Bringing in the culture of learning within your teams

Since this is the very first post on my blog, I have been pondering on what I should start with. After doing a bit of soul searching, I have decided to write about a topic that is extremely close to my heart viz. Continuous Learning and that too in the context of learning within the team.

What I share here are purely my experiences leading teams for many years.

In my experience one of the core foundations of a strong engineering culture is that of continuous learning. Having been lucky to work with many teams during my career, I have seen the difference in quality of teams that learn v/s where there is an inertia to learn.

But why is learning as a team so important? Isn’t it ok if just a few people learn?

As a leader, why go through the pain to bring out a learning culture in the teams that you lead?

The answer is simple.

With the rapidly evolving business challenges and newer opportunities, knowledge of the past will not help navigate the team to meet these newer challenges and consumer demands. Besides, isn’t it nice for the team to keep improving its systems all the time? 

How will all this be possible without continuously learning?

Another advantage of a team that regularly gets together to learn and teach each others is that it helps the team bond better and enables psychological safety. 

Psychological safety? How you may ask?

Imagine having the entire team in a learning session where the team member teaching is slightly ahead of the curve than the rest. Despite the team being aware of this, I have seen the team support this teammate when they make a mistake. And the best part is that the team collectively learns that it is ok to make mistakes. This aspect of being openly vulnerable leads to psychological safety.

I have seen that the rewards of such sessions are far greater than the knowledge that people gain. The team bonds together and this starts the beginning of having a close knit team that overtime becomes like a family. Be it a release or a complex production issue, a team that gets together and learns together also comes together to help in such situations.

I really like this side effect of a learning team being a strongly bonded team. The team that was earlier a collection of individuals now becomes a huge body where each individual brings with it a unique perspective.

If you have come this far, I would like to share with you tips on how you get started getting your teams on this journey of being a continually learning team. While these are small tips, I have found them be effective in encouraging teams that I have led. 

1. Ask someone to teach you

No matter how long you have led the team, there is always something more to learn. Do not hesitate to reach out to people (in public if you are ok) asking for help to learn something that you do not understand. When someone reaches out to help, you may want to get on a quick 10 – 15 min call (or meet if at office) to pair with them and learn. 

During such pairing sessions if you feel that what you learn could benefit the entire team, you could encourage them to share this knowledge with others too. Not everyone will be comfortable with public speaking and you could get them to record a video and share with everyone. In such situations, you could use 5 mins of your team meeting time to review the video or best have them present. I call this planting the seeds of learning and bonding.

2. Use your 1:1s to understand your team better

Oftentimes during 1:1s I have asked people what is something new that interests them. I generally get varied topics that range from learning to play an instrument, sports and technology. When I get to know about someone’s technology passion I go deeper and understand what they know and if they would like to share their knowledge with the team. Out of 20 such conversations, 1 generally clicks and we have new topics that the team learns as a result of such discussions. 

3. Observe your people

You could learn a great deal from your team if you just observe closely. Many people have great soft skills and can either manage their time well or have a wonderful developer workflow. I once knew someone who had amazing discipline to have Inbox Zero. Over time I understood that he was doing something different and due to which was always on top of his emails. I requested him to create a 1-pager explaining what he does and share it with the team. The team loved it so much that they all asked for a live demo from him to hand hold them on creating the filters he created. Not only did I learn from him, I used this as an opportunity to motivate more people to share.

4. Lead by example

I make it a point to include myself and teach the team something that I am learning. I cover topics ranging from TDD, System Design (where we dissect a large system and learn how it is built behind the scenes), etc. I have seen that doing this often results in the team exploring more and share it with the team.

5. Have a playlist of videos

I consume a lot of YouTube content to learn. Oftentimes I find an inspiring talk that I make it a point to share with the team. Based on the team engagement with videos that I share, I have it queued in the learning calendar for the team to watch if we have no speaker. I generally keep a 60 minutes session where we watch a 40-45 minute video and keep the remaining 15-20 minutes to discuss and debate the content and key learnings.

These are a few tips that have worked well for me in every team that I have led. I also ensure that the team has regular learning sessions that is managed by someone in the team. With a proper backlog of topics to learn and an ignited passion to learn, it becomes a program in itself that the team self-organises thereby creating a culture of learning.

I hope you found these tips useful and would like to know how these have shaped your journey towards a learning culture. 

If you too have a few ideas that you would want to contribute to this post, please do not hesitate to add your comments below.

Happy learning!

Photo by Cherrydeck on Unsplash