When Not to Stay in Lane

Generally, the recommendation to ‘stay in your own lane’ is a positive thing. Psychologists believe it helps with our wellbeing. Bosses believe it enhances contribution and supports productivity. Academics and sector specialists use focus of discipline to release deep understanding. In this article Laura Overton, analyst, founder of Learning Changemakers and member of the OEB advisory board challenges us by asking if ‘staying in our lane’ can sometimes act against us.

For me, the unique value of Online Educa Berlin is the cross-sector appeal — for 29 years, participants from higher education, government and the workplace come together to tackle the big education issues of the day. The fact that we are all different matters!

There are tracks and sessions established to help everyone dig deep, improve productivity and gain insight.

The benefit of tracks is that they keep us in our lane. And for a few days, those tracks run parallel to each other as, this year, we explore together The Learning Futures We Choose.

The downside of tracks is that they keep us in our own lane may even limit our choices as we consider our future.

The benefits of staying in our lane

Staying in our lane allows us to build skill, work efficiently, become experts, and contribute specifically to a goal or outcome. Whatever our field, staying in our lane means that we are working within guidelines and principles of practice. These are the — road marks tried and tested over years. Our efficiency is improved, and risks reduced by keeping to the smooth tarmac of proven concepts and processes.

Staying in our lane keeps us safe and comfortable. The chemicals released in the brain when we are good at our job make us happy. The psychological comfort of not rocking the boat can’t be denied.

Staying in our lane also works well when we all know where we are going — there is efficiency in each focusing on our unique contribution.

So, it is not surprising that straying into another lane has generally been seen as a negative. Crossing into another person’s flow maybe considered disruptive. As a result, any questions that arise from crossing over results in either defensive protection or excessive criticism of the practices in that lane.

The junctions and intersections

Occasionally we create junctions and interstate connections where lanes are given permission to merge into another or influence the direction of travel.

Academics have been increasingly smart about merging disciplinary lanes to address complex areas that can’t be addressed by one discipline alone — the field of AI has progressed because computer scientists, mathematicians, and cognitive scientists are working together. Public health is improved when epidemiologists, bio statisticians, clinicians and social scientists work together. In business we’ve see breakthroughs in areas such as design thinking (combining, design engineering and business disciplines to create innovative solutions) or the role of digital marketing.

Think tanks and advisory boards are an example of good (and not so good) spaces for merging lanes. In my time I have sat on several government policy bodies bringing sectors together to look at the skills challenge here in the UK. Regrettably, these sessions were often talk tanks with each party defending their lane and their practices. Rarely taking time to recognise and celebrate our differences within the group, we’ve been invited there as experts and experts we will remain!

Often as not, these advisory boards are less about co-operation and connection and more about convening — they become car parks where we pull off for a while to compare notes before continuing our journey, back in our lane.

I see this at the OEB conference as well. On paper this event is a fabulous interstate connection for Policy makers, academics, and workplace practitioners to convene, compare and create action. But we struggle to make the most of the opportunities together.

At the conference when we wander into the content tracks designed for each other we can feel that we’ve entered an alien world. In each track there are different language, different definitions of success, different goals, different processes that are honoured and revered. 

And so, we stay in lane!

The challenge of staying in our lane

Lanes work brilliantly when we know where we are heading, and each has a clear role in reaching our destination!

As practitioners, academics, or policy makers, we’ve established our lanes so that we can operate well in a complicated world – a world where our work can be subdivided into disciplines, stitched together by clear intersections to ultimately achieve a goal. The UK’s spaghetti junction in Birmingham comes to mind here- the overlap of lanes is complicated but if we know where we want to go, the layout will eventually get us there!

The challenges today are that we are all having to learn to operate in a post pandemic society that has been upturned by economic turmoil, war, and a tsunami of technological change. Brian Arthur, an economist, and external professor at the Sante Fe institute, recently spoke to McKinsey about the fact that we are now living in ‘fundamental uncertainty’ This is a world VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) AND it is BANI (brittle, anxious, nonlinear and in comprehensible). He claims that this is a space where we can no longer fully rely on our institutional structures and social arrangements that go with them. He suggests that what we will need is resilience and adaptability where ‘managing is more about observing how the world is unfolding, making sense of, and adapting to uncertainty. At its extreme, the object here is staying the game – survival’.

Most of us recognise the complex environment that he describes. What’s more is more like a jungle — it is entangled, unpredictable and to date there are no clear paths and established roles. It’s a place where our lanes, our expertise and our experience may create weak spots that blind us rather than serve us.

The jungle maybe uncertain but it is a world full of opportunity waiting for discovery.

Straying from our lane

Ahead of OEB, I would like to advocate the opportunity of straying from our lanes to explore new ways to navigate the complex jungle of work.

The Survivor show provides us with some pointers of how to do this – bear with me here. In this reality show, individuals with extensive skills and experiences in their own lanes come together on new ground and unfamiliar territory. They leave their familiar worlds, each bringing their own expertise and experience into the unfamiliar. As a successful team they work out ways to carve out new pathways through unchartered territory.

Purpose is important motivator for choosing to stray from our lanes. The survivor contestants use their focus on winning to come up with their strategies. Unsuccessful teams are full of individuals keeping in their own lane and justifying their positions. Successful teams review and reappraise their individual skill and find creative solutions to emerge stronger as a team in a completely alien environment.

Just as individuals in those successful teams stray from lanes, so must we.

I’m not advocating that in our field of learning, that we are fighting for our lives – far from it. But here are some big issues linked to skill, education, capability, and readiness to be tackled in this new and unfamiliar world of work that is defined by constant change. If participants at OEB can’t find creative ways of tackling the challenges we face, who can?

Be warned — straying from our lane can be scary! We might feel threatened, confused, indignant and uncomfortable. I’ve outlined some tips for in the box out to help make the most of the opportunity to learn from others.

Choose not to stay in your lane this year!

Don’t just keep to your tracks this year, make the most of your experience at OEB. There are plenty of opportunities to get pull off the hard shoulder and explore new ideas with fellow travellers on different journeys.

  • Check out the cross-sector track – sessions with a common theme across sectors – a new way to explore diverse opinions around common issues.
  • I’ve teamed up with Prof Gila Kurtz to create a fun cross sector workshop designed to help us move out of our lanes and get creative (we’re looking at creative ways to might help us improve the way we cultivate curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking – 2.30pm on Thursday if you’d like to join us!)
  • Join the debate – always good.
  • Join the closing conversation on Friday afternoon – a chance to reflect together before we journey on!
  • And if this doesn’t work, there is always the Marlene bar!

Stay or stray – choosing our learning futures!

Life is uncertain, work is uncertain, we need to find new ways to imaging our future. Tempting as it may be to stay in our own field of expertise, those who are expert in other domains might, just might, have something to help!

When it comes to our own learning future, and that of others, will we choose to stay in our own lane or explore what it means to stray away?

Straying from your lane – tips for reaping the benefits:

  • Professional humility – be willing to acknowledge that in our own field of expertise, we might not have all the answers to the problems that we share.
  • Curiosity – be curious about other’s experiences and willing let others into our domain and enter theirs to explore a new future together.
  • Open mindedness – be open to hold lightly to our expertise in our own field and listen to how others are expert in theirs
  • Embracing the new – decide to be more interested in building the future than defending the past.
  • Remember the bigger picture matters – work to establish common goals.
  • Willingness to learn – be open to adapting ideas from other sectors or even combining ideas to create something new.
  • The little things matter – we don’t all have to change the world but to notice the small changes that make the most significant differences.

Written for OEB Global 2023 by Laura Overton.

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