Go Figure It Out Yourself

The more I learn about child development, the more fascinated I get at the similarity of the fundamentals between adult professional growth and child development.

Consider the following advice from Baby Center on helping your child develop fast:

It’s important not to frustrate your child with toys and activities that are way beyond his abilities, but a little struggling goes a long way toward learning new skills.

When an activity doesn’t come easily to your baby, he has to figure out a new way to accomplish the task. That type of problem solving is the stuff better brains are made of. If he’s attempting to open a box, for example, resist the urge to do it for him. Let him try first. If he continues to struggle, show him how it’s done, but then give him back a closed box so he can try again on his own.

Setting a goal or target, which is not unrealistic but certainly a stretch, and letting the child figure out how to get there, is the primary premise of learning. I wrote an earlier blog post about the Creative Stretch as well.

ImageThis child development model is similar to how the knowledge professionals should be groomed, matured and trained. Give a challenging goal and let them figure it out themselves.

One (cruel) way of learning a new language is to simply leave the learner on his own in a place where that language is spoken. He is just taught a few basic words to get started but that’s about it. To survive, he has to communicate and thus needs to learn the language – however he can. He has to figure it out. Harsh, but works (though I doubt he would learn much grammar).

Learning for knowledge professionals does not have to follow this ‘thrown in the wild’ model. A continually directed and facilitated learning works better for knowledge professionals. But the fundamental components of learning are the same – a stretch goal and letting the learner figure it out on his own.

Having a goal that is either too simplistic or unreasonably ambitious fails to provide a direction and context to the learning. Spoon feeding or excessive guidance on way to the goal is equally harmful.

Manager Tools coined a concept of Reverse Delegation. A person whom you have delegated a responsibility is likely to come back to you asking for help or intervention in doing something that is part of the delegated responsibility. In essence he is delegating it back to you – thus the name Reverse Delegation. The pretext is simple and convincing – your intervention can get it done efficiently. It’s tempting for both. However, it defeats the whole purpose of delegation – coaching that person to improve and take up responsibility. You agreeing to help out without making sure that he has tried to figure it out himself, is efficient in the short run but ineffective in the long run. It’s penny wise, pound foolish. It is important to let him figure it out on his own. Everyone will be better for it.

There are no shortcuts in life. And there is no alternate to do-it-yourself path. Learning is a conscious effort of having a clear vision of the end and battling to reach it. Just like a baby is encouraged to figure out how to open the box himself!


6 thoughts on “Go Figure It Out Yourself

  1. Thanks Ather. Great reference to reverse delegation. Happens to me all the time. Its definitely very tempting to get my own hands dirty. Then I have to draw the line between “doing the work for him/her” or “leading by example”.

    However, what would/should be the trigger to give up on someone? When do you say “the situation is hopeless and now I have to move on and hire someone else”.

    • There can be many triggers for giving up on someone – it varies. For example, the new hire is not really getting it after all the help and its been 6 months. Or, the report is not stopping to “throw stuff over the wall” to me, and not heeding to any feedback. At that point, it’s not a coaching or training issue. It’s a behavioral issue that is not rectified. I believe the earlier that point is determined, the worst thing you can do is to procrastinate. Managers who ultimately fire someone generally say that they could have fired the same person weeks or months ago – they just “wanted to be sure”. However, it is also pertinent to look back how that person got hired in the first place. There may have been gaping holes in your hiring process that need to be fixed. What you are doing now, is essentially just damage control.

  2. Great post Ather! That example of learning a language have been used many times by me to mentor new testers and it always works. The best part of ‘go figure it out yourself’ is that the person whom you are supervising can perform it even better than you. If you start believing in the capabilities of others, this world becomes amazing.

    • Thanks Majd! It indeed is amazing, as your said, when you start believing in capabilities of others. It’s also remarkably liberating, as you get time and space to “figure out” things of your own – hence resulting in your own growth and development.

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