The New Permanent Beta

Never too small to take Learning & Development seriously

When we launched the Made by Many Professional Development programme earlier this summer, we didn’t anticipate the torrent of interest that came tumbling in from outside the business. And people were genuinely surprised to hear that we’d invested in writing, designing and publishing three books despite being a business of only around 40 people.

Made by Many’s Professional Development handbooks

Made by Many started small, ten years ago, inspired by the superpowers apparent in the start-ups emerging at the time. Our size has never stopped us from punching above our weight, to tackle sizeable projects with international clients. And our size has been even less of a consideration in creating a professional development programme — we saw that we had a growing body of expertise that was crying out to be codified — it didn’t occur to us that this might seem overcooked. Work has become increasingly complicated, our industry sees more “high-agency” people than before who won’t settle unless it’s right, want greater structure and support within which to pursue their career goals. Our clients come to us not just to make things for them but also to help them rewire their organisations. All of this adds up to a clear directive for learning and development as a priority for us.

I should explain — my job at Made by Many is to foster learning and development for our teams, and to collaborate with practitioners in design, technology, product management and strategy to devise packages and programmes that build capability within our clients teams and organisations. It’s met with surprise that we should have a dedicated person looking after L&D despite being fairly small.

Continuous improvement, every day

If we consider ourselves a process rather than a product, we open up to learning, to growth, to the possibility of adaptation.

I’m interested in the idea articulated by Vincent Deary in his book How we are — that if we consider ourselves a process rather than a product, we open up to learning, to growth, to the possibility of adaptation. In that sense, Made by Many has from its very beginnings developed a culture of change, of learning and continuous improvement. Our processes give structure to the work we do, but it is our open mindset that makes learning a practice that’s woven into the everyday — until recently our founders described the business as an experiment. Now we’re ten years old and still trying new things all of the time to get to the best results.

The impetus behind creating an L&D position within a small consultancy really stemmed from the recognition that our business is driven by people and knowledge. Put that simply, L&D is not a ‘nice-to-have’ or a luxury, it’s a business necessity. We’ve always attracted people on the basis that they can ‘learn something new every day.’

The Made by Many studio, Diespeker Wharf

I remember one of my early conversations with one of the founders — ambitious to create the company in a different mould — he said to me, “Working here is going to push you, it’s going to be challenging and you’ll learn a lot. This isn’t a place for people seeking the Comfort Zone. Comfort Zones are where people go to die.” Sounds brutal, perhaps. But the intent behind it made sense — when you’re in business, you want to attract and retain people who are excited about their work, who bring their whole self and engage completely. Fostering an intentional learning culture is an important part of that. And it also obviates the need to make learning something that’s artificially separated out from working (have a read of this article which articulates that thought very well).

“Comfort Zones are where people go to die.”

Learning by doing

Anyone familiar with the 70 | 20 | 10 learning model can appreciate how beneficial it is to people’s growth if ‘on the job’ learning (the 70% of that sum) is embedded in the day to day. And in our area of expertise — digital product development — there is a lot of literature and a whole lotta internet a person can consume to be in a position to talk the talk around making great products with lasting impact. The thing is, the theory is next to useless if not backed up with experience. We are in the business of making — so having a rounded experience of design, technology, strategy and product management are unbeatable. In that sense, learning by doing is 100% embedded in the day to day at Made by Many.

Our continuous improvement culture borrows practices from agile and lean methodologies such as retrospectives, rigorous pursuit of value, discovery frameworks — all of which have learning at their core. The essence of our learning culture is driven by individual curiosity, by teams ambitious to make products informed by business and customer needs, and to share their knowledge generously with clients and each other. We recruit for curiosity as much as experience. We promote the idea that it’s OK not to have all of the answers, so long as you have the means and motivation to seek them.

Healthy debate is our M.O.

The majority of our clients come to us not only because of the proven impact our projects deliver but because they expect us to challenge them in pursuit of creating something transformative. This makes what we do evermore interesting, as it gives us the opportunity to explicitly create Product Culture and its attendant capabilities within client organisations. Whether that’s about digital product development, collaborative working, cross-disciplinary collaboration, developing Product Culture or kick-starting a culture of innovation, we design client engagements to enable the client team to learn as much as they’re open to learn during the course of the project.

One simple principle that so many corporates seem to have lost sight of and are now scrabbling to redress: happy, engaged people do better work and deliver more for your bottom line. The way we work is energised, fast-paced, passionate and considered — forward momentum is compelling — people want to be a part of that. They want to grow through their experiences at work. Learning by doing is really effective.

Practically speaking

Every discussion, exchange, meeting, crit is an opportunity to learn, to create a ‘teachable moment.’

I mentioned earlier that our business came together as an experiment, and that this experimental ethos continues to this day. We’ve established a number of ‘learning’ practices over the years, and are always adapting, tweaking and renewing what we do.

  • Every discussion, exchange, meeting, crit is an opportunity to learn, to create a ‘teachable moment.’ For example, when an experienced colleague engages people in a brief analysis and discussion of what just happened.
  • Mentoring: each new joiner is assigned a mentor from within their discipline who can help them grow their craft, settle into the company and generally be supportive (this is distinct from line managers — ugh, we’re still not comfortable with that term but haven’t found a suitable alternative). We also run a 3-month summer internship programme which gives people an opportunity to mentor.
  • Real-time (or as near as real-time) feedback: adopting this practice requires a shift in how we communicate with each other before it feels entirely natural! Very much a work in progress.
  • Team sprint retrospectives: at the end of a two week sprint, teams follow a standard agile retrospective format. Together, they take time to reflect on how work is progressing, discuss any issues with the team dynamic, sense-check velocity and take action to course correct where necessary.
  • End of project retrospectives: our projects average 8–12 weeks and at the end I run a session with the team that’s tailored to the specific challenges faced. Teams come away with actionable ideas to apply on their next project. Check out Corinna Baldauf’s Retromat for inspiration.
Team reflection in a retrospective
  • Vimeo learning channel with short, accessible ‘lessons learned’ to share with colleagues.
  • Regular ‘mind-melds’ for project teams to play back the work to the whole company and tell the inside story.
  • Quarterly socialised learning from multiple projects: sense-making across the projects to pull out common themes and share these with the company with the aim taking inspiration, acquiring tools or techniques and not repeating mistakes.
  • Quarterly reviews and check-ins with the disciplines (design, technology, product management) to identify and address areas for improvement across the practice.
  • Slack tips shared by the project lead to grow teams’ client management skills.

Regular reflection and moments to assess what you’ve learned help cement understanding. If you’re constantly ‘doing’ without taking the time out to participate in rituals like retrospectives or 1-to-1s with your mentor, it can be hard to recognise the progress you’ve made as an individual. Continuous improvement requires a growth mindset and will really only work if people are open and confident enough about their abilities to actively engage in a dialogue about what they want to improve.

In recognition that we are all different in our receptivity and learning styles, we try various methods to support learning day in, day out. This includes a ‘Just in Time’ approach to training, most recently applied on our internship programme. Inspired by the Toyota Production System principle of Just in Time manufacturing, in-house training is designed to mesh precisely with the context of the team’s project, so that what’s being taught can be immediately applied. We take teams on a journey that uses their project’s context as the focal point and adapting training materials to incorporate the content the team is actively engaged on.

Learning as a directive, and a deliverable

Qualitative research sits at the heart of our approach — whether with business owners, senior leadership teams or their consumers; we embark on each project with a simple question: ‘What do we need to learn in order to achieve X?’

Defining the right problem to solve is fundamental to the success of a project and the ‘right problem’ can only be arrived at if we consider learning as a deliverable of the process.

In pursuit of the right problem, teams inevitably learn an awful lot that informs the direction they will ultimately follow and the product they’ll make. Eric Ries has recently coined the term ‘productive waste’, which is in effect, learning. Not even a genius gets to the right answer first time and the experiments that lead to something being made all contribute to creating something better.

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

The nature of experimentation comes with the implicit possibility that not everything a team does will be successful, in which case the reflection and ‘what did we learn’ process becomes the deliverable (Note: this can be a bitter pill to swallow for clients — nobody likes to pay for failure, even when it leads to better outcomes. This is why it’s important to be geared to experiment and learn in short order, thereby minimising the cost and impact of failed experiments.) As Henry Ford put it, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

As the person heading up L&D, I also run all of our end of project retrospectives with the express intent of connecting the dots across projects. Helping teams to not make the same mistakes over and again, by surfacing common issues and socialising lessons learned. Giving teams the structure and space to reflect on what they’ve learned individually and together. Taking the best bits to use in the next project.

So that’s what Learning and Development means to us: learning by doing, continuous improvement and above all, an open culture that encourages people to be curious, unafraid to question, courageous and compassionate in the face of the unknown.

Tilly the Weimeraner, a dog who’s always learning new tricks

Made by Many is a new type of consulting company that brings together product design, business strategy and software engineering as a unified discipline. For 10 years we’ve been helping forward-looking companies to re-imagine their customer experiences, create new models for growth and build new capabilities. See our work.