Are You Too Busy to Continue Learning?

I’ve learned a ton about software projects. One thing I know is that any project that uses continuous integration (agile or not) has a better chance of succeeding. Not a guarantee, but a much better chance.

I’ve learned other things I find necessary for successful software projects. Two of my favorites are the need for a team-based purpose or focus, and the need to collaborate as a team.

That means that I stopped learning about continuous integration, purpose, or collaboration. I know these things work. I use them. I continue learning about ways to practice these ideas better. That often means I need to challenge my mental models about how projects work.

When I challenge my mental models and use double-loop learning as in the image above, I learn more in-depth. That in-depth learning helps me learn how to change how I use CI, purpose, and collaboration.

I use double-loop learning to extend my practices to apply these (and other) ideas to projects (and management).

I don’t just learn from reading other people’s words. I learn via my coaching and the workshops I offer. I learn through my work, my projects. As I live and work, I continue to reflect and refine my knowledge.

And, I know people who claim they are too busy to learn more. When I ask them why they stopped learning, I hear these reasons.

  • I learned everything I needed to succeed in my projects a year ago. (Or, 2, 5, 10 years ago.) Besides, I’m too busy to take the time to learn something new.
  • There’s nothing new in the field. Besides, I’m too busy to take the time to learn something new.
  • I’m certified. Why would I need to learn anything else? Besides, I’m too busy to take the time to learn something new.

Those people achieved some status quo and stopped learning. They no longer verify their mental models or adjust what they do know to experiment or be more effective.

Here’s why the idea of “too busy” doesn’t make sense to me. Very often, they could help their busy-ness by taking some time to learn. Even if they don’t learn from outside their project, they could use double-loop learning inside the project.

I recently met project leaders who were stuck on one approach for estimation. (Story points in an agile project.) When I suggested two alternatives (counting stories or using cycle time), all I got were blank looks. They hadn’t heard of these ideas? No, they were too heads-down in the projects, too busy to realize they had alternatives.

Why were they so busy? The projects were late. Why were the projects late? Because the estimation was wrong. For every single project.

And, the leaders, the people who might have been able to see the system and realize something was wrong? They were all too busy to learn. They didn’t know how to learn about their projects’ system of work. They were so busy, they couldn’t learn about alternatives to story point estimation.

I have found that when I stuck in a loop of “this doesn’t work so I must try harder to make it work,” I should examine my mental models instead. And, when I use double-loop learning and challenge everything I know, I often discover it’s time for me to learn something new.

As soon as I think I’m too busy to learn, that’s the time I need to spend a little time and learn. Does this ever happen to you? I bet it does!

That’s the question this week: Are you too busy to continue learning?

3 thoughts on “Are You Too Busy to Continue Learning?

  1. Jim Grey

    I find it curious now that I’m in my 50s how my mind increasingly wants to coast on what it already knows. I’ve built a good portfolio of knowledge and know-how in my career and gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to just operate from there for a while?

    It’s enough that technology has evolved greatly in the years I was working hard on my people and project management skills. There’s a part of me that would rather not, but I know I need to climb that hill and learn some of the newer technical things, well enough to get by at least, things like functional programming and Kubernetes. The stuff the cool kids are doing today.

    At my last job there were a handful of developers in their 50s like me. All of them had been Java programmers since the 1990s. Java was all they knew. They seemed determined to stay in the Java world — to double and triple down on it. Which would be fine if the market were full of shops that use Java, but it’s not. That company is the only major employer on Java here. Which means that they’re bound to that company, like it or not, and can only hope that the company’s fortunes remain bright until they’re ready to retire. That’s too great a risk to take, in my book. Better to keep learning and stay fresh for the doors it can open.

    1. Johanna Post author

      Jim, I suspect it’s normal to think we’ve learned “enough.” However, knowing you as I do, I don’t think you’re coasting at all!! You may well have changed what you decided to focus on learning.

      Your Java colleagues? When I wrote the first hiring book, I gave a talk at a local networking group. One of the women told me she was a Cobol programmer. I asked, “Oh, a programmer? I was one, too…”

      She said, “No, a Cobol programmer.” This was in the early 2000’s. Yes, there are places that need Cobol. But fewer of them, every day.

      I agree, I would rather have more skills—and I consciously decide how many technical skills I need—so I have more career options.

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