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Comfort transition: the MBA learning journey

In blogs by Business School Netherlands

What is the journey that any learner might go through when embarking on a new course of study, including an MBA? I describe the journey based on my book, The Comfort Transition, which I co-wrote with Elmas Duduk. The book is about leaving the comfort zone; the place where you feel comfortable and do your work routinely. But it is also the place where learning stops. It is, in fact, a place of reproduction, of repetition.

Peter de Roode, MBA Tutor in Leadership and Management Skills

After a hectic or stressful period, we sometimes go back to the comfort zone, to the routine. There is nothing wrong with this, but those who stay in the comfort zone for too long can become irrelevant and put their team or organisation at risk. The Comfort Transition provides insights, tools and ways of working for learners, managers and HR professionals to take individual steps, persevere when in doubt and then achieve collective learning.

Learning requires courage and persistence

Learning can be the medicine to dare to leave the comfort zone. Dare? Yes, it takes a lot of courage to give up the familiar. When the gods asked Odysseus to go on a journey, he had no appetite and claimed he was mentally incompetent, preferring to stay in his familiar surroundings. The comfort zone can sometimes act like a magnet, every time you are asked to do something outside the familiar, there is a little voice in your head that keeps you from doing exciting things. It’s true: humans are creatures of habit.

In a way, the same is true of organisations. While organisations are made up of people with habits, even an organisation as an entity can become entrenched in its comfort zone. The organisation is like a castle that raises its drawbridge to protect itself from the outside world in order to ‘enjoy doing the things it feels comfortable doing’. Countless companies have died, V&D being the closest to us, but also Nokia, the Free Record Shop, the bookstore chain Selexyz, Vögele, the Kijkshop and many, many others that have disappeared. Stepping out of your comfort zone is not easy.

The ‘call to adventure

It takes a lot to get people out of their comfort zone. Even the mythologist Joseph Campbell knew this, pointing out that everyone needs to reinvent themselves at some point. Going back to the ‘good old days’ is not enough. You have to move forward, but not back. The hero leaves the ‘ordinary world’ because he feels he has to do something. Those who decide to do an MBA don’t do it lightly, there is a ‘call to adventure’: you do it for a reason. But it is also an exciting adventure, the outcome of which you do not know, and in which you may not be sure that you can master the subject. All doubts to which the little voice in your head has already given you the answer: Don’t do it! But when the ‘call to adventure’ is stronger than the temptation to stay in the comfort zone, the journey can begin.

A key insight Campbell imparted to his readers was that we will all face a crisis and that we should persevere and not return to the comfort zone. In this case, he was talking about the anti-hero. For him, the hero is the one who has the courage to leave the comfort zone, take on the adventure and ask for help when needed. Those who embark on adventures often know what they fear most. It is a crucial moment when perseverance and little or no knowledge are required.

The Future Learning Model

OK, you have decided to embark on the journey and have applied for an MBA or some other demanding course. A tough ordeal because many routine things cannot be done, or are done less. You will have to make sacrifices: to your colleagues, to your partner and not least to yourself. You will have to learn how to deal with setbacks and how to keep your back straight when the going gets tough. Our Future Learning model can help you along the way.

In this model, we show that there is much more than just ‘expertise’. Your expertise is important, of course. But in day-to-day practice, organisations overvalue it too. If we only teach people to keep up with their area of expertise, they are unlikely to be open to improving their products or services. Nor will they be quick to collaborate across disciplines or to listen to customers, citizens, patients or learners. Their learning is focused on the past, on what is in the books, articulated by an expert. Again, not bad, but not enough. Why not? Because the world is so unpredictable that knowledge acquired in the past can also be a problem in moving forward. We get ‘stuck’ in hobbyhorses and ingrained assumptions.

The Future Learning model looks forward, to the future. We want to teach you to face an uncertain world with confidence. Below we explain the model. The model has three zones, two mountains and a valley, and eight transitions.

The Comfortzone: 1+1 = 2

On this IK mountain you, as the person involved, are mainly concerned with yourself. You are busy trying to achieve your results, and cooperation only happens when it helps you personally. As an MBA student, if you remain on the I-mountain and do not open up to others, it becomes a ‘mission impossible’. At work, you mainly perform tasks based on your professional knowledge. You try to do these tasks more and more skilfully: you try to achieve a maximum result with a minimum of effort. You move towards what we call ‘skilled incompetence’: your own incompetence is subtly concealed.

Your language is characterised by arguments in which you figuratively put on the brakes. In our book we call this ‘brake reasoning’. These people (the good news is you are not alone!) keep coming up with reasons why something cannot, will not or will not work. If they are also informal leaders (and we have seen a lot of this), an organisation can suffer greatly.

The sum of 1 +1 = 2 indicates that production is still going on and that business as usual is still doing what it should. But those with a sharper eye can see that this can’t last much longer.

The learning zone: 1+1 = 1

So how do you get out of your comfort zone and what can you do about it?
We argue that new perspectives need to be created or offered. See the first of the eight transition steps. So you decide to go to the information evening in Buren and ask for the information brochure. Note: these are all still intentions, but you have already left your comfort zone. The first transition point is, of course, when you actually enrol. There is now a ‘point of no return’. Look at the second transition step, ‘Introducing mentoring’. In your case, this could mean having someone to fall back on. Odysseus had a mentor, hence the name ‘mentoring’, who gave him advice and was a confidant. So, because there will always be difficult moments, it is good to think about who you can turn to. It is a good investment of time. We think that organisations should also think about this. That is why Elmas Duduk and I introduced mentoring for the city of Amsterdam. Employees were assigned a mentor who could help them not only in their area of expertise, but also in their personal development and in getting to know the organisation’s culture.

The sum 1+ 1 = 1 makes it clear that things are not yet running smoothly. An important lesson here is that as an MBA student, you learn to ask for help when the going gets tough. Many people give up when there are setbacks or when things don’t work out right away. So dialogue is your most important skill. Developing it will pay dividends.

Know that deep learning comes with pain and discomfort. It is abrasive, you have to put things aside, try things out, practise, make mistakes and start again. Those who recognise this as MBA students will embark on this learning journey with more confidence!

The growth zone: 1+1 = 3

This is the second mountain, the WE mountain. This is where you work together and MBA students feel safe, valued and challenged. They have dared to show their vulnerability and have experienced that when you show openness, you get openness in return. On this mountain you see people wondering how their Small Story (their purpose and passion) relates to the Big Story of their organisation, the well-known mission. Sometimes the students become very critical of their own organisation because of the knowledge they have gained: they don’t understand why certain things are still not in order. “By the way, our director also did this MBA”. But let’s take this second mountain one step further before we draw too hasty a conclusion. We will come back to it at the end.

On this second mountain there is a ‘change of language’ (‘How can we…’) and people don’t talk smart, they act smart and dare to experiment. There is collective learning and this is a big difference to the first IK mountain where there was only individual learning.

In The Comfort Transition, we advocate promoting collective learning with rhythm and regularity. Our book contains ten ways of working that support the transition from the comfort zone to out of the comfort zone. Of course, dialogue cannot be learned from a book, but we make the reader aware that the art of questioning is the essence of collective learning.
In addition to the focus on psychological safety and collective learning, we pay attention to ‘principles’ in this growth zone. These are collectively established and monitored. Principles serve as guidelines for daily action. In this way, as an organisation, you send signals about both desired and unwanted behaviour. For example, a principle might be that you are allowed to make mistakes, but not to cover them up. When you develop such a principle together, you give people a framework within which to act.

The eighth step in the transition concerns ‘nudges’: nudges in the right direction to maintain the desired behaviour. The insights from the work of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, based on their famous book ‘Nudge’, are proving very useful in making the desired behaviour persistent rather than a one-off event.

Here, the sum of 1 + 1 = 3 offers real positive results when learners know how to properly align their own interests with those of the organisation. They will then be able to respond quickly to the many demands that are constantly being placed on the organisation from the outside world.

In summary

Doing an MBA is like a comfort transition: leaving the familiar, entering the learning zone, and then entering the growth zone. You gain a lot of knowledge along the way, but that is not all. You also get to know yourself: in stress situations, in setbacks, in hectic situations, in difficult questions that sometimes seem to have no end in sight.

The ‘Future Learning’ model therefore pays attention to your personal development (me), your alignment with others (you) and your collective impact (we). Dialogue is its main tool. Action Learning, the learning method in the MBA programme at BSN, is based on it. And as for the criticism of your director: suspend judgement for a while and ask good questions!

View the LinkedIn profile of tutor Peter de Roode

Also, read or listen to other teachers’ blogs and podcasts about their management field.

Business School Netherlands


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