agile learning2

Agile Learning

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agile learning2

Back in the 1960s at Clark University, I conducted learning experiments with rats. Here’s what I learned from rats that changed my life: A pause in “business as usual” activity is the gateway to new learning and better performance.

How did a little white lab rat teach this me this?

Just as we do, rats get into ruts. How? They get rewarded for the same behavior over and over, and it becomes “wired in.” Let’s say a rat is trained to run down a straight corridor in a T-Maze. At the end of the corridor he has a choice: turn left or right to get food. In hundreds of runs he always found his food on the right. He’s learned this thoroughly enough, a psychologist would call him an over-trained rat. “Over-trained,” because even if you now shock him when he goes right and reward him when he goes left, he’ll still go to the right first.

Most importantly, this over-trained rat will never learn to go left as his first choice. Never! Unless…

…you change the maze, so there’s some variation before his choice point. You put a little jog in the maze (shown below).

T-MazeWhy does this variation help learning? Because having to navigate the maze in a different way, his automatic pattern of running down the maze and going right is interrupted. Now, he can access new learning.

Question: How do we refresh our brains, so we can drop our automatic responses and learn something new?

Answer: We insert time to reflect into our busy schedules. The quality of thought and attention we put into the pause makes all the difference. See tip below.


Before a meeting, pause. Refresh and re-set your system. This works on everything from deciding what to eat to how to optimally lead a team.

Here’s how.

  1. Slow down your breathing
  2. Let your visual focus move from narrow to panoramic.
  3. Tune into your body sensations.
  4. Investigate the source of tension you carry in your body.
  5. Drop the tension and focus on what you want to accomplish.
  6. Ask yourself: If this meeting went well, what would be accomplished by the end? Can you use this meeting to develop people, strengthen team functioning, increase commitment? How can you accomplish these things with the least effort, the least force, so it emerges from participants?
  7. How can you set the frame for the meeting, so these things naturally unfold?

If you would like more detailed instructions on how a coach teaches an overwrought IT executive to re-set his mind-body system to become a better leader, check out Dragons at Work.

Originally published at

About the Author

Stephen Josephs has coached executives and top performers at some of the world’s most impressive organizations for 30+ years. By applying psychology and transformational methods to leadership development, Stephen brings an integrated approach that maximizes performance and helps leaders find new ways to expand their effectiveness. His book, Dragons at Work, is a seminal text on peak performance and leadership management.

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