Do you remember Math in school? If you were good at it: Did you help others when they were struggling? Did you always succeed? I remember that I did not. There were these recurring situations that left me clueless on how to make my point, and how to get my tutee to understand. For example, I would try to explain to a friend how to solve a simple equation with X as an unknown. This would go something like this:

Me: “Ok, so the equation is X / (X - 5) = 2. Now, you can multiply by (X - 5) to get rid of the fraction.”

My friend: “So I always multiply by the denominator?”

Me: “Well…yes, in these cases, when there is no further summation taking place.”

However, this all-encompassing “always multiply by the denominator” rule seemed so attractive to my friend that she always wanted to go for it, no matter if it was appropriate or not.

I modified the above equation slightly by adding 1 on each side: (X / (X - 5)) + 1 = 3. My friend did not even notice that it was basically the same equation. Again, she would first try to get rid of the fraction by multiplying by (X - 5). In my opinion, “common sense” tells you to subtract 1 on both sides, but to my friend, this was a different kind of equation, and she needed a new set of rules and steps to cope with it.

Narrow patterns

This pattern was not unique to this one friend. I have also seen it at work when explaining Math to others, or when helping my brother with programming assignments (he studied electrical engineering and loathed programming), and on several other occasions. You show something using a concrete example, and they are able to solve this example. You swap some numbers or variable names, and they can still solve it. They have a pattern in their head, and it works - as long as all you do is exchange details.

However, as soon as you change the structure slightly so that the steps of the solution change, the pattern fails. It is too narrow. The new problem is perceived as too different from the training examples, and the student cannot see a solution any more. They are helpless again, and need new instructions.

What you want at this point, of course, is for the student to take the tools given to her and creatively combine and adapt them in new ways in order to solve the “new” problem. If that never happens, you will forever have to sit next to her holding hands. You have hit a training dead end.

It is important to remember this at work. Companies should train their people, because it is one of the highest-leverage activities they can pursue. However, training also takes time, so you want to use this time efficiently. Therefore: If you train somebody, and they fail to gain some level of autonomy even after weeks of training, then it might be time to rethink your goals for this person. Maybe, you are headed in the wrong direction, and trying to fit her in a role that is not suited for her. Maybe, you have hit a training dead end, and should backtrack.

Growth mindset and its limits

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the value of having a growth mindset, and I believe that continuous investment in your skills - and those of your employees - is crucial, especially in our fast-paced industry. However, while I believe that studying and training hard can take you a long way, I also believe that it cannot take you in every direction, because every person has a unique set of talents that determine where they are naturally strong and where they are not.

It is precisely these strengths you and your employees should focus on when putting effort into training. This is where the greatest potential lies, waiting to be unleashed. If you focus on your natural weaknesses instead, you will experience little progress, but a lot of frustration and disappointment. A memorable quote from First, Break All the Rules nails it down:

“Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough.”

One of my personal encounters with this phenomenon was in school, when we were supposed to draw still objects like cans with a pencil, and make them look as realistic as possible. I tried my best, and failed miserably. What I produced looked horrible. I did not experience anything nearly like Flow. All I felt in the end was frustration. Actually, my teacher even remarked at some point that he used to think that everybody can learn things like this, but that he was not so sure any more.

What do people think you value?

It is important to note that sometimes, it is our fault as managers or team leads when people pursue learning goals that are not right for them. For example, if the technical leadership focuses all their attention and praise on the backend, then the frontend developers will feel undervalued. Some of them might want to switch to backend technologies, even though that is not what they truly want to do or are good at.

Similarly, if you comment negatively on a certain technology, then people might want to switch away from that technology. Maybe they think you want to get rid of it. Conversely, if an employee thinks that you as her boss, or your department, or your company, value a certain skill very highly, then she might want to learn this skill in order to improve her standing, or to please you, or because she wants to stay relevant. These reasons are all understandable, but they are also likely to get them into trouble. Not every good backend developer will become a good UX expert. Not every good user interface designer will become a good programmer.

Keep that in mind when you plan people’s development. Remind them to focus on their strengths. Urge them to pursue what they love, what fascinates them, and what feels like a natural fit for them, instead of what they think holds the most prestige.

Knowing when to say “no”

If you have been going down an ineffective learning path, you should not regret the time and energy invested in the training so far. The time has not been wasted. Now, you have clear evidence that pursuing a certain direction will not work for this employee. This is a valuable insight for both of you. As Steve Jobs eloquently said:

“Focus is about saying no.”

He said this in the context of product development, but it is true in many other contexts as well, the question of where to invest training effort included. Steve also said, during the same presentation, that saying “no” will piss people off. Employees might be annoyed or feel undervalued if you deny them a certain kind of training, or cancel it. This might keep you from actually doing it. But when you clearly see that training is ineffective and therefore stop it, then you are not discriminating against the employee, you are actually doing him‚ a favour. He will most likely not admit himself that this is leading nowhere, because it feels like failing to him. Therefore, you have to make the tough call for him, and protect him from a lot of disappointment down the road. What you should do, of course, is a) make him understand that this has nothing to do with failure, and b) work with him to find an alternative.

After all, everybody has strengths. The best we can do as managers is to match people’s roles to their strengths - or, if all efforts fail, to demonstrate that there is no such role in this organization, and encourage them to move on to a different one where they can find such a role.

Time investment

This blog post took me around 3.5h to write.