Learning starts from birth; babies learn by using their senses. They learn that when they cry, people pay attention – the beginning of communication. As they grow, they learn to use other senses like eyes and ears and nose, as well as their bodies to make new discoveries. It’s not something we teach them; their instincts guide them, but they learn on their own to grab objects like hair or glasses and bright little toys.
As they become toddlers, they become more mobile and explore further. As parents, we try to teach them safety – that is hot or cold, and we try to protect them from falling down the stairs, but as each parent knows … sometimes children need to experience something first to understand.
A teacher friend of mine who holds a Masters degree in Early Childhood, with B Ed, Ed Dip, M Ed, from the University of Alberta, says pushing kids into reading by memorizing in the early years isn’t the best way to teach them; getting them to think is much more effective. To that end, she encouraged her class to explore, create, play and invent. This method teaches the children problem-solving skills as well as finding the wonder in learning. To quote her, “They begin to believe they are capable of figuring out the world and the wonderful problems and opportunities.” However, most schools teach children in a structured way so as adults we learn to expect to have information spoon fed to us.
How has your childhood learning experiences affected how you learn? Do you look to explore, create, play, and invent, or do you want someone to tell you how to do something in a structured method? And what does that mean to us in a business setting?
Years ago, in one job I had, the organization had a very structured learning program. They told me what courses to take to better myself and get ahead in the company. It was easy for me to let them take charge of my career. They promoted me to the next level when they thought I was ready even though that may not have been what I wanted but, I really didn’t know any different and thought that was the way it was supposed to be.
The next company I went into, had no learning plan for me. I stagnated because I had no direction. Eventually, I left that company and moved to one that did not have a learning plan set out for me, but provided me with a mentor, a guide.
When I tell this story, I am reminded of Goldilocks and the three bears. The third organization was the right fit for me. In that organization, I was in charge of my own learning. I got to decide what I wanted to learn based on where I wanted to go. It was not assumed that I would be promoted because I was ready but worked with me so that my skills were used in the best setting. By this time, I knew I didn’t want to be a manager so looked to better my technical skills, my collaboration skills. For the first time since university, I started to enjoy learning again because I was able to explore and create.
Teams also need to be constantly learning. As they get new features, they need to explore and create the best possible solutions. As a cross-functional team, they have most, if not all the skills needed to do that. When they don’t have the skills, they need to learn – preferably as a team.
I have found this is only possible when the team has a shared vision, and there is trust between the team members. If they feel safe, they can admit they might not know how to do something. As a team, they can brainstorm solutions, or decide how to tackle learning about a new technical problem.
My co-author Lisa Crispin shared a story with me about one of the teams she was on. They were having issues with stories getting rejected by the customer because they were building the wrong thing. So, instead of trying to hire in that skillset, they decided as a team, to learn about business analysis. They pro-actively started to research and share what they learned and experiment with different techniques. As a team, they got better and better at asking the right questions.
The key was trust, a common vision, and a safe space to learn. It is also important to know your context, and when you might need to bring in expertise to help get things started.
Organizations need to take some responsibility for their employees to learn and grow. Providing a safe environment for individuals and teams to acquire and apply new learnings, goes a long way. Consistency in some areas like onboarding new staff is important as well.
I worked with an organization once who was transitioning to agile. I thought they had a great way forward. Each new agile team would be onboarded with an agile foundations course. After working for an iteration or two, the team would take the next course about how to build quality into their process. After that, they would work specifically on some of the more technical skills like TDD. The plan was to move the team forward together.
However, the organization ‘learning team’ got to run things, and everything went sideways. They made certain courses mandatory, some had prerequisites, but nothing was monitored. Teams didn’t sign up, individuals did, or people’s managers signed them up. This meant that when I was teaching a class that was meant for a ‘whole team’, I got a people from many different teams – most with no understanding of what others were working on. People that shouldn’t have even been in my course because they didn’t have a basic understanding of agile – a waste.
Organizational goals need to map to team goals which hopefully align with individual learning goals. Managers and executives can help teams by providing a nurturing environment for learning to happen in an effective manner.
I have facilitated many courses, workshops, and tutorials over the years. My personal style has changed the more I learn about teaching and facilitating.
People learn differently; they have different experiences and react differently to the same message. For example, I recognize I have blind spots that may prevent me from learning. Jerry Weinberg, through his PSL (Problem Solving Leadership) course, defines problem-solving leadership as the ability to enhance the environment so that everyone is empowered to contribute creatively to solving the problem. As a leader and facilitator, it means I need to recognize that other people many have similar blind spots and learn to recognize them. When I am in a teacher role, I need to understand that people may not be taking in the message if they don’t like the delivery format. I need to open my mind to the possibilities and observe the feedback I am receiving from participants. This is a skill that I had to learn and practice.
I also know that people learn by doing, so the courses that I teach contain a mixture of lecture, hands on exercises and sharing experiences.
When you are teaching or learning – look for something that engages the mind, and not limiting it to memorization. Memorization is the lowest on the thinking skills, according to my teacher friend. What you want is the highest of the thinking skills – problem solving, synthesizing and creating.