How to Use Work as a Learning Lab

NYC graffiti art
One of my favorite things to do in NYC--take pictures of graffiti art in the Bowery.

Twenty-five years ago, I moved from the Midwest to NYC. I was incredibly excited about my new job and everything I had to learn in the Big Apple.

I experienced many “firsts” that first week:

  • My first time walking down the street and realizing I had to add a skip to my walk in order to keep pace with other New Yorkers cruising past me.     
  • My first time thinking it was raining only to discover the “rain” was really a leaky air conditioner hanging from a window above me.
  • My first time learning that avenues run north-south while streets run east-west, as I was trying to find my apartment on 63rd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.

Three months after I landed in New York, I was walking down Fifth Avenue. A nervous looking man asked me how to get to Grand Central. “Head two blocks east, then go north three blocks,” I said. “It’s on 42nd between Park and Madison.”

I had become a New Yorker.

I had also inadvertently designed a learning experience.

I asked good questions of other New Yorkers. I actively learned more about the city. I used daily events as learning opportunities. The city itself was also a laboratory for self-discovery and personal growth.

Living in NYC was the beginning of my realization that learning can be part of the daily experience if we’re intentionally open to it. I didn’t get any formal training to become a New Yorker. I just leveraged everything I was doing to become a better New Yorker. Every day, I had to integrate new information, reflect on what I was learning, and apply it the next day to do New York more like a New Yorker. Integrate, reflect, apply, repeat. That’s the learning experience process.

Over the course of my career, I’ve come to believe that work is a learning lab, and our daily experiences are the curriculum. Work, like the city, is an environment that offers us opportunities to learn at every turn. It requires us to interact with diverse groups of people, ideas, and situations. It demands that we reflect on what we learn if we want to become better in our roles and as leaders. It often asks us to learn new skills. And it provides a rich foreground to learn more about ourselves as people in general, if we let it.

Learning practitioners, leaders, and employees have realized that the best kind of learning comes from doing the job vs. sitting in a classroom, usually with no windows and bad lighting. This has been called “on the job learning,” “experiential learning,” and, most recently, learning in the flow of work,” as coined by Josh Bersin, a leading industry researcher in learning and talent management.  

Here are three things I have done with my teams to learn more intentionally on the job:

1. Notice New Things

Dr. Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University, studies learning and, in particular, mindful learning. She said it was an effortless, simple process of noticing new things. The more we notice, the more we become aware of how things change, depending on the context and perspectives from which they are viewed.

When I was at Twitter, feedback, like in nearly every other company, had become an onerous, time-consuming process. We kept hearing that the feedback didn’t feel personal. It wasn’t timely. It wasn’t relevant. It wasn’t actionable. We also noticed that people craved feedback. Employees wanted to get better at their jobs. Managers wanted to get better at coaching and having meaningful conversations. We leveraged design thinking and, in particular, empathized with employees and leaders. We didn’t ask how the process could be better. Rather, we noticed and connected with what people were feeling about the problem to open the door to new possible solutions.

Ultimately, we re-framed feedback from something that was meaningless, time-consuming, and not constructive to something that helped people learn, develop, and be successful. We did that through intentional questioning, and noticing different perspectives that may not have been the loudest. We created a new feedback paradigm rather than just fixing an old feedback process.

2. Bring Context

Learning sticks when it’s contextualized within the the greater vision and organizational strategy. Figuring out how to fit learning into our days is challenging to most of us. But experience has taught me that it is not a lack of time at the root of that challenge; it is a lack of context. We have more resources, online tools, and information than ever before. We need help with curating the right information within the right context.

Often, leaders will bring in trainers because it feels good to offer a two-day workshop for employees.  It’s what people asked for, right? Yet, those same leaders are surprised when employees don’t show up for the training or never seem to apply what they learned.  

The reason is simple: we’re still treating learning separate from the organizational system. Learning has to be connected to and reinforce organizational values, behaviors, processes, and practices. Employees want to understand how the specific skills they’re being asked to learn will help them be better in their jobs and at their organization. How will these skills be reinforced in the development and feedback process? The promotion process? The compensation process?

If “communicate openly” is a value and “give feedback in a meaningful way” is a behavior, there should be a learning component for all employees on what this skill looks like when done well and when not done well. How often should managers be giving feedback? How often should employees be asking for feedback? What questions should we be asking each other as we’re working on projects together? What makes feedback meaningful? When learning experiences tie directly back to organizational values and behaviors, learning happens more naturally every day.

Context can also happen through stories and personal experiences. Dick Costolo, the former CEO of Twitter, ran a “Managing @Twitter” session every month for new managers. Dick had no slides. It was just him, a whiteboard, and great stories about where he’s failed, how he’s been successful, and how he’s learned. In doing so, he framed strong management insights within the context of how to be successful at Twitter.

3. Create Space

Creating space in our days around meetings, emails, and more meetings is challenging. But when we create space, we learn more. Throughout my career, my team always worked to put aside one day per week for open space and no meetings. It’s a time to think, to create, and to catch up from the week. We also started creating more space for reflection time at the end of meetings.

In many of my team meetings, we would ask how effective the meeting was and what we can do to improve them. In my 1:1 meetings, I consistently asked my team what they learned that week. They would often ask me, as well. We were actively creating space to learn, together.

After over 20 years living in San Francisco, I found myself a New Yorker once again a few years ago. I was reminded what a great metaphor the city is for learning. In his book, Here is New York, E.B. White wrote:

New York City can destroy an individual or it can fulfill him… The city is uncomfortable and inconvenient. But the city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin — the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.

Isn’t that also true for work? Work can break us or fulfill us. We can either leverage it as a lab for learning, noticing new things and learning from all that is coming at us, or we can use it as an excuse to keep everything and everyone the same.

I wrote a blog post recently about all that I have learned through work. You’ll see that, for me, work has taught me about life on so many levels that go beyond work.

I believe that if we more intentionally notice new things, create context and space for people to learn, we will not only create the kind of organization we want to learn from, but also the kind of people we want to be.  

I would love to hear from you on what you are learning. Tweet a note to me @melissadaimler with hashtag #learnthruwork



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