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Teach Skills and Tools, not Programs and Rules

You probably go to too many meetings. I feel like I do, sometimes. Some are worthwhile, others are a waste of time. Thankfully, for the ones that aren’t that interesting/engaging to me, I can usually pay partial attention, and either let my mind wander and chew on things, or perhaps even do a little reading online to make myself smarter and better informed. The topic of this post materialized in my brain over the course of a couple of these meetings where I was paying partial attention. Specifically, someone asked the question “how do we make our blogs less boring, and less self-referrential?” After some discussion, an answer bubbled up from the group: we need to acquire the skills to be un-boring. And that’s when the little light with the bell went off in my head.

When you’re dealing with the online world (and this extrapolates to a lot of offline stuff, as well), it is much more important, productive, and effective to teach and learn skills and tools, rather than focusing on programs and rules. Teach people useful skills and correct principles, and let them govern themselves. Let me give a made up example, to illustrate my point. Try to think of how you could apply this to your job and your life.

Say, for instance, it was part of your job to take your company’s employees, and encourage them to write on a group blog (this is a generic example – this applies to almost anything, I think). You’re a very process oriented individual, in a very process oriented company. You decide to create a “strategy”, outlining the goals and ends you want to achieve by having an active community of bloggers. You could then work backwards from that, and get some milestones and metrics that will help you measure how well you’re doing. Say, a certain number of blog posts from a certain number of contributors per month. This many visits per month, and a growth rate of n percent. And then you could have lots of brainstorming sessions focussed on those milestones – “How do we get more bloggers?” “How do we get the bloggers to write more?” “How do we sound less boring and less self-interested, to get more audience engagement?”

Based on brainstorming sessions like that, you come up with a plan. You’ll have more meetings for everyone involved. Mandatory training. Rules (call them “guidelines” if you wish) for how to write a good blog posts. Rules about what NOT to write about. Rules about who can and cannot be a contributor. Rules about how you count and measure hits and visits and comments and contributions. At long last, you have a “strategy” for your blogging “program”.

You get a few enthusiastic participants – people who seem to be natural bloggers, and take to it with gusto. But on the whole, you end up feeling like you’re having to constantly keep after the bloggers, to get them to post. You’re always encouraging them to write more, to be more engaging and personable (so more people will read the blog, and leave comments). You may go so far as to cook up some bribery/reward schemes to entice them to post more (a carrot instead of a stick). You feel like you’re exerting a lot of effort for diminishing returns, and eventually, you get tired of it, and stop trying so hard (so the whole program starts to fall apart).

Any of that sound familiar?

Now let’s imagine a different approach. Instead of falling into the trap of process and programs and rules (which is easy, because it’s what you’re used to, and besides, everyone else is doing it!), you should think of ways to achieve your objective by teaching skills and tools – actively helping people learn to do new things, or old things in new ways that are more efficient, and more fun. Your goal should be to help people find that “I kick ass!” feeling, and you should trust that doing so will induce them to achieve your “other” goal, be it a vibrant community of bloggers, or more sales, or whatever.

Teach people to find a way to deal with the things they hate most about their job or their life. Show them better spam filters, or how to use a feed reader to bring the web to them and give them more time by reading more efficiently. Show them tips and tricks, and teach them how YOU learned the tips and tricks.

What’s different about the “skills” approach? Do you think it can be just as effective? Which do you prefer? Can you still have a “strategy”, and if so, should you? How you find out what skills are important, and then learn them well enough that you can teach them? Or should you find experts to teach the skills? Is this really better than programs and rules? Let me know what you think. I’ve deliberately held back some of my thoughts on this approach, until they’re a little more developed. I’ll post more on this, soon. Plus, I love kicking ideas back and forth with you. So let me know what you think! :-)

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4 thoughts on “Teach Skills and Tools, not Programs and Rules

  1. I think Ze Frank had the key to finding things to blog about: figuring out how to “bust that cycle.” The video (http://www.zefrank.com/theshow/archives/2006/09/092006.html) is priceless. My weak summary is that finding that “kick ass!” thing to blog just means trying odd things to break out of your day-to-day habits. Stay up all night. Go somewhere different for lunch. Build a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with your face (no, really, watch the video).

    A new perspective can be illuminating and exciting, and that’s what makes blogs worth reading.

    Figuring out how to bust your own cycle is a skill, for sure. Way better than setting up a system to bait or provoke your coworkers into blogging …

  2. All sounds very familiar. Strategy is great but has a dark side: it becomes an excuse/process for not doing things.

    Your post also reminds me of something our pal Aaron said while driving to Portland Monday. We can get paid to learn or we can get paid to teach. Usually the latter pays better. I believe is we really like what we do we are doing both — learning and teaching.

    What would be interesting is to see companies actually put more value on employees who are sharing their skills and toolkits with others. That would drive everyone to keep learning to feed the cycle. Where do we learn? At work — in good meetings! — at home and especially at events where we share stories beyond “what’s up” and into “how are your feeling and how’s life comin’ at you?”

    I’m looking forward to your next mindspring on this topic. Thanks, Josh! Bet you’re having a blast at Ignite.

  3. I think you’ve discovered the key for building a culture: you get everyone to teach another about some aspect of that culture. That’s why Intel has managers teaching classes in meetings and ethics and such. But building a culture takes a long time, so one needs to be prepared to track slow change over a long period.

    Short term change is still probably best accomplished through strategy, rules, etc., just like you’ve mentioned. But, just like a habit that is hard to break, people will return to their pre-existing methods once the program is complete. A short term change is not a cultural change.

    Also, with cultural change you’ll have people drop out and leave because they do not fit the culture, which is good for developing a consistent culture, but it loses the invigorating slap of comparison and innovation forced by working with differences.

    I think one needs to have a goal; a strategy is probably good to have, but it may be unnecessary; the habits of the individuals leading the culture will identify the skills.

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