Accelerating Agency

When learners are active, self-directed and know what they want, the program can get out of the way, and shift to a supporting role.

Peer advisory

Kelly Thompson's writing group carried her from her novice days to her bestseller:

We started out as a group of five, four women and one man, all with a variety of backgrounds and writing interests, as well as some variation in experience. We met every two weeks in a public space and did critiques of each other’s work. We began mostly with short stories and the occasional article or essay, but also some novel excerpts, and pretty soon, moved on to full novels.

Guidance doesn't need to come from experts. Learners develop their own critical thinking by advising others, and seeing the results of that advice. They can also spend more time analysing and identifying problems, which usually benefits more from attention than experience.

There’s nothing quite like getting a crit from another writer. They know so much going in about how it all works and they are the best at spotting your weaknesses. I also find that they're the best at being both gentle and honest, simply because they get it in a way that non-writers don't.

By forming peer support groups around common interests, peers can keep their progress on track by themselves.

Braintrust is a peer advisory format for entrepreneurs that we started in London and started to spread around Europe:

A group of 3-5 entrepreneurs commits to meeting for one hour, every two weeks, for two months.  Each presents their PPP (plans, progress, problems) reports in 3 minutes, followed by a rapid-fire feedback discussion for 5 minutes. It's all timed, and the rules focus the feedback on learning goals, the methods used to do that learning, and the interpretation of the results.

The handout, which was co-written by the long-term participants explains:

Regular peer feedback helps us see the big picture and stay on track. You can think of it like going to a personal trainer, so you develop regular habits, but that the personal trainer is a group of your friends, so more about what you learn together.

It's not about business advice, but having extra pairs of eyes on where you're heading, how you're getting there, and how fast.

Block time for them to get to work

Knowledge retention and application suffer when learners don't have time to apply what they've learned.

Once an initial skillset is known, time to try it and assimilated it is needed. This takes time, so consider scheduling application time more than instruction time, and setting expectations that learners should raise their needs. This input then directs educational content.

Peer retrospectives

For Jan Chipchase to do his job, he has had to carry chunks of gold into markets in Myanmar, borrow money from loan sharks in Malaysia, meet taxi drivers in Rio's favellas, and hang out in gun markets in Kabul. Jan isn't a mercenary; he actually has a corporate job.

Capture learning by internalising the experience

There's a difference between getting the job done, and learning from the experience so that it improves everyone's work next time.

Explicit time for retrospection allows people to synthesise their experience, reflect, and decide how to change. Without it, people will be able to recall their experiences, and cite new knowledge, but that falls short of actually changing their thinking patterns and behaviour.

High intensity is common in education as well. From multi-day conferences, startup accelerators and long-haul post-graduate projects, both the educators and the learners put themselves under continuous, intensive pressure. The hours are long, the outcomes are uncertain and the stakes are high. They also need decompression time to reflect.

360 Feedback

Educators learn just as much as their learners, so we also make time to reflect, and structure this with a Retrospective format called 360 Feedback.

In a relaxing, post-project atmosphere, we usually do something fun before getting into feedback, to create a safe space for accepting criticism.

Each team member has a turn in the spotlight, and the other team members write bullet point observations: positive feedback, and suggestions for change. For example:

Pluses - please continue or do more of:

  • You're always self-improving
  • You're calm
  • You figure out people, and help them find the best way to participate.

Deltas - please change:

  • Reduce moving targets
  • Take more time to teach people your ways
  • Avoid overlapping projects

The receiver of the feedback listens without speaking until everyone has explained their points, and talked through concrete examples and stories. Then, the receiver can ask clarifying questions about that feedback.

There is no obligation to commit to acting on the feedback, but it is often discussed. "What if I do it this way next time? It's hard for me to do what you suggest, but I think I can improve by doing this instead."

The feedback is a gift - it needs time to sink in, and acting on it is left to the receiver's discretion.

Group advice

Matt Wainright became known in The Africa Prize for raising millions of dollars in investment, but when it came to closing deals with customers he needed help.

Standard Microgrid is a South African company that makes solar power plants the size of a single shipping container. They can be up and running with paying customers in any African village in a week, putting power in hundreds of homes.

Matt is one of the founders of Standard Microgrid, and a former management consultant at Deloitte. He has a sophisticated investment model, and was able to raise millions of dollars of funding within the company's first three years. Standard Microgrid's next challenge was closing deals with energy ministries in different countries, and this is where Matt was stuck.

One day, instead of going into the conference center training rooms, we took over the patio at our hotel.  Each founder had a chance to select a "dream team" from the other 15 Africa Prize startups to tackle their biggest head-scratcher.  They'd think of a big problem that was a good fit for the strengths of the other startup founders in the program, and they'd have 2 hours of their time to dedicate to their challenge.

One caveat though. They had 15 minutes to describe the problem to their dream team, and then they'd have to stay silent for the next 1 hour 45 minutes, observing how their team worked. This forces the challenger to learn to delegate (with the help of canvas we designed to help in Solve for X delegation), and gives leeway to the team to do it their way while the challenger learns their mindset.

At first, the team brainstormed ideas and it was hard for Matt to stay quiet.  He was sure so much of what he was hearing wouldn't work, and he didn't want to squander this chance.  But he stayed silent, even though he kept making faces like a kid in school who wants to be excused to the restroom.

One of his dream team members had an SMS app for detecting prenatal problems in pregnant women.  They didn't believe in Matt's approach to work with national governments because they'd found it was faster to work with local counties. They started to repurpose their sales and commission approach for Matt's energy business, even researched specific contacts and made some calls to start the ball rolling.

Self-directed learners hold a wealth of ideas to share about a problem.  An off-the-cuff comment in a brainstorm is often enough to expose solutions, but some challenges need a diverse group to go deep.

Learners with low agency can be overwhelmed by the sheer onslaught of quick and fresh perspectives, but self-directed learners crave it. And they can more easily filter out what's not useful to them.

Small group projects

Hackathons are volunteer-driven technology building gatherings usually between 30 to 200 strangers gathering around a certain technology or social problem. Teams form around project ideas, and build them in a day or so. It's a race against the clock to find an idea, make prototype and to demonstrate it at the end of the event.