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Cornerstone: Lifelong learning and the benefits of change


February 5, 2009
By Lyle Quan

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To build on the change management information discussed in December, let’s look at the concept of lifelong learning and how it can complement the ability of individuals and organizations to adapt to change.

To build on the change management information discussed in December, let’s look at the concept of lifelong learning and how it can complement the ability of individuals and organizations to adapt to change.

Before we touch on this, I suggest that you already understand the risks associated with change but that you may not formally evaluate them. What do I mean? Let’s use an example that we can all relate to – the purchase of a house or a new car. Whether you know it or not, you naturally weigh the risks versus benefits of this change by asking yourself questions like:

  • Will buying a new car or house work within my budget?
  • Will the old car or house become a money pit that will eventually strain my budget?
  • What type of vehicle or house do I need and why?
  • Will I be happy with the economy car or a smaller house or do I take it up a notch and buy what I really want?

Earlier, I introduced a book called Our Iceberg Is Melting, by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber (2005). In it the authors presented an eight-step plan for introducing change. I propose that you have applied these steps to your decision-making process without even realizing you had. The eight steps covered by Kotter and Rathgeber are:

  1. Create a sense of urgency;
  2. Put together a guiding team;
  3. Develop the change vision and strategy;
  4. Communicate for understanding and buy-in;
  5. Empower others to act;
  6. Produce short term wins;
  7. Don’t let up;
  8. Create a new culture.

When it came to buying that new car or house, did you understand the reason for the change? Did you confide in others to get some feedback on the change you were considering? What was your vision of how the new car or home would affect you and your family? And, finally, what obstacles did you remove in order to make (or not make) the decision to purchase? When it was all done, what successes did you share? By now a light bulb should have come on in your head. Change occurs no matter how much we want to ignore it or deny it.

So, how does lifelong learning help us deal with change? John Kotter, in his 1996 book Leading Change,  notes that there is a correlation between change and the mental habits related to those who believe in lifelong learning. They are:

  • A willingness to push out of our comfort zone;
  • An ability to honestly assess our successes and failures, especially the latter;
  • Aggressive collection of information and ideas from others;
  • Propensity to listen to others;
  • Openness to new ideas – willingness to view life with an open mind.

books 
Author John Kotter notes that there is a correlation between change and the mental habits related to those who believe in lifelong learning.


 

If these noted habits are so simple, why don’t we all apply them? Kotter notes, “it’s because in the short term they can be painful. Risk taking can bring on failure as well as success. Honest reflection, listening, solicitation of opinions, and openness may bring on bad news and negative feedback as well as interesting ideas. In the short term, life is generally more pleasant without failure and negative feedback. On the other hand, those who consider themselves as lifelong learners seem to naturally overcome the human tendency to shy away from or abandon habits that produce short-term pain. By surviving difficult experiences, they (the lifelong learners) build up a certain immunity to hardship. With clarity of thought, they come to realize the importance of both these habits and how lifelong learning can (and does) make us more resilient to any of the negative aspects that can be related to change.”

Is it any wonder, then, that so many organizations promote lifelong learning as one of their values? I consider myself a lifelong learner and am proud of this because I know that with learning comes change. This change manifests itself in many ways, such as being more receptive to ideas and the sharing of ideas in an open and non-threatening manner. Most of all, being a lifelong learner means change is a natural part of my life. 

Firefighters are always learning new techniques. As a leader in your department, take this natural ability to learn to the next level by sharing your vision of where your fire department needs to be in 10 years. Engage your firefighters by making them a part of the department’s future. Share the risks and benefits associated with your vision of change. You never know, you just might learn something from them.

Copies of Our Iceberg Is Melting and Leading Change are available through Amazon and Chapters.



Lyle Quan is the deputy fire chief – administration with the Guelph Fire Department in Ontario. A 27-year veteran of emergency services, he is a graduate of Lakeland College’s Bachelor of Applied Business: Emergency Services and Dalhousie University’s Fire Service Leadership and Administration Programs. Lyle is an Associate Instructor for the Ontario Fire College, Lakeland College and Dalhousie University.E-mail: thequans@sympatico.ca


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