The Development Trap: how can you learn when there is no time for learning?

At our next Mayvin Community event, ‘The Development Trap’, we will joined by Organisational Development and Design practitioners from the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to share how a ‘just in time’ leadership model can enable people to adapt and learn close to the grain of the work in discontinous times.

Here, Ainne Dolan-Williams, Head of OD & D at Defra, and James Traeger, Mayvin Director, introduce the principles of a just in time approach in the context of Mayvin’s work with Defra.

Government departments are having to respond to unprecedented change. Organisations are working in landscapes which go beyond VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), creating the need for a new reflective leadership approach.

For nearly 40 years, government departments have worked in an environment of relative clarity that fitted with a planning-based ‘management by outcomes’ approach. Its culture and ways of working reflected this. The current political context, including EU Exit, has introduced a new level of uncertainty. Defra has responded by putting in measures to increase their resilience by offering people a chance to learn and reflect close to the grain of their work. These are outlined below.

This environment brings with it its own unique challenges. People are likely to feel vulnerable, even though they have expertise and authority, because what we’re facing is changing all the time. In order to develop this reflective leadership mindset (because it’s more of a mindset of flexibility and learning rather than a fixed ‘model’) we asked: what can we do to proactively respond to this environment? We recognised that we need to support people to successfully operate in a place of safe uncertainty by enabling them to:

  • become self-orientating, resilient and adaptive
  • learn fast, reflect in the here and now
  • react quickly and perform better at every stage
  • be cooperative, leaning into and resolving differences


How can you learn when there is no time for learning?

We saw that introducing the concept, skills and behaviours of reflective practice could provide us with a way to learn and adapt. But we also recognised that for this to work, we would need to introduce the approach in real time, as close to the actual work as possible, rather than something that happens ‘over there’, in a meeting or training session that people don’t have time for. This means developing a network of people who work in and alongside the business and who understand the implications of the approach and are willing to apply it. This network starts in, and then spreads out from, the Organisation Development, HR and communications communities. They model this approach, close to the grain of their own work, in order to inspire others to do the same. This work is also framed in the context of wellbeing and resilience, supporting people to manage their own and each other’s boundaries sustainably.

So we have developed a ‘just in time approach’ this community can adopt, whereby we move towards the key challenges, getting alongside the main players as usefully as possible, introducing an opportunity to learn from the process. Three questions informed this approach to our clients:

  • What are you working on at the moment?
  • What are you learning at the moment?
  • How can we support you?


These may look like obvious questions, but the significant interposing of the learning question is at the core of the mindset. This draws opportunistically on the local context and narrative, like the story of the senior leader who stood up at an internal resilience and wellbeing event and said ‘these are challenging times for all of us, but in challenging times there is always so much for us to learn.’

When everything is a learning opportunity it means that we can bridge the ‘uncertainty gap’ with experimentation, compassion and forgiveness. We can fail fast, taking our authority for what we can learn alongside our vulnerability in our feeling of lack of control.
This approach takes courage, skill in challenging conversations, developing trust in role models who reflect and improve their style of leadership.  As a result, we have:

  • shared learning and knowledge about how we manage in discontinuous, unprecedented times
  • developed and embedded productive patterns of behaviour
  • enabled collective decisions at pace
  • supported healthy relationships and wellbeing


In addition to the real-time changes that this will help colleagues to make, this approach will also allow us to identify the cultural changes that are currently taking place across the organization without intent because of the ways in which we are having to work,. The approach will allow us to be mindful of those and think about the qualities we value and want to encourage (e.g. fast decision making, focus on wellbeing, flexibility of movement) and which ones we will be happy to let go (e.g. long hours culture, micro levels of governance).

Just in time learning – how does it work?

The principles of this are about immediate and accelerated learning. We:

  • Learn close to the work
  • Are compassionate to selves and others
  • Have a learning orientation
  • Stand in our expertise and authority as it develops
  • Admit our vulnerability and ‘not knowing’
  • Focus on behaviours
  • Encourage ‘fail fast, learn better’ role modelling
  • Recognise no one feels in control of the whole picture
  • Know this is new and unprecedented for everyone
  • Learn when to switch off

What does this look like in practice?

Following these principles is about getting alongside current meetings and events, and helping to introduce learning reviews. It also means facilitating ongoing, carefully managed confidential meetings that review current challenging issues and help people capture learning and develop better practice.

What does it mean for your organisation?

Join the conversation on Twitter or email to find out how a just in time approach could help your organisation. If you’re interested in future Mayvin Community events, please  email contact us to find out more.