The past several decades have ushered in a steady stream of learning innovations to help people perform better. For years, the focus was on generating formalized learning solutions. And these solutions have advanced the L&D field — as well as the performance of millions of employees worldwide. More recently, the focus has shifted to informal learning. Increasingly, organizations are investing in bringing greater structure to the important domains of exposure (learning from and through others) and experience (on–the–job activities designed to elevate capability). But, under the surface of both formal and informal methods, another source of learning exists, offering lessons that are available from just living life with intention. This domain is called “accidental learning.”
Every day, we encounter countless events, interactions, wins, losses and other outcomes. But, given the pace of today’s workplace and the constant overflowing plate of priorities, most employees do little more than power through, moving from one thing to the next. They frequently find themselves facing the same challenges over and over again in the form of different projects and people. However, this is not the experience of all employees. That’s because, while they are engaged in the activities required for success, they are also engaged in something else: accidental learning.
Accidental learners leverage life for learning. They recognize that day-to-day life presents infinite opportunities to expand perspectives, consider new approaches, improve responses and relationships, and recalibrate efforts – all to, essentially, learn. They transform everyday events and interactions into powerful learning experiences.
Accidental learners internalize mental processes that allow them to recognize and respond to opportunities that frequently go unnoticed by others, creating additional opportunities for growth in their daily routine. They tend to naturally, unconsciously and pervasively demonstrate three practices: presence, percolation and play. Individually, these practices open doors. But when utilized together, they open eyes, ears, hearts and minds to accidental learning.
We can also think of this as mindfulness, awareness, focus or intention. Whatever the label, this practice involves being willing to slow down just enough to pay attention to the world around us. We can only take advantage of the ever-present learning opportunities flooding our day-to-day existence to the extent that we’re able to notice and pick up on the cues. A non-verbal reaction from a coworker. A small error. A repeated struggle. These are quiet cues or indicators of a potential learning opportunity for the accidental learner.
E.E. Cummings wrote, “Pity to have had the experience and missed the meaning.” Too many of us are missing much of the meaning our lives offer. The business world’s bias toward action means the reflection rarely gets its due. Whatever the cause, the solution is to pause and allow our thoughts to percolate. Start meetings with a moment or two to get centered and shift focus. Shorten your 60-minute meeting default to 50 minutes and redeploy this newfound time for reflection on insights and actions you’ll take. Create a close-out ritual during which you end each day journaling for a few minutes about lessons learned. Find ways to prioritize percolation.
Kids embrace play and experimentation. They try stuff out. They fall down. They get up, and they repeat it all again. But adults take things much more seriously and proceed more cautiously. We are less apt to take a risk. But, if we reframe learning in terms of attempting something new and seeing how it goes, suddenly we can relax into learning one step at a time. Progress, rather than perfection, becomes the goal. As a result, we can more confidently seize spontaneous opportunities to innovate, improve and learn. Trial and error is today’s classroom.
Although formal learning is an important piece of the corporate learning puzzle, and informal learning is invaluable in terms of scaling and contextualizing development efforts, let’s not forget to tap into the endless possibilities of accidental learning — the most pervasive and potentially powerful source of insights, improvement, innovation and results.