Book Club: Micah Jacobson on Empowering Learning by Being Open to Outcomes

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Olivia Fuller: Hi and welcome to Book Club, a Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I’m Olivia Fuller. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so they can be more effective in their jobs.

If you think back on the things that you’ve learned throughout your life, chances are that the things that might stand out the most are when those learning moments were rooted in an experience, when we engage in experiential learning, we’re able to retain that knowledge better over time, but in today’s fast-moving sales environment, how can enablement really guide those meaningful learning experiences?

In the book, “Open To Outcome“, Micah Jacobson shares a five-question model to help guide that experiential learning through thoughtful questioning and reflection. I’m so excited to have Micah here with us to tell us a little bit more about this book. So Micah, with that, I would love it if you could just take a second and introduce yourself to our audience and tell us a little bit more about your background and your book.

Micah Jacobson: Thanks, Olivia. I am really excited to be here and what a special privilege to be able to share some work that has been a passion of mine for I would say almost my entire life. I have such a weird background compared to many enablers in that I came specifically through the world of education into sales enablement. At 16 I started working with the concepts around neurocognitive psychology and how it is that the brain takes in new information. I’d like to say that I specialize in how sensation becomes memory and memory becomes action, which to me is at the heart of what we do in sales enablement. It’s a real pleasure to be here, thanks.

OF: Well we’re so excited to have you on to dive deeper into all of the things that you talk about in your book. One of those is you really talk about the value of experiential learning to help drive retention over time and long term. That’s a concept that’s really rooted in a lot of neuroscience and you talk about that neuroscience background in the book as well. I’d love to hear a little bit more about why that experiential aspect of learning is so valuable to the learning process.

MJ: Yeah. What a great concept. I’ll tip my hand here a little bit and tell you that I think all learning is fundamentally experiential. I think of experiential learning in the broadest possible way of saying that there’s sensation out there. We hear, see, touch, taste, smell, we get this sensational impulse and maybe that’s all from the time that we’re in the womb even. Maybe that’s all human learning. We distinguish it sometimes from some passive forms of learning when I read or I watch something and I’m not really taking an active energetic role in that learning, but I would argue that there’s still sensation. I’m still reading something, I’m still watching something and so really you can use the concepts in Open To Outcome with almost any form of sensational learning.

I think that the more you can get emotion into it and the more you can involve multiple senses, the more immersive learning becomes. The evidence is just really clear that that’s more powerful longer-lasting learning. That’s where the concepts and Open To Outcome are really most effective.

OF: I love that. In the book, you walk through a model for really guiding deep and meaningful reflection. That model in the book is called the five questions model and that can really help guide a lot of that experiential learning. I’d love to hear from you a little bit more about that model. How do those questions in particular help to really guide that learning experience?

MJ: Yeah, well, let me first show some incredible humility to educators who have come before me because we didn’t invent the model of questioning as a fundamental source of learning. We can go back to the ancient Greek philosophers and the Socratic method and there’s just so much educational richness in understanding how the brain learns. All we did was take a minor step forward by building specifically on the work of Pfeiffer and Jones in the early 70s where they started talking about using an experiential learning model to structure conversation in such a way that you guaranteed learning. It’s where you can say no matter what’s going to happen, you’re going to learn something.

My original work was with high school students. We had to teach them to become facilitators in less than an hour. I know that many of my sales enablement teammates out there have similar challenges where they’ll bring in, for instance, a sales expert and say, okay, we want you for an hour to do something different than your job and be a facilitator, be a coach, or an educator. We needed a fast way in. We needed a way to say, how do we get somebody who doesn’t really know much about learning or education and get them into a conversation rapidly. The five questions really grew from that desire to say, okay, let’s abstract from the learning cycle and how the brain learns naturally in 5 specific questions that have been asked in order and with a little bit of empathy and a little bit of care about the people you’re talking to will virtually guarantee that some kind of learning always emerges in the conversation.

That’s really the origin of the five questions. We found it so successful that we’ve now been able to teach it to literally tens of thousands of educators, business folks, sales folks, and facilitators in many, many different walks of life and it’s just been so gratifying to watch continued success with just five simple questions.

OF: Yeah, that’s fantastic. You mentioned that this can really be applied to a variety of learning scenarios, so it was initially developed in that high school setting, but you’ve also been able to apply it to a sales rep learning as well. I’d love to hear maybe a little bit more about that with most of our audience being sales enablement practitioners. How can kind of the core principles of this model be applied to enablement for sales teams and how can that really drive impact for sales rep learning specifically?

MJ: Olivia, it’s such a great question. Let me see if I can distinguish between the normal approach, sort of, how we are trained and this goes back to our earliest education days. You know, we tend to parent like our parents, we tend to be in relationships similar, we tend to teach like we saw teachers teach us in school and so you get a lot of what in education is sometimes called the stage on the stage environment where we love to be the person who knows. There’s nothing wrong with that. It feels really good to know something and to be able to share that with others. There’s just a natural human inclination to want to be an expert of some kind.

That sometimes then translates into lots of lecturing, lots of talking at our learners and the shift that that happens is when you start to realize, oh, wait a minute, I don’t actually like listening that long to very many people. That’s sort of a harsh thing to say, but let me take it back to our high school days or maybe our college days or even before that for some of us. Do you remember those times when people sort of droned on and on and it’s really easy for your brain to tune out and the moment we tune out, learning is gone. If there was a first principle of learning, it would be attention. We have to pay attention and so the five questions allow us to maybe get away from that desire to always be the expert and empower our learners to be the expert by simply calling their attention.

The very first question is did you notice? And there’s sort of an ellipses after that. That suggests that we want to call attention to something specific because the moment we get our learners to pay attention, whether that’s paying attention to how they’re handling an objection, paying attention to how they’re introducing a script, paying attention to their talk listen ratio on a sales call, every time we get them to pay attention to specific stimulus that is an incredible opportunity for learning and that’s the foundation of the five questions.

OF: That’s fantastic. You mentioned something there that I actually want to dig into a little bit more, which is the old way of doing things being kind of that lecture model. You talk in the book about the distinction between teaching someone and coaching someone. I’d love to learn a little bit more about the differences between the two. What does teaching look like versus coaching?

MJ: Yeah, I spent a lot of time talking with teachers about this because we have this noun called a teacher or this noun called a coach and sometimes people can confuse the noun I am a teacher versus the verb, I teach people things. There’s a verb to teach. They’re not the same thing. When I think of teaching someone something, I’m really thinking about new information, new stimulus. Once you’ve taught me that two plus two equals four, you can’t really teach me that again. Does that make sense? Sort of like once I’ve got it, I’ve got it. It’s it’s we’ve all had that experience of someone trying to teach you something that you know really well, I might even be mansplaining right now. I’m not sure what that experience is, but it never feels good to be taught something you already know. So I really distinguish between the moment you don’t know something to the moment you do know something. That’s a teaching moment. I’ve been taught something.

Then from that moment on, all I can really do is be reinforced, reflected or coached in that environment. So we teach someone to do a golf swing for the very first time, but every time you swing a golf club after that you’re being coached. Either you’re coaching yourself or someone’s coaching you. Same thing in sales, you can teach someone new product features, you can teach them how to handle a competitive question, but after that it’s a matter of coaching them. Did they handle it most succinctly? Did they handle it with that kind of passion? Did they maintain the energetic kind of value-based mission of the company?

Every moment after you’ve taught is really a coaching moment and that shifts the perspective from, I’m telling you something to I need you to tell me something so that I can see what it is you actually know and how you’re delivering that information. That distinction is lost on many facilitators, but when you get it, when you understand that once I’ve taught someone I need to now ask them questions, man, does that change your practice, and it’s really, really powerful.

OF: Absolutely. You talked a little bit about this just now with what this looks like for sales reps, but I’d love to dig a little bit deeper if we can. In enablement, how can practitioners really balance the two? Balance the teaching moments and the coaching moments and how can they be recognized when the right time might be to teach versus to coach?

MJ: Well, I think for me at least, I can’t speak for everyone, but for me at least the first step is letting my ego go because I need to recognize that even though it feels really good to be the expert in the room and to feel like I’m sharing my best information, what I need is for my reps to take action. I need them to feel good. I need them to feel like experts. So that means I need to shift again from that answer orientation to the question orientation. Then for me, I try to get really clear on my objectives. What specifically am I trying to drive and how do I make that a behavioral drive versus just an understanding or know. In our team at Salesforce, we do not do learning objectives that say understand new product features or become aware of. We want behavioral learning objectives, to create, demonstrate, master these observable skills that we can watch someone do.

As soon as I have let go of my ego and have very clear objectives, now, what I can do is I can start to think about how do I introduce a stimulus, make someone read, watch, participate, make a choice, do something and then get them to reflect on that choice, get them to reflect on what it is that they’ve done. If I can draw their attention to the thing that matters most, whether it’s maybe talk time in a customer call, I’d say I want you to be aware of the percentage of time you’re talking versus your customer talking. At that moment of awareness, we’ve now opened up a learning opportunity because now we can say, well, why do you think that happened? Why did you talk more than you wanted to? Why did the customer talk more than you wanted them to? Whatever that observation is. From there, we can abstract principles that can drive future conversations and now we’re already down that learning cycle, so we’re still driving towards the outcome that we’re achieving, and we did it by calling attention to the thing that we wanted them to notice.

OF: I love that. That’s great advice. Thinking about outcomes, and going back to the title of the book as well, with being Open to Outcomes, you talk about how, from the perspective of the facilitator, it really requires, kind of resisting the temptation to impose the facilitators desired outcomes on the learner, but still keeping sight of the focus of the experience. How can facilitators and practitioners and enablement for example, really maintain that balance of, of being able to not impose the desired outcomes but keep it focused as well?

MJ: Gosh, this is such a leap of faith. It really requires willingness to step out onto an edge, which feels pretty uncomfortable for a lot of facilitators, sales enablers who are driving outcomes. They need revenue goals for their company, they need to make sure that corporate messaging is clear and transfers the way that senior leadership wants it to transfer. We need to show a reaction. People need to like us, they need to think that our programs are good enough that they want to come back and all of those things kind of combine to create a sense of desire for control. That desire to say, I am going to force-feed you the information and sometimes we even have that fantasy that we can do it, because we said it, someone else went, oh man, that person said it in my life has changed.

But our own experience belies that like that is not our experience, whether it’s our parents telling us what to do when we’re kids or our first boss who we thought was an idiot or that spouse who’s like, hey I noticed the garbage isn’t taken out again, when people tell us things it’s hit or miss whether it really hits in that moment and so it’s taking that leap of faith to say yes, you are not going to always be able to control exactly what happens for your learners, but if you can learn how to ask really skillful questions, you actually gain more control by giving them the opportunity to express back to you what you just told them, in their own words.

If we trust ourselves to ask good questions, then we sit back and listen and now we can really understand whether our messages are really hitting or getting through. If I’m just talking right now, I have no idea what anyone else is hearing, I have no idea, Olivia, what you’re hearing. All I could do is maybe reflect back and say, well Olivia, what do you think I said? Now I’m getting a chance to see, did my message really come through? That is really hard for a lot of enabling professionals. I’m right there with you. I have the same exact experience, but man, is it powerful when you can let go of that ego.

OF: Fantastic. Well Micah, thank you so much for taking the time to share all of this with us today. I know I certainly learned a lot from you in this interview and in your book. So I know our audience will too, thanks again.

MJ: It was an absolute pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

OF: To our audience, thanks for listening for more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders visit salesenablement.pro and if there’s something you’d like to share or a topic that you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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