Learning to crash a bicycle — The art of skill development

There’s a lot to be learned from crashing your bicycle — with the reminders of scuffed joints and bruised limbs reinforcing the painful lesson that a mistake was made, and consequences must be paid.

Pain is a wonderful teacher — but what on earth does it have to do with modern skill development and coaching?

The folly of the Way of Working

Let’s explore a hypothetical.

Imagine you look after a cycling department in your office, and you’ve been assigned to onboard someone new on how to ride a bicycle. They seem mildly motivated, a little fearful — but are eager to join your team and cycle along with the rest of the department.

Now being the organised cyclist ‘Head of Department’ that you are — you’re prepared for new starters, giving them a fresh new bicycle, before directing them to the teams comprehensive “Way of Cycling”.

Being the wonderful department head you are, your “Way of Cycling” is very detailed — covering every aspect of cycling. In fact, below is one of the slides you provide in a supporting presentation alongside it.

Eager to impress — the new team member reads the process cover to cover multiple times, studying hard to memorize all the steps required for cycling — even the supporting equations you’ve provided.

Now you’re not a reckless manager, so before you let the new team member out to cycle on their own you check their comprehension and knowledge — by putting them through a series of questions and tests.

Being the studious team member they are, they ace the questions and tests — and before long you send them out cycling on their own, patting yourself on the back for another team member being successfully onboarded.

A few weeks later — you look at the reporting on the new team member and are shocked and deeply disappointed in what you see. Their OKRs on miles covered and top speed are both abysmally low.

“How can this be?!” you think to yourself. “I trained them so well..”

Or did you…

A better way to learn

Now I’m taking a wild guess here — but I suspect most of us have had a little experience with learning to ride a bicycle, and the above practice of reading a manual doesn’t sound anything like how we learned.

Instead — we probably had an experienced teacher with us, who started with some simple explanations on the fundamental systems and principles.

Our early attempts to ride likely involved in being pushed along, with someone at our side helping us steer and brake so we just could focus on a single concept of pedalling first.

Our teacher likely put us on a bicycle with some training wheels, giving us increased safety and protection from the inevitable mistakes we’ll make attempting to hold our balance.

And as we slowly built up distance and speed — there would be our teacher jogging beside us helping us with coaching and correction.

We’d fall a few times — and when we did, the teacher would help us back up and reset with a feedback loop. Giving us praise for effort, and providing more detailed knowledge on those areas where we were struggling the most.

Cries like “Hold the handlebars steady”, “Pedal Faster”, and “Watch out” will create fast feedback loops — helping us expand our knowledge through validated learning.

And once we started to lose attention and focus too much on the bruises and scrapes we had developed — the teacher would recognise and stop the activity, giving us time to rest, recover, and reflect on what we’d learned.

What this means for developing high performance?

It’s not enough to layer process upon process upon your team — as the complexities of rendering knowledge mean explicit written content is not enough⁵.

We need to take the tacit knowledge through to explicit knowledge on a bedrock of dialogue and reinforcement⁶.

The conversation is king.

Procedures and written documentation do help reinforce learning. But they should be used as a supporting tool for creating competence and clarity — and not relied upon as the control mechanism⁴.

We also need to create the necessary culture to promote conversation and learning. By living a culture that failure leads to inquiry and learning, we create an effective environment for information to be right-sized, realtime, and effective³.

Once the necessary communication and safety in place, we can then establish a fast feedback loop to develop validated learning — incorporating the lessons of failure through an adaptive model to create a robust learning system that can be fast and responsive to the needs of the individual and business.

With time, conversation, safety, iteration, and validated learning — you too can establish an adaptive system of transferring knowledge and learning — driving the development of high performance within your business and team.

References

  1. Kim. G, Humble. J, Debois. P, Willis. J (2016), The DevOps Handbook, It Revolution Press
  2. W. Deming (2000), Out of the Crisis, The MIT Press
  3. Westrum. R (2004), A typology of organisational cultures, Quality & Safety in Health Care
  4. Marquet. D (2013), Turn the Ship Around, Portfolio Penguin
  5. Snowden. D (2008), Rendering Knowledge, cognitive-edge.com
  6. Nonaka. I (2007), The Knowledge-Creating Company, HBR

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Trev de Vroome

Information technology program and agile transformation leader, change catalyst, and educator.