Successful learning in the workplace requires learning solutions that not only include all the right ingredients but also use them effectively. This article delves into what it takes to cook up a good learning strategy.

Good cooking is like good learning in that both are a journey of simple-complex-simple. That’s part of our philosophy and the philosophy behind New York Times best-selling author and celebrated chef Samin Nosrat’s culinary approach. “Whether you’ve never picked up a knife or you’re an accomplished chef, there are only four basic factors that determine how good your food will taste,” Nosrat explains. “Salt, which enhances flavor; fat, which amplifies flavor and makes appealing textures possible; acid, which brightens and balances; and heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food.”  

It would seem, if taken at face value, that cooking is therefore pretty simple — it’s the manipulation of only four basic elements! However, the complexity becomes obvious once one dives into the kitchen. Just because you’ve got all the right ingredients, doesn’t mean they’ll all come together to make something great. There is significant complexity regarding the tools used for cooking, the people you are cooking for, and even the environment in which cooking takes place – not to forget about the cook’s confidence and experience!

Successful learning is also deceptively simple on the front end. Again, perhaps all you need is four ingredients – design for engagement, facilitation for guidance, models for structure, and practice for retention. With these four elements in mind, learning appears simple. However, like cooking, just because you have the right approach and learning solutions in place doesn’t mean you’re going to end up with a delicious dish or measurable behavior change.

Effectively Using the Right Ingredients in Your Learning Solutions

Let’s take the skill of coaching for example. Once you know the five elements (connecting, context setting, comparing perceptions, considering options, and making commitments) it seems fairly easy to do. Coaching methodology author Timothy Gallwey says that “coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them learn, rather than teaching them.” Simple, right?

Here comes the complexity. Just consider all of these questions:

  • What do my beliefs have to be to coach someone effectively?
  • What is the core issue – is it skill/will or something entirely different (think false attribution error)?
  • How does the coachee’s communication style impact how I approach them?
  • How do I find the time?
  • What is the best way to approach a true performance issue?
  • And so on…

Successful Learning Requires More than Cookbook Thinking

Much of the training developed in the past thirty years involves “cookbook thinking” – following by-the-book training models that appear to have the right ingredients. For years, the training industry has made the mistake of presenting most models on the simple side of simple-complex-simple. Facilitators, often “certified” by the training companies, have led participants to believe that the recipe is the answer – while discounting context, culture, and other drivers of performance.

Nosrat’s methods are successful because they don’t over-complicate the art of cooking; she embraces the complexity of how ingredients come together and explains these elements in relatable ways. She helps the novice cook think through the implications of various challenges.  Similarly, JMReid Group understands that organizational behavior change happens within an ecosystem of drivers that must be managed as an interdependent system. We embrace the complexity of the learner and the learning solutions we use and get them to the other side of simple-complex-simple.

Through understanding how each ingredient works together to make or break a recipe, individual chefs begin to appreciate further the complexity of salt, fat, acid, and heat – and how they, personally, can master a recipe. There is typically a significant amount of trial and error and the chef experiences the challenge – or if you will, the complexity. Once mastered, the chef will often no longer follow a “recipe” since they are on the other side of simple-complex-simple.

Successful learning is analogous to the chef experience. Concepts appear simple, however, once one really dives in, the complexity and challenge should be evident. Finally, the learner gets to the other side and is able to use the skills in a number of ways – without having to pull out a “cookbook.”

Learning is not only analogous to cooking, but to life itself. There are simple things: tell the truth, give grace, seek to understand, be vulnerable, etc. However, in the complexity of life, these simple things get tested – and the way in which we demonstrate them is contextual. Once we encounter a challenge, learn, reflect and go through life’s crucible, we come out on the other side of simple – and we become better versions of ourselves.