Have you ever seen the wonder of a murmuration? It’s the phenomenon where great flocks of birds (often starlings) fly and swoop at great speeds, changing direction, moving in formation, performing a beautiful dance in the sky. In the 1930s, ornithologist Edmund Selous speculated that the birds had some kind of ESP that guided their actions. But recent studies have discovered that an individual bird’s flight inside that giant cloud of movement is being influenced by just the seven nearest birds.

There’s a lesson in there for those of us who want to steer the development of people on our team – our own flock of starlings, if you will. People, too, can take cues from one another so that they develop in the same direction, often part of a much larger movement that advances specialty skills and practices.

In my career, I’ve been part of L&D teams that needed to develop new skills en masse, triggered by initiatives like a push to improve evaluation, a desire to develop more e-learning modules, a need to strengthen consulting skills, and more. I’ve worked with clients who had similar projects: to strengthen project management, or to develop leaders as teachers and developers, for example.

A project to upskill an entire team uses many tried-and-true strategies, but there are some specific techniques we can incorporate that take advantage of the power of social learning, using the group to reinforce learning, provide support, and explore a skill together. There are four team learning techniques that come immediately to mind, and a number of additional less intense techniques to consider as well.

Here are some of the ways you can guide a mini-murmuration for team learning.

Action Learning

Action learning has been a widespread practice since the 1940s, shaped by the work of Reginald Ravens. The core method is to put together a group of people who will support one another’s learning – whether each with their own agenda or all learning to apply the same skill. The purpose of their learning is action – goals to accomplish or changes to make. Groups meet regularly to review their progress, identify and plan additional learning, and challenge one another. A textbook feature of action learning is to have an action learning coach as a member of each team, whose role it is to ensure that people are learning efficiently and effectively. In each meeting, one or more of the members shares their story, and the group uses generative questions to help the member analyze the situation, see new possibilities, and make a plan for going forward. Action learning is an often-used management development tool, aimed at improving performance.

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Working Out Loud Circle

Conceived by John Stepper, a Working Out Loud Circle is a peer coaching group of 4-5 people whose intention is to support one another in achieving goals. Advocates recommend a weekly 60-90-minute meeting for up to 12 weeks at a time. Each week’s meeting has a specific sharing and action agenda, depending on the purpose for your working out loud circle. A group working on goals might have agendas such as attuning attention, taking three small steps, improving visibility, and exploring making original contributions. A group working on building team cohesion might have agendas to define goals, identify strengths, share feedback, and more. Imagine creating a loose structure of working out loud to help members learn and apply specific skills, sharing their successes and stumbles so the whole group learns from the experiences of many. Benefits include being accountable to peers for advancing your work and building and strengthening your network.

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Mastermind Group

A mastermind group is another form of mutual support network originally recommended by Napoleon Hill. Often forming around a specific learning topic, members share ideas, progress, and advice in a more informal way than the action learning or work out loud circle structure. All you need is the commitment of a small group of like-minded people, and agreement on how you will approach meeting up and supporting one another. There’s often an element of mutual accountability as well, where members report on action steps from previous meetings. A mastermind group meets regularly and attempts to give each member equal time in a “hot seat” to discuss their particular issues. Agendas include such items as round-robin check in, reports of successes and challenges, planning for future action, requests for help, and the like. As a development initiative, you can imagine a mastermind group as a way of supporting application of skills on the job, or a way of mutually exploring a topic of interest.

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Internal Conference

With travel budgets constrained and employees working in dispersed locations, getting people together on a regular basis is a critical team-building and culture-reinforcing practice. What better reason to get everyone in the same place but to organize a substantial learning event. Like professional conferences, your internal event can feature keynotes, workshops, and concurrent sessions where peers share what they know with one another. It’s a great way to showcase internal experts and improve mutual support. Your conferences’ informal spaces – meals and social activities – can help your team get to know one another better and initiate collaborations.

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Additional team learning techniques

After-action reviews. Also known as lessons-learned meetings, these are deliberate conversations at the close of a project to identify what went well, what didn’t, and what learning can be taken forward for similar projects in the future. These are not meant to attribute accolades or blame, but to take an objective look at the situation and the in-action learning that it generated. The best after-action reviews have prepared questions, a skilled facilitator, good note-taking, and mutual trust and desire to get better. Many teams have after-action reviews as a routine step in the project close-out process.

Development as team meeting agenda item. When everyone on the team is interested in the same subject, a simple strategy is to devote a significant portion of regular team meetings to discussion on the topic. These are usually grounded in some kind of prework – reading an article or book, watching a video, or looking at peer projects. The leader comes prepared with generative discussion questions to help the group process what insights from the prework might imply for their future work. In many teams, members take turns identifying the prework and leading discussion. Over time, consistent attention to the same topic helps to deepen everyone’s knowledge.

Peer curation. Learning a new topic or skill can be a solo endeavor, but you can bring people together quite easily by simply opening up a bookmarking site where the team can share their recommended resources on the topic. Using your own tools, or a web-based platform like Diigo or Padlet, you can collate curated materials that can form the basis for shared understanding. Many of these tools have room for notes so people can point out key ideas. Using this strategy can save people from fruitless internet searches so that they can use their development time in reviewing materials that their peers have already found useful. (Plus you won’t have to search email for that article your colleague sent weeks ago.)

Showing your work. One of the best ways to learn is to see examples of terrific work – and when people work independently, their view into other people’s work products can be limited. That’s the problem solved by showing your work. The core idea is that everyone shares their work – both in-progress and as completed – so that others can glean lessons from it. Work can be shared on blogs, shared online spaces, discussion board threads, or even physical bulletin boards or display cases. It’s also an effective practice to enable interchange with others by enabling comments on a blog, encouraging replies in a discussion board or generating discussion after presentations to peers.

Shared online spaces and discussion forums. With the proliferation of social media spaces, enterprise social networks sometimes seem like one more source of overwhelm. But managed well, shared spaces and discussion forums can be leveraged as environments to advance learning. Colleagues can share materials, ask questions, asynchronously discuss learning materials, and more. Lots of great advice can by found from advocates of communities of practice although what you might do as a team development strategy may be scaled back from their conceptualization.

There is beauty in murmuration, and it’s amazing to think that paying attention to just seven birds keeps the whole flock in such harmony. Positioning your team to be a mutual support network of one kind or another can greatly accelerate learning and build your team culture at the same time. Share your strategies and successes in the comments!

If I can help strategize a team development program for your group, please reach out. It’s one of my favorite kinds of projects!