We've all heard the expression, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." It's a nice inspirational sound-bite and reminder that challenges build character and adversity promotes greater grit.
But today, those responsible for helping others learn (and that means just about everyone in an organization) may want to amend the expression. Thriving in today's business environment demands an understanding that "when the growing gets tough, the tough get growing."
Challenges build capacity. Effort drives expertise. And struggle can lead to greater success.
How to optimize learning and development opportunities
Too frequently, one-size-fits-all training solutions leave many employees under-challenged, leading to boredom, disengagement, and less than optimal results. Additionally, in an effort to build and preserve self-esteem, we may set the bar too low, robbing employees of the learning and motivation that can come from falling short or even failing altogether.
As a result, we don't take advantage of some research-based findings shared by Shankar Vedantam in his recent Hidden Brain podcast entitled Near Wins and Not Quites: How Almost Winning Can Be Motivating:
Humans enjoy getting close to a win
Shankar's interview with Monica Wadhwa of Insead Business School in Singapore suggests that following a near-win, people experience a "strong leftover urge to succeed." Wadhwa explains that motivation intensifies as we approach a reward or goal; and, if that motivational state fails to be satisfied with 100% success, it spills over, causing us to feel motivated to seek another reward - either related or not.
Additionally, Daniel Pink describes research from Journal Neuron that suggests that the same region of the brain is activated whether slot machine players win or come close to winning, explaining that near-wins help to make people feel more effective.
So, how does this relate to learning?
How can we motivate and support the development of new insights and skills by tapping the power of not-quites?
The key is to create enough stretch to engage and press people just beyond what's comfortable and maybe just short of what's possible... but not so much that they become demoralized or quit trying.
It's all about finding that sweet spot that offers the motivational bump of a near-win.
Optimizing learning through instructional strategies
Evolving instructional strategies can help support finding and mining this balance. For instance:
- Invest in assessments. There is no way to engineer the right level of stretch without a clear understanding of the individual's current skill level and need. Rather than rushing to develop the solution, spend time calibrating capacity. Going slowly here will allow training professionals to go faster (and farther) later.
- Review the rigor of current programs. Too frequently courses are developed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This means that very few learners will experience the power of a near-win. Raise the bar across the board.
- Allow learners to "test into" the instructional level best suited for them. Modularizing the experience and clarifying the outcomes of each instructional increment allows for learning paths that are tailored to the individual.
- Create "smart" tests. When possible, design tests and quizzes that are responsive to the learner's accuracy or ability. For instance, if the individual is struggling to answer correctly, program the system to offer questions that are slightly easier; whereas, if the individual is showing content mastery, program the system to challenge that person with more difficult questions that stretch his/her capacity.
Optimizing learning through communication strategies
But optimizing the learning balance doesn't depend exclusively upon instructional strategy. It also depends upon human and communication strategies such as:
- Ensuring that managers communicate with their staff while they are engaged in formal or informal learning. This provides data that can contribute to a finer calibration and more focused guidance toward powerful near-misses.
- Offering intentional and well-orchestrated stretch assignments that aren't just projects for the sake of projects. Rather, create customized experiences designed with the right amount of challenge for each individual.
- Engaging in conversations with learners who fell short or came close. This kind of coaching helps people reflect on a challenging experience and extract learning for the future.
Optimizing learning through cultural strategies
And finally, culture plays a role. Cultivating a learning culture establishes the expectation that learning is ongoing - never really finished or over. In this way, organizations can ensure that employees remain in the motivational "near-miss" zone because there's always something more to be learned and mastered.
So, want to get the most from any learning opportunity? Make sure NOT to hit the target. When it comes to optimizing learning, close isn't just good enough, it's exactly where we want to be.