This post is a part of the series of posts I am doing on Being Effective at workplace.
Active Learning is the most important attribute of an effective person. Learning in workplace could be a tricky thing though. Learning while working requires reflecting on the work, the results and the process, but we tend to be so focused on the tasks and outcomes that learning takes a backseat most of the time. However, effective learners find time to step back from even the most crunch time and attempt to synthesize their work into bytes of learning that they can absorb and apply.
Most organizations have processes like retrospectives (reviewing lessons learned and areas of improvement in an agile development model), postmortem, RCA, etc. in order to learn from their experiences, but they tend to become about process and less about learning. Effective learners create their own process for learning from their work and environment and continuously apply it to the next set of work they do.
Here are a few ways of active learning that I have observed and found useful:
- Set learning goals before starting the work. This allows you to focus on exactly what you want to learn rather than getting influenced by the pressures of the work. You need to know what to learn, what not to learn, and what to un-learn. “What to learn”
is influenced by prioritization. “What not to learn” is influenced by your values. “What to unlearn” is influenced by learning goals. For example, if you value integrity, and your recent sales assignment exposes you to murky dealings, you can/should choose not to learn it and actually you should learn how to avoid such assignments in future. Similarly, if you have been a PMP certified project manager well-versed with waterfall model of software development, you may have to unlearn it if you start working on agile methodologies. Having a clear learning goal helps you make these decisions better and prioritize accordingly.
- Create/Use a mental model – Most effective learners (and quick learners) I have seen are very good at creating a mental model of whatever they want to learn. This gives them a framework in which they fit their observations and synthesize their learning very quickly. Sometimes, this can be a complete model for an elaborate thing (like a software platform or a complicated design), and other times it could just be a set of rules you keep in mind which have been abtracted from a few examples. For example, when you do retrospective of a software release and figure out that some features did great and some did very poorly, effective learners quickly try to create a few rules that explain this (‘small features succeed, large ones fail”, “features with no program managers fail”, ‘features in XYZ area has large chance of failure”, etc) and then keep looking for examples to validate or invalidate these rules. In the case of a development lead I was talking to recently, he used his prior experience to intuitively guess at how the software in his new company worked, and used this to make sense of various design meetings he had to participate as soon as he joined. As he would learn more about the design (from the meetings), he would update his mental model, and sometimes question the design being proposed (and some of the questions were pretty good; and he was tagged as ‘quick learned’!). Notice how similar it is to the description of Feynman’s way of learning (from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!)
“I had a scheme, which I still use today when somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples. For instance, the mathematicians would come in with a terrific theorem, and they’re all excited. As they’re telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something which fits all the conditions. You know, you have a set (one ball) – disjoint (two balls). Then the balls turn colors, grow hairs, or whatever, in my head as they put more conditions on. Finally they state the theorem, which is some dumb thing about the ball which isn’t true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say, ‘False!'”
- Prioritize Learning – Effective learners know when to learn, what to learn and how to learn. Essentially, the apply the same prioritization techniques to learning that they apply to other aspects of their work (more on prioritization in a subsequent post). They realize that learning can happen only in small chunks (most effective learners are also very busy!) and so time has to be used very judiciously. For example, learning risk management techniques from a company-wide initiative you are driving might be valuable, but lessons on how to sell ideas and influence peers and stakeholders may be more valuable; effective learners figure out the priority early and then spend their learning energy on one of these rather than try everything. This gives them depth of learning which is more important than breadth.
- Find/Use a learning buddy – Best learning happens when you discuss your experience. Find someone you can trust to spend some time with you and use him/her often for discussions/brainstorming as you observe and learn things. Most effective learners I have met, I have found them spending lots of time talking and discussing their observations with senior team members/leaders/stakeholders, they do not consider this a waste of time.
- Have a sense of urgency – The most effective learners I have seen take their learning very seriously and have a sense of urgency about it. They get impatient if they do not learn much from their assignment, I have sometimes seen frustrated when they can’t make sense of things around them because it impacts their learning. They realize that every moment not applied to learning is a learning opportunity wasted and which in turn impacts their professional and career growth in the long run. This sense of urgency gives them an ability to focus on learning even when pressures and deadlines make their world chaotic.
Organizations expose individuals to various types of unexpected environments and effective learners make the best use of this unexpectedness by having clear goals of their learning, prioritizing and focusing their efforts continuously, and engaging in their work with learning in mind all the time.