A Strategy of Learning by Example

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Part 3 

Start Early
Ideally, a mentoring program should be part of the on-boarding process. It helps the new person feel integrated into the organization and gives them insight into the values and norms of the organization. Effective early mentoring also has a direct impact on retention. If people feel a part of a larger picture, they are much more likely to stay.

How do organizations, which often have not been around for more than a few years themselves, allow for learning by example? How do we learn by example for careers that have just been developed or technology that nobody has ever used? Today, with the average job lasting under 3 years and the rapidly changing economy, it can be difficult to assign a formal mentoring program whose timeframe may be measured in months and years, not days. How can organizations create a safe environment for people to learn by practicing new skills?

Use of games and simulations
Although the technology has changed, the practice of learning by games and simulations is not new. Armies have been using it for hundreds of years. The game of chess was invented as a military strategy simulation. The idea for all simulations and games is very simple – give people a fun, safe and challenging way to learn new skills and behaviors and they will be able to apply it effectively in the ‘real world’.

I had the opportunity to attend a conference a few years ago on the use and application of games and simulations for learning and heard Will Wright speak. Will Wright is the creator of the popular computer game Sim City.

“My proudest moment in creating Sim City,” Wright said, “was when a 9 year-old girl came up to me to tell me how much fun she had playing the game. She told me that she tried to be the nicest mayor she could and the city kept going bankrupt. She looked at me and said that from that experience that she learned that, in order to be nice, sometimes you have to be mean.”

The lesson that that girl gained from playing the game will serve her well for her life. She has learned something about the importance of putting up boundaries and making difficult decisions.

Here are some guidelines that are important to create an effective game and/or simulation.

Start by understanding what you want to debrief.
It does not matter whether you win or lose the game, it matters how you debrief it. Games allow people to try new things, gain insight from their response and apply what they have learned into their work or personal life. It is through the combination of playing the game and providing an insightful debrief that the participant gets an ‘aha’ moments that means that signals that real, sustainable change has been made.

Don’t rush it!
Simulations allow you to move from the consciously unskilled to the consciously skilled and then to the unconsciously skilled. It is a process that takes time. Allow people the opportunity to run the simulation several times and work their way through the learning.

Give positive reinforcement
My daughters are very competitive. When they play a game or try something, they have a real desire to ‘win’ or do it perfectly. When they do not, I have to sit down with them, ask them what they learned and tell them what a great job they did. If not, they would give it up as being ‘too hard’ and never move beyond the consciously unskilled stage of learning. Having worked with many organizations, I see the same trait in them as I do in many of the adults I work with. It is important that any game or simulation, that is designed or implemented, has to continually give positive reinforcement.

It does not matter what the company mission statement is and what the values say, people learn by carefully observing how others are succeeding around them. If they see people being rewarded for keeping their heads low and not rocking the boat, they learn to do the same. It does not matter if it is a game or a mentor, we all learn not just from listening but through examples.