Plumbing the Depths of Learning Theory

I live in an old house. In fact, it’s even older than I am and, like me, it sometimes suffers from plumbing problems. In particular, we seem to have far too many backups in our kitchen sink. One of the consequences of this is that we use the garbage disposal only very sparingly, wanting to minimize the amount of bulk that passes through the drain pipes. Sunday night, without warning, the sink backed up. It was late so I decided to try to free up the drain the next day.

So, on Monday morning, after my Toastmasters club meeting, I got into my work-around-the-house clothes and began to work on the plumbing. Removed the traps and found no blockages there. Peered into the drain pipe to where it disappears through the wall and bends downward toward the cellar. No obvious blockages, so clearly the problem had to be further down the drain. Faced with trying to use a rodding tool to clear the hidden blockage or spending money on a plumber, I went to the garage for my rotary rodding line, that attaches to a drill.

It took a while, but I dislodged the blockage and restored the flow of drain water from the kitchen sink. What I think did the trick was a technique that’s sure no surprise to any real plumber out there. But it was something I’d not done before: I used the drill to rotate the rodding tool and then pushed and pulled the drill so that the tool moved back and forth inside the pipe. Letting more and more rodding line into the pipe and repeating the back and forth motion, I cleaned the sides of the entire drain pipe. What gave me the idea to try this method was remembering a job I had had during college summers. Every summer during college I worked at the paper mill in my hometown, and for a few weeks each summer, I helped clean out the steam boilers that heated all the buildings at the mill. To clean the boilers, we ran a sharp drill-bit like device up and down the several hundred steam tubes in each boiler, cleaning off accumulated lime and rust scale to allow for another year of efficient operation.

Faced with my plumbing problem, I went back to a technique that I’d learned forty years ago to solve a completely different – and yet quite similar – problem. The same thing can work for new learning problems, as well.

This is a long story with a short payoff. One of the best ways to help someone learn something new is to help them anchor the new learning in something they already know. If you’re showing salespeople new information they can use for overcoming objections – to pick a pretty common form of training, for example – be sure to let them tell you what information they’ve used before, and what techniques they’ve used as well. Show them how the new information is similar to what they already know, and let them discover the new patterns that evolve from adding the new information to the old.

Ever teach someone how to drive a manual transmission? I bet you might have explained the need to change gears by describing how we change gears on a bicycle. This is the same technique: anchoring new information to old, and letting a new pattern emerge in the brain.


Resistance is Futile

I just received an email promising that I will be taking part in a short (I hope) training exercise this weekend. And I have to admit that my first response was to resist the idea. Based on the description of what we’re to do to prepare, I winced and thought to myself, “Please, if we’re going to waste time can’t we just all watch golf?” And I like training! I also like golf, but that’s beside the point here.

Face it, if a life-long student like me can react to a training invitation with unease and some fear that it will all be a waste of time, then how does the average person respond to similar invitations? My guess is that my reaction is pretty typical.

So what can you do?

Did you notice that my first response was to think that the effort might be a waste of time? I’ll tell you why: the first line of the email invitation promised that “We have a “FUN” session planned” for Saturday. Any time I see fun in all caps, I figure the reality will be the exact opposite.

Instead, go for the WIIFM right off: the What’s In It For Me? In this case, I’m not sure how much benefit I’m going to receive. It’s supposed to help me get to know the team I lead a little better. Hello! I meet my team for lunch occasionally, we talk regularly by phone and email, and I’ve known all of them for years. Whether I will truly learn anything new about them is doubtful. But even if I were to learn something valuable, my initial resistance will dull the effect.

We can learn a lot from our colleagues in the marketing and sales departments, I’m afraid.


Of Bogeys and Lobster Rolls

I’m on vacation this week, visiting my family in Maine. As always, I’m finding lessons about learning and performance improvement all around me.

For instance, yesterday I played golf for the first time in a couple of years. Injuries and a lack of time kept me from golf for the last two summers. That meant that before I was willing to swing a club in front of strangers, I spent some time practicing at a driving range. Overall, I hit the ball pretty well at the range – fairly straight and mostly where I intended it to go. Which, if you play golf, you know is essential to success and your mental health while playing for real.

After a break for lunch, we hit the links. Specifically, we went to the course where I’d learned to play back when I was in high school. It’s a simple course, fairly short, and very familiar. Seemed like a recipe for a successful nine holes of golf.

I wish.

I’m not sure what happened to that guy who was hitting such good shots at the driving range, but he wasn’t wearing my golf shoes on the course. The guy in my shoes couldn’t buy a good shot for the first five holes. After that he was less embarrassing.

What happened? Here’s what I think:

There’s no pressure on the driving range. So when you’re at the range, you’re practicing only part of the skill. What you don’t practice is the mental part, the part where your head helps to make your body do what it’s supposed to do when people are watching and you need to hit the ball over water.

Yes, it was that bad.

Anyway, the lesson is this: when we practice a skill, we need to make the practice as realistic as possible. If mental pressure is part of the deal (as in, can I make this spreadsheet sing Puccini while the boss is looking over my shoulder?), find a way to put pressure on yourself.

You’ll thank yourself when the stuff hits the fan.

Despite a blatantly average afternoon of golf, I’m happy to report that I still remember how to dismember a lobster and lick the melted butter from my fingers.




What Happened?

This past weekend I watched golf. In fact, I watched a lot of golf because The Open Championship (played in Britain) concluded this weekend and ESPN was showing golf from as early as 4 am until late afternoon. I was gorging on tv golf.

After the tournament finished, I watched a few of the press conferences of the leading players. One in particular struck me as the perfect follow-up to my recent post featuring a quote from the movie Top Gun. Graeme McDowell, who won the U. S. Open two years ago, is a smart guy and a tough competitor. I really liked one thing that he said in his press conference.

McDowell was asked what he would take from the experience of the tournament and he said this: “In a couple days we’ll sit down and analyze exactly what happened and figure out what we can learn from that.”

“Analyze what happened and figure out what we can learn from that.” Sounds a lot like “A good pilot is compelled to always evaluate what’s happened so he can apply what he’s learned.” The compulsion to learn from experience is one thing that separates very high achievers from others. You can develop the compulsion over time, but what matters is developing the habit of debriefing yourself to learn from your experience. It’s a learned habit, to be sure. But it’s a simple, non-fattening habit you can learn.

Here’s a simple way to put some structure around your effort to learn from experience. Ask yourself these three questions:

What happened?
So what?
Now what?

What happened? First, you have to be brutally objective about what happened. A golfer can look at the scorecard and search his memory to recall every shot taken during a tournament round (or even a Saturday round with friends). What happened when I used the driver? What happened when I hit that ball so far left on the twelfth hole that it landed in the next county? What was my emotional state just before I missed that three foot putt on fifteen?

What happened is about facts. You have to be your own Joe Friday. Don’t recognise the name “Joe Friday?” He was the no-nonsense detective in the television series Dragnet. He was famous for saying, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts” when he was interviewing witnesses. That’s what you want to begin your task to learn from experience.

Just the facts. Once you have the facts, you can examine them to see what lessons they might hold. We’ll talk about analyzing lessons another time.

What’s next? That will be the question, “So what?”


Graduate of The School of Hard Knocks

Ask how many of your friends and acquaintances attend The School of Hard Knocks and you’ll find that it’s a very, very big school. Like bigger than Division 1 big-time football school big. Thousands – maybe millions – of students. So many of us admit to being students at The School of Hard Knocks, you’d think that Class Reunions would have to be held at Soldier Field to fit everyone in. Imagine the bill for Hello My Name Is name tags!

But here’s my question: how many of us actually do the homework from the lessons we learn at The School of Hard Knocks? I checked around the web but I can’t find any studies on this so I’m going to go with my gut here. Not many of us do the homework. We get a tough lesson – or maybe even a good one – and then we move on.

Why do some of us do that homework and others do not? If you don’t mind an odd segue, I think I have just the right picture for you.

Do you remember the movie Top Gun, with Tom Cruise in the role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell? One of my favorites, actually. Anyway, late in the movie, Maverick struggles to deal with the outcome of a bad flying accident that he survived but in which his partner had died. He feels responsible for his friend’s death. So he asks the advice of his commanding officer on how to deal with it all. I’ve always liked the advice he got:

“A good pilot is compelled to always evaluate what’s happened so he can apply what he’s learned.”

Slightly buried in this line is something that I think separates most of us from the really successful: being compelled to learn from experience. I think it’s that compulsion that enables some people to become extraordinarily skilled at their jobs. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes and commit errors. It’s that they are compelled to make themselves learn from those errors.

Some of us are compelled to do it but all of us could do a better job of getting the homework done every night.

Soon, we’ll look at a simple and effective way to do the homework from our lessons at The School of Hard Knocks.


Ten Training Mistakes to Avoid

Most employees dislike being trained, or at best they’re neutral about it. At the same time, most people really do enjoy learning. So what’s going on when people who, on the whole enjoy learning, despise the idea of being trained to do their jobs?

I have a simple theory about this: most people put a lot of value on their own time and energy and hate to waste it. Even when they’re getting paid. In fact, maybe even more when they’re being paid. Much business training is a waste of time, which leads to many people cringing whenever they learn that it’s time to go to training.

What makes so much business training such a waste of time? I’m glad you asked. Here’s my top ten list of mistakes to avoid in business training:

10. It confuses activity with improvement. Just because you spend time “working on” a new procedure doesn’t mean that there’s any real learning going on.

9. The focus is on fixing peoples’ weaknesses. Putting all your training efforts into sessions that anyone with a half a brain can see is all about fixing people instead of making them stronger is going to turn off participants faster than a motion-detector switch.

8. No direct connection to the work. When people learn a new skill, it’s absolutely critical to let them figure out how to apply the skill on the job – before they go back to their jobs. The simple act of planning this makes the learning stick better.

7. Trainers are not held accountable for outcomes. If your trainer’s responsibility ends with adjourning the training session, why would he or she care if the participants actually learned anything and can do their jobs better?

6. Motivational speech in disguise. A pep talk intended to spur people on to work harder or sell more is not training. Calling it training won’t make it training. And expecting people to learn how to sell more expertly after listening to a motivational speech is a sure way to be disappointed.

5. “That’s not how we do it here.” Imagine investing a few thousand dollars to send a promising employee to a well-regarded seminar. Then, when she returns to her job she tries to put her new skills to work only to hear, “That’s not how we do it here.” That, my friends, is both a waste of money and time and a good way to lose an employee with potential.

4. Seeing training as a cost, not an investment. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a manager say, “Why should I spend money on training? They’ll just leave for the competition.” I’d be playing at much better golf clubs. How many mistakes and lost opportunities are too many?

3. Not connected to the company goals. This happens more often in larger firms, I think: someone gets a “great idea” and spends a ton of money and time training people in some skill or theory that has nothing to do with the company’s needs or goals.

2. Bad methodology. There really are well-known methods of teaching that do a good job of getting people to learn. Ignoring them in favor of “just winging it” is just about guaranteed to produce next to no learning.

1. It doesn’t get done at all. Unfortunately, this is more common than any of us will ever admit.

That’s my top ten. I’ve seen all of these problems multiple times over the years. And it’s a bit maddening, because avoiding these problems really isn’t all that hard.


Joyful Flash Mob

I do love a good flash mob, and this one features some of my favorite music of all time.




Telling Stories

“Mommy, why are those older men marching in green clothes?”

If you haven’t overheard a question like from a young child that at a Fourth of July or Memorial Day parade, I’m sure you can imagine it. I’m just as sure that you can imagine how the mother might have replied. No doubt she told a brief story that went something like this: “Those men were solders in a war a long time ago. Your grandfather was a soldier like that. He traveled a long ways and spent two years fighting in a war to protect the freedom that we celebrate on the Fourth of July. Many other men and women fought in that war to save our freedom, and many of them died. That’s why they march and why we applaud them.”

Stories have remarkable power and they have been a vital part of teaching for as long as people have been telling them. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the original purpose of telling stories may have been to pass on wisdom from one generation to the next.

How this connects: we can use stories to help train people. In fact, we do this all the time. Let me give you a few examples.

Listen to a good motivational speaker and you’ll find that as much as half of the speech will be stories. These stories will all have a point – the point the speaker wants you to take away to change your life. Sometimes the stories will be personal ones, from the life of the speaker. And sometimes they’ll be stories about others, but always they will be stories that inspire you to think that you, too, can achieve great things if you just follow the example in the story.

Listen to a good mentor at work. You’ll likely hear an exchange like this:
“I’m puzzled how to approach the MemTec management team. They seem uninterested in what I have to say.”
“I hear you. When I was just starting out, I had a similar problem with IBM. What I did was…”

Or listen to peers gathered around the proverbial water cooler or in the break room. You’ll hear similar conversations. “What did you do about X?” “Well, we first talked with Y and she suggested that we contact Z and that was how we got buy-in on our plan to …”

Telling stories to teach others is both a natural thing to do and a very powerful way to teach.

What you can do: encourage your experienced and skilled people to share their stories. One approach could be to start up an internal wiki site where people can post their stories according to topics (Sales, Customer Relations, Problems with Applications, whatever). Another might be by putting some emphasis on forming mentor relationships and encouraging the the mentors to use their “war stories” to pass on their wisdom. I’ll bet you’ll develop your own ideas on how to do this.

Most importantly, maybe you can take the lead yourself. What stories could you tell someone to help them make a leap forward in productivity or performance? Remember, not all stories have to have happy endings. Sometimes it’s really helpful to hear how someone else made a mistake and survived. What matters is finding a way to pass on the wisdom before it’s lost.


The Best Way to Learn is to Teach

So much of what’s coming out of current research on learning seems like common sense. But then, I think there’s usually a good reason why most of common sense makes sense. The latest piece of common sense to be proved right by science is the idea that to learn something best, teach it to someone else.

Of course, you say. Teaching someone else means that you’ll pay closer attention to the material to make sure your student gets a thorough understanding of what you’re teaching. And you’ll be forced, probably, to answer questions and maybe even offer alternative explanations to help the student understand some of the tougher concepts or some subtleties in the subject. All this should obviously lead to your own stronger grasp of the subject. It’s what psychologists call the Protégé Effect.

But, thanks to some recent research, we now know that you don’t even have to teach another person to get this effect. You can teach a robot! Well, a computerized virtual character, anyway.

A fascinating study at the University of Pittsburgh has students teaching a virtual character, and in turn they definitely learn their subject better:

But the most cutting-edge tool under development is the “teachable agent” — a computerized character who learns, tries, makes mistakes and asks questions just like a real-world pupil. Engineers and computer scientists at Stanford and Vanderbilt universities have created an animated figure they call Betty’s Brain, who has been “taught” about environmental science by hundreds of middle school students. Even though users’ interactions with Betty are virtual, the social impulses that make learning-by-teaching so potent still come into play.

You can read the entire article here, at Psychology Today.

Now, how can we put this to work in our real world? One way would be to establish a pattern of cascading mentors, where employees at certain advanced levels mentor those with a bit less experience, and in turn those employees mentor newer ones, and so on. Another would be to watch for opportunities to give promising workers an opportunity to do mentoring or teaching before they’re considered for promotion to greater responsibility.

Those who learn, teach.



It’s Friday. How about a roller coaster ride?

I’ve never been there, but Coney Island is an iconic American amusement park. And this weekend, the Cyclone – Coney Island’s signature roller coaster – turns 85.

What do you say we take a ride on the grand old ride.



Happy Friday!