Your Team Won’t Thrive if it Cannot Teach

Your Team Won’t Thrive if it Cannot Teach

Teaching others to teach is the single most important thing a leader can do.

In business, the organisation that learns the fastest, wins. In order to learn fast, we don’t just conduct experiments on customers. We have to disseminate knowledge amongst our peers. We have to integrate new data and new models to form new understanding, enabling us to produce new insights. We have to teach our peers the norms, processes, expertise and expectations of both our culture and our craft.

In this sense, the more senior your position, the more crucial it is that you teach others how to teach. You must explain, support, and most importantly, demonstrate teaching behaviour.

Since the DevOps “revolution” more companies pay lip service to a “learning” culture. They pay for a book stipend, maybe pay for some course materials or certifications, maybe even pay for people to attend conferences. But the successful companies don’t create a learning culture at all. They create a teaching culture.

The best learning we can do is among peers. That’s when the books we’ve read become real. That’s when ideas become actions, and that’s when individuals synthesise new culture and new institutional knowledge. When they form groups in learning & teaching loops.

I think the greatest thing I ever learned as a manager was when I was taught to execute on a learning and development program. And I think the single greatest thing I implemented as a manager was a weekly learning and development sync up that included mob learning amongst peers.

Engineers would fire up their attempts at various coding exercises, and clamour around the monitor is groups. Each debating the merits and alternatives to the code on the screen. Everyone in those sessions acted as both the mentor and the student. Quickly, the group self organised and ran itself.

Learning isn’t passive. It’s active. It happens when we teach and it happens when we attempt to recall and utilise what we’ve studied.

So how do we create a teaching culture? How do we teach others to teach? Honestly I don’t know for certain, I’m not an expert, yet. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

Start with practices

Start with a consistent practice. Culture starts with habits, routines, or practices amongst groups. With repetition, those practices form shared ideas, experiences, and mental frames for interpreting events amongst groups. These are the intangible artefacts of culture. The phrase “fake it til you make it” is apt here. Once a practice becomes culture, it’s self perpetuating and may out live your tenure.

Create a vision

Reframe your learning and development program as a teaching and development program. Set the expectation that all we’re going on a journey of learning to teach. Explain why this is important by creating a vision of the culture in three years time. Make it visceral, make it real.

Create opportunities for teaching

Establish regular skill shares. It’s important that these address two very different contexts:

  • Your close team, where people have shared context and are likely to more easily understand you
  • Another team, where you will have to learn to reframe your message and unpack the underlying assumptions that made your talk relatable to the first group

It helps if individuals present their skill shares in this particular sequence. It enables people to formalise their ideas in layers, similar to how it’s structured in our brain. First we integrate knowledge by linking it to what we already know. Then we build understanding by reframing it piecemeal into its own set of layers and ideas.

Take care that company wide skill shares don’t become an interdepartmental propaganda machine.

Create opportunities for mob learning

Create challenges specific to your craft. I’m a software engineer, so in my world that’s coding challenge to write an application that passes a suite of automated tests. The important thing here isn’t only the individuals repeatedly practicing and improving their craft against the challenge, it’s everyone coming together to teach each other what they learned.

Support diverse teaching styles

Not everyone can teach in the same way. I can write an article, and I can sit down with someone one on one and guide them through new learning, especially in a peer programming context. I cannot, for the life of me, present a well structured talk. Which is funny because I can do a killer pitch for a startup, no sweat. But give a presentation on a topic I'm knowledgable about? Painful for everyone involved.

If I can give an unstructured talk, however? Brilliant. Get me talking about a topic I'm enamoured with in front of 4 or 5 peers and I am off! Full info dump.

Perhaps you have a lot of writers on your team? The approach then may be to create a writers guild sharing and revising each others drafts before publishing it on the company blog.

Create a practice of considering others

Set teaching objectives for your team members, as part of their personalised Learning/Development Plan.

That is, sit down with them and have them pick a more junior team member to coach towards some goal. It might be that they can work independently with a particular technology, or achieve a particular promotion within a certain timeframe. Then get them to work backwards, ask them what this junior team member will know when they've achieved this goal. What foundational skills or knowledge do they need to be able to do those things? What related or complimentary skills are involved? e.g. If I know how Event Sourcing works, that means I'll also need to know about concurrency, locking, read model populators, transactions & transaction boundaries, eventual consistency & CAP Theorem, and so on. Have them work backwards in reverse chronological order, and they will have created a framework for teaching their peers.

This of course requires a lot of empathy, so you may have to help them imagine themselves as their peer, with their knowledge and experiences. Teaching others requires sophisticated modelling of other minds, which happens to greatly enhance intra-team communication.

The goal here is that once you’ve created a teaching culture, it becomes part of the cultural norm. It’s no longer cognitively taxing for team members to teach each other because they’ve had plenty of regular practice. Now, when an incident occurs and you need to run a Post Incident Review (PIR), the team has supportive, coaching, teaching patterns to fall back on. A blameless PIR is more likely to bear unspoilt fruits if the people in it are prioritising learning & teaching. Or say the team introduces a new technology or approach, now they have a constructive pattern to fall into for disseminating that knowledge. With time, practice will become culture, and just the way your team gets things get done.

If you have any experience, ideas, or suggestions, please share them in the comments! Teaching others to teach seems to be the core management skill that is talked about least.