Mining the past to shape future development

A personal reflection

David Shepherd

Towards the end of a recent AMED event on the subject of Shaping Management Development, which had included online as well as face to face discussion, we were working through a review of the meeting.

Unusually for me, my mind wandered as the challenge of thinking about what to say and listening to what others were saying became too much for me to deal with.  When my turn came, I passed with nothing to add.  I said my farewells and went on my way. 

A few days later, I accepted a challenge to write something for the AMED journal, e-O&P, but it lay heavily on me for days!  Now I feel ready to share my thoughts.  

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear

I was troubled by my reluctance to join in the review and as I started to think why this might be, I chanced across a brief review of a book by Benedict Carey entitled ‘How We Learn’ (2015).  The blurb on the cover included praise by Mary Roach.  She says ‘A revelation, I feel as if I’ve owned a brain for 54 years and only now discovered the operating manual.’

I’ve owned a brain for longer than Mary and thought I’d better get to grips now and see if I could learn anything about my reluctance to contribute to the review, which is, after all a learning method. 

The brain with a mind of its own

Dipping in and out of the book and thinking about my inaction, described above, I put my brain to work.  What surprised me was that it was ahead of me and already working.  It had clearly been active over the intervening weeks.  Reading Carey’s book helped me to unravel the mystery and interpret how my brain contributed to my failure to join in the review.  

I started to understand how it works and what it is capable of and I started to see how important this understanding might be to the way we think about the development of managers.  

Understanding brain functions

Carey writes ‘Remember there’s an incredible cacophony of competing thoughts running through our minds at any given time. What we ‘hear’ depends on our anxieties and distractions of the moment.’  I often hear myself say, ‘Sorry I missed something,’ as I was thinking about something else. 

I found Carey’s naming of brain functions particularly helpful, making the complexity of this extraordinary organ more understandable.  As an aside, I found watching the recently released Pixar movie, ‘Inside Out’, also to be a useful aid to understanding brain functions.  Beware!  Young children will understand the functions of the brain much better than the adults who missed the film! 

Two particular brain functions stood out for me: those of storing and retrieval.  

Storing … and not storing

The brain stores and retrieves information (3 million – USA TV programs worth). What my brain did was to avoid storing the review discussion.  Perhaps it felt there was too much detail to store, or perhaps it was otherwise preoccupied.

At this point in writing this article, I find myself becoming two beings: the conscious me who is typing and seeing and inevitably correcting, what appears on my monitor … and my brain.  I’m tempted to say, it has a mind of its own, as it seems to undertake activities without apparently asking! 

So what was my brain doing?  It was not storing what was taking place in the review.  Incidentally, Carey calls this ‘forgetting’.  My brain was doing something more important.  The avoidance of storing what was going on seems to help the brain in its multitude of tasks.  In this case I suspect it was rummaging through old memories, searching for something which it felt I might want to know about!

Retrieval

Brains retrieve stored memories.  The ones that are brought to mind quickly – as they may be important to survival – are strong memories and strong memories are those with thicker synapses.  Synapses are the junctions between nerve cells and these evidently grow thicker, over time, being strengthened by the repeated passage of similar memories, using a range of senses and in various contexts.  

What was my brain searching for as it chose not to focus on the review? And what did it find?  

Thoughts on my thoughts

My brain was looking for a match!

During the discussion, I had suggested that looking at the development of premier league footballers might trigger ideas for new ways of developing managers.  One member expressed a dislike of this analogy.  Something about his response had triggered my brain to retrieve something.  The ‘dislike’ was expressed rather strongly.  I think he may have said ‘I hate it!’ and with a tone of outrage or incredulity too. 

This took me by surprise.  It isn’t unheard of for people to be outspoken in our meetings but that hadn’t been the tone of this meeting, so far.  It felt unkind, particularly coming from a much valued colleague I have known for many years.  I am sure there was no intention to be unkind but it seems that feelings can trump thought. 

So my brain may have decided to go looking for relevant memories from the distant past.  What was it looking for?   On the way home I put my conscious thoughts to sleep but the brain carried on searching. 

The apparent unkindness, coming from someone I thought I was close to, is important because that is what triggered the reference back to a ‘core memory’ from a lifetime before.  A similar feeling surfaced, from when I was at primary school, the feeling of being told off by a mild mannered male teacher.  This provided the match.  As I write this I can visualise the teacher as if it were yesterday.  Little did he know that he was thickening a synapse! 

It seems that comments at the recent AMED meeting must have been particularly associated with this feeling of being ‘told off’ which may have led to my brain searching my very early memories of similar feelings.  In thinking about this, it may be that I have a lot of memories of such feelings stored - or very few.  Either way, the searching  would take some time.  Nevertheless it seems to be evidence that I may be over-sensitive to this sort of criticism or that such experiences are few and far between.

Improving retrieval

I was discussing the idea of retrieval with a friend the other day and she described how she remembered things.  She described her stored memories as the spoken word without pictures.  I can recall images, sounds and now, as I have discovered through this reflection, emotions.

I can also recall mathematical equations that I learnt at school over 50 years ago. What is the use of that!  Storage is automatic but retrieval is dependent on the strength of the memory and on something leading the brain to search for the memory.

Often, various memories pop into my mind:

  • The name of someone I haven’t seen for many years. 
  • An event from the distant past triggered by a similar event in the present.
  • Something that I have struggled to recall recently

The brain picks up something that I may think I have forgotten - something on the tip of my tongue and off it goes searching. 

Implications for management development

It may be useful, when considering the development of managers, to introduce the ideas of how we learn, so that they can strengthen the memory of specifically useful events to enable quicker recall.

Not that I am suggesting that managers are asked to study for an exam they do not have to take as we have been encouraged to do from school days.  Rather, I’d encourage them to take a thoughtful and brief review of the important things that have happened, to make the brain's task of retrieval so much quicker - in short, to actively strengthen their synapses. 

Incubation

The idea of incubation, in the light of Carey’s book, now seems to be so obvious.  At least this is what my brain has decided to tell me!  It will look for the memories with thicker synapses. 

What does all this mean for shaping management development?  How might we encourage the thickening of the synapses associated with important memories? 

Review is good, but may be better done with an understanding of how the brain functions. 

Deliberate synapse thickening

Here are some personal examples of how I now realise I have sought to strengthen my significant memories by exercising my synapses:  

At the end of a campaign

I was heavily involved in campaigning during the 2015 General Election.  An hour after the polls closed, I had written down 20 things that my local party could do much better and that I would work through with others at a later date!  The 20 things were already stored.  Writing them down may have thickened the synapses.  Discussion with others has added further thickening.

So, for me, a short period of retrieval (as I must have noticed these as the ‘trigger’ events occurred or strengthened thoughts already stored) is useful - reinforced by making notes helps to forget the peripheral issues being stored with too much value.

Learning to learn

Our education system often teaches students how to pass exams.  We should encourage them to find examples from their own experience.  For management topics, it can help to explore the processes of management, where they are visible in everyday experience.  For many years my wife noticed, when we visited restaurants, I was usually more interested in the way the staff worked than in the food on the table. 

But do we teach developing managers to learn during the experience rather than when it has ended?  I feel it makes sense to store experiences that we can retrieve easily so that we can draw upon those memories when we face new or similar situations. 

Making the most of experience

When driving a car, I gained experience from the inevitable near misses, recalling the situation later with my friends (often accompanied by several expletives!) and subsequently with my driving instructor.  We discussed what I did and what I might do to avoid a similar situation in future.  It’s worth remembering that we can use all the senses - aural, visual, touch and emotions - to reinforce the synapses.  Avoiding cars getting too close is now ‘automatic.’

So when something said in a meeting resurfaces a bad feeling from deep in my brain, I can notice it and seek immediate help in understanding better how I can apply what may be a useful intervention and perhaps let it incubate and learn from it. 

The lessons for me

When my concentration on the here-and-now is waning, it may be that some deep retrieval is being undertaken.  I need to give it time to surface.  

When it does, I can think about the event that provided the trigger.  I recall vividly, during that AMED review, the image of the point about footballers being made.  I can now use this memory to talk about it as this brings a wider understanding, as well as further thickening of my synapses.  Criticism, no matter how mildly intended, is particularly worthy of my consideration.

When presented with a challenging situation, rather than let it lie (or worse still fester) I shall take time to describe it to myself, to enable my brain to better store it.  No doubt my brain will search for similar memories.  Incubation helps and allows me to get on with other stuff.  Ideas will pop into my mind as the brain does its searching.  As I have been, you too may be surprised what you already know.    

When helping managers top learn, I suggest we encourage the storing of ‘lessons’ so that they can be retrieved and used more easily.  The intention of thickening their synapses may sound a little quirky but surely it is better to have our past experiences conveniently to hand than gathering dust in our mental attic and taking us by surprise? 

References

Carey, B,( 2015). How We Learn, the surprising truth about when, where and why it happens, Random House Trade Paperbacks, http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-We-Learn-Surprising-Happens/dp/0812993888

Disney Pixar, Inside Out, http://movies.disney.co.uk/inside-out

About the author

David Shepherd has had several careers, most in a managerial role. After leaving Queen Mary College with a Maths degree, he taught maths for two years and joined the then new trade of ‘computing’. He trained as a systems analyst with Burroughs Machines, worked with several clients and then joined the Post Office, his part soon became BT.  A manager of IT professionals for 10 years, David moved into Personnel and Management Development, becoming a member of the BT Management Development Board for four years.

As an independent practitioner he was also an Associate Lecturer at the Open University Management College. As Director of All Things in Moderation, he focussed on the online teaching of University Students. For 12 years of this 40 year period he was also a Local Councillor in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, being Chair of Housing and subsequently Chair of the Personnel Committees. Throughout this time he has remained a fanatical supporter of the Arsenal Football Club and is married with four children.

David is a past Chair of AMED and can be contacted at: david.shepherd@management.org.uk.

Contents of Summer 2015 edition

Complete Summer 2015 edition in pdf.

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