Thinking out loud about learning across time

How do we apply lessons from the past to make progress in the future when things in the present keep evolving?

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of designing trainings, but it is applicable to fundraising, event planning, conference organizing, and nearly everything else we are doing in the social sector. It arose in working on lessons related to board practice and philanthropy, both of which are evolving significantly as we talk more about equity and systems for inclusion. The traditional method of articulating the framework that’s worked in the past and devising lessons to teach that “recipe” results in a curriculum that is out of date the moment it is done. A conference planner that takes past success and implements exactly that again may be missing what is needed in the moment we are in now.

This isn’t a new question. We are always grappling with how to take what’s worked and pull it forward into future programming. We have rightly moved away from identifying “best practice” to creating solutions that are responsive to context and culture. There’s more openness to moving away the framework – the formula for success – to a set of solutions that are malleable to the situation. And yet it seems like an open conversation about this question might help us to make more progress. 

I’ve been drawing on a few ways to answer this questionWhat would you add to this list?

Purpose: Stay focused the why of the lesson, action, or event. It is the north star through all of the detail. Remind people regularly what the purpose is so they know that the goal is that destination, not the pathway they take to get there.

Values: Anchor the conversation in values. In philanthropy lessons, for example, whatever recipe I may give you for how to give your money away will be guided by a set of values that will remain true no matter which pathway you take. The exact structure used to organize a conference designed around learning, curiosity, and connection will evolve over time.

Levers: Rather than one framework, I’ve been using the concept of levers more than ever. I can’t give you the solution to your board, but I can give you a set of levers to try. Another way I often frame this: There are a few toys in the sandbox that we can play with. Which toy is most relevant to you? The lever framework (see what I did there?) invites people to enter the problem solving sooner because they need to identify their challenge in order to unlock a possible solution.

Humility: Being expert in something is evolving as our world evolves. It is increasingly okay to share the limitations of using past solutions for future action with the people around us, whether they are students, colleagues, or clients. Experts may have a toolbox of solutions that have worked in the past. They have a set of experiences that inform how we would approach the future. They recognize people who are expert at context or culture (so often termed “lived experience” these days). Ultimately we are finding our way together.

How do you apply lessons from the past to solutions for the future when things keep changing?
What would you add to this list?

Please let me know. I’m happy to share out what we come up with.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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