Learn to Leverage Your 80%

What is a “learning experience”?

Merely “having an experience” does not guarantee how much we will learn from that experience.

Lawyers are rarely trained to excel in the most basic skill required to thrive in today’s work environment: How to learn faster in action. A widely accepted rule of thumb is that 80% of the knowledge needed to do your job is gained informally, during routine work activities and interactions. Yet developing this valuable resource is typically left to chance rather than leveraged intentionally.

A recent issue of The Economist notes, “…employers are putting increasing emphasis on learning as a skill in its own right.”

Today’s tip: discover ways to exploit your 80%.

We know that one colleague’s “five years’ of experience” can be vastly different from another who did similar work. But why do some people learn faster than others? And why does one practice develop a healthy learning culture, while others tolerate repeated bad behaviour?

As our roles and responsibilities evolve to meet marketplace realities, we can learn to extract more know-how from every messy, complicated situation—both positive and negative. To keep up with the demand for new capabilities and get ahead by spotting fresh opportunities, we need to learn how to learn on our feet.

Young lawyers seeking to gain working wisdom as fast as possible, as well as seasoned partners who want to stay ahead of the competition can make the shift to active, rather than passive learning. Active learning involves knowing where and how to look for day-to-day lessons learned, as well as how to overcome common barriers to learning from experience.

Face your learning disabilities

Smart, successful people are commonly hindered by learning disabilities. As a result, learning on their feet can be surprisingly slow, superficial or not at all. Typically, high achievers are prone to self-limiting assumptions, jumping to answers, blame and defensiveness. They may view management tips as “what other people ought to do” rather than how they themselves play a part in what happens; what goes wrong.

In other words, smart people have been conditioned to excel as passive learners. Through a group coaching process, new lifelong learning habits can be formed. These habits change mindsets from “know it all” to asking revealing (aha!) questions.

For example, in any situation we might ask: Why is this happening? Is there another way I might handle this? What options do I have? What if….? What is possible in this situation? How can we re-frame this issue? Do I see a pattern or principle I can apply to similar predicaments? What does the other person really want? How can I get what I want by finding common ground?

Can judgment and empathy be taught?

Human-centric skills involving judgment and empathy that enable—intense collaboration, complex consultation, problem prevention and creative thinking—are valued differentiators. They are valuable because they improve business relationships, attract clients and can lead to innovation. These skills are also valuable because they’re difficult to teach effectively to humans—and not easy for machines to learn. Fortunately the quality of our human interactions can be greatly improved by learning in the moment, rather than as a separate activity.

Each day is packed with learning opportunities that can enhance communication, collaboration and leadership skills. You might be surprised by the nuggets of insight to be mined from the most mundane encounter.

Mind the blind spots

Anyone can develop the habit of “leveraging their 80% informal learning” by seeing lessons that are hiding in plain sight. Instead of blind spots and repeated, self-defeating ways of ways of working, they can learn their way through challenging work situations. Learning how to distill lessons from experience not only improves problem solving and problem prevention skills, it also expands our capacity to see possibilities that others miss: the foundation for innovation.

In my next SlawTips we’ll look at how active learning can be used to grow a firm of entrepreneurial “finders.”

Sharon VanderKaay, Twitter: @svkaay

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