Cultivating a Team Learning Environment

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One of the core responsibilities in leadership is to help those you lead to grow and develop, to help them excel at their current role, and to prepare them for their next role. And yet, many teams do not emphasize learning to a large degree, focusing more on the current problems rather than growing their team’s skillsets. This is a missed opportunity, as there are a number of benefits associated with creating an atmosphere which values and encourages learning and development:

  • Employees who work in a learning culture are more motivated, more satisfied with their work, and less likely to seek a new position link
  • Continuously focusing on employee development leads to a continuously more productive team, increasing net output and value creation
  • Developing employees for their next role now builds bench strength in the event of a sudden departure and increases the possibility of empowerment throughout the team
  • Leveraging peer coaching within the team both strengthens relationships in the group and creates a virtuous cycle of learning (often, the teacher learns as much as the student through peer coaching)

Given all the benefits of focusing on learning, any manager who creates the right environment can stand to gain enormously from a learning oriented environment. My own experience: in the last two years our team’s scope of responsibility has more than doubled, productivity (as measured in impact) has increased enormously, and engagement has gone up due in large part due to a high emphasis on learning. Quite simply, every hour we spend on growth today has paid off tenfold tomorrow.

Best Practices

If you want to create the right environment and mentality, here are best practices which I have found enormously helpful in encouraging learning and development.

Know how your people want to evolve

Every person in your team has their own vision of how they see their career evolving; it is your responsibility to understand what that looks like and create space for them to grow towards that path within the team (or help explore opportunities as to what that might be if they are uncertain), as well as focused coaching on how to get there. This topic should be a regular part of 1:1s and you should have a clear understanding for each of your team members.

Create space for learning and actively encourage it

If you want your team to see learning and development as important, you must treat it as such; sending someone to a workshop now and again is not sufficient. You must actively block and protect regular learning time and acknowledge it the same as accomplishing tasks. Some ways to do so include:

  • Schedule weekly/bi-weekly learning blocks for specific topics (we have a one hour block each week to teach a new topic or development skills and a half-day “hack and learn” block every other Monday)
  • Find relevant courses for your direct reports and actively encourage them to attend; if it is on-demand, schedule a meeting with them for the time required so they have protected time to go through it
  • Regularly recognize and share learning achievements in team or departmental meetings

Role model learning behavior

There’s often a great hypocrisy towards learning in management; they tell their teams that learning is important but put little emphasis in their own development of their skills. The statement “leaders lead from the front” is more true in personal development than anywhere else. You should have a personal learning plan for yourself as well, invest in your own skills and development, and share relevant learning with your team. I find a great way to hold myself accountable towards my learning is to share my goals with my team (this also gives them an opportunity to coach me on the things that I’m working on)

Distribute teaching responsibility throughout the team

One of the best ways to get someone to think about learning is to give them the responsibility to teach another. We continuously encourage knowledge sharing in the team by asking different team members to facilitate workshops with the group, schedule coaching 1:1s as necessary with each other on specific topics, and bring topics that they’ve learned about to the rest of the team at the team meeting or via Slack.

Create project opportunities for learning

The best way to learn is by doing, and by changing how tasks and projects and assignments are assigned you can create great opportunities for learning as well as ensuring that knowledge is distributed throughout the group. When creating project assignments, I normally consider the following questions to maximize productive output and growth:

  1. Who is the most qualified to complete the task? This will be the primary consideration if it is urgent or the team is under heavy pressure
  2. Who is mostly qualified and interested in learning more in this area? Does it align sufficiently with their responsibilities?Generally speaking, this is the preferred person to take lead in a project
  3. Is there anyone not qualified who wants to “dip their toes” in this area?If yes, unless there are strong blockers you should find a way to involve this person so they have an opportunity to develop in this area
  4. How much space exists in our delivery schedule?The more space we have, the more we will allow for development; however, even when under heavy demand we will protect our learning times and simply reduce the balance of capacity assigned for learning
  5. Assuming I assign someone unqualified, how much support will be required and where will it come from?If possible, I will typically ask that support comes from another team member than myself for the reasons identified earlier. But this question can otherwise block unqualified people from working on projects that they are interested in
    Based on these rules, we will assign 2-3 people per project to maximize learning while completing the objectives. While we regularly receive feedback from other teams that they are “too busy” to assign more people to tasks or assign based on interest/ambition rather than always assigning “the best”, we have found that using this approach has significantly_increased_the amount of work that the team can accomplish and the quality of deliverables.

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Experienced analytics professional with more than ten year’s experience, possessing a background in finance. Focused for the last eight years on data science and business intelligence, I have successfully led green field deployment projects in
gaming, retail, and travel. Technologies used include a mixture of commercial (Tableau, HP Vertica, Oracle) and open source (Apache Spark/Hadoop, Postgres, Pentaho). Have successfully implemented advanced analytics architectures in hosted, cloud, as well as hybrid models. Experienced in developing machine learning and statistical models using both Python and R.

More importantly, I have been leading teams and strategy regarding data science, analytics, personalization, Business Intelligence,
and CRM since 2008. In this scope I have been responsible for defining organizational strategies regarding data and analytics, as well as facilitating the rollout of data science projects throughout the organization. As a manager I have successfully developed a number of juniors into leadership roles both within my own organization and outside.

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