In April, I joined a group of entrepreneurs and business leaders at private and family-owned businesses from different industries in Detroit for their annual summit.
For over ten years they have been coming together to hear how others are building purpose-driven and people-first companies as part of a movement known as Small Giants.
A handful of the original members are still part of the group, but the shared work, stories, and artifacts created over time give their meetings a sense of continuity and purpose. If you were a fly-on-the-wall in Detroit in April you would notice how new members are warmly welcomed into “the family”, how many people step up to take initiative or share their war stories, and how ambitious core members were to advance the practice of building companies that choose to be great instead of big.
The Small Giants Community is a community of practice.
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. - Etienne Wenger
Building Knowledge Over Breakfast
A famous example of a community of practice formed at Xerox. The customer service representatives who fixed Xerox machines in the field were routinely dealing with complexity that was impossible to capture in a standard operating procedure. Each machine was slightly different from the next. These Xerox reps began exchanging repair tips and tricks in informal meetings over breakfast.
While eating, the reps talked shop. They posed questions, raised problems, offered solutions, constructed answers, laughed at mistakes, and discussed changes in their work, the machines, and customer relations. They kept one another up to date about what they knew, what they'd learned, and what they were doing. Eventually, Xerox formalized these interactions to be shared across their global network, creating a database estimated to have saved the company $100 million.
We Learn Best From Each Other
For skills and behaviors, it has been shown that imitation is the fundamental mechanism of human behavior. We learn best from others. This is, of course, the core reason why mentoring is such a powerful mechanism for learning.
In his book, Smartcuts, Shane Snow explores how incredibly successful people and companies do extraordinary things in short timeframes. He identifies mentorship as a critical component of this.
“Mentorship is the secret of many of the highest-profile achievers throughout history. Socrates mentored young Plato, who in turn mentored Aristotle. Aristotle mentored a boy named Alexander, who went on to conquer the known world as Alexander the Great.”
Another key reason why we learn best from each other is feedback.
Maria Konnikova, a best-selling author turned professional poker player, learned how to play by being mentored by Erik Seidel, the Michael Jordan of poker.
His role in providing feedback was critical for her rapid learning, as she describes:
“That's how he taught me. It was not a prescriptive ‘this is what you do here’. It was ‘Ah. Why did you do this? What motivated you? What were you thinking?’ That's fascinating, because you're getting a lot of it iterations, and you're getting feedback.”
Feedback from others helps us evaluate our decisions and refine our thinking by introducing new information and perspectives we could never have on our own.
Finally, people learning in groups feel accountable to their peers. It's like a workout class. If you attend every class, and suddenly miss one, there is a feeling of letting everyone else down. You're in this together. This creates stickiness and a sense of community around learning.
Learning Is A Journey
There is another interesting reason why learning together with others works.
Learning is a journey and everyone is at different stages of the journey. Some groups (Journey Groups) are characterized by having people with a similar (but not the same) experience and skill level to each other. Other groups (Destination Groups) are characterized by having some members already doing what other members aspire to do. The experience and skill gap is much wider.
They both have benefits to learning.
Journey Groups, in which you’re working closely with others with a similar experience and skill level to you, are better for learning from the struggles of others. Your struggles are similar. By virtue of being smaller, Journey Groups are better for finding partners to keep you accountable and honest. Finally, you get much tighter feedback loops from close-knit Journey Groups.
In contrast, Destination Groups give you the ultimate shortcut to learning by exposing you to the ideas and frameworks of mentors you aspire to be like. Similarly, being around those you look up to can motivate you to set bigger, hairier goals. Destination Groups also tend to set the constraints around which the overall learning experience is built.
I’ve written more about Destination and Journey Groups here.
The Circle Of Learning
Learning By Sharing expands the Circle of Learning I shared in my previous letter on Learning By Doing a little bit further.
As you can see, there is still space around our circle. There is one more type of learning that expands the circle, but first, I’m going to dive deeper into group-based learning to give you practical tips on how to set it up for success.