I was never a gamer. The closest I came was playing Space Invaders in a 1980s basement with no real enthusiasm. However, when personal computers came into vogue, I remember “playing” Oregon Trail for hours. You would go through one task at a time, learning, losing stuff, and generally never actually getting to your predetermined destination. Personally, I just played so I could go shopping at the General Store. I probably didn’t master the skill and knowledge associated with trekking from the eastern to the western shore, but I did master the art of starting over.

At the same developmental time, I had a piano teacher who pushed the annoying policy of making me start over. Whenever I made a mistake, we stopped, worked it out, and started over. I couldn’t go on until the mistake was corrected. Rather than just schluffing (his word) through a difficult section, not only did I have to work it out—get it right—but I had to start from the beginning to see how to flow from an easy to a difficult section effortlessly. Then I had to do it again, again, again …

The lesson here was not failure: It was freedom.

Learning is rooted in practice

Learning is rooted in the concept of practice, which in its purest form is play. We practice playing sports. We practice playing instruments. We practice playing roles. We play house, play school, play Star Wars (well, if you are super old you did).

The concept of practice through play is focused not on success or failure but the act of doing to learn. And at the core of this is the ability to start over.

Learning confined

Learning in the context of work is often disjointed. Scientific management as it was originally defined by Frederick Taylor took the artisan and pushed them into the modern, industrial landscape. The worker had learn how to move from hand-hewn tools and naturally acquired knowledge to standardized, impersonal, functional processes.

The scientific method forwarded learning through simplified, standardized measurement that defined success through method, time, and motion. Efficiency and maximization of profit soon reduced workers to tools.

This mindset seeped from the factory and began to shape the way we created our “modern” education system. We taught students to reproduce, take standardized tests, and regurgitate. They graduated from the best colleges lost, unable to collaborate and problem-solve.

They couldn’t start over. They had to constantly perform, do, and act. Standardized perfection was the goal. Getting the grades, scores, and checking all the boxes indicated success.

And where has that gotten us?

We desperately need to start over.

Learning uncuffed

Let’s consider learning for the new gig-focused, disruptive, and undefined economy. What kind of learning is required to ensure that we can problem solve, collaborate, and question?

Learning uncuffed cannot base its foundation on repetition, regurgitation, and replication. Learning cannot be rote and standardized. Learning must be unique to the individual, the project, and the moment; it builds itself out of real-world practice.

Learning should start by embracing struggle. Struggle rests on problem-solving, making meaning, and understanding how to use resources in a way that builds meaning.

Learning is wrapped in storytelling, acquired knowledge, and understanding how to make meaning from patterns, paths, and disparate milestones.

But how do we, in the modern, email- and Zoom-colored world, put this type of learning in play as we face deadlines, adhere to project plans, and generally make sure that work gets done?

Here’s how it might look.

Play unmasked

Maria Montessori taught children whom society, at the time, deemed unteachable. Rather than focusing on the traditional approach, children in Montessori schools practiced through hands-on learning activities where they failed, tried again, and tried again. They were under no time pressure and could practice on their work until they felt a sense of mastery.

Montessori wanted her children to find import and own what they were doing, so she called their play, work: Rather than just playing with locks and keys or arranging items on a tray, they were working. Their work aligned to the work their parents did. What they were doing was important.

What if we took a radical step and started to call work, play?

Play allows the learner to test, try—and fail without consequences. They learn cooperation and to value competition and collaboration. Play allows the learner to set the rules, to build personal capability. They progress through achievements, have room for imagination, and, ultimately, hold the starting-over power.

With play, the learner controls the thermostat. They choose how to store, use, change, and define the context of the information that surrounds their play. Ultimately, the learner, not their learning agenda, defines how they can take and use what they have learned.

The real world

So, now the real world chimes in.

Those aligned with profit and losses might be quite nervous. They can’t just allow their teams to play all day! Where would that get us?

  • A cure
  • An invention
  • A procedure
  • A piece of art?

Play works, but to show the feasibility of play, let’s consider two scenarios.

Play at work

Scenario #1

The goal is to learn how to use planning software program. The users have a background in planning but are new to the software.

Old state: We would assign eLearning, administer a skills assessment, and hope they would learn the rest on the job.

New state: The group is in a virtual or face-to-face space. They are given the following directions.

Your group is stranded. You have a predetermined list of supplies and a predetermined time period. You can only get home if you can do the following tasks (the tasks that align with their day-to-day tasks).

Those tasks will directly connect you with the people who can get you home (building the buy-in that realistically aligns with the communication that will be facilitated by this software).

Your task is to work together to use the software to build out a plan for success. Here is a cheat sheet that you can use if you get stuck BUT for each tip used, you will have to trade one of your supplies. Remember, time is of the essence.

The group will receive messages as they work, adding challenges, pushing them to use certain functions of the software, and rewarding them when they problem-solve and work together.

At the end of the training, they will have the cheat sheet that they can use as they begin to employ the software into their daily practice.

Not only have they learned the foundational components of the software, but they have also practiced problem-solving and appreciated the value of collaboration. They also have a few good stories to take home when their partner asks how their day went. No one, by the way, takes home stories of forced eLearning, except with grumbles.

Scenario #2

The goal is to learn how to run a huddle. This is a group of frontline leaders who have little training in communication, most having been promoted because of their subject knowledge expertise. They are struggling with transparency and need to learn how to get information to their team in a way that also builds their leadership skills.

Old state: Worst case, wish them good luck. Best case, a virtual training or face-to-face training that gets them off the floor for a few hours but really doesn’t provide them much they can use. Too much theory is often the feedback.

New state: Each leader logs on to their individual portal.

They run through a series of scenarios that put them in both the team member’s and leader’s shoes. They reflect on how it impacts them and what they really thought of the message.

They navigate into the “shout out forum” where they work with other frontline leaders around the world, sharing their stories and providing support.

They reach the final challenge where they need to create a huddle agenda. They share the agenda with an online coach, who provides feedback.

The coach runs the huddle with a group of their peers, who give them real-time feedback. After they practice and play, they are ready to “do” in real time.

Innovation & thoughtfulness

Nothing is revolutionary or different about these scenarios. But they take time, innovation, and thoughtfulness. They also take the focus away from the profit and the endless need to be efficient, and instead look at the long-term.

If we take time to play and practice, we retain. If we use play, our teams stick around because they feel challenged and heard, and they have time to innovate.

My challenge to you is to reflect on the following:

  • When have you wanted to start over?
  • How would your career have been different if your leader had allowed you to practice and play rather than perform?
  • What would you embrace that you shunned?
  • When would the ‘start over’ button have changed your path?

Let’s stop the treadmill and hit start over. This time, it will be innovation, disruption, and play that focuses on the future of work rather than standardized lists, objectives, and KPIs.

The joystick is in your hands …

Join Erin Donovan at Learning Leaders Alliance Meetup!

Don’t miss this month’s Learning Leaders Alliance Meetup, July 19 at noon Eastern time. If you’re not an LLA member, it’s easy to join! Erin will show you how to create on-the-job activities, role plays, and projects that can measure learner mastery and provide insight into what your learners are getting, what they aren’t, and where future potential may exist.