Lockdown Learning – The Ukulele!

I’ve always loved the island vibe, and the chilled surfy culture that comes with it.  Probably has a lot to do with growing up in North Devon, and solidified in my couple of trips to Hawaii, which were both amazing.

I’ve also always been fairly musical. I grew up playing wind instruments, the piano (badly!) and singing in choirs.  As I’ve gotten older I don’t do much of it any more, but a good car karaoke session certainly makes my soul feel good.

I’ve vaguely thought about playing the ukulele for a while, and somewhere in the high-fever early days of coronavirus and lockdown in March I decided now was the time!  I felt like if ever there was a time to transport yourself to somewhere else through learning and music this was it!   Thankfully Amazon came through and I had my very first Uke and was raring to go.  Learning Uke over the last 3-4 months has honestly been a real joy and I’m so glad I did it. 

Watching how I learn

I’ve always been interested in learning and recently my job changed to leading our Leadership Development function, so now it’s my job too! There’s a few things that I’ve come across over the years that I could so clearly see playing out in myself as I learn which I found pretty fascinating! Do any of them sound familiar?!

  1. The Dunning Kruger effect is real. This is the phenomenon where people who are doing something new or who aren’t highly skilled at something will often vastly overestimate their ability – Illusory Superiority. The opposite is also true, those who are more skilled, but also know there’s a lot more to learn, will often underestimate the amount of skill they have.  The first day I played for hours and hours. I thought I was a Ukulele genius.  For sure, I can learn a new instrument more quickly drawing on my musical background, but I’ve never played a string instrument before, and really I was just playing one chord at a time and relying on decent vocal skills to be able to put a song together.  I thought I was so awesome I happily videoed myself and sent it to pretty much everyone I know!    A few days later I was so frustrated by my ability, I realised just how shit I was and I didn’t want to do it anymore! I then had to find a way out of that frustration so that I could start really progressing.  It really amused me to see something that I know happens play out so literally in myself.
The Dunning Kruger Curve

2. Sleeping on it really does help. Your brain needs daily repetition practice and sleep to be able to form new neural pathways.    I took a Coursera course last year called Learning how to Learn which I learnt about this in.  I found this particularly with learning new strumming rhythms that I can practice over and over and still not get it. Sleep on it, and the next day I could just do it!  I love how clever our brains are!

The importance of sleep in learning
  1. Don’t over-think it.  I literally have have a post-it thats permanently stuck to my monitor that says “What would happen if I just trusted my brain?”. Well, I guess I’m still learning that lesson.  I have found that if I try to over-analyse the strum or rhythm I’m trying to learn, by counting too much or worrying about getting it wrong, it really doesn’t help.  Turns out when I just trust my musical ability and my brain to “just play”, it comes out just fine.   It’s a good reminder on something that I’ve been working on for a lifetime.
What would happen if I just trusted my brain?

Learning to play the Ukulele in Lockdown has been a real joy and has provided structure, purpose and reminded me of my love of making music. It’s also great escapism, I can pretend I’m sitting on a beach in Hawaii in the sun and ignoring being in the middle of a pandemic. And I think that was just what I needed.

If you are interested in beginner Ukulele resources:

Ski Performance Camp with Element Ski School in Verbier

Two weeks ago I had the most wonderful week.  As I’m spending at least 7 weeks skiing this sabbatical, I wanted to kick off my skiing a strong note. So I went hunting for a performance camp that I could go to, somewhere that I could focus on improving my own skiing for a week, and I found the perfect one.   Element ski school in Verbier, Switzerland run women’s camps with a cast of female coaches. You ski 5 hours a day in small groups of 3 or 4, working on ski technique, biomechanics and a bit of sports psychology. The first two days were pretty heavy on the drills and getting the fundamentals of our skiing sorted, with the following three more about exploring different runs, terrains and conditions.

There’s something so luxurious about taking a week for yourself, focusing on improving at something that you really love, with a group of kick-ass women, with expert coaching, that I find so energising.  I also love the soft focus of waking up, concentrating on working on my skiing, having a chilled evening and doing it all over again each day. I was also in the company of my longtime friend Lindsay, we trained as ski instructors together in Canada many moons ago, so it was great to spend time with her again. Life felt so simple for a week!

Myself (on the left) and Lindsay reunited!

My goal for the week was to push myself out of my comfort zone, do more off-piste and variable condition skiing (which I don’t do a lot of when I’m on my own and is my nemesis), aiming to get to the point where I enjoy skiing in those conditions, hoping a bit of peer pressure and group camaraderie would do the trick. I also just love learning. I don’t think it matters how much experience you’ve got, you can always improve.

I had a lot of fun. I think I laughed more in 5 days than I have in a very long time. Whether it was one of us getting a face full of snow after taking a bit of a tumble (usually me), hearing the whoops of joy as someone did a great run or encouraging each other down the slopes with shouts of “send it!” or “channel your inner tiger!”.

All of the awesome ski ladies together
Our team for the week

I spent quite a bit of time observing how I learn and how I react to different things. The first thing that really struck me was my learning style, I really noticed how much I am a kinetic learner. I need to be able to feel what I trying to aim for to be able to really get it and reproduce the skiing. I’m also a fairly visual learner, so demos were useful. Verbal instructions for me when I’m doing something for the first time can be pretty useless (as my personal trainer Ali will contest to!) but are good for minor corrections.

The mental game is also interesting, I can get very self-critical and into a negative spiral in my head. I got so frustrated on the day that we were mainly in variable snow, I just didn’t enjoy doing it, and I got so mad at myself that I didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t matter that everyone said that it looked good, and my technique was good, it didn’t feel how I thought it was supposed to, so in my mind was no good. A lot of tears that day.

The more I thought about the kinetic learning style the more I realised that perhaps I am expecting off-piste skiing to feel like something that it just doesn’t. I was assuming that for those that can do it well it would feel nice, smooth and in control, but when I started asking my coach and others to describe how “good” felt like them, the overriding opinion was that is not how it feels ever! It’s about staying lose and reacting to the conditions. We were all joking about how it’s more about a constant state of recovery than about perfect execution of technique. You will get thrown backwards, and forwards and sideways, hit a slow bit of snow then a fast bit, a heavy bit then a fast bit, so you should just expect that.  

After the tearful day 3, the morning of day 4 was spent on piste doing carving in the morning, which is definitely what I’m best at so I built up my confidence, and then in the afternoon we did some pistes that are called itineraries, a marked run, but that is not groomed or patrolled. All off-piste, mostly powdery and through the trees.  I took up the offer from the instructor to follow in her tracks, and turns out that was exactly the trick, it meant I had to surrender control of the line, not worry about where to turn, trust that she was picking us a good line, and then just focus on breathing, staying loose and trying to keep up! Turns out I’m perfectly capable of skiing those conditions well if I just let go a bit, and give it some welly.  Pretty good lesson for me in life I think not just on the snow!

Conquering the off-piste terrain!

The thing I love about learning and doing anything really is that you exhibit the same behaviours often. So whether it’s how I am when I’m skiing or how I am in a pressured environment at work, the behaviours and habits I have are often the same. The on piste skiing that I enjoy the most is fast, with lots of forces acting on me and the skis and with high edge angles but actually, it’s quite precise, measured and controlled, you know what to expect a bit more. Off-piste skiing is none of those things, it’s messy, unpredictable and all about reacting to unknowns and perhaps why I find it so uncomfortable. By nature, I am a diligent person, that likes to know what’s going to happen when. I’m all about the details and the quality of what I’m doing with quite a high degree of control over a situation. What makes me most uncomfortable?  Highly ambiguous environments, with elements that I can’t control, that pop up along the way, and an ever-changing landscape.   See some parallels?! I think I’m starting to!  So perhaps the more I work on loving off-piste skiing, the more I will become ok with those every changing ambiguous environments I encounter at work.

For a while now I’ve been thinking about running some sort of leadership coaching and skiing academy, where people can observe themselves and their behaviour whilst doing two quite different activities to see if they can learn more about themselves, just like I have done over the last week. I reckon I might be onto something if my experience is anything to go by!


Anne’s Top Tips for Enablement – Lessons from being an Agile Coach

Often at ThoughtWorks we will be asked to help train and up-skill the client’s team members whilst we co-deliver projects. We call this enablement.  These are some lessons that I learnt whilst being an agile coach and from having 1:1 coaching sessions with clients, that are worth thinking about if find yourself on the “consulting” or “coaching” side of a relationship.

Tip #1: Understand the expectations from the start

What kind of engagement is it?

Think about what kind of situation you are in.  Are you there to  “just deliver x”? Are you working closely with a client team?  Are you there in more of a coaching or consulting capability? It could be something anywhere along that spectrum. Wherever you land on that spectrum there will always be some degree of influencing, education and support of the client needed.  You will need to bring people along with you, whether it’s a single stakeholder or a team of developers, this to me, is enablement.

Pick technologies and techniques that the client can support

More often than not, we will be leaving behind some software or hardware that we are expecting the client to be able to maintain or support to some degree.  Really think about this when picking technologies, designing your software, and evolving your process.   How different is this to what the client has done before?  What are their core skills in, and what’s reasonable progress from that?  Often the newest, coolest techniques are not going to be easily learnable in the time that we have with them. Think about your choices and don’t leave them with something they won’t be able to look after. Do the right thing by the client.

Talk about it often

At an account level, make sure you talk about what degree of enablement you are expecting, ensure that it’s planned in from the start, and check that you are progressing, revisit decisions and assumptions regularly.

Tip #2: Put yourself in their shoes

Work on courage and confidence

People’s confidence can often take a huge hit when they are transitioning to a new skill set. For example between waterfall and agile or from one technology to another. Until the person can work out how to adapt their current skills to meet the needed skills, they can often feel like they have no skills at all, they might feel they no longer have anything to bring the table and that they are the only ones feeling like this. Multiply this phenomenon by the fact that it’s not just one new thing thing they are experiencing, it could be their whole working environment, how they collaborate, how they contribute, the people round them and it can spiral quickly.  It is really hard to stay confident and courageous with all this going on.  At the beginning focus on doing everything you can to help people grow in confidence and courage, so that they can throw themselves into learning.

Consider learning agility

Learning Agility, the ability to learn, adapt, and apply ourselves in constantly morphing conditions, is something that as consultants, is a required skill. In some larger, more traditional environments, this is not something that employees have a chance to practice and develop often, so their learning agility levels might be quite low. This doesn’t mean they can’t learn, but that the process might be a lot slower that someone who is more practiced. It’s quite a different mindset, so think about how reasonable it is that we expect someone with lower learning agility to “just pick up” tens of new tools and practices at a fast pace. Really think about how patient you are being, slow down, cover basics and practice fundamentals often. It takes time to develop the skills of learning, but helping people build these skills can make such a radical difference in the future.

Show your vulnerability

It can be very intimidating to learn from an “expert”, someone might feel like this “expert” can do no wrong, that they never make mistakes, that they are always confident, that you don’t have anything to add.  Try sharing stories of times that you have struggled to pick things up, or situations you have felt scared in. We all feel unconfident at times, admit that to them, you’ll see a massive difference. Make sure to ASK for their input don’t just expect them to speak up without encouragement.

Make sure you cover the basics

Don’t forget to cover the basics, explain the dynamics and responsibilities when pairing, cover basic TDD and red, green, refactor, go into the finer details of how to write stories and plan work. Always remember to explain WHY. Keep repeating this basics, when you are new to anything it takes a lot of mileage and repetition until you start to understand the nuances.

Tip #3: Get to know the people you are working with

Build rapport

Rapport is one of the most important things when coaching. There needs to be trust and respect between both parties.  You might want to ask how they got into what they do, what their experience is at the company, find out what they do for fun, look for common ground.

Talk about goals and aspirations

Take time to ask and listen about what their goals and aspirations are, you are more likely to find you have a motivated pair if you can help find them opportunities that they would enjoy. One idea that someone had which I thought was great, at the start of pairing or at the start of the day the pair should talk about what learning or knowledge they want to gain out of the activity. This will help you work out when to take more time over particular concepts, and when it’s ok to go at a higher level of understanding.

Value them and their skills

It doesn’t matter what experience or background people have, everyone has skills to offer, everyone will bring different perspectives. Your clients will have the best domain knowledge, and they know their own systems better than anyone. They are software professionals, probably with a lot of experience. Value and embrace this diversity in thinking.

Open the feedback conversation

It’s important to create an environment where feedback is encouraged and accepted. This might not be something that currently exists, it is our job to create that space. Make it a place where they are comfortable enough to be able to feedback to you about how they learn and what helps them.


I hope that you have been able to take away some tips that you can apply in your next enablement situation.  Please reach out to those around you and ask for help, and make sure the team is talking about enablement and how it is progressing. Developing the empathetic skills I’ve talked about above will make a huge difference in creating a successful enablement situation.