Working Out Loud: Our Sponsored Mentoring Program (WIP)

We’ve been sitting on the idea of an organization-wide mentoring program for quite some time. This is mostly due to being a small team, just Nona Gormley and myself, with other short-term initiatives to address. As a key component of our overall learning vision of “A Connected and Continuously Learning” organization, mentoring is something we’d like to see become a part of the culture.  However since it is currently not, a more formal framework to kick start it may be warranted.

Until now we have shared the concept and conversation in our ESN in an effort to invite opinion and ideas.  Today though I felt compelled to expand our working out loud and invite the world to our approach.  Mentoring is nothing new and frankly one could argue that our Sponsored Mentoring is a misnomer really since I believe a true mentor is not selected for you, but by you.  Like I said above however, a mentoring culture is the long-term goal, and quite possibly a more formalized framework could support the effort until it is institutionalized and the scaffold could simply fall away.

Of course any program should be taken with a grain of salt when there is no context behind it.  So to help understand why this approach has been chosen, I’ve shared a bit about my organization here which can be found in detail along with our vision in Dr. Clark Quinn‘s new book “Revolutionize Learning and Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age.”

Systems Made Simple (SMS) is a privately owned Healthcare IT company with concentrated attention on government contractual work (primarily in health care clinical and delivery systems at the Department of Veteran Affairs, Military Health Systems, and the Department of Health and Human Services). Systems Made Simple specializes in four core areas of competency: Program and Project Management; Systems and Software Engineering; Infrastructure Management; and IT Services. Systems Made Simple uses an extended workforce model. With roughly 450 employees working on more than forty contracts, we work closely with partners and subcontractors to ensure the right talent mix is in place to meet the customer’s need. Systems Made Simple is geographically dispersed throughout the United States, with offices in Syracuse, New York, Vienna Virginia, Salt Lake City, Utah, Austin, Texas, and Clearwater, Florida. Our project teams include a mix of work from home, in government facilities or in an System Made Simple office. The workforce is not only extended by time and geography, but also by function and relationship to the organization. Many Systems Made Simple employees are accustomed to working closely with other project team members to function as a single, cohesive team as seen by the customer. While a large number of employees are hired for direct contractual work, the intention is to provide career growth opportunities for each employee. Our employees are more often experts and practitioners not novices; well versed in their craft, often coming to us often with a wealth of experience.

So with that, I invite you to look at what we’re thinking about – click here. Far from being a complete set of thoughts, I believe the materials will give you insight into the approach, give you a chance to offer an idea or two and maybe some take aways for your own efforts in building a mentoring culture.

Overcoming the Learning Professional’s Lizard Brain


Executive: We need a course on blah, blah, blah.
Learning Professional: …Right. OK, who is the audience? What is the objective?

Really? Back up. What the heck just happened? 

There’s a good chance their Lizard Brain kicked in, that’s what happened.  If you’re not familiar with the Lizard Brain, also known as Reptilian Brains, Primitive Brain, Old Brain and a slew of others, you can read up on the details here. However if I just remind you of these little words – “fight or flight“,  you probably know I’m talking about the Amygdala and this scenario makes some sense.

Simply put this inner area of our brain activates In stressful situations, when our survival instinct kicks in and we take on the stress or retreat to fight another day.


For millions of years we had fight or flight encoded in our brains. Our gut reaction to survive today is not that different than it was 150,000 years ago on the Savanna. However today, rather than flee a tiger to survive, we can take retreat from our knowledge about how most problems don’t require training to resolve. In the face of an authority’s demand, the corporate tiger, our encoded lizard brain can take over to better ensure we can pay the mortgage. 

Couple this with our years of schooling and systematic indoctrination and we have a deeply encoded brain telling us learning really happens in formal settings. I wrote similarly about this in the post: Cognitive Dissonance and the Denial of Social and Informal Learning and again as I compared our conflicts to the theory of Learned Helplessness. Both of these however focus on the issue from the point of view of leaders, executives and stakeholders; those outside of L&D. But the Lizard Brain is something we need to contend with as learning professionals. Just like the growth of the logical mind countered instinct and help advance humanity, this action must happen for learning professionals to truly help their organizations.

How can we detach then from the reptilian response system and succeed in using logic when faced with the requests?  Here are a few of my approaches.
Before the request arrives(as you know it inevitably will)
Most of the work happens here!

1. Support – The shift away from Lizard brain responses takes some augmentation. We can’t remember everything especially in the heat of the moment! Quick reference materials and prompts help you better articulate your message. I have tapped the grid in Is it a Training Problem? from Jane Bozarth’s and the Expertise by Learning Mode graphic by Clark Quinn of The Internet Time Alliance more times than I can count. These simple tools are great to reference or re-purpose on a napkin to help people really see the issue. They also aid in helping you be clear and not get caught up in jargon. 

I also find Evernote indispensable. When in the conversation I have my own tips and notes handy to reference and level set with. Plus, demonstrating your own ability to quickly find information at that very moment is a powerful statement in demonstrating management of your own knowledge and the power of performance support.

2. Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) – Now is the reason why you have been doing all this work! Your ability to tap into that of which you have collected, created and curated is a key ally to fend off the training first, training always request. Learn more about it through Harold Jarche and his work and writing on the topic

3. Networks – turn towards the others you (hopefully) have nurtured as your community. This is often called a Personal Learning Network (PLN). This trusted community is there to help you surface information or validate your thinking.
When the request arrives:

Pause – Most important, make a commitment not to immediately commit. A pause to invite reflection is your greatest opportunity to let the logical brain kick in and get warmed up. This is the time to engage your network, PKM, and tools

The Lizard is not your friend. What are you doing to keep it at bay?
Check out this solid read on the impact of the Lizard Brain from Seth Godin- Seth’s Blog: Quieting the Lizard Brain 

Stop Censoring and Start Managing

I recently read Clark Quinn’s post on the Social Media cigarette break and how he points out that Social Media is being used outside of an organization’s IT infrastructure because organizations are blocking their worker’s access rather than educating them and providing guidelines. He further says that employees are finding their access via mobile means and circumventing the system to get the information from their social networks. In Clark Quinn’s words:

“It says a lot if you feel you have to restrict your employees instead of letting them know what the expectations are and ensure that they can follow the guidelines.”

Yes it does. Ultimately I think the lack of clear guidelines and the quick manner in which organizations turn to block access is simply a failure of leadership. It is easier to block access than to do what they should be doing; Managing.

When I was first hired at Pearson Digital Learning several years ago I remember inquiring of my supervisor what my office hours were to be. She paused, looked at me puzzled and said something to the effect of umm, well I guess most people come in around 8 Her next response told me volumes about who I was about to be employed by… Honestly, I really don’t care if something takes you 2 hours or 20minutes, you just need to have it done when it is to be done.

You see, she didn’t manage people’s time, she managed for outcomes. She trusted the process, she trusted the tools, and she trusted the people she hired…why wouldn’t she?

And she managed well. Projects were fleshed out, time tables set, deliverable dates established, milestones created, status meetings held… but everything in between was up to me. Whatever I needed was provided- tools, resources, time etc.

Within my first 2 weeks I was asked to learn all I could to accurately document the development process on a proprietary tool that was being brought back from the dead. I proposed the idea of using IM to communicate and collaborate in real time with a former employee in an effort to capture all their knowledge. “Great! – Go for it” is all I recall her saying. And that was it, no more needed to be said or asked. Complete trust.

I was hired to do a job. If I had chose to use my time flitting around the Internet or using early SM tools to do more chit-chat than productive work it was going to catch up to me. I wouldn’t be able to hide for long as my inability to meet deliverables or quality standards would lead to termination.

So I wonder, if an organization feels compelled to block access isn’t it really a failure in management? If we don’t trust people we hire, why are we hiring them??

Oh, and Alice Bauder, wherever you are, thanks for managing for outcomes and not managing me… Thanks for the trust.