01 Oct 2016

Making Skills Easier to Learn

I think we can all agree that people will always need to develop new skills. We’ve all heard the old argument that the pace of change in the world is accelerating and blah blah blah, and we can’t deny it. And to keep up with this change people all around the world will always need to develop new skills.

soft skills shanghaiBut a huge challenge organisations around the world face is being able to invest in skills development. It takes money, time and a lot of resources that aren’t always available.

And so a question that business leaders have been asking since the dawn of time is “how can we maximise the return on our investment in skills development”?

I’ve heard lots of complicated answers to this question. I’ve seen lots of complicated solutions that most organisations struggle to implement.

So I’d like to propose another solution. This solution is not complicated, it doesn’t require the involvement of stakeholders who don’t have the time, and it doesn’t require a huge investment.

The solution is to use tools.

The Goal is Not Mastery

A tool is something that makes a skill easier to perform, or even performs the skill for you.

In ancient times, navigating by the stars was a skill, now we just use a compass. Arithmetic was a skill, now we use calculators. Driving is a skill, soon robots will do that for us.

It’s easy to forget, but in skill development not everyone wants to become a master. Sometimes they’re just looking to minimise the inconvenience of not being a master.

An engineer doesn’t require presentation skills training so that they can run for president or deliver a TED talk. They just want to be able to get their ideas across to the people that matter.

A sales director isn’t looking to take a course on stress management so that they can become a Zen Master. They just want to feel less stressed.

And a project manager isn’t looking to take Microsoft Office training so that they can mesmerise you with the amazing functions they can perform in excel. They just want to better manage their project.

And that’s OK. We shouldn’t expect people to become masters in everything. An engineer should master engineering, just like a sales director should master directing a sales team or a project manager should master managing a project. But anything else they only need to perform well enough to work effectively.

OK, so what are tools?

Some typical examples include:

  • Checklists
  • Forms
  • Templates
  • Reference Sheets
  • Mnemonics

These tools provide people with a reference. They guide people on what to do, when and how. They minimise the thinking required to perform effectively.

Checklists are a fantastic example of highly effective tools. Pilots use them when performing safety checks on planes. Without checklists they’d be dependent on their memories alone, and more likely to forget important information.

In one example, the use of checklists helped Doctors make central line infections virtually disappear in intensive care units. The checklist included simple things such as washing hands, cleaning the patient’s skin, and using a sterile dressing. By having such a checklist it minimised the chances Doctors would forget these important procedures.

OK, so you might now be thinking that these tools are nothing more than simple reminders. You might be wondering how they can really help develop skills if all they do is just remind people of stuff.

Well the answer is that they minimise the conscious effort required to perform a behaviour. And this is vital for overcoming the barriers to developing new skills.

Let’s take an example. Mark is an engineer, and he needs to prepare a presentation to introduce his new product to his customers. Mark is also a busy guy, and despite his best intentions, events in his day conspired against his plans and he’s only left with 15 minutes to prepare it.

In Mark’s situation, which of the following is more likely to happen?:

  1. He tries hard to remember what he learnt in the training. He digs around his drawers for the handouts and notes he took. He looks through them and thinks of how best to use this to prepare his presentation.
  2. He panics and reverts to his old habits; just writing everything that comes to mind on two dozen PPT slides.

When under pressure, people revert to old habits.

Pressure depletes precious energy, our capacity for conscious effort, and our stores of willpower. And when those are low, the only thing we can do is revert back to behaviours that require the least amount of energy, and those are old habits.

But if we change Mark’s situation slightly, we might get a different result.

Maybe we taught Mark a structure that he can use to prepare his presentations. This structure is logical, it’s easy to use, and it helps his customers understand his ideas more easily.

So we could put this structure on a sheet of paper. A simple infographic that shows the structure and what information to include at each part of it. It might even include some good examples. Then he hangs this on his office wall, right next to where his computer is.

So when he needs to prepare a presentation in a rush, he sees that infographic hanging on his wall next to his computer and instantly refers to it. He no longer has to think about what that structure was, or dig through his drawers to find it. It’s just there, and it does all his thinking for him.

OK, maybe you’re still skeptical. Maybe you think a sheet of paper won’t make any significant difference to his presentation skills. Maybe you think I’m being too optimistic that Mark will use this sheet of paper.

Well, I’m not being too optimistic, and I’ll show you why in a little while, but…

…There is a Catch

These tools need to be designed well. Not just well, really well. Really, really, really well.

As an analogy, consider the path to my building in the compound I live in.

If I follow that path from the main entrance to my building, it takes a total of 4 minutes. That’s 4 minutes of walking time. And for people who sometimes just want to get home and crash out on their sofa and watch Netflix, 4 minutes is a long time. So something interesting happened…

…People created a new path. If you take a left turn straight after the main entrance, you will walk through a series of bushes and trees directly to my building.

Walking this shortcut takes a grand total of 30 seconds. And that’s what I started to do. As did a whole bunch of other people. We took the shortcut through the bushes and trees, and we took it so often that eventually we created a new path.

In the field of design, this phenomenon is known as the path of desire. And if I’m going to design a product, a service, or even a tool, it had better follow the user’s path of desire, because otherwise they won’t use it.

This requires a design thinking mindset. It requires thinking of the tool from the perspective of the learner. It requires asking the following types of questions;

  • How will they use it?
  • Why will they use it?
  • What will they use it for?
  • What might distract them from using it?
  • What would be easier than using this tool?
  • How can I increase the chances of them using it?

To design the right tool requires obsession with getting it right. And probably your first attempt at that tool won’t work. Maybe it doesn’t fit into their world. Maybe it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. But with enough trial and error, you can get it to work.

With enough trial and error, you can design a tool that compensates for a learner’s lack of mastery. And they will use it. And they will start performing better at work as a result of it.

But wait…How is this learning?

Learning is about discovery, it requires reflection and finding one’s own way. So if we design a tool for our learners, then aren’t we taking away their opportunity for self discovery? Aren’t we being too prescriptive and forcing a methodology down their throats?

To answer this question, consider (if you are old enough) your experience of using a VCR. Remember those things? They were all different, they all had different functions and they were all so goddamn complicated.

What did you do when you first got your VCR?

You whipped out the instruction manual and looked up how to set the timer so that you could record that cheesy soap opera that’s on at 7pm.

After doing that one time, you just about got it, but couldn’t fully remember it. So the next 3 or 4 times you have to keep on getting out the instruction manual. But by the 5th time you can suddenly do it without the instruction manual. You’ve learnt that new function off by heart.

That’s how these tools work. They give learners a reference to use whilst they haven’t fully learnt it yet. And eventually, after using the tool so often, they internalise it. Then they never need to use the tool again.

The tool supplements their lack of skill whilst they are learning. It supports their long-term development. And it facilitates the transfer of training back into the workplace.

Now perhaps to counter my example, you might argue that a VCR has only one way of performing that function, so they must follow the instructions. In the real working world, there are different ways of performing skills, and the way the tool shows might not be the best way for the learner. They should learn their own way instead.

Yes they should learn their own way. But tools provide a way whilst the learner has no way.

And when you’re fiddling about with your VCR, maybe you accidentally discover a secret hack that allows you to set the timer faster and easier. That then becomes your way, and you forget what you learnt from the instructions.

And if that happens with tools then that’s fine. In fact that’s great. The learner finds their way. And that’s the goal!

Tools simply support learners. They don’t have to use them. But whilst they have no way, the tools show a way. And by following that way, they either internalise it, or find their own better way. But ultimately, the tools help them find their way faster.

So how do we design tools then?

I’ll talk about that next time. For now though, I hope you found the above insightful!

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