces, expressing gratitude for an uplifting experience, or perhaps proudly carry a list of actions for change they had co-created in some hours of intense conversations, reflections and engaging activities. There is a sense of exhaustion one feels when that room is finally empty and, with it, the hope that the change will stick. But does it?
My fifteen years of practice have shown me that it rarely does.
Human beings are brave and open. Take them out of their normal environment, create a solid space of psychological safety, bring in some developmental discomfort and see them open up, vulnerably share, courageously explore. Light bulbs turn on. Truths are spoken which had before been hidden. Tears sometimes come, and that’s a good sign. Insights and promises for action emerge. The commitment is real.
But human beings are also creatures of habit and creatures of context. Put them back into their normal environment, with pressures to perform, fears of failure and judgement, with nobody to curate the conversation, with real doubts on psychological safety and surrounded by people who have not been through the learning experience they have been through and see their immunity to change kick in and them promptly return to the dysfunctional behaviours of yesteryear.
Inspiration is an energising and nourishing, but ephemeral thing.
Over the years, I have been part of projects large and small, alone or with teams of facilitators, stood in rooms-full of hundreds of people moving/listening/breathing in sync - energised to the core and with tears in their eyes - witnessed moments of revelation, of true magic created by authentic speakers and charismatic facilitators. The experience was deemed ‘transformational’ by organisers and participants alike. And yet, research interviewing those same bright-eyed participants some months after the event, they could hardly remember details and many confessed feeling the inspiration and the impetus for change had faded fast once they returned into the hecticness of their own lives. Moreover, when measuring the vertical development after what was experienced by most as a profound learning program, a third of participants had stagnated, a third progressed and a third had regressed developmentally - and a large proportion of the latter group were those who had been furthest in their adult development at program’s start. So what happened?
Inspiration is NOT Transformation
This has been my most humbling lesson in this profession. It’s a lesson which hit me like a hammer when I first understood it and had me seriously doubting the meaning and purpose of my work as a facilitator. Why would you pour your heart and soul into creating what amounts to mere moments of uplifting energy, with no long-term tangible impact?
For some, there is joy and professional satisfaction to be found in overcoming participants initial reluctance and winning hearts and minds for a few hours. Others might pragmatically (and rightfully) say that providing inspiration can make good business. And yet, for so many other facilitators, neither participants’ admiration, nor good business are enough if they’re not followed by impact. My positive assumption is that most in this profession are aspiring to help create a good outcome, to see a lasting sign of our work in the form of more conscious individuals, more functional teams, more purposeful organisations, perhaps a little bit more wisdom visible in the world of work and perhaps even a slightly more conscious world for us all.
The reason I did not give up was that I did also see genuine transformation through my work - and by that I mean real, palpable, measurable change. It was and is much more rare than inspiration, but real enough to get me curious and give me hope that organised learning can indeed make a sustainable impact - on both individuals and groups - under the right conditions.
Theories of adult development provide an understanding as to why it’s hard for even the most uplifting experience, in isolation, to bring a lasting change on people’s behaviour.
It is the difference between States and Stages.
A peak state is a momentary feeling of barriers lifted, obstacles overcome, clarity of mind and heart, profound connection with those around you and perhaps with the world at large. A peak state is a moment of grace. A peak state can even be life-changing - as the recent research into psychedelic-assisted therapy has shown - because it can fundamentally alter people’s beliefs about the world and open up whole new possibilities for action. There is therefore much value to be found in a state that takes people above and beyond their day-to-day experience of the world.
In adult development we also talk about ‘fallback states’ - which are the opposite of peak states. They are momentary regressive states where people feel unable to show up as their fully mature self. Those too are temporary. People always tend to return to the baseline.
A state - be it peak state or fallback state - should never be confused with a stage in vertical development.
Stages are much more stable planes of development. A person’s current stage is, in many ways, their baseline. It’s the cumulative capabilities and behavioural patterns they return to when they’re not either hyper-stimulated by inspiring environments, nor ‘pulled back’ by toxic ones.
This means that one-off, engaging, relevant, profound learning experiences can and do open up the door to a higher state, giving people a glimpse of what it might feel like to see the world through a broader lens. However, most often they do not allow for the time and the complex inner shifts and outer iterations required to turn that state into a proper stage. Again, experience from the emerging field of psychedelic research supports the idea that powerful states need to be accompanied by proper integration in order to create long-lasting behavioural change.
No doubt, inspiration does play a powerful role. How can people recognise the good if they’ve never felt it? Taking a glimpse into what is possible can be a powerful motivator for change. Yet I believe it’s important to humbly remind ourselves that’s only the first step.
So how do we design learning that goes beyond inspiration and does create the premises for genuine transformation?
Here are three of my own lived lessons and principles from working in this space and grappling with this dilemma. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means and it’s only my version of the truth. There is also plenty of good, solid research validating effective approaches to organisational learning. And most of it points towards blended approaches, firmly embedded in the organization’s day to day life, rather than removed from it.
I know there are so many brilliant learning deigners out there who will have profound and informed insights on this - I would love to hear and learn from their wisdom. The following are mere foundational principles I’ve come to value in my work and hold as guidelines for avoiding the trap of conflating inspiration with transformation.
Long-term programs, with shorter, regular interventions, a curriculum firmly embedded in people’s work realities and plenty of live experiments outside classroom settings are more impactful than high-energy one-offs
I’ve learnt over time - and that small doses of learning with many opportunities for practice beyond the classroom are key to any effective program. The disorientation that comes from being taken out of your ‘normal world’ holds value to surfacing dilemmas and getting people seeing what they might be missing in their day to day environment. At the same time it’s paramount to bring the learning back into work, to go beyond insight and embody the learning in organisational life through constant experimentation and iteration.
Talking the talk is nothing if you’re not Walking the walk
I have yet to see a learning program succeed where the leaders of the organisation were removed from the learning or where people could see their leaders doing the opposite of what was touted in formal development. However inspirational the speakers might be, people get cynical when they cannot see any evidence of those principles being lived in their day to day work. When leaders behave as if learning is something other people need, when they are not modelling the vulnerability or sharing that they expect from their teams, or when they are the first to break the very commitments the team has spent days building - that’s the sure recipe for building resistance and mistrust in the value of L&D.
Transformation is an inside-out job and the best consultants are those who work at making themselves redundant
Finally, my biggest lesson is also a confronting one for any independent facilitators or consultant: our clients’ success is not needing us anymore. I believe this to be true for individual coaching, for team facilitation and more broadly for all organisational learning. Unless a client develops the capabilities and skills to face their own challenges, access their own resources, find their own strategies and drive their own ongoing learning, we will not see any sustainable change.
To support a client’s independence from you, to actively work toward making yourself redundant - requires consultants to stomach a lot of uncertainty and to hold a strong ethical compass. It takes courage to design projects from the get-go in such a way that you transfer relevant knowledge effectively, ensure your clients make it their own and truly embed it into their ways of working - all with the specific aim that, by the end, your client has fully owned that learning and does not need your support anymore. It takes even more courage to intentionally seek that ‘end’ and do all you can so it comes sooner rather than later.
This is why I believe we cannot escape doing the work ourselves that we require our clients to do - because transformation is an inside job that might just start with the consultants themselves.
There is a moral duty I perceive - inherent in the work of a facilitator or learning consultant - to cultivate in themselves the maturity they hope to instil in their clients. To be effective at our work we need, it seems to me, to become the work itself. To help others transform we need to transform ourselves- face our fears, face our needs to be needed, monitor our own behaviours and how (or not) they align with our espoused values.
Transformation is perhaps one of the sexiest and most over-used words in the space of organisational learning at the moment - to the point where it loses its meaning. Everyone seeks it. We want to ‘upgrade our teams’ to the Transforming stage of vertical development. And we want our learning programs to be ‘transformational’.
But to do that we might need to pause and take a look in the mirror. What needs to transform in the way we as facilitators/consultants work? How do we acknowledge our limitations? How do we keep ourselves honest? How do we stop confusing inspiration with transformation and find the courage to do the hard, long, messy work the latter requires?
Please feel free to leave your reflections and lived experiences in the comments. There’s much learning we can gift each-other.
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