Learning and experimenting

Learning by doing

Learning by doing sounds easy, however, it requires preparation, guts, and practice to make it work. In an innovation project, there are many occasions that learning while doing is the only option. Years of schooling have taught us how to learn before doing, in the process, many of us have lost the ability to learn while doing.

Learning before doing or learning while doing, what is the difference?

Traveling is an easy way to explain the difference between learning before doing and learning while doing.

When you travel, how do you plan? Do you first figure everything out and is planning half of the fun of your trip?

Or do you prefer to plan as little as possible, undergo the experience, and solve potential issues as they arise? The difference between these two tactics is learning before doing vs learning while doing. For an innovation project, you need to be able to do both.

Is learning while doing just being lazy?

Some think that learning while doing is just being lazy - not doing your homework.

I would disagree. Learning while doing requires preparation, guts, and practice. It is a matter of going in blindly.

Take for instance my recent travels. I wrote this blog at Heathrow airport, in terminal 4 at the Pret A Manger where I got a cup of thee.

When booking my flight, I knew I had to transfer in London. I extended my trip to the IPDMC conference, to see my parents in the Netherlands. I googled to see how much time to take for an international transfer - and saw it was advised to take at least 90 minutes.

For the connecting flight to the Netherlands, I had two options, one gave me 60 minutes to transfer the other 3 hours. With chagrin, I booked the later flight and decided I would not waste any more time on this problem. I would figure it all out when I arrived at Heathrow. That seemed a safe bet - I certainly was not going to be the first traveler to make such a transfer.

Learning before doing.

I have a dear friend, who is British. He was very enthusiastic about me visiting the UK and wanted me to have a splendid experience. While I was set on not spending any more time on preparing for the trip, he thought about my travels differently.

He insisted I should take his UK phone. Just to be safe, it would give me unlimited calling minutes within Europe. Extremely kind. In additon, he looked up how I best could make the changeover. Among others, he looked into whether it would be possible to book my luggage through. It turned out to be impossible. What my dear friend was doing, was learning before doing.

Learning on the spot

I arrived at Terminal 2 and after picking up my luggage, I embarked on my journey to find my next flight. In the arrivals hall, I quickly figured out I was in the wrong place. No KLM to be found. Oddly enough, there was also no information on where the KLM check-in desk was or how to connect to the other terminals. I had to ask three people before I found a very kind gentleman behind the SAS desk that helped me out. He looked it up on his computer and told me I had to go to terminal 4. To get there, I needed to take the train at level -1. He also shared with me that this train was free when traveling from one terminal to another.

Now knowing what I was looking for - the train at level -1 - I easily found Terminal 4 and the KLM check-in desk.

Honestly, it was more complicated than I expected. I certainly was grateful that I had given myself 3 hours, as it took me more than 90 minutes to get there. By then, the earlier flight had long left.

Plan more?

Would more planning have helped me in this case? I doubt it. Perhaps, it would have been helpful to know which terminal I had to go. Yet, I trusted that I

was not the first person to change airlines and should be okay, which was the case. Even in hindsight, I am convinced that more planning for this transfer would have been a waste of time.

When traveling, I enjoy the thrill of going with the flow and facing the unexpected. It gives me the opportunity to discover new things.

Thus, on my way to the gate, I came across the old flight observation deck, that is currently open for the public and from where you have a fantastic view of the airport. I had to see it and it was indeed pretty cool.


Learning while doing requires you to prepare. You don't want to go in blind or set yourself up for disaster. For instance, I did check how much time the transfer would take and adjusted my plans accordingly.

For your innovation project, this is true too. You cannot plan for everything, yet that does not mean that you go in blindly. Sometimes you have to just go for it and trust that you will figure it out on the fly. It still means you have to prepare.

However, it is a different type of preparation. It requires you to plan for the unexpected, embracing instead of eliminating it. While I knew I did not know where to go, I did not get frustrated but instead enjoyed the experience of figuring it out on the fly.

With learning before doing you can avoid mistakes and reduce risks, yet in the process, you also may miss unique opportunities because while executing, you may be too much focused on the plan, that you miss what else could have been.

A counterexample may help explain the difference. When I was boarding the flight, I ran into a lady that was surveying passengers. She asked if she could walk up with me in line and ask a few questions. I said "sure".

She walked me through her list and asked me where I came from, what brought me to the UK, my age, etc., and then thanked me for the info. I was puzzled. This undoubtedly well-prepared questionnaire gave her the information she was looking for. However, if these questions were geared towards improving the travel experience of passengers- she certainly missed the mark. She asked me where I came from and where I was going, yet, she never learned about my troubles of getting from one terminal to the other. Her plans did not allow for that. Clearly, a missed opportunity to learn.

Have some guts

Learning while doing requires you to trust your gut and instincts. You have to trust yourself in that you are smart enough to figure things out on the spot. And be willing to ask for help when needed, while trusting that you can find the right people to help you out.

All babies know how to learn while doing. That is how you learn to walk, talk, bike and many more essential life skills. Unfortunately, at school, we are taught so well how to learn before doing, that most of us lose the ability to learn while doing.

For your innovation project, planning is essential, as is your ability to learn while doing. That is an equally essential skill.  There is only so much that you can plan. What more, if you plan too much, you may miss opportunities that you did not envision. Make sure to stay flexible, open-minded, and adjust accordingly, things you naturally do when learning while doing.


Learning while doing takes practice. It requires you to seek information when needed, be flexible, remain patient and calm, and trust that a solution eventually will evolve no matter what happens.

Perhaps that explains why I prefer to travel with as limited preparation as possible. It enables me to practice my learning while doing skills :-).


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