A Lesson On Learning

March 4, 2013 — Posted by Al Shalloway

I hear many Agile folks talk about how one can only learn through experience.  I prefer Deming’s quip – “Theory without experience is useless. Experience without theory is expensive.” For those of you unfamiliar with Deming, he’s the individual credited with teaching the Japanese how to make quality products more than half a century ago. His thinking is also the foundation of Lean.

The Agile community seems to have a schism in how one can best learn.  Some consider software development complex and chaotic and that it can only be understood through doing. Others, while still believing in doing, also hold that building a theory that explains what is happening (typically based on Lean-Flow) is essential.  Some in the first camp claim that explicit policies will lead to deterministic practices, while the second hold that such policies are essential to continuous improvement.  That explicit policies improve learning.

I saw a few quotes by Mark Twain and Will Rogers that illustrate this.   First, where Mark and Will agree:

“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”  - Mark Twain

 “The problem ain't what people know. It's what people know that ain't so that's the problem.” – Will Rogers

Obviously they are in agreement here.  But there are two quotes that perhaps illustrate the schism.   

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Mark Twain

“There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by readin’. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” – Will Rogers

Actually, these two statements are not necessarily in conflict.  It may be that actually experiencing something may be the only way to learn it, but that there are other ways of learning that might enable you to avoid some bad experiences. The bottom line is, I don’t really need to know what it feels like to hold a cat by the tail, it may be enough to watch someone else do it and not do it myself.  Likewise, I may not need to know what’ll happen if I don’t manage my team’s flow, it’s enough to know bad things will happen.  I think we need to take more opportunities to learn on the basis of others.

Al Shalloway
CEO, Net Objectives

For more, go to our Coaching page and look for "How People Learn"


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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With over 40 years of experience, Alan is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, SAFe, Scrum and agile design.


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