Spoonful of sugar

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Image courtesy of Pixabay

I’d had a decent cycle ride last Sunday when I lazily checked Twitter. A quick swipe and I found that Steve Wheeler had challenged me to a blog (again).  I like Steve’s challenges; aside from forcing me to think differently, the contributors to his challenges are diverse and worldwide.

The challenge this time is #twistedpair. With this challenge, Steve asks people to put together an unlikely pairing of characters and relate them in some form to learning. So I did what I usually do and put out to my network for suggestions. Luckily, my network didn’t let me down…

Where do you start with a challenge like this? I started looking for any connections between the two and found little, excepting the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. That would have been too obvious for me – creating a blog post tied to learning, practice and peak performance on the basis of a flimsy connection, so I went back to the source material.

I looked at Mary Poppins side first and found that there’s a lot that you could apply from Mary Poppins to the world of learning. I was thinking about how Mary Poppins might fit into a corporate L&D role. There’s the spoonful of sugar (training course) to take with the medicine (performance management). Sing along with me:

a training course in a classroom makes the performance management easier, performance management easier, performance management easier, in a most delightful way…

There’s also the air of mystery that she exudes:

First of all I would like to make one thing quite clear…I never explain anything.

This approach, keeping her modus operandi hidden behind a veil of secrecy, fits well with the corporate L&D professional who wants to keep the magic hidden about how learning happens. Mary Poppins’ veil is made of magic, the corporate L&D-er uses a LMS to the same effect. Explain nothing, hide behind happy sheets and educational language. She appears, however, to at least be open to new ways of thinking. She agrees with gamification as a concept:

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.

Finding the element of fun can be as (if not more) difficult as finding an element of learning. This is primarily because fun, like learning is subjective, individualised, context driven and personal. This is where Mary Poppins understands that each person has their own construct for what inspires them. In the novel, she asks:

“Don’t you know that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?”

I’d love to know what Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Fairyland was like. In his lifetime he designed and built railways, tunnels, ships, and bridges. A true engineer, his designs were extravagant as he sought to create distinctive and unique solutions. He often overspent; the Great Western railway was 3 times over budget, even after Brunel had undergone eight weeks of cross examination in parliament about how it would be built.

Would Brunel have been a good fit into the world of organisational learning? I think it unlikely, but he has qualities that I admire. He was an original disruptor; his designs were unique and generally practical solution in outcome, although their execution was always challenging. This is the essence of L&D needing to be more like engineers than shopkeepers.

What I admire most about Brunel was his rules of engagement. He pushed boundaries, created new solutions to challenging problems and did that with a mentality of not assuming there was a best practice. Indeed, he once said:

I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.

Just because we’ve built a bridge one way in the past we shouldn’t assume it can be duplicated – how often do we do exactly that with our L&D offer?

Are Brunel and Poppins that much of a twisted pair? One factual, one fictional. One male, one female. Both judged on outcomes over outputs. Not so much twisted – more like not easily aligned.

Your turn now – are there other similarities in Poppins and Brunel? Let me know in the comments.

Alternatively, I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse and ask you to create a blog post from this twisted pair – Marlon Brando and Macbeth.

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