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learning

Learning – yeah, yeah, we know. No, you don’t know!

By | Agile, People | No Comments

As James and I have been building our fashionably lean Luna Tractor startup over the last 9 months, we’ve had many moments to pause and wonder why people just seem to despise reading, listening, and learning about strategy, culture and new ways of working.

It boggles us! How can this be? Learning is the hot topic du jour!

Eric Ries just reiterated his 10c worth that ‘validated learning‘ is the only true measure of progress when you are building a product or company under conditions of uncertainty.

This has caused a bit of handbag swinging in agile circles, as ‘learning’ isn’t anywhere near as easy to measure as a team’s velocity (the throughput of development stories); or a burndown chart (points per iteration); or cycle time (time for a story to turn into cash). His point is that while you may have made good progress towards achieving a plan, that plan may actually be leading nowhere useful for customers.

“Validated learning is not after-the-fact rationalisation or a good story designed to hide failure (btw I hate those smart-ass CEO put-down quotes about ‘experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted’). It is a rigorous method of demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty in which startups grow.”

Revenue, no matter how small (in one of Eric’s startups $300 a week), is one good way to validate you have learned something useful.

It’s therefore obvious we all want learning – it makes us smarter and richer (and more like Eric Ries) for a start!

The science of learning is well documented – there are several theories, which if you happen to be an educationalist, we hope you are familiar with. One or more will likely have been inflicted on you by 10 years at school and perhaps more at a tertiary institution. We’ll side-step the science here for a minute.

Instead, we’ll talk about guitars.

As it happens we are both musicians – James an accomplished trumpet player, having played for years, and me, a struggling noob rock guitarist. It’s a skill I chose to pick up in my 40s, and whilst reading about strategy, lean and agile is a painless habit for me, guitar playing has been a start-from-scratch nightmare.

But what the guitar has been for me, I realise picking up a book or learning about agile is for others. Far out – no wonder people avoid learning!

The first thing about learning the guitar is the pain. Pain in the note-holding finger-tips (and some fine callouses to boot); along with pain in the left wrist, hand and fingers (I have a Bb7 claw hand at the moment). The pain comes from contorting my long-standing limbs and digits into new shapes and combinations.

That physical pain is nothing to the pain of emotional embarrassment at hearing notes and chords come out hideously (in front of friends and family); the feelings of incompetence that weigh down my shoulders; and worst of all the nagging, uncomfortable pressure just under the solar plexus that is my bruised self-esteem. You just suck at it, for quite a while. Nobody wants to suck. So we (quite logically) just avoid pain and sucking by staying the hell away from learning.

The second thing is that learning is tiring. I’m trashed after an hour of practice – listening, trying, re-listening, trying again, playing along … keeping up with band-mates and having fun jamming leads to the best night’s sleep.

Photo by Jamie Supple

Thirdly, learning moves at different rates. Some days it just clicks, others a small chord change can take a week to master. It doesn’t pay to plan (in my case) that I can master a song a week for example – too much uncertainty in that! Then, just as my left hand gains competence at changing from an F to an Am chord, my right hand can’t master the strum pattern that makes it sound rich and funky. The ‘team’ are learning at different rates!

The internet both helps and hinders learning – willing amateur musicians seem to have tabulated (aka written the non-notation cheats for) every song every written, and loaded them up to sites like Ultimate Guitar tabs. But most of them are wrong! As you can see in the example above I spent literally months in the wilderness with that Fly My Pretties song trying to figure out why it didn’t sound right – only to have a competent guitarist point out it was a B-flat, not a B.

Learning works so much better with feedback – and not after a week of doing something wrong, mastering the wrong damn thing only to find the chord progression was different all along – and quickly deciphered by a guitar master (see the hand-written chords at right on the photo above). Ten to 20 minute intervals of feedback are the natural human learning cycle. Which makes you wonder how useful a weekly retro can ever be!

Most of the time is spent on my guitar doing it wrong, listening and adapting. It takes a lot of repetition, and I often find it is best to just walk away and come back later – and then be amazed what your muscles have learned while you were cursing those chord changes.

Photo by James Pierce

Launching songs for real into the world at a band gig, or even a band rehearsal is a world apart from practising solo. Everything you thought you knew from doggedly playing along to the original song on the iPod goes by the wayside as the team rhythm takes over, and what matters is the skills and techniques more than the precise process of hitting all those notes in order. The order, in fact, can change with alarming speed!

And finally, a good teacher makes all the difference. I am very lucky to have several, professional and talented amateur in my life. And now I can reflect on why coaching is such a fundamental part of learning to play agile in business.

At YOW! in Melbourne this month we heard Jeff Patton talk about agile adoption, and he told us the story of how Ron Jeffries responds to people who whine about their failed agile project “oh yeah, we tried agile and it didn’t work for us”. He says that is akin to  saying “oh yeah, we tried baseball and it just didn’t work”.

You need to practice, chances are you just suck at baseball!

And it is practice that is the biggest secret of all – for guitarists, baseball teams and agilists.

Footnote: for the curious, here’s a live recording of the original (and beautiful) Fly My Pretties song tabbed so badly, and scribbled all over in my song book above.

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