How do I Get My Team Inspired to Learn?

From Twitter:

I’m a tier 3 Systems Engineer in a room of my teammates, tier 1 & 2. Informal discussion, tech meeting. I ask them what they want to learn or teach the team, and no one has response. What are we missing? What can I and other tier 3s do to inspire the others?

There’s a lot to unpack there, actually. Let’s begin.

Adult learning is an incredibly fraught space. As I write about in Be the Master, we’re all loaded with these toxic concepts about learning and teaching, right from our youngest years. Those concepts stick with us unless we explicitly address them: I’m not good enough to be a teacher. I’m not admitting weakness in front of my peers. I legit don’t know what to do.

If you want to break through all that, you need to be willing to be a leader. Not a manager: that’s different. A leader.

So let me talk a bit about how leadership works, in the briefest possible terms. A leader is someone who states a vision for where they see the group in the future – that could be a week from now, two years from now, or whatever. They state a vision that they believe, based on current facts and trends, is achievable, even if it’s a stretch. A leader then starts getting everyone else on board with that, explaining how they fit into the vision, and how they personally contribute to it. You’re not necessarily there to make sure they do it; that’s “management.” But if people can’t see themselves in the vision, then they can’t work toward it. Finally, a leader stays positive and forward-thinking about it. You set aside thoughts like “we can’t do this” and you focus on thoughts like “how can we do this.” Any thought or attitude that isn’t helping realize the vision isn’t helping, and you deliberately acknowledge it and set it aside.

I ask them what they want to learn or teach the team, and no one has response.

This is a group that lacks leadership. They don’t know what the vision is, or they don’t know how they can contribute to it. People, especially more entry-level people, need to be shown that, because it’s not a skill or mindset we’re taught as we grow up. Start by explaining what the organization needs to happen in the longer-term. Start by describing where you see the industry, irrespective of the current job, headed. And then ask: what skills do you have that could help move in that direction? What skills do you think we, as a team, need to move in that direction.

We, not you. See, we’ve all grown up being taught that not knowing enough is grounds for punishment: we get bad grades when we don’t know enough, and we certainly don’t want a bad grade in our freaking job. Admitting weakness leads to bad consequences. You need to create a psychological safe zone, where we are the ones achieving the vision, and we need to look at ourselves and ask what tools we need to get there. Consider asking the team to brainstorm skills they feel the team would benefit from. From that, create a learning plan.

For example, if you use Pluralsight, and you’re on an enterprise plan, you can create custom roles that include all the skills you believe that role needs. Each person in that role (or aspiring to it) can then take the associated Skill IQ tests and see where they’re at. Roles in Pluralsight recognize job levels: you can indicate which skill levels are needed for Tier 1, Tier 2, and so on. For example, “Cloud Architecture” might have a skill level of 0 for a Tier 1 technician, and a skill level of 250 for a Tier 3. This creates direction. “These are the skills we believe we need, and these are the skill levels we need in place. Everyone go see where you are; where you’re a bit low, start watching videos to make up the difference.”

The same fellow on Twitter later mentioned:

Every team member even has a Pluralsight subscription, but half barely use it.

Sure. That’s like taking an 18 year-old, dropping them off on a college campus, and saying, “go to it, kiddo.” There’s a reason colleges make you choose a major: it defines the outcome you wish to achieve, and then the curriculum for that major is intended to get you there. Just dropping someone into Random Education Land isn’t helpful if they don’t know where they’re going.

The ability to learn at a known pace – which will be different for everyone – is a critical capability for modern companies. Being able to learn is a competitive differentiator; if my company can learn quickly, then we can execute new strategies that require brand-new technologies. If your company can’t learn quickly, then you’re stuck using the tools and processes of a decade ago. I win, every time. It’s why you’re seeing upstarts like Stripe, Robin Hood, and so on all stick it to mega-companies that have been around for a century or more.

So even if the company doesn’t need a new skill at the moment, you have to keep learning. Just to keep the muscle strong. One way to do that is to group-brainstorm a set of topics, and then write each one down on a piece of paper. Draw pieces of paper from a box, in a lottery format, and tell everyone to go learn something about that topic. Set a timeline – and make it clear that you might only be looking for an “executive briefing” on the topic. Assign them a time to come back and answer:

  • What is it?
  • What does it do?
  • Why does it matter in the world?
  • How do other companies use it?
  • How, at a high level, does it work?
  • How might we use it, if we chose to?

That last bit should connect back to company outcomes, like OKRs or KPIs, and it’s a spot where maybe the team brainstorms that together. For example, we don’t use PowerShell because it makes our jobs faster – making your job faster isn’t a company outcome. So what company outcome does that connect to? Let’s Talk Business touches on a lot of that.

Get everyone a copy of Be the Master, Special Edition, which is free and more concise than the full version (although my mortgage company won’t mind you getting everyone a copy of the 4th edition, if you’re so inclined). Ask them to read through it, and come back with one new thing that they learned that they feel applies to themselves and the team. You’re looking for simple answers: “I realized I was treating learning as a student vs. teacher thing, and I realize it doesn’t need to be.”

There’s also a need to recognize the value of all learning, which we typically suck at. I go into this in Culture of Learning a good bit, but the basic idea is that learning isn’t going to a class or watching a video; it’s everything. It’s that Google search you did to figure out how to configure a thing, or it’s that question your colleague answered. Make people start recognizing that, even going so far – at first – as to make them write it down and mention it to the group once a month or something. Prove that they’re already learning all the time, and they can “teach” by simply sharing it. It doesn’t matter if half the room already knows it; their perspective, their explanation, that’s what’s useful. And it reinforces it for someone who already does know it, which creates stronger cognitive recall (Instructional Design for Mortals, since I’m plugging books).

And lead by example. If you’re a Tier 3 engineer, then you’ve got some room to be vulnerable. Show it. Share what you don’t know, and what you feel you need to learn, and chronicle that process. It may seem selfish or narcissistic, but you’re showing that it’s okay to “not know” and to be open about it.

You also – and this is always a challenge for me, personally – have to make sure you’re not approaching this problem with “engineer brain.” Look, there’s a chasm and a pile of girders: let’s build a bridge! Human brains, emotions, cultural hangups, learning – all that stuff is squishy. You can’t solve for it in a straightforward, engineered way. As Be the Master explains, Masters make room. You can’t just show someone how to do something and expect that to be learning; you have to let them do that something, and be prepared to stop them from hurting themselves or someone else. Create a safe smithy, in the words of the book. But it applies to learning as well: people need to see that you’re not all-knowing, and they need to see how you learn. Mastery works because it’s visible by the apprentices; they work and learn alongside the Master, not on their own.

That can be tough in some environments, but the fix is easier than you might think, because there’s no need to institutionalize it. “Hey, Alyssa, come over to my workstation for a sec. I need to do this thing, but I’m going to let you do it and just lean over your shoulder. You’re using my login, so it’s completely safe.” It can be that simple.

Breaking through our cultural toxicity on teaching – I’m not good enough! – may require a heavier hand. You may need to assign a teaching moment in order to force the issue. Some folks need the trauma and the motivator to get past the barrier and realize it wasn’t that hard. You don’t need to make someone teach an hour-long class; just ask them to bring something new to the table. Assign the topic – lead to a topic that you know will benefit the team. Let them choose their own learning modality: they can use Pluralsight, Google, the Oracle at Delphi, whatever they like. Maybe choose something you already had to solve for, so you know it’s relevant in your environment. Ask a few people to take the same topic, research independently, and present in your next meeting. Doesn’t need to be more than five minutes, but it lets each person’s perspective come through – and be sure to stress that the diversity of perspective is an important gain.

I’ve a series coming up in January 2020 about “Leading to Learn” that expands on some of these concepts, so look out for that. In the meantime, good luck – and I hope you’ll report back with your progress!

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