Irrational Exuberance!

Communities of learning.

September 1, 2018. Filed under management

I've always preferred learning in private. Got something difficult? Sure, leave me alone for a few hours and I can probably figure it out. If you want be to figure it out with you watching, in that case I'm not even sure how to start. This is partly introversion, but altogether I'm pretty uncomfortable making mistakes in public. Like a lot of folks, my brain still helpfully reminds me of public errors I made decades ago, and they still bother me.

For a very long time, this discomfort prevented me from discovering one of the most rewarding elements of being in a supportive work environment: building a community of learning with your peers. This works especially well in a gelled "first team", and recently I've been spending more time facilitating a broader learning community of engineering managers.

When I first started facilitating the group, we focused on content-rich presentations. Each slide was dense with important lessons and essential details. It didn't work well. Folks weren't engaged. Attendance dropped. Learning was not the order of the day.

Since then, we've iterated on format and eventually stumbled on an approach that has worked consistently:

  1. Be a facilitator, not a lecturer. Folks want to learn from each other more than they want to learn from a single presenter. Step back and facilitate.
  2. Brief presentations, long discussions. Present a few minutes of content, maybe five, and then move into discussion. Keep the discussions short enough that even if a group doesn't get traction on a given topic, it don't become awkward. Ten minutes is a good cap.
  3. Small breakout groups. Giving folks time to discuss in small groups allows them to learn a bit about the topic in a small, safe place. It also gives everyone an opportunity to be part of the discussion, which is a lot more engaging than listening to others for an hour.
  4. Bring learnings to full group. After discussions, give each group an opportunity to bring their discussion back to the larger group, to allow the groups to cross-pollinate their learnings.
  5. Topics that people already know about. Successful topics are ones that folks have already thought about, typically because they are core to their daily work. Ideally it's something that they do but would like to get better at, such as 1:1s, mentorship, coaching, or career development.

    People find it very hard to discuss content they've just learned if it is too far away from their previous experience. It also creates an environment where learning has to come from the facilitator as opposed to from the group at large.

  6. Encourage tenured folks to attend. For many learning communities, you'll find that the most senior or most tenured folks opt out to focus on other work. This is a shame, because there is so much for them to teach newer folks, and also because it creates an opportunity for them to learn from and get to know new members.
  7. Optional pre-reads. Some folks aren't comfortable being introduced to a new topic in public, and for those folks providing a list of optional pre-reads can help them prepare for the discussion. I find that most folks don't read them (which, surprisingly, I also found true when hosting paper reading groups), but for some folks they're very helpful.
  8. Checking in. Depending on the size of the group, it can be powerful to start by checking in with each other, giving a twenty or thirty second self-introduction from each person. The format we've been using lately is your name, your team and one sentence on what's on your mind. This is especially useful in quickly growing communities, as it makes it easier for folks to meet each other.

The thing I enjoy most about this format is that it gives folks what they really want, spending time learning from each other, and is remarkably quick to prepare for as a facilitator. I'm far from a seasoned facilitator, and I've also found this format to be a rewarding and safe opportunity for me to grow as a facilitator.

If your company doesn't have any learning communities, give it a try. I've found it one of the easiest, most rewarding things I've had the opportunity to work on.