First off, let me give credit to a man much smarter than myself: the inspiration for this post came from a keynote speech given by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the 2014 DevLearn conference in Las Vegas. Dr. Tyson served up the perfect blend of high-level science and actionable insights, making him the most down-to-earth astrophysicist I have heard speak. Many thanks to him for the inspiration!
Knowers vs. Thinkers
Imagine you’re interviewing two candidates for a job opening. You point out the window to a building and ask, “What do you think is the height of that building?” to which the candidate answers, “About 60 feet, I’ve memorized the heights of every building in the city.” When you ask the second candidate the same question they answer, “Well, at this time of day my shadow is about 12 feet long, and that building’s shadow looks about ten times as long as my shadow – so about 120 feet. I’m six foot, half my shadow, so that would make the building around 60 feet tall.” Which candidate would you hire?
Unless you lead a team of Jeopardy hopefuls, my guess is you picked candidate number two. Organizations are in desperate need of people who think through the synthesis of data and apply it to solve problems, rather than simply regurgitating known facts.
Unfortunately, the candidate “twos” of the world are few and far between. Far too many employers endure fruitless searches for the type of people that can charge full steam into the unknown and come back with innovative solutions. We see endless reports on the skills gap and the negative impacts it will have on employers and employees alike over the next decade.
So Why Are Thinkers So Hard to Find?
From the time we start school, we’re led through an educational system that values the memorization of facts or short-term recall of specific information. Have you ever tried to recall a piece of information unsuccessfully and exclaimed “I got an A on that test, I should know this!” That type of thinking is dead wrong. Too often, grades are an indicator of a person’s ability to cram large volumes of information into their short-term memory, rather than actually code the data and store for later problem solving.
Conversely, think back to your high school math class. Did you ever begrudgingly mutter the words, “When the heck will I ever use logarithms?!” It’s a fair point. Unless you’re a statistician, my guess is the logarithm you worked on in June of your sophomore year was your last. But there is something bigger at play here. When you do math problems, you are rewiring your brain to think a certain way. Repeatedly running through proofs and binomials is allowing your brain to forge new connections and relationships that it can use again for future problem solving.
Rethinking Our Training
As in primary education, professional training often leans too heavily on course completions and scores rather than overall understanding. Far too many training programs perpetuate the idea that people need to know stuff to do stuff, rather than teaching them how to think through the myriad of workplace obstacles they will need to overcome. This is especially problematic for companies looking to innovate and grow. These companies have a significant need for individuals that will not only be able to perform their current job function, but also quickly adapt to tackle unknown territory.
If you genuinely want a team that will drive results and grow your business, changing the way you train your people is the catalyst to make it happen. Forcing your employees through another glorified PowerPoint training may get you those coveted L2 results, but it will also instill in your people the type of intense disengagement that only a 500-word-per-slide eLearning presentation can cultivate.
Let’s make a change people!
Let’s invest the time, energy, and resources necessary to make training that actually trains people rather than just fulfills compliance quotas. There is a sweet spot where high-quality, relevant content meets engaging format and training magic happens. We need to fight the urge to just churn out training as an afterthought and start deliberately curating the presentation of information that will make a difference for our people and our businesses.