Step-Wise Learning

staircaseAt every meeting you have a chance to move things forward or hold them back.  When a new idea is first introduced it’s bare-naked.  In its prenatal state, it’s wobbly and can’t stand on its own and is vulnerable to attack. But since it’s not yet developed, it’s impressionable and willing to evolve into what it could be.  With the right help it can go either way – die a swift death or sprout into something magical.

Early in gestation, the most worthy ideas don’t look that way.  They’re ugly, ill-formed, angry or threatening.  Or, they’re playful, silly or absurd.  Depending on your outlook, they can be a member of either camp. And as your outlook changes, they can jump from one camp to the other.  Or, they can sit with one leg in each.  But none of that is about the idea, it’s all about you.  The idea isn’t a thing in itself, it’s a reflection of you. The idea is nothing until you attach your feelings to it.  Whether it lives or dies depends on you.

Are you looking for reasons to say yes or reasons to say no?

On the surface, everyone in the organization looks like they’re fully booked with more smart goals than they can digest and have more deliverables than they swallow, but that’s not the case.  Though it looks like there’s no room for new ideas, there’s plenty of capacity to chew on new ideas if the team decides they want to.  Every team can spare and hour or two a week for the right ideas.  The only real question is do they want to?

If someone shows interest and initiative, it’s important to support their idea.  The smallest acceptable investment is a follow-on question that positively reinforces the behavior.  “That’s interesting, tell me more.” sends the right message.  Next, “How do you think we should test the idea?” makes it clear you are willing to take the next step.  If they can’t think of a way to test it, help them come up with a small, resource-lite experiment.  And if they respond with a five year plan and multi-million dollar investment, suggest a small experiment to demonstrate worthiness of the idea.  Sometimes it’s a thought experiment, sometimes it’s a discussion with a customer and sometimes it’s a prototype, but it’s always small.  Regardless of the idea, there’s always room for a small experiment.

Like a staircase, a series of small experiments build on each other to create big learning.  Each step is manageable – each investment is tolerable and each misstep is survivable – and with each experiment the learning objective is the same: Is the new idea worthy of taking the next step?  It’s a step-wise set of decisions to allocate resources on the right work to increase learning.  And after starting in the basement, with step-by-step experimentation and flight-by-flight investment, you find yourself on the fifth floor.

This is about changing behavior and learning.  Behavior doesn’t change overnight, it changes day-by-day, step-by-step.  And it’s the same for learning – it builds on what was learned yesterday.  And as long at the experiment is small, there can be no missteps.  And it doesn’t matter what the first experiment is all about, as long as you take the first step.

Your team will recognize your new behavior because it respectful of their ideas.  And when you respect their ideas, you respect them.  Soon enough you will have a team that stands taller and runs small experiments on their own.  Their experiments will grow bolder and their learning will curve will steepen.  Then, you’ll struggle to keep up with them, and you’ll have them right where you want them.

image credit — Rob Warde

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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