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Unpacking Learning


In a recent SmartBrief blog post, Memo to the CEO: 5 Myths that are Killing Your Talent Development , my friends Jeannie Coyle and Wendy Axelrod provide insightful observations and analysis about talent development that is important to all leaders today. I found my head nodding in agreement paragraph after paragraph… and the gentle nod built to whiplash as I read their fifth key point:

[Myth]: New knowledge is the same as learning.

[Fact]: Now more than ever, learning isn’t real until you actually do something with the knowledge.

Organizations invest significant resources in training staff members. They offer countless courses and resources. Understanding the human dimension of development, they provide mentoring and career coaching support. Knowing and appreciating the role of experience in learning, they encourage a range of activities – from shadowing to job rotations to in-role stretch assignments and more.


Yet all too frequently, when these generous and rich learning opportunities are completed, everyone symbolically brushes their hands and thinks ‘my work here is done.’  And, nothing could be  farther from the truth.

Development is only half done with the workshop, relationship, or activity. The real benefit or value comes when we help others to unpack the learning from the experiences they have.  Taking time to step back, reflect, internalize, and consciously decide how one will put new insights, skills, and abilities to work… that’s where the payoff of learning occurs.

The good news is that unpacking learning is not at all difficult to do… and it’s a habit that can be built fairly easily through conversation. Leaders who are armed with just a few quality questions can help teach others how to systematically wring the most value possible from each development experience they have.


Following any kind of development, there are seven aspects of the experience that deserve consideration. Below are those seven dimensions and a couple of sample questions you can ask to explore each.

New Awarenesses:

  • What did I discover about myself – my strengths, weaknesses, and approaches?
  • What did I discover about others, my role, or my organization in the process?

Challenges Faced:

  • In what ways was I stretched or pushed beyond what I knew and could do comfortably?
  • How did I respond to the challenges?

Pitfalls Encountered:

  • What obstacles or hardships did I encounter?
  • How did I respond to them?

Success and Achievement:

  • What did I accomplish?
  • Was I successful? Why or why not?

Alternatives and Other Approaches:

  • What would I do differently in the future?
  • What won’t I do in the future?

Principles with Broader Applicability:

  • What general guidelines did I derive from the experiences?
  • What key principles or broader lessons did I learn?

Future Implications:

  • How can I use my insights and experiences in the future?
  • How can I leverage what I’ve learned in other contexts?

Deliberately asking these questions after any development experience helps to ensure that its true value is recognized, captured, and available to be used in the future.  That’s what distinguishes mere activity from real learning.

When leaders  build these sorts of questions into the cadence of development, they’ll not only see the value of their investment expand dramatically as employees leverage the learning; they’ll also quickly see employees begin to develop the habit of asking themselves these questions to activate their own learning loops.

Thanks to Jeannie Coyle and Wendy Axelrod ( for beginning this conversation!

Let’s continue the conversation.  What else do you do to help others glean the most from the development activities they engage in?


  1. Julie,
    Bravo for this great blog. People learn from experience everyday–or not. Your questions are wonderful probes for managers to make sure that the learning sticks. We say tuck learning into the daily rhythm of work. You say build these build these questions into the cadence of development. Together these pieces of advice make beautiful music.

  2. Love the idea of ‘tucking learning into the daily rhythm’. That’s the only way it’s going to happen given the pressure-cooker that is work these days. It’s great making music with you and Wendy!


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