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Continuous Learning and deliberate practice

Last updated: 17.08.18
Continuous Learning and deliberate practice

Learn what it takes to implement a continuous learning culture in your company, leveraging the benefits of deliberate practice and with examples borrowed from the field of software development.


Introduction to continuous learning

A culture of continuous learning enables innovation and has a big impact on employee engagement and talent attraction. Besides that, the point is: (almost) everything changes, fast. If we want to keep succeeding (or, at least, surviving) and successfully manage these ongoing changes, we better make sure employees constantly widen their perspective.

But, wait, are you familiar with the concept of continuous learning? Is your current working environment actually supporting and encouraging such a culture? Anyway, what are we talking about and why should we care at all?

With this article we’re kicking off a series on continuous learning. In this first episode, and after introducing the main concept, we take a look at deliberate practice: what kind of place can it occupy within learning cultures and how can it be applied to software development?

Whatever role you play within your organization, this series aims to present important concepts to be taken into account during the development or creation of a successful culture of continuous learning.


What is continuous learning?

On an individual level, continuous learning can be defined as “the ability to continually expand and improve one’s skills and knowledge in order to perform effectively and adapt to changes in the workplace”.

But, how well are we using our ability to continuously learn? Answering yes to the following questions might indicate we’re on the right track:

  1. Do you like to identify ways to improve what you have already done?
  2. Do you ask questions whenever you don’t understand something?
  3. Do you regularly ask for feedback or advice?
  4. Do you often find yourself using different tools and practices?

On an organizational level, we can define it as “the collection of conventions, values, practices and processes which encourage employees to continuously develop knowledge and competence, without relying on formal training programs.”

Learning companies often leverage practices and mechanisms such as:

  1. Collaborative environment, e.g., workshop culture, pair working, job shadowing.
  2. Effective knowledge sharing, e.g. apprenticeship programs, knowledge base, brown-bag sessions.
  3. Formalization of informal learning, e.g. communities of practice, book clubs.
  4. Celebration of failure, e.g. postmortem reviews, internal “Fuckup nights”.

Now let’s see what deliberate practice brings to the table.


What is deliberate practice?

The concept of deliberate practice was first introduced by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who teaches at Florida State University. His classic paper “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” represents the origin of the study of expert performance, the science behind why some people are really good at what they do.

In his paper, Ericsson says: “In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way”.

With “the right way”, he is referring to deliberate practice, which can be defined as “the type of focused, consistent, goal-oriented training that exceptionally talented people across many different fields engage in to improve their skills”.

At this point you might be thinking: exceptionally talented people? Who? Me? But… wanna know something? That doesn’t need to be the case, we all could use it! Mr Ericsson and his colleagues identified certain habits and features of this technique that anyone could potentially use to more effectively pick up or improve a skill.

Moreover, Geoff Colvin, in his book “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else”, brought together extensive scientific research demonstrating that great performance isn’t a thing of one-in-a-million natural gifts. Better, and even world-class performance, is closer than we think.

But… how close? Let’s start transitioning from the academic research to our day-to-day activities.


Deliberate practice at the workplace

In our daily work we’re constantly pushed to meet deadlines and quickly jump to the next pending task. Therefore, we often find ourselves sacrificing quality and disregarding less familiar tools and techniques along the way. This doesn’t sound like the “the right way” of training that Ericsson was talking about, does it?

Think for a moment: how do musicians prepare their concerts? Do they go to the stage every day? No, of course they don’t. They just rehearse, again and again, often a small fragment of the performance, until they can play it perfectly. That’s what we call deliberate practice.

Then, how could we adopt it at our workplace? A good starting point would be by explicitly creating psychologically safe spaces (an important concept which deserves a blog post of its own) where participants aim for high-quality work and are encouraged to sharpen their skills and explore unfamiliar techniques and tools.

To finish, let’s see how this could be applied to software development.


Deliberate practice in software development

Within the software development field, deliberate practice is achieved, among other activities, through:

  • Coding dojos: groups of software developers — usually in pairs — solving a code challenge (known as code kata) while being encouraged to try out new ideas and go out of their comfort zone.
  • Coderetreats: day-long events with focus on the fundamentals of software development and a strong emphasis on self-discovery. Kind of repeating the same coding dojo 6 times in the same day, but cooler.

Often organized by local software communities and advocating Extreme Programming (XP), (such as refactoring, simple design, pair programming and test-driven development), both represent an excellent opportunity to meet fellow developers and together hone our skills. If you like software development and have never taken part in any of them, I can highly recommend: go for it!

After observing how great these learning opportunities were and how important the role of technical facilitators was, I decided to pack my things and spend most of last year traveling around, facilitating coding workshops in several software development communities and conferences around Europe.

There’s no better feeling than observing the excitement on the face of the participants during the closing circle or retrospective. During these debriefings, participants often state how great it would be to run this kind of activities in their own companies.

Fast forward, a few months later, and already being part of trendig, one of the ways I’m helping teams and companies to continuously learn and produce better software is by facilitating our “Crafting Sessions”. The goal? To engage in continuous learning while having fun.


Dani facilitating a coding workshop during I T.A.K.E. Unconference 2018 in Bucharest, Romania. (Source Facebook © I T.A.K.E.)

Long story short: what have we learned?

  1. Continuous learning should be examined at both the individual and organizational levels. Focusing on the latter, and taking into account today’s ever-changing world, a continuous learning culture is something all organizations should strive for.
  2. Deliberate practice is an effective mechanism to acquire expert performance. Together with concepts such as psychological safety and effective facilitation, it can be leveraged to enable a continuous learning culture at the workplace.
  3. Applied to software development, deliberate practice can be achieved with coding dojos and coderetreats. Both are useful mechanisms to motivate developers, maximize knowledge sharing and support the journey into continuous learning.

Last but not least: a reinforcement learning exercise

I hope you’ve enjoyed going through the write-up and stay tuned for upcoming articles on continuous learning.

Just so you know: you can make my day by getting in touch, sharing the article, giving honest feedback and/or sharing successes (and failures!) of continuous learning at your workplace. Writing these lines has been a great learning process itself, so what better to now discuss them with old and new friends.
Last but not least, and as a closing suggestion, a 3-minute activity I tend to include at the end of my sessions: are you in? Grab a pen and a few sticky notes and, after reflecting on what you’ve just read, write down:

  • 1 thing that you’ve learned, if any.
  • 1 thing that has surprised you, if any.
  • 1 thing that you would like to start doing, if any.
Alt: Small activity for the sake of learning reinforcement.


Happy learning!