Effective Learning Strategies to Leverage Across Your Organization

Three team members practice effective learning and communication

If you want to assess the health of your organization’s relationship to learning, there are a few simple questions to ask. (1) Are team members afraid to fail, or open to it as a means of discovering new solutions? (2) Are decisions and actions driven primarily by a need for approval, or by what’s best for users or customers?  

No organization is perfect in these respects–one of the tenets of a growth mindset is that the work is never done. But it is possible to kickstart change with the effective learning strategies and resources below. First, I’ll break down the developer community’s approach to learning, gleaned from my own introduction to programming and the latest iterations of Agile. Then, we’ll look at how to inspire growth beyond IT, from Product to Sales to Customer Experience, with innovative strategies we’ve put into practice at Polaris

How I Learned to Learn

According to the NWEA, education has just begun to shift from a culture focused on the rote memorization of facts to one built around inspiring a passion for learning. I was lucky to have a high school teacher, Jeff Solin, who embraced this active-over-passive approach early on in his Introduction to Programming class. 

At the time, most CS classes followed a command-and-control model. Students were presented with the language and theory, then told exactly what to build. Instead, Solin presented us with a problem first: a robot stuck at the center of a maze. Knowing we could only move the robot forward, left, or right, our assignment was to write a script to set it free. Each week, the maze was more complex, and by the end we’d built an algorithm to solve for any maze our robot encountered.

It may seem like a simple concept, but what Solin gave us in that class was the space to experiment and a sense of agency over our own education. It also left me with some basic principles for effective learning, which have evolved over time but were born in his classroom:

  1. Find motivation. Tie what you’re learning either to your career or passions. For example, I’ve always been interested in finance, so when I’m learning a new programming language I often set out to build a financial tool with it first.
  2. Be consistent and set small goals. The robot assignment spanned many class periods over half a semester. Today, I recreate that with one-hour chunks of time dedicated to learning a new skill. Some people prefer 25 minutes periods (à la the Pomodoro Technique), but it’s only important that you find the length that works for you and schedule it in. 
  3. Expose. Apply. Review. Repeat. Follow this process: expose yourself to new information and allot time to relate it to existing experience, apply your newfound knowledge by building or creating something, then review it to decide what to do differently (or what new knowledge you need) before trying again. 

Application and review are the crucial steps that traditional K-12 education tended to miss, but my Introduction to Programming class got right. You must build or create something with what you’ve learned, then reflect on mistakes not as failures but as opportunities for further learning. 

Effective Learning and Agile Development

Jeff Solin may have been way ahead of his time among educators, but not among programmers. The developer community has actively cultivated a growth mindset for decades. This may have been born out of necessity in a space that is constantly evolving, as any daily update on the Morning Brew can attest. 

Developers have also long recognized the value of collaboration in learning, hence the well-known practices of pair programming and code reviews. The best example of programming’s powerful growth mindset, however, is arguably the proliferation of Agile values and principles. Agile development embraces fast failure, as a means to manage complexity and risk. It is built around incremental and iterative accomplishments, with time-boxed sprints of one week to one month followed by opportunities to reflect and adapt before the next sprint. 

If you think your software delivery processes could benefit from discovering and communicating as you go, there are great resources to help you dive deeper into Agile. New Zealand-based Growing Agile offers free Scrum training to get you started, or you can request a copy of our Agile Handbook. Microsoft’s Azure DevOps includes tools that make it easy to bring Agile software development to your team, including Scrum- and Kanban-capable boards for planning, tracking, and review.

Team members use sticky notes for an Agile development project

Going Beyond Dev: Growth Mindset for Managers

An Agile-like commitment to learning can transform any sector. In fact, some Harvard Business Review contributors trace Agile’s origins outside of IT, back to manufacturing and the Plan-Do-Study-Act methodology that drove Toyota in the years following World War II. Within an organization, discovery processes need to be encouraged beyond devs–across departments and levels of leadership–to be effective.    

Teresa Torres, a product discovery coach with an MS in Learning and Organizational Change, regularly spotlights product managers and owners who lead the charge of innovation, even at large companies. When there is buy-in from everyone including leadership, you can build effective learning into your culture. Many businesses and organizations say they value professional development, but it’s one of the first things to get deprioritized if it’s not structural. 

At Polaris, we’ve built learning into our company culture via one of our four core values: Continuous Improvement. With it we formally recognize our responsibility, as consultants, to always stay up to date with industry standards, develop new skills, and learn new design patterns–like Azure Service Bus and countless others. As a team, we question assumptions behind “best practices” and willingly give one another the support and resources to learn.  

I joined Polaris with a lot of desktop development experience and a strong desire to learn more about web development. Along with two other team members, I spent two weeks learning React with Udemy, which along with Pluralsight and Microsoft Learn is a great platform for ramping up on a technology or concept. Then, we were given the opportunity to apply the concepts we learned to internal projects at Polaris. 

By committing to and constantly revisiting Continuous Improvement as a core value, we’re able to keep our clients at the cutting edge of DevOps enablement, app modernization, cloud computing, Agile, and more. An organization-wide growth mindset takes resources to implement and maintain, but with it you and your team can adapt to the unexpected, solve problems efficiently, and always keep the best interests of your users and customers front and center.