Schools and colleges in the world give you scoring based on what you do alone. Essays, exams, quizzes, and internships you do. All this is what we call a single-player game. But life, work, and learning is a multi-player game. How are we learning to play it well?
A fundamental worldview shift from ‘I’m a self-made guy’ to ‘No one succeeds alone’ can make a huge difference in the way we think about collaboration at work, learning and life. By the time individuals realise this, they already enter into an environment where only leaders and team players thrive. Collaboration is a muscle to develop. You need to practise. For some individuals it comes naturally. For some others, they must make an effort.
The focus on independent achievement leaves many students woefully unprepared for the interdependent world of work, says Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist at the Wharton School.
When was the last time you were part of a team and did something awesome and learnt a lot in the process? Be it conflict management, doing impossible things, building digital-ready business skills and coming out with great stuff. Those are moments of magic in self-development, upskilling and cognitive evolution. The more you do it, the faster you evolve.
The big question is, imagine if we can build new skills and learn things through team-based projects. How would it be?
Doing difficult things
For many years, I have been observing teams. At workplaces, campuses and families. They all have one thing in common. They help you learn the fundamentals of collaboration, an in-demand skill even in the hyper-individualistic era of superlative individual talent and skills. What matters is the ability to work with others and produce results. Super-led teams have an extraordinary advantage over others in doing things which many people consider as a Himalayan task. How they leverage their people and make it happen is what I was always thinking and trying to understand by having deep conversations with the leaders who have been there and done that.
Every team is a small tribe with a mini-religion
They all follow team work as a religion. They have rituals like stand up meetings at specific times every day. They have a unique vocabulary within themselves which build their bonds. They also understand each others’ strengths and play accordingly. Some of them amplify their sense of team bonding by being informally cohesive and professionally collaborating on important things in life and business. They have a unique culture code that determines their success at work.
Information overload to problem solving
One of my most fondest recollections of school and college years is about the group activities we used to do beyond the classroom sessions. While we are bombarded with deep content on each topic which obviously requires more synthesis and distilling, we are mostly left with under-digested content which leads to making no sense of what it actually is, and leaving us with an overload of information.
In between, some of the teachers make us do, think and solve problems in teams. I consider that as the best form of learning when it comes to solving real world problems. They throw us to the world of beautiful chaos and we gradually find a method in that madness.
The flow of a traditional classroom is to learn first and solve the problems later. Learning becomes boring without a purpose. A problem statement is all about solving it through learning things while doing it. It is like we create demand first and supply for it. The problem is crying for your learning to solve it. That creates a sense of urgency, a competitive spirit and the best learning experience because of its nature of accomplishment while you do it. The learning is internalised better during the process.
Content is only the beginning of a game. Doing completes it.
Watching videos to playing in group-sprints
From traditional classroom learning, we accelerated to attending classes online because of the pandemic. Now people started moving learning mostly online through self-paced programs like MOOCs and thousands of other pre-recorded sessions and even live webinars to learn many things. These are things we do alone. Open a computer, watch videos, attend quizzes, upload assignments, have reluctant peer to peer discussions and then the course is declared as over. Now you can download the certificate. You do it all by yourself. Many many hours of content consumption. MOOCs and experts highlight the number of hours video as a label for its quality.
Self-paced means no pace for 90% learners
Self-paced learning is happening online. Individual learners take efforts to learn online by watching pre-recorded videos. They attend quizzes, watch reference videos, tutorials and sometimes even attend some course group discussions online. And then they get certificates based on completion of assignments. These are extensions of traditional curriculum to a digital platform. Absolutely non-emotional, linear and predictable. Only less than 10% of learners who enroll for an online learning course completes it.
Learning alone to active team learning
Compare it with a group-sprint. Where you are part of a team of five people who should complete a task, do a project, build a prototype, solve a problem or even create a community project. How would you feel? The energy and the ideas flowing in from all. You feel belonged to that instantly. You have a tight timeline. And less resources. All you have is creative energy to convert the team’s spirit into results.
Group-sprints are 3-day or 7-day sprints with a 5 member group to build something thereby learning a lot of things. It is the experience which amplifies learning, not just the content. People who do are more confident than the people who consume content. Doing reduces fear as we are confronting the fear constantly while doing it.
Doing the impossible
The biggest fear is ‘can I do it’ or ‘as a group, can we pull it off’. Group sprints put you in a sharp point of time, people, resources and a glaring problem. That helps us to focus our best energies and efforts into it. All the members focus on one thing to solve the problem. That makes the peer to peer learning happen while we do group tasks. As humans, we learn through imitation and inspiration. And that is possible while we see others doing things smartly and productively.
Winning games to winning championships
The American way of making individuals bigger than themselves and the organizations they build have made many people who hold those values to think that individuals matter more than teams. In reality, individuals are made bigger through a design to attract better people to teams. All that matters is building superlative teams.
How many online learning programs are enabling team-based learning? We are moving from team experience to a loner experience. The world is becoming more and more individualistic and independent, celebrating achievements of individual icons, only making many talented individuals handicapped in working with others. What if those talented and skilled individuals can work with others collectively and collaboratively? What could be the collective impact?
Good teams make you larger than yourself
Good teams multiply your talent. And building good teams is all about understanding our own interdependence for building awesome things. We cannot do it alone. We need different world views, different problem solving mindsets to make it happen. Only when a musician and a programmer come together does Smule happen. All great teams are a combination of magically diverse skills complementary in nature. They only have shared values and goals. Rest everything is different.
What does group-sprints teach us
The conflict starts when we interact with others. It could be a mild difference of opinion to conflict in shared values. On a marathon journey, shared values matter the most. On a 7-day group sprint, what matters is quick rapport-building, agile team work, dynamic approach, faster communication and most importantly the sense of urgency to make it happen for the anticipation of celebration, success and recognition. It is a simulated environment designed to bring in results.
Learning through solving challenges
Children who do team activities learn to manage rejection, failures, resistance and conflicts. Any human endeavor is about differences of perspectives. The reason that diverse world views can help to solve problems better. When different elements come together ideas become richer, work gets interesting and a common purpose makes it compelling. Humans are wired for team work. They love bonding. They want appreciation. They want to feel belonged. The excuse of doing something alone is all about not knowing how to handle rejection.
Different versions of you
In a team not everyone is your fan. Some are critical of what you do. Some are supportive. Some are irrationally confident about you. How each member perceives you is different and managing those diverse emotions becomes the core of team-sprints.
The spirit of a hackathon
We need to solve problems at work with the spirit of a hackathon by creating a simulated sense of urgency for achieving things at 10X speed. What essentially would have taken more time because of inefficient time management and team lethargy can be outperformed by group-sprints like a work protocol. Group learning is about learning through doing projects which we would have never done alone, thereby pushing our normal limits to learn important yet tough things.
Psychologists find that when college students have a purpose for learning beyond the self, they spend more time on tedious math problems and less time playing video games and watching viral videos, says By Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant in their article on online learning in the New York Times.
Group learning protocol
Structure determines the behaviour. Organisations have robust systems to get work done by reluctant mediocre employees. They automate boring tasks, build systems to ensure focus and set up rewards which would drive people to action through fear, greed or recognition. These are tried and tested methods of making people act irrespective of their daily level of motivation.
Similarly, learning needs a strong protocol in groups. Our brain chooses the path of least resistance. The reason why we build systems to bring the focus to the distracted lazy brain. A clear goal, a sense of urgency, self-esteem to keep up with the rest of team members, limited time, limited resources and intense project management gives people a feeling of moderate nervousness and strong belongingness to make things happen and finally come out with the intended results. And they look forward to celebrating it. That is the fun of teamwork. And that magic can be brought to team-learning as well.
Group challenges to solve problems
A group of learners get a challenge. A well defined problem statement with a pre-defined outcome. They come together to solve the problem, build something. They figure out how to solve it by using the internet resources, find hacks to save time, use tools to make it easier and get mentored by people who have been there done that. That offers them a significant advantage of doing it by learning through doing. All these in 3-day, 7-day intense group sprints. Each day matters. Each team member matters. Every decision matters. How they collaborate matters.
Great teachers approach their classes like this: They open with a mystery and turn their students into detectives, sending them off to gather clues, says Adam Grant on how curiosity boosts learning. Instead of giving information overload, create information gaps to solve problems. Natural curiosity of people will take them there. That is the fun of challenge-driven team based learning in a brief span of time with limited resources. The scarcer the things are, the more creative teams become.
Designed information gaps create curiosity
Group-sprints work on the same lines. Create information gaps. Help them chase and fill it. In the process of learning, they get the sense of accomplishment for discovering something on their own. Learning can’t be more fun.
Be it building an eCommerce store and launching it in 7 days or hosting a virtual event of 1000 people, or even solving a seemingly complex problem the business is facing because of the pandemic, any problem can be solved or reframed with people acting together intensely, sharply and passionately. Collective intelligence makes things bigger.