From time to time, a prospective client or a participant in a workshop asks something like, “Why do you use hypothetical examples for practice in your classes? Why can’t we practice on our real work?” I hear this most often with Product Owner training: “Why can’t we use our real backlog in the course?”
The impulse to make learning as relevant as possible makes sense. Indeed, we all felt it at some point in school growing up (“when am I ever going to use this?”). But it misses two important things about human skill development:
Skill acquisition & application are different activities
Perfectly tailored learning makes weak learners
Let’s dig into each of these…
Skill Acquisition & Application Are Different Activities
Biologically, human skill development is about creating stronger neural connections so that certain neurons reliably fire together in the appropriate situation. The most efficient way to make this happen is with isolated practice of a particular skill, repeated in short cycles with immediate feedback. In other words, drilling a single skill by itself.
Drill activities are often highly distorted from the real world. For example, hitting the same tennis stroke over and over again with a ball machine or playing a single note over and over again with a metronome.
Then, multiple skills can be layered to produce more interesting outcomes. It’s still useful to control variation and complexity so the right learning happens quickly and reliably. We can call this kind of practice scrimmage. Scrimmage activities start looking more like the real world, but are still distorted to emphasize some particular context or combination of skills.
This is used frequently in Muay Thai, one of my favorite activities outside of work. Muay Thai (Thai boxing) is a very complex martial art that involves punching, elbows, knees, kicks, as well as standing grappling. Scrimmage in Muay Thai often looks like two partners sparring lighter and slower than an actual fight and with a deliberately limited set of striking options (e.g. only punches). This reduces the complexity of the activity to allow the brain to pattern smaller combinations of skills.
As the skills become stronger from drills and scrimmage, good learning activities move closer and closer to real application. In Muay Thai, this means more and more realistic sparring, and ultimately, getting in the ring for actual fights. In tennis, it’s real matches, with teammates at first and eventually in real competition. In music, it’s more realistic rehearsals, and ultimately, performances.
In these domains, it’s obvious that application of the skills is progressive and that skill acquisition can’t happen in the full complexity of the real world. Trying to learn how to fight by getting in the ring for a fight is a slow way to learn, at best. Likewise, trying to learn piano on stage with a difficult piece.
Human skill development works the same in a business context. But our desire to see a quick ROI on learning activities tempts us to short-circuit the learning process. Unfortunately, if you try to develop and apply skills at the same time, you get neither durable skills nor effective application.
This is why our workshops use carefully crafted drill and scrimmage activities to systematically build and layer skills. Yes, your product is different from the product we’re practicing with in the Certified Scrum Product Owner workshop. That’s not an accident. Skill development comes before skill application.
Perfectly Tailored Learning Makes Weak Learners
In one sense, drill and scrimmage activities perfectly adapted from your real work context is the ideal learning approach. There’s no extra application step.
But because this is so rare, real-life skill application requires a meta-skill of being able to apply ideas and skills that aren’t obviously related to your work. Those who have this meta-skill find ideas everywhere in the world. They can read a book about, say, birds and find a breakthrough idea for their business strategy.
We see a dichotomy here when people ask us about Agile case studies.
Some people are saying, “Unless you can show me a case study that perfectly matches my context, I’m not going to believe this applies to me.” This person can find a reason why any example is different from their context. The learner who can only develop skills in exactly the context in which the skills will be applied is limited to learning only when conditions are perfect (and they rarely are).
Other people, when asking for case studies, are saying, “I want to see more real-world examples because I can find something I have in common with anyone, and I can pick up ideas from anywhere.” These people have developed the meta-skill of application. The whole world becomes their classroom. This is the kind of strong learner we like to grow in our workshops.
Balancing Skill Development & Application
Of course, we want to ensure any training we pursue in a business context does have application, does produce an ROI. And it’s reasonable to expect a competent trainer or coach to be able to help students connect the dots between skills and application. But for the best learning outcomes, don’t worry about the skill development being in precisely the same context as the ultimate application. It’s unlikely to help, and it may be a detriment. Instead, look for training and coaching designed around deliberate, systematic development of relevant skills and mental models.