Training vs Experience: They Are Not the Same Thing

The other day I wrote about executing engineering projects, using landscaping projects as an analogy. I really liked it and realized I wanted to write more about it.

In my experience, a frequent issue that managers and leaders encounter is not understanding the difference in training and experience. In fact, I’ve seen many managers and leaders not know the differences themselves, and not know how to apply each concept appropriately.

A common scenario I was in as a technical manager was the technical staff coming to me and saying they needed more training. When I would ask what they needed more training for specifically (to use the previous analogy) they would say they “didn’t know how to make the yard pretty.”

Another occurrence to prepare for as a manager is customer satisfaction. It is not uncommon for your customer to come to you and say, “This lawn just isn’t pretty.” Or for a technical leader to come in and look at the project and say, “this lawn isn’t turning out to be pretty.”

How do you handle these situations?

A good manager will respond quickly and decisively, and help the technical staff by getting them training. Sounds good, right? The staff is facing challenges doing their job, so we’ll get them training so they can do their job!

Well, here’s the problem.

So the technical staff goes to training, and here are the skills they learn:

  • How to drive the latest and greatest lawnmower
  • How to operate mini-backhoes to plant trees
  • How to install a next-generation sprinkler system

These are all crucial skills and are needed in successful execution of a project. But none of them address the question, “how to make the yard pretty?”. Yes, you need to plant trees, but where? Yes, you need a sprinkler system, but what color, size, and shape are the flowerbeds?

The way to be able to answer those questions is to gain experience, to learn how to make a yard pretty. But how do you gain experience?

1. Apprenticeships, or Shadowing

One way is to have employees be involved with projects with other employees who already have that experience. To follow the landscaping analogy, my wife works with a city gardening club, and they do all the landscaping for the local library. She has gained a lot of experience learning “how to make a flowerbed pretty” by helping with other volunteers who have been planting flowerbeds for many years, and who craft gorgeous, award-winning flowerbeds. By helping them out, planting the types of flowers in the locations that the experienced volunteers point out, she is learning design patterns and techniques that are very visually pleasing. 

But how do you know that these design patterns are visually pleasing? One way to learn is…

2. Don’t be afraid to fail, just be ready to rapidly iterate

You can learn these different design patterns, but you may not necessarily know what is going to resonate with the target audience or not. You have to try something, and it may not work out, so you try something else again. This is especially true for creative or pathfinder work. If you’re designing a new mobile or web-based application, you may not know initially what implementations are going to resonate with your users. So you need to try something with the understanding that it may not be well-received, and just be ready to quickly iterate the next solution attempt, until you find something that the users like. But this means you can’t be afraid to have those first couple iterations not be well received.

3. Have Passion!

But when it comes down to it, the most important factor is the employee’s passion and desire, and willingness to gain experience. The reality is, many employees don’t really want to learn all the how’s and why’s of “how to make a yard pretty”. They want to show up for work every day and be told where to go plant trees. They will dutifully attend training and learn new and better ways to plant trees, but that’s about it. As a manager and leader you have to identify who the employees are that have the desire to gain this deeper level of experience, and then encourage and support them on their journey.

Training and experience are both important, but it’s critical for managers to learn the difference between them, and how to utilize them effectively to ensure success for their teams and their customers.

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