When I was a kid, my dad bought a big regulation-sized pool table, and had it set up right in the middle of our family room. It was pretty intimidating, and we were sternly warned that it was not for roughhousing. We knew that if one of us tore the beautiful green felt, we should probably just pack our bags and run away to join the circus. A sin like that would not be forgiven.
We all tried playing pool, especially after school when my dad was still at work and everyone got pretty good, except me. I was a terrible pool player. I was so bad at it that after a while, my siblings refused to play with me. It was so easy to win a game from me that it wasn’t even fun to do it anymore.
My dad noticed that I wasn’t playing, and he asked me why. I said that I had tried, but I just wasn’t any good at it. He offered to teach me how to play, but I knew it was a lost cause and I said, “That’s OK, Dad. I really don’t want to.” And he replied, “Don’t spend a quarter to learn something that you can learn for free.” I had no idea what he meant.
Of course, what he meant was that he had spent a lot of quarters (I realize it’s more costly now) learning how to play pool in bars in his youth, but I was only twelve, so the adage was lost on me until he explained it. If someone is willing to teach you something, take advantage of it.
After that, he taught me step-by-step to play pool. He was very methodical, which did not surprise me, and very patient, which surprised me a lot. My dad was very impatient and had a hair-trigger temper, but I guess that having the sacred felt-covered altar in the temple of his family room was enough to calm him down in order to gain a new acolyte to the gods of Eight Ball.
He didn’t just hand me a cue and tell me to keep practicing. He taught me how to chalk the cue, how to make my hand into a stable bridge, how to hold the cue, how to break, and how to work out the geometry of a shot. When I told him I couldn’t do something, he listened carefully and then parsed apart what I was doing wrong and showed me how I could change it and do it correctly.
Every evening after work, we would play pool and every day I got better. I even started to practice on my own. I think he enjoyed it a lot too. My proof of this was that he didn’t even ask me if my homework was done before we played.
We progressed from the basics to more complicated skills, like banking a shot and putting “English” on the cue ball to make tricky side pocket shots. Much to my surprise, I started to look forward to our daily games.
After I gained some confidence, I asked my siblings if they would pay pool with me. They sneered and told me to go away, but I kept bugging them and finally my brother said he would play. I creamed him. It wasn’t even a close game. He felt sorry for me, so he let me have the break and I ran the table on him. It’s true what they say. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
What I learned from that experience has stayed with me. When you’re trying to teach someone a new skill, you have to get them excited about learning and making it safe for them to fail while they are doing so. You have to talk a little and listen a lot. Observation is really key. It may sound funny, but moving your lips tends to interfere with your vision.
I am a Project Manager and I rely heavily on my team members to take good meeting notes, write action items and track and report status. I review, edit and make corrections that I think are appropriate, but I am only able to be successful if they are successful at doing the day-to-day groundwork. I recently received a lot of really nice feedback on the way I taught new team members how to do these things. I realized that I had been applying the teaching techniques that my Dad used when he taught me to play pool. Figure out where the person is on the skills continuum, make sure they master the basics, and then keep it interesting by teaching advanced techniques. All the while, remembering to be polite so that people can hear your words, and respectful so that you can help them understand why something is done a certain way, and they can hear it. Respect is like oxygen; you don’t really notice it until there isn’t any.
These techniques worked with an uncertain 12-year-old girl. They work just as well with sophisticated, well-educated adults. And just as happened with my dad, my joy in teaching was more than matched by their pleasure in mastering a new skill. If people are not allowed to fail along the way and get support to improve, they will be reluctant to try new things. Supporting them through the learning process is the best way to foster innovation.