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We Should All Be Learners

LearnersKnowledge work is learning work.” That was the message delivered by Dianna Larson’s keynote presentation at the Agile on The Beach conference held in Falmouth, England earlier this Summer. Dianna explained that anyone involved in today’s collaborative, problem-solving projects such as new product development need to be learners. We all need to learn how to learn new topics effectively and get used to lifelong learning to stay useful and relevant.

Technology evolution and disruptive business changes are happening at such a high rate now that we can no longer rely on the theories and techniques we gained at university to see us through our professional careers. Instead, we must learn on the job and in our own time to stay current. How much we learn and how quickly we can learn new skills become our competitive advantage.

“Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.” – W. Edwards Deming

By learning new skills, we increase our adaptability and usefulness in the marketplace. It creates resiliency to becoming obsolete and provides more career options. Like many things, this is not a zero-sum game; it is not just about us learning things faster than other people to stay employed. If we can increase our team’s ability to learn also, it will be more successful and so will our organization.

For on-job learning to occur, we need three attributes:

  1. Courage
  2. Compassion
  3. Confidence

To be effective leaders and help promote learning in our teams and organizations, we must embrace and model these desired behaviors:

1. Courage: It takes courage to be okay with not knowing something. It takes courage to be wrong and fail as we try to gain and apply new skills. It requires a willingness to be curious and a willingness to tolerate the messiness of trial and error that comes from learning. So check your ego at the door, get over yourself and admit what you do not (yet) know.

2. Compassion: We need a safe space to learn. Also (and this is a surprise to some people), the transparency of showing what we do not know is motivating to others. When leaders learn out loud, it creates compassion toward them. So, create a secure place for people to learn on your projects. Provide psychological safety and encourage learning by doing it yourself in public.

Since we learn in the direction we ask questions, we should frame work as a series of learning problems, not execution problems. For example, instead of explaining the task of porting a system from .NET to Android, explain that our success is linked to our ability to learn Xamarin, our selected tool to port .Net to Android. Clearly explaining we want people to learn new skills is often the approval enabler they need to dedicate themselves to being more useful.

3. Confidence: We need confidence to try and we need to understand our confidence levels. When we learn anything new of significance, our confidence will likely move through the stages depicted in the Satir Change Curve. Think about when you learned to drive, play a musical instrument or learn a foreign language. First, our confidence is high at the prospect of gaining independence, becoming a rock star or traveling with ease. This is illustrated by the initial high score of confidence/comfort at point 1 on the graph below:

Satir

Then we start our learning and we quickly realize that driving, playing the guitar or learning Spanish is difficult and we are not as good at it as we are at all the familiar things we do every day. This is the confusion/loss period of the Satir Change Curve shown as point 2. Many adults who have not had to learn significant new skills for many years find this very uncomfortable.

Next, comes the “groan zone” of turmoil and despair, where some days go well and some days go bad and you seem to be moving backwards (point 3). Understanding that this is perfectly normal is a great relief for many learners. It is helpful to just point to the graph and explaining it is okay to feel bad because they are in the turmoil/despair phase of learning a new skill, and it will be followed by growth and confidence if they just stick with it.

Finally, with perseverance and practice, we acquire the new knowledge or skill and our confidence and comfort rises above our original level (point 4) along with our usefulness.

Summary
Learning and the need to learn are not identifiers of a junior employee anymore. They are the hallmarks of the professional knowledge worker. We need to move beyond the stigma of not knowing all the answers and embrace the learning path that comes with not knowing, making mistakes and asking for help.

When leaders model the learning mindset of curiosity and the courage to learn out loud, they pave the way for faster organizational learning and increased competitive advantage.

[I wrote this article first for ProjectManagement.com here]

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