What Squash can teach us about learning environments (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1 (This blog post does not read very well if you haven’t already read Part 1). The full article is also available as a PDF document.

Closed and forgiving environments breed bad habits

The American automotive industry operated in a closed and forgiving environment between 1945 to the late 1970s, facing little or no external competition.
The American automotive industry operated in a closed and forgiving environment between 1945 to the late 1970s, facing little or no external competition.

Closed environments are those where the efforts of individuals within it are subject to little or no peer interactions. Forgiving environments are those where poor results are either not recognized or ignored. When these two characteristics occur together, they tend to breed bad habits. For example, making an issue go away quickly only to have it occur time and time again is the result of applying bad habits. As an example, let’s consider the role of technology in businesses today. Can a business that is not in the business of technology be in business without technology? The fundamental core upon which a business is built, or the things that make it different from other businesses (differentiators) is something most people in that business should understand. If technology is not a differentiator in an organization, then there will a few specialists and experts who manage the technology required for business operations. When troubles occur with the systems managed by these individuals, there is a tendency to overlook it because so much depends upon them. Situations within the four walls of the organization are increasingly touted as being “unique” and “extremely complex”, rendering any benchmarks with comparable organizations as invalid. Processes are structured around a principle of least work for the specialists rather than what is best for the business. Most of the systems cannot be changed, or are very expensive to change, as the specialists keep touting how complicated and fragile the systems have become. Outdated technology, such as 9-year-old browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer 6), are still used because some applications will only work on them. These are anecdotal evidence of a technology department operating in a closed and forgiving environment. In all of these cases, “doing just enough” to keep the lights on is accepted as sufficient, and a complacent business environment is a dying one in these competitive times. Similarly, the American automotive industry operated without almost any competition after the Second World War, resulting in a closed and forgiving environment. By the late 1970s, the Japanese automotive industry had recovered, and started producing more efficient and reliable cars. Today, of the top 10 models of cars sold in America, 6 are Japanese cars.

Luckily, forgiving environments allow the correction of mistakes before they turn to habits

Moving water makes stagnant water move.
Moving water makes stagnant water move.

Despite the tendency for bad habits to develop in forgiving environments, they nevertheless afford the opportunity for corrective action, provided that it is taken before the mould of bad habits harden. If stakeholders within an organization are satisfied by those who “do just enough”, then there exists a capacity to surprise them with something better. Shot selection in Squash is about understanding the different options available for a situation, and then selecting the optimal stroke given the circumstances. In many circumstances, it is better to take the more inconvenient shot if it serves to develop our long game. Similarly, the first step towards building better solutions is to delve into the options, and make selections based on the situation, circumstances, and strategic objectives. If the option that solves the problem in the shortest time or with the least resources is always selected by default, then this doesn’t usually result in balanced solutions. Making a shot selection that improves our game but loses us the point is better than winning the point at the cost of stagnating improvement.

“Learning by Coaching and Doing” is better than “Learning by doing”.

Throwing someone into the deep end on their first day is only useful if there is someone else around there to rescue them.
Throwing someone into the deep end on their first day is only useful if there is someone else around there to rescue them.

The things that sometimes appear to be deceptively simple often aren’t. Squash seems to be a simple sport, because when we hit the ball, it comes right back. Project Management seems to be a simple job as it seems to be all about getting a bunch of people to work on a common project. Writing a requirement for a new system seems simple because it is probably a list of our needs and wishes, along with how badly we want them. Designing a user interface seems simple because all we need is a bunch of data forms for all the data we need, and to top that off, there are plenty of examples we can copy by doing some searching on the web. There is a reason why each of these of these tasks has a considerable body of support literature and training material. In many cases, both the person performing a task and the manager of that person can develop a false perception of that task’s simplicity. When such as task is not fulfilled successfully, the failure is projected on the person performing the task or the person’s manager, rather than developing a better understanding of the skills required to fulfill the task. The example of Jenny’s new job illustrates such a situation.

Jenny’s new job in the sales department

Jenny just started her new job in ABC Corp in their sales department. On her first day, no one seemed to be aware that there was a new employee expected on that day. She awkwardly waited around for 30 minutes while her new colleagues asked around about the new employee. Finally, her new manager Mark, who had interviewed her 2 months before, showed up saying that he was really sorry that he hadn’t told everyone about the new hires because he was really busy. He then gave her a 20 minute introduction to her tasks, and told her that he would need her to be a self-learner. He gave her a list of 50 prospects, and asked her to start calling them and making sales appointments. Though she was completely bewildered, Jenny didn’t want to give the impression she wasn’t up for challenges, although the challenge didn’t seem entirely fair as she wasn’t familiar with what she was selling, what the expectations were, or how others sold the product effectively. She hesitantly went to her new desk, and tried to read up about the product on the company’s internet page. She then went to a few colleagues near her desk to get some pointers, but they were also busy making sales calls. One of them hurriedly printed out 3 documents for her. She ate her lunch alone, and by the late afternoon, she seemed to understand the products of the company. Around 3 pm, Mark dropped by her desk to ask how many people she had already called, and she had to tell him that she hadn’t call any because she was busy learning about the product. Mark was a bit surprised, and asked her to get on with calling people. Over the next few days, Jenny called most of the people on the list. She could generate some initial interest, but once the person on the other side of the phone had some specific questions about the product, Jenny would insist on a face-to-face appointment with a specialist. After a week on the job, Mark called her in for a meeting. He told her that he wasn’t very happy with her performance, and he was going to terminate her contract. Jenny was very upset, and she told Mark that she hadn’t been provided with any support. Mark told her that everybody else seemed to do just fine without any support, and if she needed support, then this organization wasn’t the right one for her. 

The rather harsh example of Jenny’s experience illustrates how a person could have done much better by learning through both coaching and doing. On her first day, Mark could have allocated 2 hours of another sales agent to initiate things for Jenny. Even better, he could have had a starter pack that explained how everything worked, including the product details. Finally, he could have placed her in close proximity with his best sales agent, asking them to help Jenny whenever she needed it. In his failure to do anything of these things, Mark undervalued and lost a potential team member, wasted the organization’s resources by hiring and firing someone within a space of weeks, and failed to utilize his own time and the team’s time in the most effective manner. Instead of understanding the potential of a new team-mate, Mark projected his own failures as a leader on Jenny. The best opportunity for Jenny to have learned about her new job would have been on the first day. As she wasn’t provided with any formal training, her personal experience, circumstances, and daily challenges would have shaped her learning path. The things that would have worked for her would become personal best practices, and their consistent application would make them her habits. Her ability to dispense with these habits, when confronted with better practices, would largely depend upon how long those habits had been practiced. As in the example of Alex and Joe learning Squash, both of them saw a sharp spurt in their initial skills development before reaching a steady plateau capped with a ceiling. The ceiling will get harder to penetrate with time as the sum of the bad habits that seem like skills become deeply ingrained.

For example, children can learn multiple languages more rapidly than others, largely because the linguistic methods are more fluid at a younger age. As the linguistic methods are formalized, perhaps based on structures or metaphors depending upon your favorite linguistic theorist, new methods become harder to learn, especially if they have to supplant existing ones.

The advantage of learning without coaching or formal methods is that it gives an individual the freedom to discover new methods that are in tune with their own abilities. A coach would still have to learn about the personal strengths of an individual, while most mature individuals are already aware of them. This gives the self-learner a faster growth spurt compared to an individual who receives formal coaching from their first day, but it also compounds their bad habits.

Skills growth curves
Two skills growth curves. The blue skills curve shows the plateauing of skills development after being in a stagnant environment too long and the green skills curve demonstrates a slower initial growth, but achieving a higher level of skills development in tune with an individual's true potential.

Create transparent walls in your organization

Transparent Walls
© a2d architects

A key ingredient for an individual to consciously realize that improvements are required in their work is by watching skilled practitioners at work. Leaders in organizations must work to create an environment of metaphorical “transparent walls”. Transparent walls are created when work done by an individual is observable to anyone. Experts can watch novices at work and give them advice when required, and conversely, novices must be able to watch experts at work and go up to them for advice. Transparent walls can be built within an organization, and can be extended to the organization’s partners. In some cases, a transparent wall can be built between 2 non-competing organizations that want to learn from each other. Smaller organizations, such as startups and web agencies can build transparent walls between their solution partners, creating an extended learning organization.

I don’t know, but I’ll learn

The access to knowledge has never been easier.
The access to knowledge has never been easier.

There’s a lot that most of us don’t know. Knowledge that we acquire for effective gameplay is practical and applied knowledge, rather than knowledge for the knowledge’s sake. The first time Joe encountered a skilled player, he felt that the other player was all over the place all the time. Initially he had no idea how the other player was doing that, but he probably understood that some sort of squash voodoo wasn’t involved. He did some learning through observation, and found that his opponent consistently moved to the “T”, an area roughly in the center of the court. Also, his opponent was constantly watching him move, while Joe kept fixedly staring straight ahead at the wall, waiting to react off anything that came off the front wall. In his subsequent lessons, Joe learned about the footwork necessary for effective forehand and backhand shots. In gameplay situations, people are more adept to learning as the quality of better opponents are immediately obvious, and learning new things bring immediate benefits. The same isn’t often true of working environments, where the lack of skills or knowledge to fulfill a role effectively isn’t immediately obvious. It only becomes glaringly obvious when someone fulfilling the same role is doing it with much better results. Transparent walls help in making skills gaps glaringly obvious, and then the rest depends on the person having the attitude of “I don’t know, but I’ll learn”.

Click here to read Part 3 of this article

© 2006-2011 Indranil Bhattacharya

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