Learning while doing

Your talent wants a learning culture. Here are 5 steps to create one

How to create a culture of learning employees will want to stay for

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Today’s talent demands more of employers, and learning is at the top of their list. Gallup found that 87% of millennials and 69% of non-millennials rate “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as key to their job. Yet, research shows that 74% of workers don’t feel they’re achieving their full potential due to a lack of development opportunities.

While traditional training has its merits, learning while doing and a reflection practice can set up a worker with true behavior change and top performance.


To share more on experiential learning and creating change in your organization, Quartz at Work turned to a book excerpt from September’s Next Big Idea Club must-read list. The author of The Performance Paradox, Eduardo Briceño, shares his expertise in developing a culture of learning and high performance.

The experiential learning cycle

People often use the phrase learning by doing to convey their interest in becoming skilled at something by doing it. But that can easily be misinterpreted to mean that they simply do something and expect learning to follow. Simply doing generates some improvement only while we are novices. Once we become proficient, it doesn’t work anymore. We need to add some learning zone to our performance zone. Learning while doing rather than learning by doing is a reminder not to just do.


John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and David Kolb—education reformers who pioneered experiential learning and learning while doing—understood this. Their description of those concepts involved not only doing things but also developing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, and reflecting. The theorists usually represented the process as a cycle. There are different versions of this cycle, but they all boil down to the same basic process:

  • Try something new and experience the effects
  • Reflect on your observations
  • Develop a hypothesis based on those observations
  • Plan how to test that hypothesis
  • Repeat the cycle by trying something new again.

This cycle is very different from merely doing because, as Dewey pointed out, “we do not learn from experience . . . we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Learning while doing at Starbucks

Traca Savadogo, now a speaker and relationship strategist, came up with her own version of this experiential learning cycle early in her career when she worked early mornings as a barista at a busy Starbucks in Seattle.


As a sleep-deprived barista, Traca sometimes had trouble remembering orders, especially during the morning rush. She frequently had to ask her colleagues to remind her what she was supposed to be making, which was frustrating for them. She kept making mistakes, which led to waste, redos, and longer customer wait times. But she needed the job because it provided her with health insurance, not to mention regular caffeine infusions.

One day, she came up with an idea: She asked her colleagues to write drink orders on the sides of the cups rather than yell the orders over the noise of the brewing machines and customer chatter. It worked—and not only did it solve her problem, but the change also helped her coworkers better remember the orders and made the coffee shop quieter and calmer.


“We were the only store in the chain that did it,” Traca told me. But despite the success, when Traca started picking up shifts at other Starbucks locations, she encountered resistance to her suggestion.

This was not how Starbucks’s employees had been told to do their jobs. Plus, writing down the orders involved an extra step that they didn’t see the need for. Today, Traca would explain that the extra step helped her remember orders, but at the time, she was hesitant to disclose what felt like a weakness.


Luckily, Starbucks is a learning organization. “They are always asking for feedback from their staff and customers, and they take it very seriously,” she told me. Traca decided to speak up because she felt the company was building something great and wanted to contribute. She already had data showing that the practice worked. She had experimented and gotten clear results.

After continuing to improve on and refine Traca’s idea over time, Starbucks now prints order information on cups globally. Regardless of whether the order is placed via the mobile app, a drive through, a delivery partner, or in person, every cup has detailed instructions about what should go in it.


If Traca had just kept her head down and focused solely on performance, she would have continued to make the same early morning mistakes and probably gotten fired, causing herself a lot more stress along the way. Instead, she pioneered an iconic practice that allowed her to thrive in her job, helped all other baristas, and made Starbucks locations quieter, calmer, and more efficient.

5 ways to commit to learning

Traca’s story offers some clues about how to bring a commitment to learning even to high-pressure situations where there seemingly isn’t much time to think or problem-solve.


1. Take note of the problem. Hint: When you notice that something isn’t working, it’s a great time to step into the Learning Zone.

2. Devise a simple experiment—a new approach to an old way of doing things. Traca paid attention to whether the “orders on the cups” strategy was working. Were customers satisfied? Were her coworkers happy with the change? Was it improving their track record for getting orders right?


3. Ask yourself, “How might we magnify the impact?” After getting positive results, Traca spoke up to share her discovery and suggested that other branches adopt the practice.

4. Don’t give up when you hit “know-it-all” resistance. “That’s not the way we do things here” was the refrain she heard when she first shared her idea with other branches. But, her branch was experiencing a lot of success with the new practice. Why ignore a valuable lesson?


5. Stay committed to performing. Traca never stopped serving customers while innovating. She kept her focus on meeting customers’ needs even as she asked herself, “How can we get better?”

Let go of “how we do things” around here

Managers take note: Traca Savadogo’s simple, low-risk experiment is a powerful reminder of how a stubborn commitment to tradition can undercut creative solutions that improve a customer’s experience. Whenever we hold too tightly to “This is the way we do things here” without considering that there may be better ways, we’re effectively asking our employees to behave like robots, merely going through the motions of their jobs.


By empowering people to challenge the status quo by asking “What’s not working?” or “How could things work better?” and then running small-scale experiments, we not only improve the customer experience, we empower employees to bring their own creative thinking and curiosity to their work, which increases their commitment and sense of ownership.

Too many of us spend most of our time going through our to-dos with the sole goal of getting things done. But we have so much to gain by shifting our focus to getting things done in a way that will also lead to improvement. It’s about staying curious, asking questions, trying new things, soliciting feedback, and paying attention to new information.


Excerpted from The Performance Paradox: Turning the Power of Mindset into Action by Eduardo Briceño. Copyright © 2023 by Growth.how LLC. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Eduardo Briceño is author of The Performance Paradox, a Next Big Idea Club Must-Read for September 2023. He is a global keynote speaker and facilitator who guides many of the world’s leading companies in developing cultures of learning and high performance. He co-founded Mindset Works with Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, and his TED and TEDx Talks have been viewed more than nine million times.