Learning by Doing

In my last post I reflected on whether people actually use data to make decisions.  I also spoke about direct personal experience as a form of data.  Experience informs most decisions, but not always in a consistent way.  We tend to dismiss experiences that refute our hypotheses, and remember experiences that reinforce them.  This means that we miss out on learning opportunities.  One way to change this is make our hypotheses more explicit, and then to test them intentionally through our actions.  We can then adjust our hypotheses, and our subsequent actions, based on what we learn.  This kind of intentional feedback loop is extremely effective, both for individuals and for organizations.

A very tactical and personal example: I was feeling completely overwhelmed by meetings, booked from 8 to 5 every day, plus behind in my email, and projects in my team were often slower than planned.  My belief was that there was little I could do to change this situation.  However, after doing some reflection on my current state, comparing that to where I wanted to be, and possible contributing factors, I developed a hypothesis that if I created more time and space for people to talk to me when they needed to without having to schedule a meeting, the throughput of my team would increase and the demands for my time would decrease.  I ran an experiment, and it seemed to work.  Meeting time went down, time for issues to be addressed went down, and email volume from my team decreased.  What I learned is that I actually do have some control over my time, at least within my sphere of control, and that new insight has changed how I experience my role.

For those of you who are familiar with Lean management, you may recognize the Plan-Do-Study-Adjust (PDSA, also known as Plan-Do-Check-Adjust) cycle – a classic quality improvement technique, and a great example of an intentional feedback loop for learning.  I see the application of this kind of intentional learning approach in everything from individual-level professional development and growth (see chapter on Leaping in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big) to the application of Lean principles in software development companies (see The Lean Startup by Eric Ries).

It is an incredibly powerful approach.  And requires you to pause, reflect, be clear about what you are trying to achieve, and even more importantly, what you are trying to learn.

I want to offer my since gratitude to Karl Hoover, who worked with me as a Lean coach over the past 1 ½ years to support me in learning how to learn by doing.

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6 Responses to Learning by Doing

  1. B. Busick says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. Reflecting on whether people actually use data for decisions, I wonder to what degree the utilization of the data is linked to the level of trust associated with the messenger of the data itself.

    On many occasions, I’ve seen decision makers act quickly when the data was sound and the delivery mechanism (individual or system) was trusted. I’ve also witnessed decision makers utilize data for action because they trusted the source (perhaps it was the only source and/or the individual delivering the data was trusted, despite the actual quality of the data.) Conversely, I’ve experienced first-hand decision makers throwing out sound data because the messenger or individual explaining the data wasn’t trusted, which paralyzed the decision maker.

    It is this type of behavior that actually creates its own feedback loop and sends both a covert and overt message to stakeholders that there isn’t a standard way by which we intake, process and act upon data. It would be a valuable exercise for an organization to reflect on its own story and identify any opportunities that fragmented feedback loops are being created…and while that would be of interest, the real fruit would come when they put something in motion to address it via a PDSA or any other quality improvement methodology.

    Thanks for the opportunity to contribute. – BEB

    • Eleanor Bell says:

      Bradd, thanks for sharing your reflections, very insightful. I think the delivery of information is absolutely crucial for how it is perceived and whether it is used. I have a lot of thoughts about this, some of which I will share in the future.

  2. murray trelease says:

    I was thinking about Gewaunda’s “Being Mortal” and how important it was for him and his father to trust the source before making a decision. And since the docs he was consulting were unknown before he began working with them, it was very important to talk through the issues and listen to them to develop a basis for trust and not decide on the basis of what you thought already was the correct action or course.
    But that, in my experience, is a difficult disicipline to follow: listening with an open mind.
    Thanks El

    • Eleanor Bell says:

      Murray, thanks so much for your comment. Trust seems to be a theme. Something to ponder and write about more…

  3. David P. says:

    I frequently refer to the cycle my company uses as “Plan-Do-Check-Justify,” which I suspect is familiar enough to be self-explanatory.

    The Justify vs Adjust difficulty is an expression of all kinds of feedback loops, mostly negative ones.

    For example, a change is proposed and there emerge different factions within the organization who oppose the change for various reasons, either overtly or covertly. (Call it the Propose-Object-Impose-Subvert-Obscure-Neglect cluster, as long as we’re doing acronyms.)

    So of course those of us who advocate change become very unwilling to admit any inadequacies in the change, out of the (not unjustified) fear that such admissions will be used against us.

    But of course, when we are unwilling to admit inadequacies, we reinforce the oppositional habits of those of us who oppose change… after all, if we learn that changes will get justified even when they aren’t working, we’re that much less willing to trust the next change.

    Committing to a clearly laid out Check-Adjust step at the beginning of the process seems like it out to help get the trust of the opposers… but often, the evaluation steps that get laid out are just pro-forma, and can be easily subverted to declare success no matter what happens.

    But of course evaluation steps with real teeth to them can be subverted to declare failure no matter what happens.

    So a certain amount of trust is necessary in order to create the mechanism that would help create trust.

    Turtles all the way down…

    • Eleanor Bell says:

      David, thanks so much for your comment. You get to the heart of what I think can be the most challenging aspect of committing to learn – allowing beliefs to be challenged, for real, and being open to changing one’s mind, even about the change so desired. We get attached to being right, even though we want to be successful.

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