Thursday, February 25, 2021

Creating the Space for People to Learn Together

A few weeks ago, a colleague reached out to me. They looked for input on how to make a new approach successful within their domain. They knew I experimented a lot with various collaborative approaches in teams. Therefore, they asked me for advice and ideas how they could set things up in a way that teams have a fun time, people learn together, and the whole thing has a chance to become successful. Today I learned that the input was valuable to them and they included it in their concept, so I decided to share it publicly as well. Please note that I've learned a lot of this from other people who added to my own experience, like Maaret Pyhäjärvi and Woody Zuill, so lots of credit go to them.

The most important thing I learned from enabling people to learn together: creating a safe and inclusive space for learning is crucial. This starts with inviting everyone in at times they can make (considering people like parents or caretakers have a difficult life to balance and we all have a pandemic ongoing, too) and making a point everyone is welcome, no matter who they are or what they bring to the table. When we're learning together we will have to show what we know and especially what we don't know yet (yet!). This can trigger lots of uncomfortable feelings, especially if you're not used to learning together (and most of us grew up in systems where learning together was rather discouraged and this runs deep) and if you're likely to fail. Failure is part of learning (love the acronym FAIL - first attempt in learning), yet many of us first need to unlearn that failure is a bad thing per se. Make it clear it's okay to be uncomfortable, it's okay to fail and learn from it; it's not okay to make it unsafe for people to feel uncomfortable.

One way to set the scene is to set some ground rules we all agree on before starting, making them bilateral. I love the guidelines and principles I learned from ensemble programming (formerly known as mob programming), which I use in many of my workshops. See also my Miro board to introduce the ensemble approach.

  • You're in the right place if you're either contributing or learning.
  • You have two ideas what to do next or more? Bias to action, try them out both. It's a good idea to try out the one from the more unexperienced person first.
  • Use the rule from improvisational theater: "yes, and ..."; don't destroy each other's ideas but build upon each other's ideas.
  • We cannot know where people are coming from, so let's treat each other with kindness, consideration and respect.

An additional way to create a safe space is to be vulnerable ourselves, especially if we're holding a privileged position (e.g. as facilitators, hosts, experts, experienced persons). If we show it's fine to say we don't know, we're curious to learn, we learn from everyone (no matter how unexperienced they are), we set the stage and evolve the culture we want to see. Small things matter, language matters a lot. For example: "Oh you don't know that?! Everyone knows that." or "Oh but that's easy." - these messages can come across belittling and hence can cause harm. Instead we can say: "Great, here's a learning opportunity! I offer to walk you through."

To make group sessions more inclusive, be sure to hold space for all kinds of people and balance their speaking time. Loud voices that frequently talk need to learn to hold back and create space for others, quiet voices need to get the space to contribute and learn that they are welcome to do so as well. Observing communication patterns and dynamics can help immensely; some groups need more facilitation from outside, others already learned to be balance this out themselves better. Language plays an important role here as well. Make an active effort to avoid stereotypes and use neutral language (e.g. gender-neutral language; no matter the group you're working with).

To make a learning session fun and energizing, it's best to make it as hands-on as possible for everyone. We all learn in different ways, yet for work related scenarios, hands-on learning is so far the best approach I've experienced with groups. To make things hands-on, it's a good idea to take turns at the keyboard. Beware that this can be a very uncomfortable situation for some people, yet if it's safe the learning effect is massive. Also, it will allow facilitators to observe where people stumble, where they lack local setups and tooling, where they find new approaches, if they understood what the group is up to, to uncover implicit knowledge, and more. To facilitate this remotely, either work on something everyone has the same access to and they can switch easily so screen sharing alone works, or stay on the same computer and share screen control.

Be intentional about how the group navigates, i.e. who knows the next step to go, who keeps the big picture in mind. Whoever navigates has to think and speak out loud, and practice how to communicate well. They explain the intention behind the next steps; if that does not help yet, then location and details can help; yet the intention why we go this step is crucial for learning and sharing the mental model. If you combine the navigator role with being at the keyboard (usually called the driver), this can be a lot of cognitive load for this person and all others might easily loose track. If you split this task from the keyboard and have the driver taking instructions and taking care of implementation details while the rest of the group navigates, this can work well in mature teams where they learned not to speak over each other and give each other space; yet people new to this might not do too well. If you have the driver at the keyboard and another person practicing the navigator role, taking input and suggestions from the rest of the group, people have a good chance to learn together. At first this might feel artificial and slower, yet it allows for more thoughtful thinking, clearer communication and deeper learning. Things will speed up naturally. Having an expert on the group who knows a lot more than others (might be you), you can consider to take over navigation from time to time to unblock the group; yet you can also consider to navigate the navigator instead of navigating yourself, which is once again a learning opportunity for them.

Making things fun is a tricky thing. Learning itself can be fun already, learning together with great people as well, just as solving a tricky problem. So might be that fun evolves naturally given the structures you provide. One approach you can try in addition is to gamify the session, especially if you'd like to run more of them. However, beware not to make this competitive and compare people within the team or teams with other teams. Instead, have the whole team work together on a goal (as they're also supposed to in the real case), and measure something that matters to the group (they can set their goal themselves so they have a say and are invested). After the first session they then have historical data they can compare themselves to after the second session. We can only compare ourselves to ourselves in the past as no one else shares the same context; and if we do so we can make our own learning more visible and tangible. After all, practice does make all of us better.

A few more things: it's a good idea to start with why we do this, why it's an important investment, what's the desired outcome. Make it clear this is part of work as learning time is part of working time. Depending on the length of the session, allow for good recreational breaks where they are not supposed to work on anything else but take a real break for body and mind. Depending on the length, allowing snacks might help as well (especially as people have different eating habits and needs).

Hope this helps. :)

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