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Hands-On Learning: Innovative Teams Need A Safe Place To Fail

January 17, 2022
hands-on learning


Every organization has its own definition of success. And however defined, one thing is true: each seeks to create value for the people they serve. Today, it’s no longer a priority for CIOs and CTOs to create value for their business and its customers through technology—it’s a requirement. 

New technologies sit at the core of the trends disrupting the status quo, from end user expectations to business strategies. Organizations, their leaders and their teams are eager to adopt new tools and create new solutions, but few have created a space for innovation to flourish. 

As a technology leader, you may be wondering what roadblocks exist—what’s keeping your team from delivering new value.

The short answer: They need a space where innovation and long-term agility are nurtured. They need a safe space to fail.

When tech leaders think about creating that safe space, many start with ensuring psychological safety. It’s a great place to start. After all, you want your team to

  • Feel free to surface new and different ideas and experiment with a real chance of failure.

  • Admit they don’t know something without fear of judgment or retribution.

  • Voice their needs, from extending a deadline to asking for the right tools for their work.

  • Ask for help.

  • Operate autonomously, without micromanagement (within certain fences or parameters).


Unfortunately, many leaders start and stop there. 

Often absent from the conversation about psychological safety and innovation is that technologists need a safe place and time to practice and experiment with new skills before being expected to apply them in a real-world environment. And practicing is more involved than taking a course or watching a video: hands-on learning enables your team to build, practice and apply knowledge, deepening skills and expertise.

Here’s why you need to prioritize this space for your team—and how to do it right. 

The risks you didn’t know you were taking

We get it—you have a finite amount of resources. Time grows on even fewer trees than money, and prioritizing hands-on learning can come with costs in dollars, in working hours, in focus. It’s sometimes hard to justify the slowdown.

However, not slowing down—not making hands-on learning a priority—comes with long-term risk. Ones that are likely starting to catch up to your ability to drive real, meaningful value now and in the months and years ahead.

According to a study from Stripe, in any given year, you’re spending nearly 10% on productivity loss from lousy code. Multiply that by the number of technologists in your organization. In any company more considerable than a bare-bones startup, you’re talking hundreds of thousands—or millions—of dollars lost each year. Not to mention nearly a tenth of your available opportunity, sunk.

Plus, your company will lose immediate business from any downtime caused by wrong code, and a poor customer experience can result in a damaged reputation and lost long-term business.

And that’s just bad code resulting in large part from underskilled technologists.  

Then we have your people—your most valuable assets of all.

Technologists are typically eager learners; they are more likely to remain with their current company if it offers them new growth opportunities. On the flip side, they are 12x more likely to consider leaving without those opportunities.

Providing hands-on learning—a place that mitigates the risk of putting newly acquired skills to work—is not only an intelligent business strategy, it’s also a differentiator in already competitive technology and development fields. The best technologists may be drawn in by money, but they stay when they feel challenged, appreciated and supported.

Our State of Upskilling report found that technologists were likely to agree that hands-on learning offered a variety of benefits, especially the ability to reduce time needed to master a skill. What’s even more telling is that 76% of technologists reported having higher job satisfaction because of the hands-on experience. The sense that an employer supports its employees is germaine to upskilling. 

While tech workers, just like any group of people, share a diverse set of learning styles and preferences, it’s indisputable that hands-on learning is a must-have for any tech organization’s upskilling program at this point in time.

Some leaders think that upskilling these employees will pad their resumes for when they jump ship. But merely offering them meaningful, relevant hands-on learning experiences is a significant reason for them to stay (and grow) where they are.


Creating a safe space for skill mastery

As CIO or CTO, you are the sponsor of your organization’s Technology Skill Development strategy. Your role is to identify and communicate your organization’s objectives to your tech teams, oversee the creation of projects to reach those goals and articulate how achieving these goals translates into outcomes and rewards. In other words, you shape the philosophy behind the upskilling environment and ensure that it aligns with your organizational vision.

You and the directors and managers on your team can also get involved in more tangible ways to make sure your teams have a chance to learn by doing. Practical application of new skills in a safe environment reduces a lot of the risks mentioned above. Interactive courses, labs, sandboxes and projects are all great ways to empower your team to practice and apply their skills—deepening their knowledge and creating real, long-term agility for your organization. Your leaders will be instrumental in creating and fostering this environment and culture. Here are ways you all can get started. 

Ask—and listen—to what your team needs 

This applies particularly to technologies used to solve business problems. After all, technologists are often well versed on what technologies are available and which ones are trending. Rely on them for this expertise. Give them a chance to share which technologies they feel will help meet business objectives—and which ones they feel most excited about using. The bottom-line is that your team wants to grow and they want to help your business meet its goals. You can help them accomplish both by providing critical learn-by-doing opportunities.

Make skill development time sacred

This comes back to the need for technologists to learn and practice their skills in both simulated and real situations. Improvement is part of a technologist’s job. If upskilling doesn’t earn dedicated time and attention during the workday, it likely won’t happen effectively (or at all). In fact, 60% of technologists report their skill development occurs on the weekends and outside of work hours—which is unsustainable in the long term. Skill development belongs during work hours, and it requires the weight of leadership to make that a priority during the workweek.

To do this, you and your leadership team may need to extend deadlines to enable effective upskilling. This is the slowdown previously mentioned, but it will result in more confident teams and better products—and skills that will continue to pay dividends down the line.

Provide learn-by-doing opportunities

Learn-by-doing opportunities can be serious and focused, yet still unique—no one learns well watching a PowerPoint presentation over lunchtime. Get creative with how you bring your teams together to practice and apply their skills. This can include giving them access to sandboxes to hosting hackathon events—and everything in between. What matters most is that your teams have learn-by-doing opportunities to practice new techniques and apply their skills in a risk-free environment. Not only are these opportunities educational but also critical to mastering skills. 

Make learn by doing part of your strategy

The days of “move fast and break things” are behind us. Moving fast for speed’s sake and breaking things along the way created a lot of problems—ones that compounded. Customers lost confidence; employees burned out. Some argue that in the long-term, this approach diminishes value—working against your ultimate goal.

To deliver value—quickly and at scale (because those things do matter)—you need a skilled team on your side. A team that feels encouraged and supported to continuously upskill. A team that’s given a chance to practice new skills (and fail safely) and build confidence. 

Ask and listen to your team’s expertise. Give them the opportunity to voice their opinions about which technologies they feel will help your business meet its goals. Then, make skill development time a sacred time during the workweek. Providing ample opportunities during the workweek is not only a long-term investment in your technologists, it is also a long-term investment in your business.