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Nigel Paine

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Spinning and learning


Learning would work so much better if it had its own resistance wheel, argues Nigel Paine.

I have just started spinning classes at my local gym. For those of you yet to experience that form of self-torture, let me explain. You meet at the appointed time in the Spin Room, choose a bike, usually arranged in a semi-circle around the teacher who has her own bike. You adjust it to fit you, arrange your water bottle and sweat towel and gently cycle while you wait for the class to begin. 
The lights dim, very loud music starts and then for the best part of an hour you sprint, jump or climb hills following the leader's instruction. You do this by pedalling as fast as you can, standing or sitting on the seat, and turning a knob on the bike to increase or decrease resistance. The higher the resistance the more difficult it is to pedal, and the lower the resistance the easier it is to pedal. 
"If you have to climb a steep corporate hill, the summit will be all the sweeter for the effort involved; if you need to sprint to the finish; it feels great to have made that journey."
So you sprint at low resistance, and climb hills at high resistance. You sit and stand depending on instructions and even do press-ups over the handle bars in time with the music and in time with rhythm of your pedalling. Sounds fun doesn't it?
Most participants will tell you it is the hardest exercise you can do, and the majority of people finish the class looking like wrung out dishrags. They are drenched in sweat, incapable of coherent speech and walk slowly to the shower room to recover. But it is also fantastic! People go back week after week, and love every moment. They get withdrawal symptoms when they miss a class and the afterglow of wellbeing lasts for hours.
It is a community experience; the music and the exhortations of the leader take the average participant way beyond what he or she could accomplish on the same bike, solo, in the corner of the gym. The bikes are solid and are built to withstand the pounding they suffer at each session. And the key to it all is that resistance wheel just below the handlebars. And this is where the link with learning comes in!

Resistance promotes better learning

We all perform best when we are working with a bit of resistance! Learning that is unchallenging is boring. But make the obstacles too great and you frighten people off. Getting it right is the challenge, and that is why 'one size fits all' rarely works. Learning leaders are the spin teachers of the mind. 
Get the group fired up, guide them through the sprints and climbs and they will set their own level for success. Each person has an individual challenge but working in a community keeps everyone focused and working at their optimum level. The key to spin is that resistance wheel - as I have said - only you control that. And if you tried to work without resistance it would be uncomfortable even in the sprints, and try standing up to push to the next level without the right amount of resistance. It is simply impossible to balance. 
Each learning programme needs its own resistance wheel that the individual learner controls. That might comprise additional areas to explore; optional extra material; different challenges depending on need, time and interest. The key is to build a strong learning team, but let the individual find his or her own level. This is simple but often forgotten.
I have just come back from working in the US with an international group of 25 learning leaders at Penn, in the Wharton Business School. The block was on leadership and we looked at some of the issues they faced in their workplace. And again resistance came up here. The best accomplishments are when there is some challenge to overcome. 
You need to argue strongly for the budget; the CEO is only half-convinced, the roll-out has to be global etc. This forces, perhaps, deeper thought, better solutions and greater success. If you have to climb a steep corporate hill, the summit will be all the sweeter for the effort involved; if you need to sprint to the finish; it feels great to have made that journey. It is rare for the learning leader to get a smooth ride: it is simply not the nature of the job. 
There is challenge after challenge. But the lesson of spin holds good. Try to have some control over that resistance wheel; and remember that when the resistance gets too high you simply cannot move at all. You should look for a group inside or outside your organisation to give you some support and encourage you up the hills, and then pedal like crazy!   
Nigel Paine is a coach, mentor, writer, broadcaster and keynote speaker of international acclaim. He is currently working in Europe, Brazil,  the US and Australia on a variety of assignments, that hinge around making work more creative, innovative and aspirational and making workplaces more conversational, team-based and knowledge sharing. You can read his blog at or follow him on Twitter:

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