How “weird” or “novel” should leadership development training be?

At the end of this month, the Association for Talent Development will be hosting their annual International Conference and Expo in Salt Lake City. During the conference, Amy Posey, CEO and Chief Weirdo at Super*Mega*Boss will be facilitating a workshop entitled Why Weirdness Works: Using Novelty to Create Better Learning Experiences in Leadership Development.

Recently I had a chance to talk with Amy about this concept of “using weirdness”, and she not only shared a little about her approach, but also a little about the research behind why a novel approach can be extremely effective.

Transcript of the Conversation with Amy Posey

Brian Washburn:  Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning. And Train Like You Listen is brought to you by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led training – a little bit like Instant Pot for training. So you throw a few ingredients in there such as: How long is your presentation going to be? Is it going to be in-person or virtual? How many people will attend? And what are your learning objectives? Within seconds you get a lesson plan. So just like Instant Pot, except for lesson planning. I’m joined today by Amy Posey who is the CEO and Chief Weirdo at Super*Mega*Boss. Amy, thank you so much for joining us today.

Amy Posey: Thanks Brian. Great to be here. 

Brian Washburn: And we are going to be talking– and as part of our series of people who are presenting at ATD with some very unique presentations – today we’re going to be talking a little bit about your theme and your presentation, which is called, Why Weirdness Works: Using Novelty to Create Better Learning Experiences and Leadership Development.

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: And as we like to do here, Amy, on Train Like You Listen, is we like to have everybody introduce themselves using a six-word biography. So for this topic of using novelty to create better learning experiences, I would introduce myself here by saying, “People remember my more unique sessions”. How about you? How would you introduce yourself in six words?

Amy Posey: Well, it’s funny cause yours is a great one, and I feel like it’s very much similar to mine: “Get weird, remember more”, right? So it’s that idea of having these memory triggers and having some things that are just different or surprising or unexpected, that help people remember what they learn. So we’re among friends here in terms of what we think about.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, and I love it. This presentation – or at least the topic and the title – really jumped out at me as I was kind of sifting through the catalog of all of the presentations that will be at ATD ICE at the end of August, beginning of September. But before we jump into your ICE topic, why don’t we– for everybody who’s listening, let’s kind of set the foundation or frame the topic. So can you take just a little bit of time and tell us how are you defining, or what do you mean by weirdness and using novelty when it comes to your approach to learning design?

What Does Being “Weird” Mean When It Comes to Learning Design?

Amy Posey: Yeah, thanks Brian. I’ve always been a bit of a weirdo. I mean, kind of like– we’re all weird in our own sort of special way. And over the last couple of years, I’ve seen an increase in the idea of sort of bringing your full self to work. And I definitely used to sort of hide how weird I was, and what I was interested in and curious about outside of work. And I feel like you know what, it didn’t do me any favors in what I did. It stifled my creativity. It caused me, actually, a lot of stress from hiding my real self. And I know that people feel that way, and we’re now talking about it versus hiding it. I know I didn’t work at my best. 

And so when I’m thinking about weirdness and novelty, part of that is just sort of letting that go and being really authentic. And it comes from my background, which is very varied. I have been in business, I have integrated neuroscience in the last decade or so, I started out in art and literature and poetry. I’ve sort of dabbled in a lot of things. And my career path hasn’t been very standard, to say the least. But the important piece that I’ve spent a lot of the last 20 or so years thinking about is: how I learn and how others learn, and discomfort and weirdness has always been kind of a critical element of that.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Amy Posey: And that discomfort that comes from new experiences or novelty, often yields better results when you’re learning. 

Why Does Weirdness Work So Well In Learning?

Amy Posey: So I was like, “I want to know why”, and I did the research. And the short story is that discomfort is a feeling,  and a feeling invokes an emotion. And our current understanding of how the brain works and how memory works is that those emotional triggers cause us to link it to our memories better. And so I set out to, you know, obviously do this presentation at ATD and create, really, my company based on that premise – that experiment of new, weird, novel ways in the context of learning and human behaviors.  And I put it in the context of managing other people because I always thought, “It’s weird to manage other people and work with humans”. So three years later, I’m sort of proving points around the experiment worked, and that people do take a lot more out of a learning experience when it’s novel, it’s new and in some cases just downright weird.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And you’re not just creating unique, novel, weird – if that’s the word we want to use – experiences just to be weird, right? You have just said you’ve studied the research behind it and it’s how stuff sticks. Now, what do you say– or how do you overcome pushback from people who may say, “You know, I get it, and our work culture is a little bit more conservative, so I think we should keep things a little bit more traditional”.

How Do You Respond To Those Who Think They Should Keep Their Work Culture More Conservative?

Amy Posey: Yeah. Well, funny enough, I actually thought I was going to have to do a lot more convincing in this area than I actually have. And one of my core clients that I have been working with since the beginning is actually a very serious, very buttoned-up institution that I was actually shocked! I’m like, “They’re signing up!”  Well, they realize that talent in the workforce– they want to have that creative spark. They want to learn and grow. They want good experiences and they are, in fact, human. So this science works on all cultures that I’ve worked with. It’s not just the tech companies. It’s not just, you know, video game companies or people who you’d naturally think, “Oh yeah, your courses will work because that’s their culture”.

But I recognize too that we’re not for everyone. The research says it sticks but some people are uncomfortable taking risks, and I’ve actually decided I’m okay with that. And I let people know that it’s based on many years of hard science of research and human behavior, that’s been experimented in a wide variety of workplaces over my 20 years. And so if they don’t want to take that risk, I think it’s okay. But I also encourage them that learning should be fun. And in that way that we’re enjoying ourselves, again, it evokes an emotion and emotion links to memory. So it’s about creating good employee experiences. And if you want to attract talent, it’s really about creating those great experiences that they remember.

Brian Washburn: I think that that is such an important perspective to have, you  know? It’s a little bit where, kind of, how we learn also runs into change management. And a lot of times with change management, you know, if this is a very different approach, sometimes we have to meet people where they are, right? So move them a little bit beyond their comfort zone, but not to the extreme, yet, right?

Amy Posey: Yes, yes.

Brian Washburn: And it takes some steps to get there. I’m kind of curious, what’s been one of the weirdest, or most novel projects you’ve ever worked on?

What’s the Weirdest Project You Have Ever Worked On?

Amy Posey: So, one thing I love doing is making customized videos for clients because I just feel like we’re all looking at YouTube and videos and Netflix all the time, and that’s one of the ways that you can really speak to people. And so recently, I did a set of videos on the idea of storytelling in the context of technical sales. And so I gathered up a very wide variety of costumes – including a full-sized turtle costume that was showing sort of a storytelling persona – and it was hysterical and ridiculous and made me and my crew laugh hysterically.  And it also turned out to be the most viewed set of videos for this organization’s sales kickoff for the year – topping by like 20% the next watched video. So the interesting thing is it sticks and it’s funny.

So creating this kind of weird content that really resonates with people is what I live for. And so I– like it just gave me that additional nudge like, “Yeah, you can be weird and you can be real weird, and people enjoy it, and they take things away from it and they find it useful”. So, yeah, that was a good one. And someone tweeted to me– because they were watching the set of videos and they tweeted it to me with a picture of myself in a turtle costume. I’m like, “Yep. That is, that is it!”

Brian Washburn: (Chuckling)

Amy Posey:  And he knew me for a few years for some of the programs I’ve done and he’s like, “This is great!” It’s nuts – I’m a nutter.

Brian Washburn: Well as a former university and professional mascot, I have nothing but respect for that approach.

Amy Posey: (Laughing) Yes!

Brian Washburn: And for those who weren’t mascots, you know, how can someone get started developing their ‘weird’ or their ‘novel’ instructional design muscles?

Advice For Getting Started Developing Weird or Novel Instructional Design?

Amy Posey: Yeah. And I appreciate the fact that you were a mascot. We actually have a pineapple mascot costume and we’ve gone all in. It’s fun. People smile when they see it – it brings them joy.

Brian Washburn: I’ll tell you what, if you bring that ICE, then you might have a volunteer to wear it.

Amy Posey: It’s coming!

Brian Washburn: Okay. Okay. 

Amy Posey: Oh, good! Good, good, good. It’s coming. I’ve worn it on the streets, around my house. It’s a lot of fun. So yes, you will definitely see the pineapple at some point. Maybe I’ll be in it. Maybe it’s one of my staff. If you want to try it on, no worries. No worries.  

So back to your question, thinking about how do people start getting and developing and thinking about how do I integrate this? How do I take baby steps into it? I think it starts with sort of looking at yourself, and getting out of your own comfort zone while you design. Because I know a lot of experts – and I’ve gotten into this trap too – you just get really comfortable with what you know and how you create courses. Because you’re doing it very quickly, and you’re in a mode. You’re in the zone, you get it done. 

But part of it is taking yourself out on a field trip to expose yourself to things that are not what you usually look at, either literally or virtually. I have taken teams and taken myself to contemporary art museums because we get a lot of our sort of spark from there. Listening to different music, getting out of your usual reading patterns, trying new hobbies or sports. You know, the inspiration is kind of everywhere. And part of it is being able to innovate in this space and getting weird and doing novel things requires you personally to seek out something fresh and different, so that your brain can actually process that. I’ve done a lot on the neuroscience of innovation, and if you’re always sort of in the same mode and you want to do something different, you’ve got to first take that step back doing it. Incorporating play too, I think is another way that you can innovate and think about being more weird or novel, you know. Letting your guard down and having fun allows us to open our minds, to think more broadly.

And I think that, you know, those of us who’ve been doing this for a while, get comfortable, and we don’t necessarily love getting into these spaces that we want our learners to get into. But we also need to, and have that sort of empathy and step into their shoes. And I think it’s about being okay with taking risks, and to start those risks with yourself means there’s really not failure points. It’s “What am I going to learn from this? What I’m going to take from it?” It’s a real safe way, I think, to kind of delve into that space of novelty or weirdness. Just starting with yourself before you kind of jump in with others.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, and we can go on and on, and then we would spoil your whole presentation.

Amy Posey: (Chuckling)

Get to Know Amy Posey

Brian Washburn: So, we’ll stop it there. But before we end here, I have a few speed round questions so our listeners get to know you a little bit more. Are you ready for these?

Amy Posey: I’m ready.

Brian Washburn: Alright. Now that people are starting to travel again, what is your favorite city to travel to for work?

Amy Posey: Really a tough one. It’s like picking your favorite kid.

Brian Washburn: (Laughing)

Amy Posey: I love travel, I’m addicted to travel. I might go ahead and say Tokyo because I get a lot of inspiration from the art, the fashion and the food, and how interesting and different Tokyo is from California.

Brian Washburn: It is a very cool city. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Amy Posey: That I’ve actually listened to as well? (Chuckling) Well, there’s one that’s, “Don’t just look forward, look up and around”. And I think it’s to the point of,you know, thinking about pushing forward with projects and things. Just taking that pause and looking around, gives you a lot more ideas and insight. I also happen to be a paraglider for fun. And so I spent a lot of time looking with my head in the clouds, and looking at weather and clouds, so I am always sort of looking up when I get outside. So it’s kind of a funny two-part piece of advice. Like yeah, always look at the clouds and make sure they look good.

Brian Washburn: Nice. And before we leave, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask, if you had any shameless plugs for us.

Amy Posey: Yes! Obviously I’m going to be speaking at ATD and bringing the pineapple suit. And we’ve got a booth there, too – Super*Mega*Boss has a booth — where it’s kind of our debut. So I invite everybody to come say hello to us in the booth and meet the team. You can go to www.supermegaboss.com and actually get the white paper that forms the basis of my talk. And we recently released our very weird eBook on manager development called Boss Up on Amazon. And it’s got techniques on how to be a better, weirder people leader. So people want to go check that out. It’s an ebook, it’s easy, it’s a low commit – nothing comes to your house. You can just check it out there. And again, http://www.supermegaboss.com.

Brian Washburn: Awesome. Amy Posey, who is the CEO and Chief Weirdo at Super*Mega*Boss, also has a presentation at ATD ICE. If you will be there, it will be on August 29th, from 10:30 to 11:30 called, “Why Weirdness Works: Using Novelty to Create Better Learning Experiences and Leadership Development”. Both Amy and I will be at ATD ICE, so please look us up. Connect with us on LinkedIn. Maybe we can have coffee or something else. Amy, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you, everybody, for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which can be found on Apple, iHeartRadio, Spotify, wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a rating and that will help other people find us as well. Until next time, happy training everyone.

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