Individual and Team Learning

If product development is about learning, then there must be at least two kinds of learning going on: individual learning and team learning. By their very nature, individuals and teams must learn in different ways, so our product development and management processes need to support both kinds of learning. I will lay the groundwork for future posts by looking at how people and teams learn and what sort of behaviors they engage in as part of the learning process. Learning and behavior are open fields of research, with volumes of published material. I will be brief.

Nancy Leveson, in her book Safeware: System Safety and Computers, has a couple of excellent chapters on human learning and behavior, from which I’ll borrow. I recommend her book; the first ten chapters or so are well worth reading even if you’re not involved with computers. Borrowing from Jens Rasmussen, she discusses three levels of cognitive control: skill-based behavior; rule-based behavior; and knowledge-based behavior.

Knowledge-based behavior sits at the highest level of cognitive learning and control. Performance is controlled by explicit goals and actions are formulated through a conscious analysis of the environment and subsequent planning. One of the primary learning tools used at this level is the scientific method of hypothesis formulation, experimentation and evaluation.

Rule-based behavior develops when the environment is familiar and fairly unchanging. Situations are controlled through the application of heuristics, or rules, that are acquired through training and experience, and that are triggered by conditions or indicators of normal events or states. This sort of behavior is very efficient, and learning is achieved primarily through experimentation, or trial and error, that leads to further refinement of the rules and improved identification of conditions under which to apply those rules. People transition back to knowledge-based behavior when the environment changes in unexpected ways, but only as they become aware that the rules-based behaviors are failing to produce the usual results.

Skill-based behavior “is characterized by almost unconscious performance of routine tasks, such as driving a car on a familiar road.” The behavior requires a trade-off, often between speed and accuracy, and learning involves constant tests of the limits of that trade-off. These tests are experimental in nature, but largely sub-conscious (not planned). Only by occasionally crossing the limits (making “mistakes”) can learning be achieved. As with rule-based behavior, people transition from skill-based behavior to rules-based behavior only after they become aware of a change in the environment that is having a negative impact on outcomes of the skill-based behavior.

When people learn new skills they typically progress from knowledge-based behaviors to rule-based behaviors and eventually to skill-based behaviors. A surprising amount of engineering is based on heuristics rather than knowledge. This is often a good thing, as it allows us to efficiently deal with very complex problems and systems, making it possible to arrive at approximately-correct solutions much faster than through more explicit planning and evaluation. It can also go badly wrong when signs incorrectly lead one to apply the wrong rules to a situation that appears familiar but is not.

What might not be obvious is that learning at any level is only possible through a mix of successful and non-successful experiments. Unexpected outcomes (“mistakes,” “errors” or “failures”) are a necessary part of learning. In fact, the rate of learning is maximized (learning is most efficient) when the rate of unexpected outcomes is 50%.

Teams learn when individuals communicate, sharing and synthesizing the knowledge and heuristics that they’ve learned. This occurs primarily through two behaviors or tools: assessment and feedback. Assessment involves observation and reflection on what behaviors are working or not working in pursuit of the team goals. It should be performed by both by individuals and by the team as a whole. Feedback is comprised of constructive observations provided by others and objective measurements, and is the input to assessment. Because feedback and assessment are so important to team learning and growth, they should be planned, structured and ongoing.

For assessment to be effective at generating team learning and growth, some action needs to follow. An action might be to change an existing condition (e.g. change how meetings are run, explore design alternatives, etc.), or to document a process or norm that “works” and sharing the result with team members (e.g. documenting the work flow, standardizing parts, implementing decision processes, etc.).

Repeated and effective use of both individual and team learning behaviors results in team learning cycles. In any product development project, these learning cycles occur in different domains simultaneously. The main forms of feedback in product design are testing and design review, and there are multiple ways to assess and plan those feedback loops. Project feedback comes primarily from monitoring the schedule performance. At the same time, the team should be eliciting feedback about its ability to make decisions, work together and work with the rest of the organization, and assessing that feedback.

Peter Scholtes’ The Team Handbook is a well-written and practical guide to implementing team processes and behaviors, and is geared toward both team members and team leaders. It’s the kind of book that a new team could refer to throughout a project to guide them in becoming more cohesive and effective. His The Leader’s Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done also provides an excellent supplement, geared more toward team leaders and business managers.

To summarize, product development processes and organizations must be designed to support repeated structured and “accidental” experimentation by individuals and team processes of feedback, assessment, decision-making and actions that result in either change or standardization.