For The Future

I spoke at Chichester College’s Professional Student Graduation ceremony last night. Students from Marketing, Accountancy, Human Resources and Learning & Development received their certificates and then contemplated their futures. As the guest speaker, this is the heart of the advice I gave them.

1 – Say Yes If You Can

When life offers you an opportunity, grab it with both hands even if it isn’t part of your plan and not what you were expecting. This is particularly important if someone else is saying “I think you would be great at this.” Doing a wide variety of things opens your horizons and makes you more effective.

Opportunities don’t always work out well but they are never wasted. We learn from the bad times as well as the good times. Say yes and make it yours.

2 – When You Say No, Let It Go

If you have to say no to an opportunity don’t waste your time wondering what would have happened differently – you will never know.  Sometimes we come across two paths and have to choose which one to go down. Whether you choose the path “less travelled by [1]” or the massive motorway, travelled by a million people before you, let the other path go.

3 – Stay A Student Forever

You will learn things today that in a few years you will discover are not true. You must keep looking, studying, learning, challenging, testing yourself and what you know. Never give up being a student; it hasn’t finished, it has only just begun.


You can’t see the road ahead, only what is now and what has gone before. You can scream with excitement or you can scream with fear. Your choice – choose excitement.


[1] Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Breaking Out

Here is the third entry into the VERY occasional series, responding to the Artwork of My Friends – the first being here and the second here.

I asked my friend Doug Shaw to select a piece of his work for me to write about. Here is my response.

Painting by Doug Shaw

Breaking Out       by Janet Webb

Warm, familiar, not loud, not bright,
This comforting place is my delight.
This shell keeps me secure, held and still,
Away from the cliff edge, safe from ill will.

These bars protect me from unknown harm,
Enclosing with nothing to cause alarm.
They stop me from doing what’s foolish, what’s rash,
Protecting me from what’s harsh, what’s brash.

But painfully bound to a familiar game,
Repeating, repeating, repeating the same,
The solid walls smother and stifle the din
And I shrink and contract; my outlook looks in.

So I break from this jail that’s safe but a bore,
Cut the rope that tethers and learn to soar.
Looking over the edge I see a different view
And risking the fall, I learn something new.

I’ll leave the comfort of what I know
And explore what is hidden in order to grow.
To climb like a vine and snatch at the sky.
And if I fall? Well, for a moment I’ll fly.


Content or Delivery; which is better?

About a year ago I was running a session for some Learning and Development professionals on the Neuroscience of Learning.

I was contacted before the event by one of the potential delegates and asked this question:

“Will there be some actual content or will it be all of us just sharing what we know?”

The person in question was unwell and the thought of turning up to an event, expecting to learn something new and instead being given post-it notes and coloured pens was more than they could cope with. We had an interesting discussion.

I have noticed more and more of exactly what they were talking about – a move towards L&D people being less about the content and more about the delivery. But is this a good move? I have a concern about lazy being dressed as facilitation and that the delivery becomes so important that good content is not included at all.

Last month I facilitated a similar group of L&D professionals looking at some techniques for learning that were definitely not chalk and talk. At one point, dotted around the room, were flipcharts with provocative statements on. People were invited to look at them and discuss the statements with whoever was there, for as long as they wanted to, before moving on. I tweeted one of the statements and Twitter responded.  This was the statement.



Replies ranged from “Never!” to “Agreed.”

There were a lot of responses around good facilitation taking dry content and making it great and that bad delivery can suck the life out of a learning event. Conversely, that great delivery can mask poor design. There were thoughts on how good questions can deliver amazing results. There were some feeding analogies. The word context came up. “Context is the missing word. The dance between content, delivery & exploration depends on context.” from Chris Nichols @chrisnicholsT2i

There was also some talk about the importance of participation; that you can’t make someone learn.


All true.  So what’s the problem?


I was reminded a while ago about a time when a group of us were running a residential and we ran out of activities. So we divided the delegates into two teams, asked them to design an exercise for the other team, then swapped the activities and sat back. Of course we facilitated the reflective session afterwards; we didn’t just walk away altogether, but I felt at the time, and still do years later, that this was utterly lazy. Yes they got something from it. Yes we helped them process the learning. But honestly, did we do the best for them? Could that time have been used better?

I adore action learning sets but it has to be done right, for people who want and need it, when they want and need it. I remember once being on a course as a new manager where the facilitator gave us the opportunity to spend an afternoon together, with total freedom to manage our own learning, exploring whatever came up. I think the term T-group was used. So we all went back to work! We had left busy work places to come and get help with our busy work places. We didn’t see the benefit of chewing the fat with other, equally busy colleagues. This was probably a sign of our immaturity as learners but it was also a sign of a Trainer (they weren’t called L&D professionals then) experimenting on us with an idea and doing it very badly. They were a bit cross with us for not engaging. We were furious for being given so little when we needed so much.

I love great facilitation. I think it’s an important, potentially life changing skill. I did a course 20 years ago at Surrey University about the dynamics of group work and facilitation that was possibly one of the best things I have ever done. However, I think there is also a place for designing great content. I think there is a place for lectures and teaching and instructional training.

If I’m going for surgery I want my surgeons to have attended some recent lectures on the latest techniques and breakthroughs. I also want them to have discussed this between themselves and thought about how they can use these things effectively. I want them to do the full 100%.

When I learned to drive I wanted the instructor to say

“That peddle in the middle is the break”


“OK, how do you feel about this? If this car was a stone you are carrying, what colour would it smell like?”

Great facilitation should not over-ride the need for great content, when that great content is what is needed. Chewing the fat can be amazing – give them something worth chewing.

Please Have a Heart For The Long Term Unemployed

I recently posted a guest blog – here.  I was making a number of points:

  1. work gives opportunities for challenge, social interaction, expansion of our comfort zones and fun
  2. the long term unemployed get none of that
  3. what they do get is often dismissive, unfair, rude and thoughtless

The post got over 800 reads and lots of positive responses. I can only hope that it leads to action. Here it is in full.


A few years ago my husband, children and I packed up our gear and went off for an adventure; Four Webbs Go Mad in Dorset. Our plan was to camp at Langton Matravers and go rock climbing at Dancing Ledge, a wave cut platform on the Jurassic Coast, near the fabulously named Scratch Arse Ware.

The children had been learning to climb with the Sea Cadets (a youth organisation that gives young people opportunities for extraordinary experiences) and Jonathan and I had climbed together when we were first married, some “cough” years previously. This was the first time we had climbed together as a family; and what larks we had!

We were top rope climbing; a rope is fixed to the climber, passed through an anchor at the top of the cliff and then held onto by someone, the belayer, at the bottom of the cliff. Their job is to keep the rope tight so that if the climber falls they don’t fall very far. My kids belayed for each other and at one point, strapped together, they belayed for their father; what a fabulous lesson in trust. We had fun, managed danger, explored interdependence and encouraged, supported and challenged each other. It was a magical time in beautiful surroundings. Together we stepped out of our comfort zones. We literally and metaphorically climbed heights and as a result gained confidence in ourselves and each other.

This kind of bonding, growing and learning is something that a good working life gives us; social interaction, the chance to try new things, learning from our mistakes, feeling supported and challenged.


In contrast, I am currently working with groups of people who have been out of work for a long time – over 10 years in a few cases. For some their comfort zones are miserably small and may not even include their own home space. They have stopped growing and learning because they have stopped having opportunities to do so. The lack of the stimulation that employees take for granted, leads to limiting habits and a shrinking of perspective, hope and joy. Life is a treadmill of applying for jobs that they have little hope of getting, trying to prove to the Job Centre that they are attempting to push a load up a mountain and eking out their funds to cover the basics of life; basics that usually don’t include Christmas parties, hobbies, being able to buy a round of drinks for friends, owning a pet, running a car. Always at the mercy of bus timetables, agencies who don’t quite bother enough and potential employers who don’t quite care enough, the struggle and isolation is dispiriting.

Take Aaron. He was running his own successful catering business, started from scratch, when he gave it all up to be a full time carer for his mother. When she died some years later he lost his home, his mother, his daily routine and his purpose. After a crippling few years of grief and isolation, he was facing the rest of his life with dread; no qualifications, no recent, relevant experience and serious doubts about his own value.

Betty. After her husband died she didn’t leave the house for ten years. By the time she sought help, her self esteem and confidence in her own ability was through the floor.

Charlie. He worked for the same employer from school, as a skilled worker, for 40 years. Now that modern life has done away with that industry, he is struggling to learn IT skills just to be able to apply for minimum wage jobs that he has no hope of getting.

Debbie. A difficult childhood and time in care homes has given her rocky foundations to build her adult life on. Walking into a room with strangers is a challenge.

These are not scroungers and wasters; these are people who have been dealt a poor hand and are expected to pull themselves out of the hole that they are in. Yet they don’t have the resources to do that. And those resources are not going to develop through a life of visiting the job centre, walking around town to relieve the boredom and sitting in a library, applying for jobs that they know literally hundreds of other people are also applying for.



The good news is that things can get better. Betty volunteered for two years in a charity shop and on the back of that she got a job last week. Debbie was given a work taster in a supermarket and is now working there full time, blossoming and loving it. Aaron was given some basic IT help and some interview skills practice and now feels able to take on the world.

What can make the difference is someone taking an interest; having a heart for them. Eric got an e-mail last week from an employer who had received his CV. A response – almost unheard of! He brought the e-mail to show us. It was written with thought and compassion and although it didn’t offer a job it was personal, wishing Eric a happy Christmas and New Year. Eric was chuffed to bits; someone had taken the time and had treated him like a person. Frank was phoned up by an interviewer to say that he hadn’t got the job and why. She also gave some feedback, unsolicited. Again, almost unheard of! Frank was amazed and the feedback was genuinely helpful.

Most of the time, they don’t hear anything and they get no feedback, even when they ask. Occasionally they get treated really badly. Jobs get offered then snatched away. Jobs are filled internally but the employer has gone through a pretence of recruitment to demonstrate fairness. Georgie had to save up the bus fare to get to a job interview only to discover that the employer wanted a skilled chef, whereas the agency had sent her for a kitchen porter job. When your self esteem is at rock bottom, to be treated so badly can just confirm in you that you lack value.


What’s needed is for employers, HR teams and recruitment agencies to have a change of heart:

  • to not treat low skilled workers as low skilled people
  • to not just farm out the low wage jobs to agencies
  • to care and be accountable for how applicants are treated by agencies
  • to refund precious bus fares
  • to offer and give good feedback
  • to challenge the need for recent relevant experience
  • to not reject someone because they haven’t worked for two years
  • to take care about job adverts
  • to read past the first paragraph on a CV
  • to give people a chance.

If you can give someone a work taster for two months, two weeks, two days even, you could be the turning point for someone and the route off the treadmill. Do it for Corporate Social Responsibility reasons. Do it because you just might find a gem. Do it because you have a heart. Do it.


Note: names and circumstances have been changed to protect identities. However, all these stories are real.


Memory – how does it work?

We think of memories as something that we pick up along the way; little scars on our brains that show the journey that we have traveled.  When we want to recall a memory we imagine that we go into a filing system, locate the memory and replay it from the original space on the hard drive.  However this is not how memory works, not least because this is not how we perceive the world.

Memory, memory storage and memory retrieval is much more like cake making.

Our brains are like walk-in pantries with all of the different aspects of our experience (conscious and subconscious) stored in separate places on the shelves lining the walls.  What we see is stored in a jar on a different shelf from what we hear, think, feel etc.  The smell of an experience is placed in a jar right in the front, whereas sight is stored right at the back.

The cook in the middle puts the ingredients into the various jars as they occur.  Then when that memory needs to be recalled they go to the different jars and build the memory from the different elements; they reconstruct the cake.  However, it isn’t the original cake, it’s a new cake formed from the ingredients.  Which is why the new cake can be a bit wrong and is partly  why two people observing the same thing can recall it completely differently.

To learn something accurately we need to repeatedly make the cake, checking the recipe, using as many ingredients as possible, in order to make the connections between the correct jars really strong, bringing them to the front of the shelves.

Then eat the cake.  I’m not sure how this fits into the analogy, but eating cake is a great thing to do. And using your brain requires calories.

Learner Centred – all very well but…

The degree to which a learning event is controlled by either the facilitator or the learner can be mapped on a continuum.  At one end, the “teacher” end, you have lectures and also published media such as videos, books and blog posts.  At the other end, the “learner” end, you have self managed learning which includes interesting concepts such as T groups, action learning and reflective practice.  Then along the continuum there is training, coaching, mentoring and a whole host of other interventions to help the learner learn – including directing them to useful videos, books and blog posts.

In the last few years there has been an understanding that learners learn

  1. through a variety of means
  2. mostly by actually doing stuff and then reflecting on that
  3. best when they are not bored out of their tiny (constantly expanding) minds.

The drive towards learner centred learning is to be embraced, encouraged and celebrated. Hooray!  The 70:20:10 model tells us to value all that lovely reflective, learner driven gorgeousness.  But…

With this drive I’m noticing a massive push towards throwing the baby out with the bath water; dropping the 10%.

  • Putting people into small groups and then getting them to chat about stuff without some direction to help stimulate the conversation. This can be a rather lazy (and frankly dull) way of filling in some time. People actually like something meaty to talk about; a bit of grit in the oyster. Get them to talk purposefully.
  • Deriding lectures. However, the sage on the stage may actually have something interesting to say. Let them say it. The learner will work out for themselves what is useful and interesting.  They’ll also process this information at a subconscious level and use it at some point.
  • Assuming that every course is some sort of low quality sheep dip. On the contrary, done well, a course might be exactly what someone needs.  Showing someone how to do something is not a bad practice.

When you learned to drive (those of you who did) most of your learning came after you passed your test, when you were left on your own and had to get on with it.  A lot of learning came from your instructor (and possibly your mum, dad or other) sitting beside you asking questions such as “What do you need to think about here?” or suggesting that maybe there is a better way to pull away from a junction than in third gear. (Just me?)  But I’m quite sure that if on your first lesson the instructor had said “Let’s just start the engine and see what happens” you probably would have got out of the car.

Drive for quality- yes in all things. Social learning is amazing if it’s the right thing at the right time. Reflective practice is brilliant if it is based on context and at a deep level. And being taught something can be just exactly what’s needed. Don’t throw away the 10%.