Working together at different learning levels

In the past, I have led a number of projects where the team members have had very different levels of learning, making it difficult to ensure that the team is integrated properly and that all staff on the project have challenging work to perform.

More junior members of the team will have recently finished formal education, either in tertiary education or on work-sponsored courses. These give a good grounding in the learning formal methods and often the practical part of the course assumes a green-field environment.

By contrast, more experienced practitioners can draw on recent experience rather than classroom courses. They will have encountered the real-world constraints, complications and shortcomings that require compromise solutions that are not taught by classroom teaching. In addition, they will be familiar with corporate standards constructed by a combination of practices from various methods.

So what’s the best way for these two groups to learn from each other; for example, how can the more experienced practitioner learn new techniques while these less experienced can refine their theoretical knowledge?

The trick is to understand where each person is in the learning process. There are several models to enhance the terms “beginner” and “expert”; two of the most resonant for me are the theory of conscious competency and the cyclic, martial-arts-inspired theory of Shu-Ha-Ri; both of which seek to categorise people in stages of learning development.

Agile methods have well-established techniques where team-members work together in pairs; pairing a beginner and an expert in this way can facilitate each-way knowledge exchange. This formal approach may not always be feasible or even desirable, in which case I’ve introduced an informal mentoring scheme which results closer working and resultant knowledge exchange.

Another alternative that I have found works well is the working lunch; food is supplied from the project budget once a month and alternate between beginners and experts to talk about a self-nominated (work-related) topic.