Learning Curves

A couple of weeks ago I started an engagement for a new client on a big high-profile project. Whenever I start a new gig I think about a lunchtime conversation I had in a pub in my early twenties with an old friend: we’d both just started jobs that felt like a big step up at the time, and were confiding in each other that we felt out of our depth – it seemed less like a learning curve that we could scramble up, and more like an impossible wall to climb.

A few weeks later we were both wondering what all the fuss had been about – the Three Letter Acronyms had meaning, we’d learned the names of a lot of the people in our organisations, and were getting to grips with our different roles and how to do them.

Since then, the feeling of mild panic and confusion when starting each new job. engagement has steadily diminished with experience. Projects (in particular) tend to have repeating patterns, and broadly-consistent terminology which enables us to identify problems you’ve already seen, and re-assure nervous new colleagues that you (vaguely) know what you’re talking about.

My friend and I have since agreed that if you don’t feel a little out of our depth in a new role, then we probably haven’t stretched ourselves enough – if we’re starting a new job and you already know the ropes, we’re probably re-tracing steps and the opportunity for learning is greatly diminished. Likewise, if we stay in a role too long, we experience diminishing returns the longer we stay, as our learning curve flattens over time. On old boss of mine was fond of asking whether someone had five years of experience, or five years repeating the same things each year – ‘are they 1×5, or 5×1?’.

So when we step into an environment where there are more acronyms than we’ve ever imagined, and so many moving parts, organisations involved, and people to talk to that by the end of some meetings we’re not sure who’s who – it’s an unsettling experience, but not a negative one.

It reminds us of the need to get our heads down, read the voluminous documentation, listen to people, and draw lots of pictures to make sure that our understanding the context of the project, and that what we’re delivering matches the pictures in everyone else’s heads.

With each new challenge our knowledge, understanding, and abilities grow, and over time our learning curves build on each other so that we can start creating value for our clients (or our boss) more quickly.

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@anthony__lewis