Coping with Learning Disabilities

As I have read and learned of the experience of many adults with learning disabilities, I have seen that the more successful adults develop coping strategies to overcome the effects. The more effective their strategies the more free they are from their disability. Some of them end up greatly developing their personalities and capacities as they strive to overcome and minimize the disability itself. This builds themselves up into stronger persons, debatably stronger than if they had never had the disability.

But several articles are quick to point out that there are many adults with disabilities who do not develop the capacity to overcome their disabilities, that respond negatively to the obstacles, and who are greatly impeded by their disabilities. These people are probably the majority and they pay the price for their disability much of the time. Everywhere, people are different and unique and cannot be placed into a cookie cutter.

In reading about my high-achieving dyslexic, Terry Goodkind, I have been amazed at what he has endured. And I find myself looking at him with respect and admiration, rather than pity, in regard to how he coped through his childhood years. He acknowledges the hardships that dyslexia presented, but he viewed them as just other obstacles in life that he had to overcome. It was not a major ordeal for him – he saw many other people in life with worse disabilities. What if we had been designed to have four arms? Born with two arms, we are coping as best we can with what we have. This is what Goodkind does with dyslexia.

Initial Reflections

Our first class gave me quite an orientation to our course topic, the issues experienced by persons with a learning disability. I learned in general that this is a broad, multi-textured area, where generalizations don’t work – usually.

I am still trying to fit this in to the whole Adult Ed program. But there were clues in the class, such as the prevalence and variety of learning disabilities, the ways these change throughout one’s life, and the number of traits all adults share, whether learning disabled or not. I think this class will be quite relevant in working with adults.

My wife’s brother, Ben, has brain damage from a motorcycle accident 30 years ago. This is apparently termed an “acquired” disability, as opposed to a “developmental” disability that one has from the beginning. It would seem to me more difficult in this context acquiring one in life, because you would have started in life with more mainstream capabilities. I remember talking with a friend in college who had been born blind through some type of drug treatment while in the womb. She said that if too much or not enough drug had been supplied she would have either died or been born blind; in this context, she appreciated her blindness.

Reading the articles shows how vast the field is for learning disabilities. I see already that we have created a culture in class whereby we respect people with learning disabilities (rather than “learning disabled people”). May the learning continue!

Capstone: Successful Presentation

The major client presentation is done — successfully!  But yes, there were lessons along the way.

I participated in the Banking on Success (BOS) set, working with Union First Market Bankshares (UFMB) to identify improvements to their new hire onboarding process. A total of seven UFMB members (teammates) were present at the final presentation. Among them were our main clients, Jackie Stevens and Libbie Dishner, Vice President of Training and Vice President of HR, respectively. Also participating was another of our major contacts, Mary Jo Martineau, previously the director of training for the former Union side, and also the Executive Vice President of Retail and three of her four direct reports. The fourth was expected but did not make it.

All of the participants appeared to be pleased with our presentation and in agreement with our findings. We engaged them with questions during the event but they also posed queries of their own. Their discussion especially focused on the causes of our findings, the possible meaning of the results, and next steps for implementation. There was no significant disagreement about what we uncovered and what we recommended, for which we were all grateful. As the presentation progressed I felt more relaxed and confident as I saw they were generally accepting our findings and looking beyond to interpretation and implementation.

Our next steps consisted of copying the client-generated list of implementation actions and providing it to Jackie, who as head of training is well-positioned to coax it into execution. I truly believe at least some of the recommendations will be followed up by the client.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the presentation. Our set neglected to insert any activities or targeted discussion into the presentation — it was all lecture. Even we were bored!

This was a major part of the feedback that Drs. Carter and Muth provided us at the dress rehearsal.  How did we forget the very essence of what we had learned on the Adult Learning program?

I think part of it was certainly the intense drive to completion toward the end. We simply needed to get it done, and every change produced ripple effects of more work in our whole body of research findings. I think also a part of it was that we had worked hard to do the research, so it was appropriate that the attendees work hard to understand our presentation (a bit self-absorbed, perhaps?).  At any rate, we knew better, and were told as much by Dr. Carter. Some hasty preparation remediated this defect, we injected activities for engagement into the event, and we were overjoyed at the client reaction.

What about reflection? As the deadline bore down on us, we reflected less on our process. Could we have reflected our way into awareness of our omission? Possibly; probably. Certainly this is an object lesson on the need to continue the reflection of action learning especially in the heat of deadlines.

Consulting Skills #7: Philosophy of Consulting Practice

My philosophy of consulting practice centers around the value of the helping relationship, authenticity, equality, ethics, and the value of the adult learner. I believe I serve the client the best when I operate as a process consultant and increase the client’s capacity to solve his/her own problems. However, I will operate occasionally as an expert or a pair-of-hands if it serves the overall purpose.

The following expands on these commitments.

Concerning the helping relationship, I support:

— being helpful in the client’s eyes, so I must ask for understanding and engage in dialogue

— being the process expert and allowing the client to be the content expert

— treating the client as a person and not jumping to conclusions without testing assumptions

— developing a relationship that builds mutual trust by keeping promises on an increasing scale

— allowing the client ultimately to “own” the problem rather than the consultant

— clarifying choices for the client, but not coercing

Concerning authenticity, I support:

— speaking honestly about my motivations, methods, intents, and feelings for the consulting (ethics)

— giving positive, truthful feedback to affirm the client

— confronting the client respectfully with hard truths as needed, rather than sweeping them under the rug

— saying “no” when necessary

Concerning equality between client and consultant, I support involving the client in 50 / 50 participation in all phases of consultation (contracting, discovery, feedback, implementation) to gain the following benefits:

— equal value in the relationship, not one-up or one-down

— access to the client’s knowledge of the organization and culture

— increased quality and usability of the processes and products provided

— strengthened commitment by the client to act

Concerning ethics, I support:

— disclosing my motivations, methods, and intents for the consulting, and operating authentically

— ensuring that all types of clients (such as contact, primary, unwitting, ultimate) are served by my activities, not one client to the detriment of others, or at least making all parties aware

— being helpful in the eyes of the client (so I must ask for understanding)

Concerning clients as adult learners I believe:

— adult learners are motivated to acquire knowledge that can be applied to their lives; therefore, I must ensure I am being helpful and relevant with the client

— adult learners already contain valuable knowledge that can enrich others; therefore, I must actively seek clients’ knowledge as I plan and execute

Consulting Skills #6 — Implement This!

Block declares that implementation efforts should not laminate vision, legislate standards, dangle rewards, or mandate measures.  And in my career I have implemented and supported nearly all of these, usually by management fiat.

 It’s not that these are detrimental in themselves.  All serve useful purposes in their own right.  But when we take them as the ultimate implementation strategy and force them on everyone, that is when we go astray.  When our implementation becomes coercive instead of allowing different organizational groups to grapple with their own freedom to implement, we also go astray.  How can we do better?

What I think of immediately is a quote that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”  That was a motivating belief in the IT world in which I have worked.  Even in regard to an organizational social system, Likert himself would certainly agree.  Burke developed his organization change model, and in his examples of how to implement a change, he surveyed the organization members using a Likert scale instrument, applying it before and after the change to determine how effective the change was along certain organizational dimensions.  Measurement allows us to gain feedback on organizational changes.  This is an example of how measurement can be beneficial.  How can we apply it generally without coercive abuse?

I know in the IT world, as everywhere, that we have to take extra care to measure the right things or else we will foster the wrong kind of behavior.  For example, if we want to measure programmer productivity, it would seem we could measure how many lines of code they wrote per week.  But if that became a measure that rewards were based on, then the same 100-line program would be written in 1000 lines!  Lines of code would increase, being tied to rewards, but overall productivity would not.  The overall impact on the system needs to be assessed carefully.  Measurement cannot be successful without considering the social system as well. 

Block lays out several strategies to make implementation more successful, and they all revolve around engagement.  Where I work, I can especially see allowing real choice and being open to real risk as effective.  I think in particular of one programmer that I work with who consistently underestimates his work and delivers it late.  How can I bring him more choice in designing his work, the project, the deliverables, and the schedule?  How can I involve him more in taking on real risk and designing in new culture and attitudes?  Somewhere in there is transformation and real change, not only for him but for me!

Consulting Skills #5: More Reflections on Consulting

During recent ruminations on our consulting project it became apparent that we must truly have the client’s well-being in mind and keep it front and center. Otherwise the myriad stresses that come to us as consultants will tempt us to violate the client in order to meet our own ends.

Case in point: we have a project with our client that must be completed by the end of Nov to complete my class assignments. But the client, despite our best planning, is dragging feet, and this threatens our graduate timetable. Time to force them to speed up, to compromise their concerns with getting board approval. Oops — but if I want to support their best interest, I will be more gentle and support THEIR way. While remaining vigilant for resistance, we indeed want their board to be in agreement, to avoid forcing our project on them, and to be sure that we maintain good will and stay helpful.

These are the times that try consultants’ souls — when the client’s needs clash with the consultant’s needs. Don’t I want to serve the client their way, after all? So, we have to retool our timetable, renegotiate our contract and deliverables, and see how the client’s needs and our needs can be meshed

This underscores a theme that has emerged in class discussions, that we need to be flexible. I have a friend who has served as a missionary overseas in various cultures for years. In meeting her various challenges she realized she needed to move beyond being flexible to being “liquid” and now to “vapor”. We all must continually adapt to remain helpful to others, to move beyond our often unconscious limitations.

As a postscript, I have recently realized that some counseling training I received some years ago was very much in the 50-50 process consultant mode. In 1994 I completed the counselor training program at the Christian Counseling and Training Center. As we worked with couples or individuals, we spent a good deal of time listening to understand the landscape of the counselee’s life so we could offer help that was actually needed. We required that the counselee actively work through issues, since they own the problem.  We resisted the quick fix, pushing on instead to building biblical problem-solving skills in the other (the process). Usually the presenting problem was but one layer of the onion that had to be peeled back to reveal the root issue. We shared with the counselee our expertise and experience — but also our failures. This leveled things out to more of a 50-50 relationship: we as counselors were not coming as one-up experts but as fellow strugglers in the life of faith. Many were the times when I learned as much from the counselees as they may have from me.

Consulting Skills #4: Consulting Project Reflections

Some of our interactions with our consulting project client can be easily interpreted in light of our readings in Schein and Block.

The project with Virginia Heroes with partner Jonathan is going well so far. Our interactions are warm and cordial with the Executive Director, Joyce Johnson, and the president of the Board, Vanessa Womack. Joyce’s enthusiasm for the program in general and the students and mentors in particular is contagious. When I think of resistance, I decide that there is no resistance; our suggestions are thoughtfully considered and the phases of the project are being planned and embraced. Is there no resistance?

I flip through the Block and review his categories. The is no category that seems to fit the agreeableness of our interactions. Then there it is: the compliant client. Perhaps this is the resistance of compliance?

I guess time will tell. But for now we have access to the client and our plans are moving forward. We will have to revisit this in the future, but resistance does not ring true for me at this time.

The Johari Window has a bearing on our last client conversation. (Do Jonathan and I subscribe to the Jontim window? The JoTi window?)

At any rate, Jonathan, Joyce, and I met for lunch last Friday to review our working agreement and start planning data gathering. Jonathan suggested, gently at first, then more clearly later, that at our planned focus group meetings, Joyce should probably not come. We explained that there may be more freedom in data-gathering if she were not there. This is the territory of the Johari Window. Joyce agreed easily at first, then with a bit more anxiety later, but she still acquiesced.

The Johari Window comes in here to explain that there are two parts of us that we know: our open self (known to others) and our concealed self (unknown to others). But there are also two parts of us that we are not aware of: the blind self (unknown to self but known to others) and the unknown self (unknown to all). Joyce is reacting to the possibility of the focus group feedback revealing parts of her blind self, what others may know and observe, but of which she may not be aware.

And that is what the focus group feedback is partly designed to show: feedback to others, in this case Joyce, about things that are known to observers but may be unknown to her. Obtaining such feedback for myself certainly makes me pause, so I can certainly understand her double-take. But it is certainly a powerful way that we can all grow. May we have the confidence and caring helpers to do so!

Consulting Skills #3: Know Thyself

The age-old command to “know thyself” is especially true for the process consultant.  As Schein describes in chapter 5, the chain of events that goes on in our head, leading to our actions, can be described using his ORJI cycle.  First we Observe, then use that data to React (emotions), then Judge (based on the previous two), then we Intervene (act).  His main point is that distortion can enter at any phase, leading to traps that cause us to respond inappropriately, although we consider that we are reasoning well all the way.

This ties in well with the Groups and Teams class where we learned the “ladder of inferences”.  The key to working well as a process consultant is to detect when we are making untested inferences and research their truth.  Easier said than done!  But with a background that includes some training in counseling, I know that unless we can truly see ourselves as we really are, and are willing to look at the truth about ourselves and our inferences, we cannot know ourselves — or anyone else.  This has far-reaching consequences for interacting with others as a process consultant (or in any relationship in general). 

I have a recent example of digging down to an inference.  Last week, as I walked down an MCV sidewalk, a parked car facing me on the sidewalk honked at me when I was directly in front.  Since there is a plethora of cars, people, honking, and general noise in the area, and I was late for a meeting, I kept going, not looking up.  When I got to my meeting, a colleague there said she had honked at me and I had not responded.  I was quite surprised, since I do not expect to encounter drivers downtown that I would know.  She had actually been turning around in a tight space and had gotten stuck, seeking help from me.  I told her I had just chosen not to respond to yet another sound in the congested area.  But I felt rueful that I had not been able to assist in her time of need (I am not sure what I could have done, but just being there for her may have been sufficient.)  But it got me to thinking about why I had not responded.

Did I hear her honk?  Yes (observation).  Did I choose not to respond?  Yes (intervention).  But why?  As I pondered this, I realized that I had instinctively shrunken from looking directly into the windshielf of a car, aimed at me, that had honked at such close quarters.  I felt intimidated, and also depersonalized (reaction).  I considered this to be offensive at best and bordering on abusive (judgment).  I trudged on with no response (intervention), invadverertantly forsaking a friend in need. 

(Looking back I ask, “Couldn’t she have rolled down her window and called me by name?”  But someone honking at me that way should at least draw a glance — or glare — from me. )

Aha — now I know more about what was going on in my head.  So with my misperception of why the honk came, I reacted to it, formed a false judgment based on it, and acted incorrectly on it.  I demonstrated a “hardness” or inflexibility in the situation.  Based on my (mis-)perception I responded appropriately, since my continuing to walk removed me from the intimidating situation.  But my denial of alternative explanations prevented me from helping a friend.  Alas!

I have seen in other areas that when I plunge resolutely and single-mindedly ahead that I may be avoiding dealing with something or someone.  This is the cue that I need to practice observing and responding to, to challenge my thinking and actions.   My ability to face this truth about myself will open up new behaviors that can be more appropriate and useful for me and others.  My willingness to face this in myself brings greater self-knowledge and also allows deeper levels of relationship with others, valuable tools in process consulting.

Consulting Skills #2: Consulting is Everywhere

This past week I had a revelation of how enmeshed consulting really is in my job structure.  I have up to this point considered this class in relation to the casual, small requests for help that I get at work.  But I suddenly realized that everything I do falls into that category!

I do not know why it was not more apparent to me earlier; I think it must be similar to fish not noticing that they are in water.  But in IT our main work is requested by business units (client) and developed by IT personnel (consultants), in a partnership governed by written contracts (contained in documents such as project scope, charter, requirements, schedule, etc.).  That is the life-blood of what we do.

This realization really hit me when I was reading Block on how the contract is more social than legal, that it is written for clear communication rather than enforcement, and that when the client needs to change it, you in fact change it, glad that the request was openly communicated.  This highlighted my attempts recently to gain “control” over a client who all-too-frequently changed our working agreements to expand the scope of the work.  I had been trying (with only modest success) to get him to freeze the work scope and let us deliver a functioning system so it could be delivering value; we could then later add gold-plating to it.  I need to let go of such attempts at total control — the work effort is truly 50/50.  Here is a valid consideration of needs:  I need the “success” of delivering a functioning system, and the client also needs to have certain functions included, not all of which can be anticipated.  After much discussion over months, the client and I have agreed to defer a set of functions to a Phase II, and we will deliver the rest soon, hopefully by the end of this month.

In general, our relationship would have progressed better on the project if I had set more clear ground rules up front for how we would proceed, as a partnership, and with clearer descriptions of the roles of each.  He was content to let me progress as an expert and take ownership of it all.  Block is emphatic that all rules and process needs to be revealed and determined early on the in the project; I found that it is hard to change once you are mid-stream. 

I in fact did not realize that this client had never actually participated on a project with IT and did not know how the partnership worked and what it demanded from him.  It goes to show that you cannot over-communicate, that you need to continually access your ignorance and ensure that your unspoken assumptions are tested.

Reflections for my Mirror: My Three Roles as a Consultant

The fall is here, the Consulting Skills class has started, and the cycle of academic life begins anew.  It is time to throw off the summer doldrums and dive into the learning at hand!
The concept of consulting is keenly relevant for my work as a consultant / contractor for VDOT IT.  Now is the time to ask my contractor employer for tuition reimbursement — but since they have no such program it would go nowhere . . . .
Interestingly, I at times take on all three roles that a consultant can play.  The big picture is that I was hired as a pair-of-hands to perform as a member of a project team in the IT department (“Here, Tim, do this”), having some amount of direct management authority of others.  On the other hand I was hired by my VDOT manager because of my expertise in IT project management, which I share with her and other members in her area.  But recently she has loaned me out to a different team where I am more a process consultant, responsible to improve the software install process and then organize the team through specific install events, without having direct authority to make them do it the new way.  It is this role that takes most of my time these days, challenges me the most, and to which I can apply everything I can learn in this class.  Talk about a motivation to learn!  I did not realize how relevant this class could be for me until the discussions on the first day.
The pressure point for me on this team is that I know ways the team can better work together, but actually getting them to move toward it is tough.  The team is managed by two to three managers.  As I mentioned, I do not have clear authority to make the members “work my way”.  And their natural resistance to change is complicated by having to sprint continually to perform their tasks.  Who has time to work and communicate more effectively with each other?  Go away, Tim; I have work that was due yesterday!
I set the phrase of doing “work my way” in quotes above, because that way is not just mine but depends on input from the team.  I don’t know the specifics of their technical work, but I get them together and let them hash out the steps and sequence and timeline; I simply organize them to produce the big picture, so that we can plan more effectively for roadblocks.  This is not rocket science!  When they see the new, more realistic timeline they are usually in disbelief that it takes longer than they expected to accomplish the task, because no one individual had the full picture in their head, only pieces.  Marvin Weisbord calls this “getting the whole system in the room.”  Then the real influencing part begins:  persuading them to work by the new steps and timeline.  Working with this full picture allowed the team their first real install success in June (pat myself on the back!).
But did I say that I lack the authority to get the team to work together more effectively?  I believe it was Weisbord that also said we have more authority and power than we are willing to exercise; all we need do it step out and exercise it.  And I have found that as I expect the team to work to the new process, and demonstrate the value in doing so, they generally cooperate, and even improve on the process.  Hmmmm!