Why Learning By Doing is key to accelerating change

Emergn - Learning by doing - typewriter with Start Doing on the paper

Knowing is not understanding

Knowing is not the same as understanding. That’s the big message from this excellent video by Dustin in his Smarter Everyday series. I’ve embedded it here so you can take a look. Do take the 7 minutes – it’s worth the watch. It helps explain why Learning By Doing is critical to accelerating understanding.

Even though everyone who looked at the backwards bike knew how to ride a bike and, therefore, decided they ‘knew’ how to ride a backwards bike, they couldn’t. It didn’t matter that this guy was trying his hardest they thought he was faking it, because they ‘knew’ it was possible. There was no real understanding or depth to the knowledge.

Dealing with cognitive bias

“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.”  – Stephen Covey

We are full of cognitive biases. It is said that we don’t really experience reality – it’s more an interpretation through all of our filters of cognitive bias and perception. In order to challenge biases we need time, practice and an environment that will potentially challenge our understanding of the way things work. We need to change what we focus on.

All VFQ education is based on the simple idea of Learning By Doing. It’s a simple idea, but an extremely complex process that’s different for everyone. To really understand how new ways of working will work, you need to practice. This is not something you can truly learn just in the classroom or by reading books. You need feedback – feedback from peers and other practitioners. Feedback from your environment and context. Insights from observers and onlookers. Ideas from talking things through. Feedback from your own thoughts and reflection. Basically, feedback from learning.

Everyone’s learning style is different (and personal)

I love to read books. I get a lot of new ideas out of a book. But it’s not really until I verablise the concepts, discuss it with people, shape it, play with it and put it into practice do I really start to understand the ramifications of the ideas. In fact, many of my aha moments (or best ideas) come mid-sentence. I actually need to be talking and interacting. I’m not so good in a locked room on my own. But that doesn’t mean some alone time and reflection is not helpful in my overall learning process. But I know this about myself. And one thing I’m pretty sure about is: you are probably different.

Maybe your dominant intake process is video rather than reading. You might need more time to reflect. Maybe you can’t think when others are talking. Or you might be someone who literally needs to figure out everything from scratch. The blends of all of these things is inherently personal. You might really like Learning By Doing.

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”  – Confucius

Kolb has described a model that explains the different attributes between Abstract and Concrete, Reflective and Active. It’s a good model to consider your own style.

Kolb Learning Cycle

But the key thing for adult learning is that the learner needs to be in control of both the goal, the decision-making and the reason for the learning. Not just taking a course or reading a book. You need active experimentation – or Learning By Doing. That’s why double-loop learning is critical.

What this means for Agile

Let’s go back to Dustin and his backwards bike. It took him over 8 months to learn his new skill. 8 months! For something that most people will look at and think is easy. Compare that to his son who learnt in 2 1/2 weeks! The video showed well the moment when things ‘clicked’ for both of them. That just goes to show how long it takes to re-wire things we’ve already learned, and things we deeply understand. After all, you never forget how to ride a bike, right?

The problem comes when things look the same, but aren’t really.

Agile ways of working look deceptively easy. They look like things from our past. They’re easy to ‘know’. They’re easy to talk about. The buzzwords are everywhere. But, when you get to the heart of it for a lot of people they’re really hard to implement. And that’s because everyone thinks they already know it, think they’re already doing it or don’t have the capacity to practice and change.

Agile ways of working require many changes. It requires leaders to engage differently. The way we judge what’s important changes. The way we ‘control’, the way we ’govern’ and the way we collaborate across traditional silos all change. And what we need from our teams and people change. It means we need to establish new norms for how we all work together. Like Dustin and his backwards bike – that takes time. And when there are many people involved, it probably takes some coordination. Agile is a non-prescriptive way of working. It requires teams to figure out the best thing for them – it requires Learning By Doing.

A more agile mindset

Agile, and now Digital, are buzzwords for some and have deep meaning for others. They represent new ways of working. New ways of thinking. New mindsets and belief systems about what’s important and what’s not. And that means the idea of being ‘customer obsessed’ versus hitting your self-imposed on-time, on-budget measures is a very different set of thought processes. Being able to serve people all over the world on a mobile phone requires us to consider a very different model than it does to see thousands of people coming into shops. Being able to process millions of transactions per minute versus daily or weekly batch files is different. Having the ability to spot trends in data and responding to those is very different from people in management positions dreaming up new propositions because that’s what their gut says.

Being open to challenge what made us successful

The digital economy means we need to forget how businesses and IT departments have traditionally worked together. Long tenure in IT departments or traditional businesses hasn’t necessarily prepared us well. Long tenure in IT has more likely prepared us for long development cycles, spaghetti code, cumbersome hardware and processes that should still be in the 1980s. But for most Enterprises, it can typically mean an order-taker mindset to the business. As a result, it hasn’t prepared us well for a customer population that expects new features every day. Or customers who are absolutely comfortable with the everyday technology. Or with the ever growing need to make beautiful customer experiences and amazing looking software. No-one ever said that enterprise software was beautiful. All of this hasn’t prepared us for a business completely reliant on technology that requires completely different orders of magnitude.

As Marshal Goldsmith’s book said: What got you here, won’t get you there.

Getting started with Learning By Doing

All this means you need to keep an open-mind and figure out how to learn quickly in a way that works for you.

A couple of good tips:

  • Focus on one change at a time.
  • State your assumptions clearly.
  • Use experiments and feedback to make progress.
  • Do something practical to develop understanding.
  • Make it fun and visible.

You can achieve this all through ‘Learning By Doing’.