From theoretical knowledge to practical wisdom

December 1, 2017

Author: Pauline Heng


practical knowledge

It’s common practice for leaders to invest in formal training as a tool for uplifting the capabilities of their teams. I recently attended a training course that got me thinking: as a leader, what should be my primary tool for up-skilling my team members? Formalised, instructor led training courses? Or informal on-the-job coaching and mentoring?

Get the most out of your training

Generally, formal training is heavily geared towards teaching you what to think, rather than teaching you how to think.

Getting the most out of formal education is a skill in itself. Before sending your team members out on a training course, brief them on how they can maximise their learning experience. Here are 3 pieces of advice I encourage you to pass on:

  1. Don’t simply accept the trainer’s words as gospel. In the time it takes for a methodology to gain enough traction to be turned into an established training course, certain elements can become outdated and impractical. Some of the most popular training courses today are based on ideas and research that are decades old. Before going into a training course, prime your independent thinking muscles to absorb what is useful and discard the rest.
  2. For every piece of ideology and rhetoric you choose to buy into, ask yourself, “why is this true?”. This will help you turn specialised facts into generalised thinking tools which you can then apply across a broader spectrum of scenarios.
  3. The theory that gets preached in training courses is often only true under certain conditions. It may not be possible to implement the most cutting edge methodologies by the book. This doesn’t mean the theory isn’t useful. It’s up to you to bend the theory in novel ways to make it work for you and your clients.

Practical exercises over theoretical discussions

By nature, formal training favours abstract theoretical discussions over practical exercises.

It generally isn’t feasible for a 2 day course with 20 students and 1 trainer to be brimming with practical learning exercises, especially if the course is to be concluded with a test. The trainer is incentivised to maximise the test’s pass rate. This isn’t the same as maximising useful learning outcomes.

The big risk here is that formal training has the ability to create the impression of proficiency, without cultivating the depth of understanding that can only come from the experience of doing. The last thing you want is for your team members to walk out of training courses feeling like experts with nothing left to learn.

Formal training is not the end of the journey to mastery, it’s the start. As a people leader, it’s up to you to help take your team members the rest of the way.

practical training group of people

Here are 3 ways you can supplement an overly theoretical training experience.

  1. Come up with your own practical exercises. I aim to get my entire team together to run a practical training exercise at least once a month. We focus on developing core, atomic skills that can immediately be put to use. One of the most effective sessions I ran involved getting the team together to interview clients about their ideal birthday cake, develop prototypes in playdoh and pitch their ideas back.  Another session I ran involved getting each team member to step into an imaginary elevator with our Head of Design (role playing as a client executive) and attempt to have a meaningful conversation about their work in approximately 30 seconds. The skill of being able to effectively communicate with your clients in such a short period of time is so simple yet so critical, and it’s something that can only be improved with practice.
  2. Arrange on-going mentoring with real experts. A trainer can tell you how it’s done, but a mentor can show you. Try to set your team members up with people they can question and observe in action.
  3. Make practical learning a part of their daily work. Practical learning doesn’t only come in the form of abstract exercises and role playing scenarios. If you’re mindful and reflective, it’s something you do every day. Try to encourage your team members to treat each piece of work as a learning exercise. Ask them open ended questions to help them look back on their successes and learn from their mistakes.

Formal training can be a useful tool for upskilling your team. It’s especially great for obtaining certifications which can add a lot of credibility to your organisation. But to make training truly effective, you need to prepare your team members to step in with curious minds, ready to dig deeper into the “truths” offered by the trainer; and step out with beginners minds, ready to convert their theoretical knowledge into practical wisdom.

This blog was co-written with Kavinesh Lal

Special thanks to Jack Walsh and Joshua Kenzie for the Bruce Lee image.