Strategies for Continuous Learning in the Workplace Part V, Strategies for Busy Professionals

Tom Peters

In the previous four columns, I discussed strategies for continuous learning, each time from the perspective of people who were not previously empowered. But how about the already motivated and empowered professional whose work schedule is crammed from dawn ’til dusk? Given the rate of change engulfing everyone, she or he must find a way to keep up.

I, for example, do a couple of regular television spots, this column each week, a book every 18 to 24 months and present about 150 seminars a year in North America, Asia, and Europe. My customers expect me to be up to date on a wide range of issues—from the intricacies of tax policy to the state of micro-computer development and the current wisdom about proper span of control. My calendar seems to be a conspiracy aimed at keeping me away from reflection. Though each of our situations is unique, my conundrum is no different from that of the average professional banker, engineer, or consultant. Here is the three-part strategy for continuous learning that I’ve devised.

First, laying traps helps me to overcome my busy schedule and lack of self-discipline. I use a half dozen tactics that force me to expand my horizons.

1. Writing these columns. I have to emit 800 or so fairly polished and original words each week. By noon on Friday, a “finished product” must be electronically shipped to my syndicator in Orlando, Fla., no ifs, ands, or buts.

2. Using new 35-millimeter slides in my presentations. I use slides in my seminars for several reasons, including more orderly communication with the audience. But the most important is that it keeps me fresh. I conscientiously incorporate new material onto new slides. When the slide comes up on the screen during a presentation, I am forced to discuss its content. When new material is simply in a written speech outline, I can pass over it if it feels uncomfortable at the moment of truth—and, I can assure you, new material always feels uncomfortable.

3. Scheduling oddball speeches and seminars. I book 5 to 10 events each year that I know will demand original research—seminars for senior military officers, testimonies before Congressional committees on national policy issues or speeches to school administrators. When they are booked a year or more in advance, they sound like jolly good ideas. But about 60 to 90 days before each event, I panic—which is precisely the point. It’s too late to bow out, so I have to get to work.

4. Signing up to write articles for technical or professional journals that are beyond my normal areas of interest. Once again, the impending deadline forces the research to happen whether there is time or not.

5. Signing multi-book contracts. Having accepted money in advance for the book after next, conscience and honor require that it be written. This also gives legitimacy to setting aside sizeable blocks of time for writing and research, assuaging my guilty conscience, which tells me I should be “at work”—doing things that bring in money today.

6. Starting businesses or offices in new locations. My firm’s establishment of a European office in 1986 was more an effort to internationalize my (and our) thinking than it was a commercial decision.

Setting aside big chunks of time, or thinking blocks as I call them, to devote to new topics is my second strategy. After years of idle dreaming, in the summer of 1985 1 took a one-month sabbatical to a house with no phone in a three-home village in rural France. Just before departing, I grabbed all the books I could find (about 10) on the pros and cons of industrial policy. I immersed myself in them in the subsequent weeks.

Besides taking my work in some fundamental new directions, this uninterrupted period of self-study made it clear that, despite the useful traps I’ve described, I hadn’t been thinking very deeply while on the run. I have now made the happy experiment into an annual routine.

Can every professional afford a full month like this each year? Maybe not. But you probably can’t afford not to do it now and again, given today’s madcap environment. I was certain I couldn’t afford the time prior to 1985. I now know, for me, that such a process is a must.

My final strategy sounds strange at first blush: avoiding too much reading in areas where I am already reasonably well versed. That is, I don’t read many management books or journals these days, other than a quick skim for “defensive” reasons—to know what’s up. It’s not arrogance. Time is very scarce, and I’d best devote it to new fields, or work more on the fundamental phenomenon that underpin my current areas of expertise. Thus I read more basic psychological anthropological and economic tracts than business works.

These three strategies—self-laid traps, thinking blocks and avoiding over-concentration on current strengths—are not for everyone. But having a well-conceived strategy for continual learning should be for everyone. Wisdom that comes with age and experience is important to a professional, but constant exposure to novel input is at least as important. The most effective professionals I’ve observed know their own turf cold, to be sure. But their special added value, for clients and colleagues, is their ability to draw upon analogous ideas from disparate fields to form analyses about problems closer to home. Only a lifelong dedication to self-education will fill this bill.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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