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Does Your Team Have a Ban on Learning?

The quote landed with a thud. “On our project, we don’t want anyone learning on the job.” Someone said this to me in a meeting, and I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. Consider the state of mind of someone who says that. Could it be more pompous and tone-deaf? This person, […]

by | Feb 17, 2021

The quote landed with a thud. “On our project, we don’t want anyone learning on the job.” Someone said this to me in a meeting, and I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. Consider the state of mind of someone who says that. Could it be more pompous and tone-deaf? This person, and the organization he represents, have decreed that their project is staffed by people who are done growing. New members to the team aren’t welcome unless they’re veterans who’ve seen it all before. It’s rooted in the belief that you’re either learning (taking) or producing (giving), and we want only givers on this team.

Unfortunately, that quote isn’t only arrogant; it’s quite common. To those who embrace this mindset, I’d pose this question: “So if not here, where should your team members get their knowledge?” The answer quickly comes back, “Elsewhere… anywhere but here.” They presume there are other projects with lesser importance and lower profiles, whose stakeholders don’t matter as much as theirs. “Give me a team of time-tested experts who’ve seen this before, and who know what to do.” It’s so straightforward that no one could speak up against it. Ah, the hubris of sounding so righteously right, yet being so myopically misguided.

Here at Exelaration, we’ve noted that there’s a small problem with the crusade to banish learning from project teams: the inconvenient record of human accomplishment over thousands of years. The world is filled with achievements and triumphs conquered by people who had little experience, but whose “on-the-job learning” produced the optimal result. Based on experience, John F. Kennedy had no business overseeing the U.S. response to the Cuban missile crisis. His recently vanquished opponent Richard Nixon had the stronger resume to handle Khrushchev, and many bosses would have assigned that “project” to Nixon. Likewise, General Motors was eminently qualified to bring the electric car industry to life, certainly much more than newcomers like Elon Musk’s Tesla team. Yet few remember GM’s EV1.

Why this paradox? How can less experienced on-the-job trainees outperform qualified experts? The answer is risk, and its consequence: fear. A team of experts who feel confident, safe, and “qualified” doesn’t lose sleep over the possibility of failure. That sounds like a good thing, but it’s a terrible precondition for greatness. Who would you bet on: a team whose head coach slept well the night before or the team whose coach spent the last week fearing a loss? People whose backs are against the wall produce exceptional results, time and time again. Sure, there’s a failure rate, but does it exceed the failure rate across all teams?

It’s our tendency to attribute failure to lack of experience. If you look for that correlation, you’ll undoubtedly find data to confirm your bias. There’s some amount of inexperience on every team to blame failure on. But failure is overwhelmingly the result of some other factor. Consider Enron and its auditor, Arthur Andersen. There was no lack of experience at Andersen, and most of those auditors are still employed elsewhere. That failure was rooted in poor leadership, lack of oversight, and moral bankruptcy to engineer an effort to steal and conceal. In fact, introducing more learners into Enron’s culture might have forced the senior experts to uncover and confront the scheme if they had been called upon to teach it to others.

That leads us to another reason that teams infused with learners produce better results, and you’ll find it in the old saying: “to really learn something, teach it to someone else.” A healthy team is one where you often hear the question “why do we do this?” The presence of learners brings a healthy level of self-examination, and something magical happens when mentors seize golden opportunities to explain key elements to junior team members: processes and results automatically get better. The mere presence of learners causes the team to improve spontaneously and repeatedly.

Healthy teams welcome learners because they lighten the workload. The big lie about learners is that they’re a drag on productivity and quality. In fact, the opposite is true. Learners become producers with surprising velocity. At Exelaration, we have noted a fascinating phenomenon with every project: the client initially requests that we closely oversee our junior developers (and we do). Within weeks, the client begins to entrust key deliverables and team roles to our junior developers, realizing how conscientious they are. In fact, “conscientious” is a common way our clients describe our team members, and it highlights the reason they become valuable contributors so rapidly: they feel the gravity of their role on a real client team, producing production results for real stakeholders. That fear is the crucible that forges excellence; it transforms learners into producers who want to earn the right to take chunks of the workload and deliver. Within weeks, client leaders tell us they can’t live without their newest producers, purely from a workload standpoint. Over eleven years, we’ve mastered the art of replicating a year-round real-world learning model, and it’s one reason our team members ratings landed us the #3 internship for Tech & Engineering rank.

This examination of “learners” has been flawed up to this point because it relies on a faulty assumption. Sorting team members into distinct categories of experts and learners is a false choice. In fact, we are all both despite our titles or station in life. When COVID hit, we quickly recognized that our Exelaration student team members were experts at virtual delivery because they’d grown up with screen-sharing, electronic gatherings, and remote work. On this axis, our senior engineers became the learners, seeking guidance from our students pressed into service as remote productivity experts. The learning on every real-world team happens on multiple fronts: a construction project is about carpentry, but it’s also about project management, client relationships, and logistics. It’s easy to see a new carpentry apprentice as a learner, but she might be a project management guru compared to the established team.

If learning is the key ingredient in brilliant success, shouldn’t we hold up academia above all as the paragon of achievement and progress? After all, universities are literally the center of learning. But here’s what real life teaches us: learning unleashes its full power only in the arena of the real world. The combination of real-world production and the vulnerability of learning produces the highest performance. Academia’s most heralded results are those that apply research toward practical challenges. Driven to address the scourge of polio, the same person (Karl Landsteiner) discovered the polio virus and identified the four human blood types while researching at the University of Vienna. Learning that’s reinforced by the spark of real-world challenge – experiential learning – forms a potent mixture that optimizes success.

However, the typical modern university experience omits the real-world component, at least as a paid member of the workforce. Before the pandemic, about 16% of graduates said they had participated in some paid internship or co-op, and that number has likely fallen, since many internships were cancelled starting in 2020.

Proof of the career world’s bias against inviting learners and learning is everywhere: job postings that reflexively demand 3-5 years of experience. Internships cancelled because “we’re in crunch mode.” A thousand applicants for every one open apprenticeship position. Workforce development grant funds going unused. Offices populated homogeneously with only long-term “career” professionals. Stagnant diversity metrics across the entire workforce.

Who’s to blame? Us. We created this dichotomy by how we configure learning into the progression of the modern life. Society’s current design rations these two mutually catalytic ingredients (learning and doing) in distinct life phases, as roles to be played serially, not simultaneously. Each developmental life is partitioned, waterfall-style, into two sequenced chapters: spend your first 20 years learning, then spend the rest as an expert producing results. Absorb, then expel. It’s like clamping headphones onto a young Bruce Springsteen and force-feeding music to him for two decades, then suddenly giving him a guitar and a microphone at age 22 and expecting him to perform “Born to Run.” It’s a suicide rap.

Bring a professional from the workplace onto most campuses, and they’re a fish out of water with a visitor badge. Likewise, students in the halls of the workplace are conspicuous visitors. This thick black line our system draws between formal education and career employment is accidentally toxic – it effectively performs a lobotomy on our lives, sequestering learning from producing, and severing the powerfully vibrant pathway between the two. Why not take an Agile approach and play multiple roles iteratively: professor and student, novice and expert? The healthiest people – and teams – are those who bridge the chasm, and who see the world as simultaneously a classroom of challenging lessons and an arena hungry for worthy contributions.

Further damage? The separation between learning and work inhibits diversity and equity in our workforce and teams. If you delete work experience from someone’s resume, what characteristics are people drawn to? Where did you go to school, what clubs did you join, and what professors wrote your letters of recommendation? Despite our well-intentioned efforts, these criteria are biased and reinforce tribal selection. But add real work experience to the mix, and those other factors are dwarfed. Now we’re focused on what you’ve produced, what your customers say, and your results. In software development, we’d look at how well-tested is the code and if it does what it’s supposed to do. In that arena, unconscious and conscious bias holds no sway. A workforce built in such a crucible is far more diverse and powerful.

It’s time we reverse our self-imposed lobotomy and tear down the wall: infuse work into education and infuse learners into our work. In culinary terms, this infusion should be far more than just a sprinkling; let’s go for a full marination! The teams, employers, and states who will succeed are those who throw open their doors and roll out the red carpet to learners from all quadrants. As for universities, the most valuable will be those who blur the line between classroom and career. For companies, it’s not about money, workload, or quality. It’s holding a few self-evident truths: teams who welcome learners are bound for success. Classrooms that expose real world consequences shine the most light. Cultures that embrace learning are magnetic. Humans who focus their whole life’s purpose on learning, teaching, and achieving will succeed at all the above.



With over 30 years’ experience in technology consulting, Steve Cooper has founded three successful companies whose clients include Fortune 100 companies, leading federal agencies, and world-class non-profit organizations. Starting his career as one of the first relational database experts, Steve’s focus is helping individuals achieve exceptional careers, and helping leaders build organizations around them. He founded NextUp Solutions to focus on transformative learning for teams and individuals. Steve is a vocal leader in the effort to invite more diverse and abundant participants to the technology workplace through internships and experiential learning.

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