Adaptive Learning for Real World Outcomes with Dr Ulrik Juul Christensen


Listen to adaptive learning expert Dr Ulrik Juul Christensen share over 25 years of experience researching how humans learn on your favourite platform.





Introduction to Dr Christensen

Kath Hume: 

Dr Ulrik Juul Christensen is recognised worldwide as an expert in learning technology. He has pioneered adaptive learning, data-driven content development, simulation and debriefing technologies. He founded his first company, Sophos Medical, in 1997, while he was still in medical school. Sophos Medical was acquired by Laerdal Medical in 2002, and then Dr Christensen was responsible for Laerdal global learning technologies initiatives from 2002 to 2006. 

He then he co-founded Area9 in 2006, which has been at the forefront of adaptive and personalised learning, with more than 2,000 adaptive learning products based on Area9 technologies and millions of students using the systems every semester. Area9 education was sold to McGraw Hill Education in 2014, and Area9 learning was established to focus on adaptive learning in corporate and organisational environments. Later, that became Area9 Lyceum in 2018. So, Ulrik, welcome to the Reimagined Workforce podcast.

Ulrik Christensen: 

Thank you.

Kath Hume: 

It’s great to have you here. I was just mentioning before that this conversation is, I think, over six months in the planning, so it’s very exciting that we’re finally here when we’ve made it.

Ulrik Christensen: 

Thanks for having me.

Kath Hume: 

We did talk a little bit about your background. But I was wondering if you could give us your version and tell us about your passions and what drove you to the businesses that you set up and what you’re aiming to achieve.

Ulrik Christensen: 


Ulrik Christensen: 

So my original background is actually in medicine. And I spent quite a lot of time researching human errors in medicine. I’m interested in what actually makes learning work. For about 25, 30 years I’ve been studying high-risk environments, because they’re a super interesting case of what happens when the consequences of failed learning, when that happens. 

I’ve just finished the manuscript for a major trade book. Or at least the contract indicates that it will hopefully be about this and one of the findings is that the most sophisticated systems we find are in areas where the consequences are disastrous. Where literally people die when learning doesn’t work. That has led to not only building simulators and systems, training systems for physicians and for nurses and operating teams.

Exploring how humans learn

Ulrik Christensen: 

But the last about 15 years has been a detour into how do we look into one of the areas that is generating a lot of cognitive stress, then leads to human errors later. Which is how do we learn things in the first place? And how do we actually make sure that, when we learn things, that they eventually are there when we need them and we can use them? 

So you can say that my main interest in everything that has driven our journey the last 25, 30 years has been? How do we build learning environments, how do we create the circumstances that makes learning effective and leads to what I think should be the goal of all kinds of education that it’s your personal goals? 

It’s the accomplishing that it works for the people around you, for your family, for your employer, but also that it brings to you this fundamental achievement of your goals and life, that is, the satisfaction of being human.

Kath Hume: 

I am also writing a book at the moment and it’s focusing on what I’m calling Holistic Learning. This is saying that there’s so many factors that are involved in us learning. So often, traditionally we’ve gone and attempted to learn but we haven’t really paid much attention to how am I feeling right at the moment? How much water have I had? How much sleep have I had? Am I better off actually going and having good night’s sleep and trying to learn in the morning what’s my environment?

Kath Hume: 

I had someone on the podcast, Melissa Marsden, who was fascinating and she was talking about if you’re trying to be creative, you need to sit in soft furnishings with muted environments and soft textures. Versus if you’re wanting to be productive and think really clearly, we want smooth surfaces and all of the factors that go into that just fascinates me. 

I think there’s a real need for us to broaden people’s awareness of how we learn. I was listening to a podcast that you did around that importance of growth mindset, and I know that we’ve got a really much better awareness of the concept of growth mindset now. But I’m interested to know about how we foster it from a really young age. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Maintaining our innate growth mindset

Ulrik Christensen: 

Well, so I actually think we’re born with a natural inclination to be curious and explore the world. Like, look at babies they’re trying to explore all the time. Like I think it’s something where we take it out of kids at a relatively early age, we force them to sit in straight rows and be quiet until they’re asked and not take too much initiative because it’s annoying and uncontrollable. 

So, I think that I actually don’t think that this is such a big deal to instil in the first place. I think it’s a much bigger problem that we avoid taking it out of kids and adults later. 

I think that fundamentally, it’s one of these issues where, like in particular for adult learning and your audience for this which is like are people even aware that they need to continue to learn? Like I’ve had people quit my organisation where they are, they’re hired to do one thing helping others to build superb learning environments and when I asked the people to look, just engage one hour a week in learning they’re like how do you, how can you ask such a ridiculous thing? How am I going to do my real job? It’s like your real job is to continue to learn and if you think you’re there, you completely missed the plot here.

High-stakes learning environments

Ulrik Christensen: 

So I think that there is a huge disconnect in large parts of the world, particularly the ones where death and disability is not the consequence of bad learning. Then we hide behind a complacency around learning, where the people who have decided to live in that illusion are waking up to harsh reality because it’s not sustainable with all the things happening in the world right now. So back to can we instil a growth mindset? 

First of all, the answer is yes, now that we have destroyed it in the first place, it has actually been shown that you can. You can teach people a growth mindset. David Yeager published a paper in nature when they showed that just teaching high school kids the principles of a growth mindset, their academic performance improved. That was like a very, very small intervention.

Ulrik Christensen: 

So just understanding the principles of a growth mindset, said, helps, and that’s of course, one of the things that set humans apart. We are able to learn principles and then go apply them if they really appeal to us and make sense. 

The impact of competing priorities on learning

The bigger problem is with adults is that we have so many competing priorities. We have so many bosses yelling at us, colleagues who are preparing for how they get ahead in the queue, because we think it’s a zero-sum game and if I don’t get ahead in the in line, they will get the promotion before me. And I think that as employers, like we have a rapidly increasing responsibility to establish a different kind of culture around learning, where learning is an option, but, on the other hand, is not something that is being forced upon you either. 

Hopefully you can establish and I’ve in some cases failed to do that, but establish environment where people understand why they need to learn in the first place.

Kath Hume: 

I am also intrigued by the things like the LinkedIn learning report.

Kath Hume: 

You know, McKinsey do a lot of reports around the retention of staff and how people really see learning as an opportunity for career growth and moving along into the futures that they want to create.

Kath Hume: 

But what I also feel is and it’s a could be the way their questions are worded. But I feel that people think of learning as being taught and they are almost the passive recipient of knowledge and therefore someone else’s responsibility is to educate them. And whilst, yes, there’s definitely a place for the learning and instruction driven by another external party, I really would love to see that learning culture and start developing those skills for people themselves. 

So then they’ve got the agility to go and move into other areas, and I think, when you talk about your staff, if they were able to appreciate that we’re learning all the time, but how do you actually embed that? How do you do some repetition or some reflection or some visualisations to just cement that, but otherwise we’re going to forget that. So maybe it’s not a separate thing, maybe it’s just part of what we do all the time.

Motivation for learning

Ulrik Christensen: 

So I think that a lot of people will say that they want to learn in corporate world. But one of the things we find quite frequently is that there is a difference, like, if it’s something that can give me the next promotion, then it makes sense. 

If it’s something that has a less direct consequence positive consequence on my life, the answer actually is different, or at least the behaviour is different, and that’s why I think that it’s one of the very important tasks we have ahead of us is to establish some kind of a currency for learning in the future. What does it mean? Is it just meaningless batches or meaningless degrees? Because, honestly, would you like to have surgery, like to have a surgeon do surgery on your kid? Because they watch the YouTube video and they got a badge for it? Of course, not for everything that is important to us. 

We do apply serious due diligence on whether we have reason to believe that they’re learning actually works and that they’re mastering what they’re proposing to master, whereas a lot of the discussions we have about badging and gamification and these kinds of things are living in a completely different kind of la la land where we put ridiculous labels and pixels on the screen instead of actually daring to have the tough discussion.

Differentiating gaming and learning

Ulrik Christensen: 

Which is what is it that matters to adults? And many years ago I’m like more than 10 years, 15 years ago I hired a top game designer. He had made one of the blockbuster games in the world. Like every man is dog knows the game what. 

What is interesting about it was we relatively quickly concluded together that education was fundamentally different from gaming in a couple of very important ways. 

First of all, games were made to abuse your time or to occupy your time and keep you engaged for as long as possible, whereas in education, we typically run out of time and we want to get you to proficiency as fast as possible. So that’s the first.

Ulrik Christensen: 

But the second one is that, in order to establish gaming, constructs are goals that are that adults are willing to try to pursue.

Ulrik Christensen: 

They have to be completely different. For kids, it can be okay to collect dots or cards or whatever attitude adjustment tools have been tried in classroom management, but for adults it’s very different. It needs to be money, it needs to be better living conditions, it needs to be more spare time, more influence on your life. 

It’s actually the really tough ones for employers to give in on and to accept that this is part of it, which means that if we are to engage in that as the driver of people’s learning, we may be facing a bigger problem than and then actually tying the learning directly to becoming meaningful, just as is as part of the daily life. 

That and the problems you’re solving because nobody has to force me to learn. I’m super self-driven, but I choose my own destiny. I choose what I’m interested in, even in my spare time. I learn all the time but I pick, and I think that that’s a very important part of that discussion about why do people decide to learn in the first place?

How learning can lead to happiness

Kath Hume: 

I love where you are taking this conversation here. So I read this book Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan, and he brings it down to that happiness comes down to two fundamentals – pleasure and purpose. 

So, pleasure is that I’m having fun right now, in this moment, and that’s your gamification. But also, then, purpose is what am I here for? What’s the legacy I’m going to leave on the world, and that’s that intrinsic motivation that drives you. 

So, I think in your situation it’s really clear that you understand, you’ve got a vision for the future that you want to create and you’re motivated to achieve that. Your purpose is really clear to you.

Kath Hume: 

I’m wondering about organisations though. So, we talk about purpose driven organisations more and more, but I do wonder if people struggle to understand what their purpose is. And I think that if we tell people that ” it’s easy. 

All you have to do is work out what your purpose is and then follow those goals”. That leads to frustration, I would imagine, when people are saying I can’t go, what’s my purpose? And so do you think that there’s a role for organisations to help people in finding that, so they can marry it up with what the organizational purpose is? So, as we’ve on this shared path and we can actually support each other in our journeys?

Ulrik Christensen: 

So I think only very few people have any empiric data to support statements about this. My suggestion to where to look for the answer would be the following I think it becomes too wiffy wuffy to say that it’s the purpose of the organisation that can drive individual’s decision to invest and engage in learning. 

And I think that a large part of the discussions we’ve had about upskilling and reskilling and skills the last years have been somewhat confusing for a lot of people. Meaning like, oh, I need to learn Python, let me do a little bit of Python here or there, or let me let me sign up for something. But I cannot take too much of my time because I have to go back and do my real job. So if you’re in that situation where it doesn’t, it isn’t accomplishable goals that is more clearly aligned with what you feel that you are trying to do right now. 

I think that we will have a hard time. I think we’ll continue to run into the same roadblocks. So what is the alternative? Are there some good examples out there of things that work? I believe there is, like actually some. Particularly in high school is some of the most advanced situations you find, apart from the people where they die and they have to solve the problem. We can go back to that. 

If we look at the high schools and the organisations that have worked on mastery-based learning or project-based learning. The ones that have done it best have actually shown the way in many ways. Where the students, the kids, are really driving this. They are designing things, and we’ve just concluded the first phase of a giant project in North Carolina run by an organisation called Spark NC, where, for instance, Unity takes part in it and the kids are doing real things.

Making learning meaningful

Ulrik Christensen: 

One of the things we have seen that we have a trouble with in schools should be super obvious to solve for adults, which is it has to be meaningful. I t has to be real. In school you often end up with artificial exercises invented for something. And you know it doesn’t matter whether they do a really good job. 

There’s nobody’s going to look at it anyway. We don’t have that problem in the corporate world, right, because everything we do actually has real relevance. And it could be something that somebody else is looking at. 

So that first part is taken care of, but the second part is that they have turned it on its head and said we start with the problem we’re trying to solve and then we build learning around it.

Ulrik Christensen: 

But when did you last see that in corporations where people said, okay, we’re going to go through this M&A with a company. We’re going to as a team, we’re going to learn different things, we’re all going to find something we want to learn from this? I’ve never heard about it. I’m an advisor to top banks and transaction advisors. I’ve asked many people if they’ve ever heard about this. Never. Why not like? Why not?

Ulrik Christensen: 

Actually and this is my this is the Forbes article coming out next week about teach people not to be a jerk.

Ulrik Christensen: 

I’ve been through several transactions and I know quite a few people on the other side of the table, of course, not from Andrew’s previous organisation, but where they probably would benefit from not being a jerk, where, like we’ve been harder to negotiate with because they were jerks, they felt entitled. 

So people going through an M&A it’s super obvious to learn, not like at least practice not to be a jerk, or practice how to do conflict resolution or practice how to be conscious about our own limitation, or there are so many things, or it could be. 

In the finance department, they learn more about cross-border taxes, but we never do that. And that means that it for me it’s like a penalty kicking soccer I don’t know what it’s called in in Aussie rules, but the equivalent is probably being able to punch somebody with his hand tied behind his back. But if you are, it’s obvious to be able to say let’s pick something that has meaning already and that’s built learning around that.

Learning through problem solving

Kath Hume: 

We’ve got someone who I interviewed on the podcast in Australia called Kieran Murrihy and he has done some beautiful work with school age children in rural communities where they go find a problem in their community and they go and create ideas. That’s called the Crazy Ideas College. They go and partner up with the people then in the community who can help solve it so they learn work-based skills by going and engaging in these partnerships and he’s found we don’t have the brain drain in those local communities, because people stay, because they’re committed, and they these kids then are part of the solution and it’s beautiful what he’s been doing.

Kath Hume: 

One of the things that I really like to do in my work is I build a community of practice and so believe that that social constructivist view of learning. So we bring people together, we look at what the problem is, use human-centred design to say what’s the actual real problem, we are here to innovate, but we’re here to learn along the way as well. 

We develop those metacognitive skills to say how are we learning and how are we promoting learning individually, but also then producing resources and support tools so other people can learn from that solution as well. I think people are doing it. I would love some case studies. I don’t know that I can share too many of the ones that I’ve worked on, but I’ll see if I can. But yeah, I think that more and more, we’re seeing this human-centred design to solve problems. But are we bringing learning into that arena as well? Not sure.

Two recent breakthroughs enabling learning

Ulrik Christensen: 

Well, but I think that there’s been some major obstacles. That is like it’s not groundbreaking to propose this by any means, but how do you then execute it? That’s the big problem, and it means that you have to be able to rely on non-human delivered education, because if you are to have a company with 5,000 people and 5,000 learning paths, what are you gonna do? How are you going to handle that if, if you just leave people on their own? 

I think there are two big breakthroughs that has happened within the last few years. The first one is that you can actually make e-learning now that that is reliable, as opposed to the stuff where we throw a bunch of slides at people and ask three questions at the end, which we all know doesn’t work. But we now have for years been proving that you can take some of the most hard core problems in the world and use this for it the toughest physician problems you core problems to solve with us. 

So if it’s good enough for them, it’s probably good enough for more bite-side stuff. But the second part, of course, is as well how do you deal with the ad hoc guidance, because that’s been the other big stumbling block, that depth of learning or personalised instruction, stuff like that. That’s not the answer to that non-linear learning models. But what actually has come as a gift from heaven is you can just ask chatGPT. 

It is actually incredibly good at getting you over that. Next time. So, combining these two worlds one where you actually have a super knowledgeable person who you have a specific problem you’re stuck like trying to solve your problem. What is this? What is important here? What should you focus on? And then say, oh, now I get it, this is what I need to go do, and then you go learn something deeper. It’s not enough with chatGPT, don’t get me wrong. This is far from being enough.

Ulrik Christensen: 

And what is interesting about these most super hardcore areas I’ve been studying lately is when and the best example is something as weird and niche as cave divers. But the thing is they’re exposing themselves for extreme life danger. It is a super dangerous thing. Many of them admit that they probably do not deserve to be alive still. But what did that lead to? That led to a safety culture. 

That led to an education culture where the top, top people deciding how do we do education are the ones who need the next generation to be trained to join these missions, and that has led to something which is a beautiful combination of knowledge and skills and attitude development, plus safety systems like checklists and quality assurance systems. 

All the things that we know from human factors really, really matter, and there is one of the leading experts in this in the world is actually in Australia. But it’s fascinating when you find these pockets of brilliant education.

Drivers for brilliant education

Ulrik Christensen: 

What is it that drove it? It’s a profound, honest desire and need for the education to work. But I think the big difference here is, for them, it was worth investing in doing it. When you’re hired in a bank or an insurance company or in a manufacturing plant, what makes it worthwhile for you to do this? 

And can we make it accessible enough that we can lower the barriers to entry enough? But then the other part of it is are people even aware that they need to learn? We had some feedback very, very positive feedback across the board but we often find in these systems that some people are very resistant to learning. They’re actively against trying to improve.

Raising awareness for the unconsciously incompetent

Ulrik Christensen: 

And that qualitative comment paraphrase it a little bit to anonymise it, but that person basically said that this system he never wanted to see it again because it made him unsure of himself when he was answering something incorrectly and he was asked to say how sure it was about the answer and he was wrong about it.

It told him he was wrong. How dare you? I have lost my confidence. It’s like you’ve lost your confidence because you should lose your confidence if you were wrong about something and you thought you were right about it. You were unconsciously and incompetent and you’re blaming the system. You didn’t even get it.

Ulrik Christensen: 

Luckily, this person is an outlier. But the wild thing is that if you have these situations where people are so you could say treatment resistant, that they insist on being deliberately incompetent. That’s pretty wild when you see this. Luckily, there’s two thirds of most adult populations we’ve studied. 

Once you get to the people who are actually engaging in the learning, once you get to those, you’re actually seeing the two thirds genuinely want to learn. They just can’t find the time for it. Often it’s like more than 90% who genuinely wants to learn. So that’s the good news that a lot of people, if you make learning relevant, they engage immediately.

Creating learning and performance zones to optimise our outcomes

Kath Hume: 

I think it is about that environment too. There’s a really cool TED talk that I’ll link to in the show notes, but it talks about dividing your time between learning zone and performance zone. When are the times at work where it’s absolutely critical that you perform at your best? So they would be those high-states environments like medical and airlines is a good example too, but there’d be lots of them in any workplace. We all have them. Where you need to be on your game. This is not a learning opportunity. But then when are those moments to learn?

Kath Hume: 

So we could go back again to your colleagues who are saying they don’t have time to learn. But maybe what are the things that we could do? Where we’re just pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone and doing the things that we’re not comfortable with, but in a safe way. But the scenario that you just mentioned there around being told that you’re wrong that’s not what we want to create in workplaces. 

We don’t want to have people learning and then told that they’re wrong. We want to create a learning culture where people have opportunities to fail in safe ways, where they can then get the feedback and this podcast I was listening to from you. We’re talking about identifying weaknesses for the benefit of overcoming those weaknesses, rather than just to point them out, merely to say you’re incompetent and leave it at that. So I’m really interested. Could you give us a bit more clarity around what you mean by adaptive learning and then talk to us maybe about a problem that you’ve solved with adaptive learning?

Learning from what we don’t know

Ulrik Christensen: 

Yeah. So the interesting thing is with knowledge in many ways is pretty concrete, right? You either know something or you don’t, and if you don’t know it, it’s actually a big advantage to get crisp around whether you’re there or not. It’s a little bit like if you were only allowed to see like one third of your golf shots, your golf game would improve a lot slower than otherwise. The interesting thing here is it is actually not as dangerous to be told you’re wrong if you’re in a private environment. If you cannot live with the fact that the system tells you on the way that you thought that the text rules were X, but they really were Y and you were wrong about thinking they were X. You have a serious problem. 

The bigger problem that people often confuse this with is when you’re learning in a team setting, you do not want to be corrected in front of your peers. This is one of the very early findings we found when we worked on simulators that it has been the standard in aviation simulation. You rarely show the final crash. You abort the simulation before that, whereas when we started to build the computer simulators for patient treatment we could go all the way. We didn’t have nearly the same psychological negative impact by letting the patients die and letting people follow this and try to course correct all the way until the last second. 

So I think that there is a lot of merit to using private systems to knock that shell off people who are very treatment resistant. And this is one of the things where you will find that there are some populations that are really hard to reach.

We’ve just recently and we are allowed to talk about it worked a lot with physicians in Saudi Arabia. They had a huge challenge that a lot of their internal medicine physicians had a hard time passing their recertification board exams less than half of them and in a few years we got it close to 100 percent not fully 100, but over 90.

Ulrik Christensen: 

And these are good examples because the thing here is, first of all, getting a precise measurement instrument of telling you where you are compared to where you want to be. You don’t want to tell people that they’re bad people, but that’s a very different thing than saying that your suggestion for which antibiotic to use for that disease should be a different one. Yes, you are telling them that they’re wrong, but you’re not telling them they’re bad people. You’re just helping them improve. 

Getting good at identifying weaknesses

But the second part of it is and this has been my big interest, which is how do you work with this metacognition of getting good at identifying what you don’t know so you can more quickly hone in on the things you are weaker at, which is the performance you see among top performers? Top performers are always doing this they’re looking at the things that they’re least good at. They’re not celebrating their successes they don’t need to celebrate their successes Whereas the weaker performers are celebrating all the things they have learned, but not the 15 percent that they missed and therefore trying to build skills like this by weaving it into what you’re learning anyway.

Ulrik Christensen: 

So a lot of people have seen color-coded buttons. How sure are you about this answer? This is a method that we derived from expert performers more than 20 years ago and the last part of what is initial. That was initial to address people who are really hard to reach, and then we realised this is a completely pervasive pattern that people can benefit from getting faster and more accurate at realising what they don’t know.

We did some really, really fascinating statistics on large, higher-edition population, where we showed that on very large, very, very large hundreds of thousands of college students. We showed that within using these methods in one semester for one semester in one subject. We made them twice as fast and twice as accurate, knowing what they didn’t know. So this is a big improvement if you can basically shape your generic ability to looking at what you’re doing and what you know and say I have a weakness here.

Kath Hume: 

And I think that comes back to the mindset that you talked about earlier. It’s okay to find if you have a weakness, if you know that you can overcome that weakness, and I like what you say about it. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that there’s a deficiency in you as a person. It’s just a learning gap that can be filled. And if we have people who are capable of learning and are confident in driving that themselves, then hopefully we’ve got that autonomy and empowerment so as they can do that themselves.

Building adaptive learning systems

Ulrik Christensen: 

One of the big reasons why we made these adaptive systems in the first place was that we realized that there were no reliable methods out there for validation of what you know and don’t know, not as a test, but as a way to, in a safe manner, secure that you had the tools in your toolbox to actually solve the much harder problems out there. And that’s why we built these systems initially. Not as to prepare people for a test or final performance of that kind, but as a way to meticulously monitor their learning process. So that you were sure that you had accomplished the skills you needed. Because I’ve never met a physician who said I wouldn’t love to know everything I need in a given case when I have a patient in front of me. My dream is to immediately be able to pull it out of my mental drawer and be able to do the right thing. There is nobody who says ‘who bothers’. Like everybody would love to have that magic skill right?

Ulrik Christensen: 

And this is how these systems started saying in these critical situations where you could potentially save lives or like do something really good. Wouldn’t you love to be able to store things on your mental hard drive in a better way? So it was useful there. You could use it as part of a complex problem solving. Of course, everybody says yes. That’s why you then need to build the education in a different way, because you have no idea after you’ve been through medical school. What did I miss?

Ulrik Christensen: 

No yeah, you can graduate with very fine grades and you have no clue what’s staying and what is evaporated since you learned it the first time.

Kath Hume: 

So when you talk about the systems, is it an interface? How does it work? Can you give us a little bit of a practical understanding of how it actually functions for the learner?

Ulrik Christensen: 

Well, so the best is maybe to the main thing we’re known for. Oh, this is the system that asks all these questions. Yes, it is, because that’s what good teachers do. Yes, good teachers are asking a lot of questions. That’s why, when the first day in medical school in Copenhagen, you’re told get somebody to study with, you need to ask each other a lot of questions. You need to practice whether you’ve actually learned this.

Voice over: 

I love that.

Appointing a coach from the outset

Ulrik Christensen: 

You need somebody who learns how to pick up Just in the tone of your voice that you’re not certain about the answer. So a lot of this is actually taken out of and out of the methods, that’s taken out of my own career as a lifelong learner and say what is it that the best learners out there do? Well, and, yes, I’ve read all of these books behind me and I’ve forgotten a lot of it because I didn’t learn it in an appropriate way. But the things that are most important, which is an emergency medicine for me at least, all these things, I can still do that 20 years after without practicing everyday.

Kath Hume: 

Yeah, it reminds me of Peak, the book by Anders Erickson, and he talks about Deliberate Practice and he says find a coach, essentially. So put something into practice, get feedback, get some instruction on how to address that, and then continually and intentionally improve over time. And so it sounds very, very similar to that, but it’s a system rather than a person.

Ulrik Christensen: 

That is not a coincidence. Anders and I studied this together. A nders is one of my best friends and we worked really closely for almost 20 years. And when I originally democratised it’s actually his research I moved from experts to non-top performers and when I showed it to him the first time, I was holding my breath being afraid what he would tell me. 

I pictured his thinking, but he did the opposite. He said promise me one thing I want to be part of the research teams that are investigating this further. So we worked together. It became a career- long friendship.

Kath Hume: 

Excellent. Oh wow, I’ll put the link in the show notes because that’s one of my favorite books. But that’s phenomenal that you worked so closely together. I wasn’t aware of that relationship before today. That’s great.

Ulrik Christensen: 

Anders has a lot of the honor for why we actually built these metacognitive systems the way we did. Because it’s directly inspired from what he was primarily interested in experts. But I thought we could translate this to non-experts and it has worked incredibly well. I actually attribute this significant part of the macro effect we see of these systems. 

We don’t know exactly why it happens, but we can reduce initial training time to half. That’s pretty monumental and we can reduce rehearsal time or repractice time to stay proficient to one tenth. So how can we do that? And I think this is probably the most important effective ingredient in it.

Kath Hume: 

Wow, yeah, I’m very excited. I have one question that I ask all my guests, and that is I think you’ve answered it, but if you could articulate for us what does your reimagined workforce look like? So what’s your idea, or what’s your future vision for the workforce? That would be your preference that we should be aiming for.

Ulrik’s reimagined workforce

Ulrik Christensen: 

So I think there are probably three parts that is different from today. Also many things that are the same. But the first one is that we recruit people in a different way. We get hired and we get recruited based on what we’re able to do, not based on a sheet of paper or a list of words. I think the second part is that we will see that the future employee or colleague is behaving like.

Ulrik Christensen: 

When you look at top sports people which I enjoy very much to study, particularly to talk to them when they didn’t win the championship or they didn’t become Olympic gold medalists and try to find out what do they take away from it. And the top performers are constantly learning. They constantly, always have a plan, and Anders did the same.

 A lot of his research was around this, which was how do you build the plan for what to go back and improve? How do you decide on what to improve? And then I think the third one is that we move out of the idea that people are predetermined to a certain level of performance.

Ulrik Christensen: 

All of my research for 20 some years has shown that we cannot predict who the top performers will be. How fast you learn is not a good predictor how much you know already is not a good predictor. Your ability to learn is probably the best predictor. But how do we monitor that? Because that’s something we need to look at moving forward. 

So that means what if we change the incentive schedules to looking at who are making the delta and who are delivering real value with what they’re doing. As opposed to who are living up to our preconceived notions about what top performers probably look like? 

So in some ways, in a popular way, I’m proposing that we do Moneyball in corporations. Let’s look at who gets on base instead of who has the pretty girlfriend and the right kind of haircut and the beautiful swing.

Kath Hume: 

That’s so funny that you mentioned Moneyball, because Nick Kennedy, who I worked with quite closely in strategic workforce planning, he always uses Moneyball analogies and he’s right. They do look at and they use data and they look at. Then they break it down into what do we actually hope to achieve and then they deliver on those metrics. So it’s very funny that you use that analogy. I think we’ve run out of time, but if people did want to connect with you, how would they best do that?

Ulrik Christensen: 

So they can write on LinkedIn or you can share my email as well.

Kath Hume: 

Okay, thank you so much. It’s been a great conversation. I think I’d love to continue it and I think you’ve got an amazing repertoire of experiences there to share, and I’d love to dig into some of that research that you’ve talked to too. So if there’s any of that we can share in the show notes, I’ll put that down as well. But thank you so much for joining us and all the best.

Ulrik Christensen: 

And we also have a local Aussie. Andrew can answer a lot of these questions as well. He’s in the same time.

Kath Hume: 

Yes, that’s Andrew Smith, and he’s with us today as well, but I will also put Andrew’s details in the show notes as well. So thank you very much.

Ulrik Christensen: 

You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

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