January 2006 Insight Newsletter

Building Skills

In a fast-changing world, we’re faced with the new tasks and challenges daily. In the race to keep ahead we constantly need new skills. Jack Welch’s words about learning faster as the only competitive advantage keep ringing in my ears. Just how fast can anyone learn?

I frequently tell audiences two things: “anything you do only once won’t be done perfectly” and “you can learn 90% of anything in 10% of the time it takes to learn the whole thing (and 90% is usually sufficient).” Both these are helpful hints. It takes a certain amount of repetition, trial and error to develop a new, smooth habit or, in other words, to build a new skill. I’ve noticed this in my own challenges all too often. At the same time, the learning process actually takes place faster than you expect.

The good news is that repetition both increases effectiveness and causes a new behavior to become comfortable. As well, small errors you make along the way to perfecting the skill may present new, creative possibilities that you can choose to pursue later. Only by trying new activities and risking mistakes can we forge ahead. With good books and Internet information at our fingertips, we can learn what the best practitioners do and copy their best practices to shorten the learning curve. It’s our own repetitive practice that cements what we read into reliable routine.

Difficulties may arise from things you don’t fully anticipate. For example with the HR article I’ve been promising to publish, I realized Fast Company magazine might not be interested in publishing it if I post it first on my own site. So I’ve decided to see if they’re interested first since their publication would give it wider circulation. For anyone keenly interested, I’m happy to send you a draft copy by e-mail. Just let me know at by email. You can see the address (and click it to open) at the very bottom of this page. (Please don’t pass on the article or publish it… yet.)

Similarly, an audience last week asked for a list of useful books for the five elements of leadership I speak about. Posting this on my web site has been one of those new learning challenges. I’ve linked PDF files before, but haven’t repeated the process often enough, as I soon discovered when I tried it this time. Fortunately, when we’re stuck, the best resource is often a good adviser who already knows what they’re doing. I’m lucky to have good web consultant, although it will be faster when I fully learn to do it myself.

Asking for direct advice is another of the many ways to shorten the learning process. It’s important to request the person to teach you rather than just do it for you. This is one version of the skill of seeking feedback that is very helpful. When you start a new job people often tell you to feel free to ask questions. Yet I’ve been in new positions where asking a question drew a quizzical look if not an outright sneer. It’s important never to let such behavior deter you. Learning is paramount. Nothing must stand in its way.

The book list, by the way, is now posted and the URL is given at the end of this article.

New Skills Are Needed In Every Area

Today learning itself has become a habit/skill because we have to learn in so many new situations almost every day. We used to joke that adults would ask their kids to program the VCR. Now even our grandmothers can handle this.

Computers are also becoming routine along with voicemail, cell phones, MP3 players and more. After several people recommended it, I’ve just installed a program called Dragon Naturally Speaking version 8. It allows you to speak quite naturally into a headset microphone and see the words typed immediately. When I tried this kind of voice recognition a couple of years ago, it wasn’t very effective and the learning curve caused me to give up. This version works astonishingly well and is fairly inexpensive. The learning curve was approximately 20 minutes. Now I’m using it for e-mail as well as writing articles like this one and feeling less stress as a result. I’m not sure it’s faster, but I can relax more and think about the words without coordinating typing at the same time. It’s about 99% accurate though it still mangles the odd word, sometimes inexplicably.

All of us can recall times when such technology was science fiction. Now however we’re just absorbing it automatically. Yet some basic skills that most take for granted are missing from some individual’s repertoires. I was shocked to encounter a theater ticket taker recently who asked for the time, but couldn’t read the dial on my watch when I held it up. She had to ask again because she was unable to read the hour and second hands and she said she only understands digital.

From her reaction I could tell people had offered to teach her before and she wanted to avoid that. I suppose it was to avoid looking foolish. We all reach a point where it’s hard to go back and learn things that others seem to know from a younger age. Fortunately as part of the rapid learning habits we’re all developing, this is less of a problem for most people. We’re used to feeling out of our depth at times. Thankfully the old fear of asking a dumb question is fading.

I felt so badly for this young woman that I was tempted to try and convince her to try. However it’s still important to give people space. For those close to us sometimes the most important thing we can do is give them a model of someone who’s willing to learn anything any time. The same is true in the workplace. If the boss can model a willingness to learn from anyone and everyone, his or her staff will soon emulate that. Before long you develop a “learning organization” — something many companies are desperate to achieve.

Everyone of us, at every level, has the ability to help others and our organizations build Jack Welch’s dream of rapid learning. It truly is the competitive advantage today.

The book list referred to above is attached to the short article on this page: this page if you click here.

©Dave Crisp 2006