The urgent need to learn new skills
There’s now wide acceptance that COVID and its aftermath are bringing social and economic upheaval. Not all organisations will survive. The business landscape and people’s own career trajectories are likely to change. Some of these changes and their implications are hard to map, given the complexity and volatility of our context, here and internationally. But one thing is already clear: we need to be willing and able to learn. The capacity to learn (and learn quickly) will be a key feature of those organisations and individuals that thrive. This means knowing how to learn is going to be your most important skill.
Given the above, UGM examined how Australian employees are experiencing today’s hybrid workplace, with most people working from home at least some of the time and this set to continue. Our findings identified that, while employees see many benefits in this new way of working, they also want support to help them manage common downsides. They want to learn how to collaborate virtually (including more skills for virtual meetings), as well how to connect informally in remote teams and how to take care of their well-being more effectively. Most people understand that these new times demand new skills and they want to learn them.
First, let go of a common myth about learning
A common but mistaken view is that the ability to learn is an innate characteristic, like eye colour, that can’t be influenced. You’re just born that way or, bad luck for you, you’re no good at learning. But the evidence is now in. Learners are made not born. Through the intentional practice of particular strategies, we can all get better at learning, whatever our circumstances or age. For example, successful learning involves core project management skills. You first have to set some achievable goals about what you want to learn, reflecting your current context and your current challenges. Studies consistently show that people with clear goals outperform colleagues with vague ones. By setting small achievable targets, you can manage self-doubt.
Second, don’t always lean on your strengths
Sticking with roles that fit your strengths like a glove can be convenient and even comforting. But acquiring new skills and new expertise will inevitably involve focusing on what you don’t know, rather than on what you do know. This is how you can address weaknesses and even develop new strengths. But it takes courage and a willingness to be open to some level of failure or mistakes at first. Look for ‘skill adjacency’. In other words, look for a small, next learning step that you could take. You’re out of your comfort zone but not actually freefalling! Leverage an existing capability to learn something new. This requires being open and receptive to your colleagues’ suggestions. Often we’re so busy trying to show how competent we are that we fail to notice the opportunities for learning around us each day. Asking for advice or feedback isn’t a sign of weakness. It signals a learning mindset.
Playing to your strengths can become a trap that undermines learning. Learning a new skill involves mistakes and frustration. But good lifelong learners manage this anticipated vulnerability by monitoring their own self-talk. For example they change, “I’m no good at this” to something more supportive, such as, “I’m making a few mistakes but I’ll get better with a bit of practice”.
Third, boost your motivation
Great learners always seek to raise their level of motivation when embarking on learning something new. This helps them counter a typical obstacle in the way of learning a new capability or mindset: focusing on the negative, for example the degree of difficulty, the lack of time and so on. Thus you don’t take action on your learning goals. Researchers found that shifting the focus from challenges to benefits increases motivation and determination. Identify the advantages of learning new skills, such as remote collaboration or running a virtual meeting. Visualise how and where you’ll apply your learning to make a measurable difference to your team.
Fourth, adopt a ‘curious’ mindset
Small children are relentlessly curious and innately good learners. But as we get older, we often become less curious and this undermines our capacity to learn new things. A great technique for drawing this quality into your life is to ask more questions. Creating ‘curious questions’ opens up your mind to thinking about familiar things in fresh ways and helps to minimise the typical biases we know prevent insight and learning. Make curious questions a personal and team habit. Identify great questions as part of regular meetings. Don’t focus on trying to answer them but on generating the kind of exciting questions that spark curiosity in you and others.
Surviving and thriving in the hybrid workplace
The best performing organisations, teams and individuals will master the challenge of continuous learning and thrive in today’s fast-paced business environment. In some ways this was true before COVID struck but now the pace has intensified. The nature of work is changing fast and radically. Continuous learning is a fact of life now and organisations have to scale up their efforts to stay agile. The ability to learn has emerged as a critically important skill. Investing in building your learning muscle could prove to be the best investment you can make in volatile and unpredictable times.
PRACTICAL IDEAS TO APPLY IN YOUR BUSINESS
Does your organisation actively support learning?
- Differences in opinion and dissent are welcomed.
- We share information about what is and isn’t working.
- We are open to learning about alternative ways to get things done.
- We are encouraged to experiment to find better ways of doing old things, as well as trial new skills.
- Despite our workload, we make time to review how our work is going.
- We are encouraged to identify what we’ve learned from project reviews and apply our insights for ongoing improvement and change.
- We regularly share our insights and ideas within our networks inside and outside the organisation.
- We quickly communicate new learning to key decision-makers in order to support change agility more widely.
- We make time to share fresh thinking and actively support each other’s learning.
- We have speedy processes for evaluating experiments and new ideas, so we can learn quickly.
- Our culture is not one of ‘blame’. Mistakes are accepted but probed for learning.
- Learning, development and training are valued, with insights immediately shared among colleagues.