You are not leading for change when you fail to provide time for learning.

A failure to provide learning time is a pretty typical scenario I encounter. Leaders load their teams up with work as they’re under the gun to deliver. Then, they tell the team we’re going to adopt Agile, Lean or some other methodology. Then, because the team has to meet an aggressive deadline they fail to make any room for learning.

The result is always the same, and it’s not a pretty ending.

Tell them how to do Agile

In one of my Agile Coaching engagements, the VP of the department handed me a PowerPoint deck when I arrived. I remember it being about 50 pages, and he told me it defined how the teams were going to do Agile.

I missed a subtly in his statements which did not take long to find.

As always, I spent the first week with the teams to understand what is happening. I didn’t find anything too surprising. They needed to learn the basics of Agile. Then I’d move on to mentoring/coaching as they did the work.

At the end of the first week, we met with the VP to let him know what we had found. We laid out a plan in which we start with a couple of days taking the teams through a workshop to teach them the basics.

The VP objected and told us his teams didn’t have time for workshops. We were to tell the teams how to do Scrum on Monday and get them delivering results.

Learning takes time

“Learning happens in no time. It’s not learning that takes time.” — Marshall Thurber

When I first heard this quote, it took me a moment to process and understand what I thought Marshall Thurber was saying. At first glance, the quote seemed almost backwards.

Learning is acquiring new skills, knowledge and experience. How can learning take no time? Not learning means keeping your head down and doing the work. Doesn’t it?

In times of change, people need to learn new skills, acquire new knowledge and have the opportunity to gain new experiences. When people are learning, it happens in a moment and enables movement.

Without learning people continue to do new things rooted in their old ways of thinking. They may not be able to see it, but they waste time or carry a burden which only weighs on them. So, when you choose not to learn, you choose to waste time. For me, this is the time not learning takes from you.

If you give people time to learn, the investment of time will pay off in so many ways. There are no guarantees, but through learning, you may experience improved quality, productivity, morale, innovation and much more.

When teams don’t have the time to learn they end up carrying around a lot of baggage. It’s human nature, given the stories we can tell ourselves.

Leadership and learning

A leader is someone who creates the conditions for others to succeed. How will your team(s) succeed if you require a team to deliver results, without learning, and adhering to a defined process?

When you give your people the opportunity to learn, they will find ways to improve how they work.

Give them space, and stop trying to ensure they are 100% utilized on delivery work every week. The reality is your teams are not spending 100% of their time delivering anyways.

Stop breaking the laws of the universe by fixing time, scope and cost on their work. You may think this is working, but it’s not and only drives the opportunity to learn away.

When leaders give time for teams to learn, you will start to see a shift. The team will start exhibiting signs of shared ownership and pride in their work. Morale will increase, and people will want to come to work with you.

Learning doesn’t have to be expensive

Budgets are tight. Leaders have an insanely low amount of money for people to take courses or attend conferences. By not investing in your people, you are only going to make your problems worse.

That aside, not all learning comes at a high cost. When you give people the time to learn, they will find all kinds of approaches without spending any money.

  • When returning from courses or conferences, stop asking people to share what they’ve learned. Instead, ask them to run an experiment or workshop to try out what they’ve learned. While the new idea may fall flat, I’m willing to bet you they always learn something.
  • Book clubs – an old idea and still an effective way to learn together. I know one team who would buy a few copies of a book (i.e. not one per person). Over the course of a week, they would pass the book around and read an agreed number of chapters (during business hours). Then, at the end of the week, they would have lunch together and talk about what they read.
  • Webinars – ask the team to find a good pre-recorded webinar each week. Watch the webinars together, and make sure to take the time to talk about them afterwards.
  • Require retrospectives – A retrospective is when the team takes the time to step back and examine how they’re working. Even more important than the retrospective itself is what they do with the outcomes of the retrospective. Take action!

I’m hoping through these few examples I can spark some creativity on how your teams can learn without spending big money.

Do we have time?

“We don’t have time” is the number one reason I hear for teams not taking the time to learn. If you have found yourself thinking this while reading, I have two thoughts for you:

  1. When I hear “we don’t have time” I want to call bullshit. You have all the time you need. The question is what choice are you making? 

If you are choosing to focus solely on delivery, at the expense of learning and growing; Are you choosing to accept the status quo, at the expense of keeping up or improving on how you operate? If this is true, what is the future are you choosing for your company and people?
  2. In your quest to keep your people 100% focused on delivery, you have become myopic to the fact it’s not happening anyways. 

First, I don’t believe in the notion you can keep people 100% productive (that’s another story). When you don’t let them learn, their productivity will only continue to slip. They’ve taken a generic process and used it to create inefficiencies in how they work.

The point I’m making is to give them space to learn. What might be different if instead of focusing on % complete, we instead focused on the learning happening in your organization?

Celebrate the learning, and the celebration of great outcomes will become a natural by-product.

Learning is not optional, success is.