Centric Chicago’s John Kackley continues the conversation about being a lifelong learner. In this blog, he discusses the success and benefits of learning while teaching.

Numerous studies support the hypothesis that the best way to learn material is to teach it. It’s better than lectures, exercises, independent reading, and hands-on labs. In addition to strengthening knowledge on a particular subject, conducting training or workshops can teach you plenty about the individuals and teams taking part. This knowledge can be critical in building working relationships, planning communications, and collaborating for project success.

I remembered this when, a few years back, I needed to teach a small IT department about the expectations and process for project management. Rather than use my allotted two hours to show slide after countless slide, I decided to teach using a hands-on example. For this exercise, I asked each team to build helicopters from kits, treating the process as if it were the development of a new computer system. Each team had to build the helicopter, which included collaboratively creating the budget, developing the plan and executing the work together.

Not only was this the most fun I’ve ever had in leading a training session, but I learned a great deal about the team I was instructing. The company’s CIO was also in attendance to witness the team’s behavior, gaining useful insight into the personalities and capabilities of each individual.

The Benefits of Paying Attention

Besides having fun, the greatest value that came out of the helicopter-building session was that it enabled me to step back and pay attention to the audience. Rather than speaking to them, I was learning with them. A few takeaways:

  1. Individuals automatically associated themselves with those in similar positions – The teams sorted themselves when sitting down, project managers in one group, hardware folks in a second, developers in a third. It was a small department, but even so, they grouped themselves by role and not by any other criteria.
  2. Project plans highlighted individual strengths – The hardware team’s project plan for building the helicopter included a step for a tightening all nuts and bolts. That’s exactly what you’d like to see with that group!
  3. This particular team chose to create on their own without the help of instructions – In the exercise, the teams had to develop and report on a budget. None of the teams chose to purchase the instructions as part of that budget. As an analog to project requirements, this is a bad sign. In this situation, lack of instructions can lead to missteps (and a non-functioning helicopter). In real life, not following plans or reviewing all resources before beginning can have the same negative effects. One team explained later that their plan was to purchase the instructions midway through the process if things were going badly!

What Can We Learn?

Lessons on individual personalities

When leading a session, look for the following behaviors from each individual. This knowledge can help you understand the varying personalities of the team and give you insight into how to educate and lead to success.

  1. Learning styles – Does a person learn more from reading a slide, seeing a demonstration, or discussing an example?
  2. Speaking styles – How effectively does a person present an idea? Give feedback? Contribute other ideas?
  3. Collaboration – Does a person readily defer to other team members? Does a person respect other points of view? How seriously do they treat hypothetical discussions or problems?
  4. Problem-solving – Does a person look for creative or untried solutions?
  5. Priorities Does a person focus on personal benefits or the benefits to the team and/or organization as a whole?

Lessons on team dynamics

If all (or most) of a team participates in a workshop or brainstorming session, a great deal can be learned about the team and how it works together.

  1. Secret handshakes – How does a team bond? What are the phrases, experiences, and milestones that they share?
  2. Alliances – Within a team, what are the informal groupings? If a team has additional sub-teams, is there positive or negative energy between each?
  3. The real issues – Workshops and training are an opportunity for people to try out a solution or problem that’s currently bothering them. What examples do people use when they’re discussing the session’s subject matter?
  4. Business knowledge – What details about a company’s business or a team’s processes are used as examples?

Lessons on organizational culture

A workshop or all-hands meeting may offer insight into an organization’s culture and process.

  1. Approach to hierarchy – Do people defer to others of higher rank or do they work with them as equals?
  2. Asking questions / raising issues – Does the company’s culture encourage or discourage raising issues or asking questions (even nonjudgmental ones) in a public forum?
  3. Consensus building – Are people comfortable proposing new ideas and solving problems in a public forum?
  4. Empowerment – Do people feel empowered to make changes to existing processes and policies?

When you create your own educational activity, here are a few basic steps to follow so you don’t miss anything:

  1. Keep your eyes and ears open. Absorb what’s going on around you and analyze the behavior on display.
  2. Take notes during the session (if possible) or after, and write up an “after action” report. What was most meaningful in what you saw?
  3. If the session is recorded, selectively watch/listen to the recording for clues you might have missed. This is also good for giving yourself feedback as a presenter: watch your body language, eye contact, and interaction.
  4. Coach your client executives on what to look for.

While the potential insight gained from hands-on sessions can be invaluable, it should be noted that this approach doesn’t work for every person. Some individuals may never warm up to the setting, and some may not get fully engaged. This response, however, constitutes learning lessons as well!

If your role involves coaching or training, I highly encourage you to consider hands-on activities for educating your team. From my experience, I’ve noticed that once attendees are in a comfortable setting, they will likely speak and interact like they usually do with their team, solve problems the same way they do at their desk, and demonstrate the same attitudes and values they carry with them every day. To the attentive consultant or executive, all of this behavior is on display on a single stage. This information can be critical for learning how to interact with the organization and its members.