Learn By Doing

Sharon Bowman’s book Training From The Back Of The Room changed my life. For a number of years, I’ve been providing project management training to professionals throughout Europe and since the pandemic hit, I’ve gained a global reach through virtual training. The challenge for any trainer is to make the material come alive and keep people engaged. From my experience, there is only one way to make that happen. It’s what I learned from Bowmen’s book. It’s the hard lesson I learned by not doing it and failing: Once people understand the basic concepts of something.

LET THEM DO IT THEMSELVES!!!!!!!

I’ve learned to keep my lecturing to a minimum. Explain the concept, then develop a collaborative learning environment where the course participants can practice and figure it out together. I then provide feedback and coaching. Consider the classic example of a child learning to ride a bike. Before they have the skills to do so, they have an intellectual understanding of what is supposed to happen. They can visualize it. They start to get the mechanics of it: where to sit, where to put their hands and feet, pedaling makes it go forward, turn the handlebars the direction you want to go, etc.

From a training point of view, these are the things that can be explained and demonstrated. Having this intellectual understanding is the first step in learning, but they still can’t ride a bike. Since the invention of the bicycle, there is only one way for children around the world to learn how to ride and it involves parents running alongside holding the seat, it involves skinned knees and maybe a bit of crying. However, the big shift usually comes when they get up, dry their tears, and try again.

The learning process doesn’t change much when we get older:
1. You first need some level of intellectual understanding
2. You need an opportunity to try it
3. Fail
4. Get feedback and/or self-reflect
5. Try it again
6. Make mistakes
7. Get feedback and/or self-reflect
8. Try it again
9. Rinse and repeat

Eventually, with enough practice, the skill becomes second nature. You gain that muscle memory to ride the bike without thinking. The balance, pedaling, braking, and turning skills all become automatic.

When it comes to learning Agile, the basic concepts are not complicated. There are a few principles, and simple frameworks and guidelines to follow. Take Scrum for example. It’s probably the most common Agile framework in use. The Scrum Guide is only 14 pages long and its creators openly admit that the framework is simple to understand, but difficult to master. So, read the guide, read some books, take a course, that will get you started, but once you have a basic understanding, you need to use it to learn it. It’s through practice that you learn the nuances of working with people, self-organizing teams, transparency, and collaboration.

Given my fondness for learning by doing, I’m naturally impressed with Silicon Valley Project Management (SVPM). It’s not a training course, it’s an actual Agile project, where volunteers can gain Agile experience first-hand. There is plenty of material available to come up to speed with basic concepts and each activity usually starts with a brief explanation of its purpose. The real learning however comes from participating in a real Agile project. The more experienced volunteers take on mentorship roles like the Scrum Master or Product Owner, and they explain what they’ve recently learned to the newcomers. Experienced Agile practitioners are also involved. While they take on more of an observation role, they also attend meetings and provide guidance where needed.

The SVPM project embodies the Training From The Back Of The Room philosophy and for me personally, as a project management trainer, it opens up all sorts of learning by doing ideas I want to incorporate into my trainings. Even as an experienced trainer, participating in SVPM is part of my ongoing learning and skill improvement journey.

Wherever you are in your career, stay curious, be open to new ideas, learn the fundamentals, try it out, experiment, make mistakes, learn from both your successes and failures and try again.

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