Stretching is good for you

Athletes are always seen doing stretches before they exercise, and I have to say I have never taken stretching seriously before I go for my run. I’ve always seemed to get on OK.

Today I read something that changed my perspective.

Materials scientist Mark Miodownik in Stuff matters explains that ligaments (which join one bone to another) are viscoelastic: that is to say they will stretch immediately a certain amount, but if you hold the stretch, they will flow and lengthen.

So stretching does actually make a difference to your long-term flexibility. My Pilates teacher is quite right about stretches needing to be slow and needing to hold them for a while. Now I understand what is supposed to be happening, I think I might do it a bit more and a bit better.

Stretch in the workplace

I wonder if it is the same in the workplace. Research says that we learn most deeply and retain best what we learn by attempting stretching new things. I wonder if it is the “stretch immediately” that has the positive effect or the “hold the stretch”?

Top ten ways to stretch yourself

Here’s my top-ten list of ways to stretch yourself. As you look through the list, ask yourself “Are these short-term stretches or stretch-and-hold things”?

  • Stretch assignments – taking on something new and different that will require the new skill forces the learner to activate their learning and build on it. If you are designing learning, think through the personas in the audience you are designing for, and try to imagine realistic things they could look out for in their job situation if they want to learn by doing. Include suggestions that go slightly beyond the level covered in your learning design.
    • Expand the scope of your work – take on managerial responsibilities (e.g. budgeting, interviewing); Fill in for someone else when they are off work.
    • Enter challenging relationships – work with people who have contradictory views, lead a cross-functional team, interact with senior management (get exposure through meetings and presentations)
    • Embrace change and adversity – handle a crisis, work to recover a failing situation, work on new initiatives, take the lead in introducing a business change
    • Persuade senior managers to take a specific action
  • Volunteering – For some subjects there are opportunities outside the workplace to use the new skill – for example by volunteering for a charity.
  • Shadowing – working closely with someone who is already using the skill. Simply observing is rather too passive, so the emphasis is on the need to participate actively in reviews of output etc in order to really gain from the exercise.
  • Job rotation – We don’t have many job rotation schemes, but the ones for graduates and apprentices give them opportunities to learn by trying different job areas. This will be a key part of the learning design for talent development.
  • Career moves – Think about your future career. How can you build the skill profile needed for particular roles on the career pathways defined on the relevant profession sites. Think about what else to put on your personal development plan (PDP) to help them make the next move.
  • Giveback – Particularly at the higher skill intensities, giveback activities are a key way to learn and develop.
  • Take a lead in a subject group – Subject groups (our communities of practice) are an opportunity for leadership outside the functional line management structures. Don’t forget it is also possible to apply some learned skills (especially leadership topics) in the context of almost any subject.
  • After-action review – Take the initiative in reviewing how things are being done in their area of work.
  • Knowledge development – particularly for leading-edge topics, our standard learning resources may cover the basics, but there will be a great need for others to develop and write up (or video-record) deeper knowledge on the subject as a reference for everyone to consult. Taking on the challenge of creating this knowledge is a valuable learning activity in its own right.
  • Teaching – Those who teach, learn. Whether it is one-to-one with another member of their own team, or in a local team meeting, in an informal or formal webinar, people will retain and understand the content much better by trying to pass it on. The learning design should encourage this behaviour. And therefore when we create learning resources, they should be “unlocked” so that they can be easily reused in a presentation to other people along with the person’s own stretch learning. Design your resources to be reusable and to be passed on.

I wonder if you came to the same conclusion as me: the benefits of stretch don’t come from brief work in a new area, it is almost all stretch-and-hold. Not necessarily being ever more stretched for ever (which is very draining) – but effort and persistence is needed.

I’m always surprised after a session of Pilates that I can move noticeably more than I could at the beginning, even though I couldn’t detect the change at the time of doing the held stretches themselves. I wonder if it is the same with work too, a stretch feels unnatural, possibly even painful, but afterwards we are comfortable doing more than before.

How does the metaphor of “stretch” work for you as you think about your own personal development and as you watch others develop?


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