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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

People Don’t Want to Learn


I attended a few meetings recently. They all were one thing in common: someone made some effort to create opportunity for others to learn. It doesn’t really matter if that’s downloading Mike Cohn’s video or preparing and delivering a presentation in person. It is the effort addressed to others. It’s like saying: “Hey, I found this presentation valuable and believe we have a lot to learn from it. I will find a room where we can see it and discuss it.

And then just 5 out of few dozens of invited people come.

That’s because, in general, people don’t care if you want to (and can) teach them something. They don’t want to learn. Chances are you don’t agree you are alike. That’s fine. But in this situation face it: you’re a minority.

If you belonged to majority you wouldn’t give a damn about your colleague inviting you to a local developers’ meet-up. You wouldn’t feel like watching video from the major conference from your area of interests. And when I say majority I think like 90-95% of people.

That’s right. I believe barely one tenth people care to learn even when they can do it effortlessly. This is by the way rejecting to become a better professional.

But at least one third, if not a half, will complain how limited their learning options are. How they can’t meet with authorities in workplace or how they weren’t allowed to attend an overpriced course.

But there’s a good news too. It’s pretty easy to stand out the crowd – we just need to use opportunities to learn we have.

in: personal development

33 comments… add one

  • Steve April 2, 2010, 7:12 am

    Very interesting observation. Now that you’ve brought this up, I’m recognizing it in my organization. I’ve found that the people that do want to learn are usually the best resources and produce the best work. There are a lot of people that are just content doing the same thing, day in and day out.

  • Jekaterina April 2, 2010, 9:40 am

    I think that it depends also from company culture. In our company (software development and implementation) proportion of people who wants to learn and who doesn’t not is rather opposite. And usually those who doesn’t are fired quickly.
    The need to learn is also built in in our motivation system and carrier path.

  • doc_usui April 3, 2010, 3:14 am

    I think it is natural just 5 to 10% people care to learn. Because care to learn means can not be satisfied current situation and try to find better way. But new method need time to learn and has risk to fail.

    So if all member tried new method, risk level become to high for company. So I think we should say thanks to these common people who take care of the daily job without boring.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 3, 2010, 4:53 am


    As I go through different companies I worked for I see the same picture all the time. The funny thing is most of these organizations put significant effort to build knowledge bases. There were incentives, either positive or negative, to contribute in building local knowledge base. Unfortunately almost no one ever used them for anything for exactly the same reasons – people don’t want to learn in general.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 3, 2010, 4:58 am


    Yes, there are organization like yours and people should envy you because of the fact you work for one of these. From my experience it usually happens in very small organization where people are basically cherry-picked, often among folks who worked with company leaders in the past.

    But the bigger the company grows the harder it is to keep this ever-learning attitude of people. In vast majority of medium-to-big organizations and in pretty many small ones too it unfortunately looks much worse than in your company.

    By the way has anyone worked in one of big firms where percentage of people willing to learn was high?

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 3, 2010, 5:05 am


    I don’t agree. Lack of will to learn is visible not only when you talk about some new risky way to do things. It is seen exactly the same when you propose well-established industry-standard solutions.

    I can give you an example from my company: we deal with projects in some way (loosely based on Prince2). Now, someone takes an effort to teach agile methods. The only people who cares are a small group of developers. Project managers, business analysts and product managers don’t care. And I don’t say someone is trying to implement agile or something – a guy just wants to share the knowledge and start the discussion. If I was on of folks in project management I would attend this kind of meetings just to learn about new tools if nothing else.

    So no, from this perspective it isn’t good. On the other hand if you are one of learners it’s pretty easy to shine with the average background we usually have. From personal perspective it may be good, but from the perspective of the whole organization it definitely is no good.

  • Jeff April 3, 2010, 3:14 pm

    The only way to make people care about an unproven concept or technology is to provide proof that it works, more than just theory or a Hello World variant that demonstrates the new technology in a worthless context. The best way I’ve found to introduce positive change is to do it while addressing a shortcoming in your organization. It’s risky – you might not have “permission” to go forth, and this is a gray area you have to navigate yourself based on the dynamics of your organization. But if you succeed, your influence grows, and people will want to start learning from you more.

  • doc_usui April 3, 2010, 8:10 pm

    Pawel Brodzinski

    Thanks Pawel for your response. Following is my thought experiment for this subject.

    Let imagine a old age when we have many tribes and they are competing each other to survive like Homo sapience VS Neanderthal.

    If there is a tribe of which all member is conservative(this means not eager to learn new), they will be conquered by other tribes which have some liberal(this means eager to learn new) member because some liberal will find new way to increase their productivity(= increase of population) and fighting capability.

    And If higher the liberal population ratio is better for improvement then tribes of less liberal population ratio become vulnerable in competition and our human being liberal population ratio become higher and higher and now should be 100%

    But reality is not 100%. We have both conservative and liberal people now. So I think there is a best balance between liberal and conservative for stable improvement of society.

    Thank you

  • Dave Moran April 4, 2010, 3:25 am


    I agree with you, although I’m an optimistic type who would like to believe that the actual number of people who don’t want to learn is less than the 90%-95% figure that you used. In some situations that you describe, people don’t attend other learning sessions — even lunch and learn type meetings, because of heavy workloads and time-sensitive projects that need completing.

    Personally, I think that there is a top 25% that understand the need for continual learning and professional growth and do so aggressively, with a mid-tier of people who pursue some learning to a lesser extent, with perhaps 25% who don’t care to learn much of anything, unless explicitly directed to do so. And then it becomes YOUR job to make time for them to learn during the regular work week.

    In your experience, are the people who don’t want to learn also the types who want their jobs defined in very concrete terms — by someone else?

  • Olga April 5, 2010, 6:37 am

    My perspective on willingness to learn is a little bit different, Pawel. The point is that this willingness might be blocked by being overwhelmed with too much unused knowledge. Imagine that some person is learning, learning and learning. If this knowledge is passive and not used (like in your post on project management failure for example), then people lose desire to learn altogether. So, if people don’t show interest to learning – like in large companies, as you said – the diagnosis is: their creative potential is overlooked, and it might well be that their knowledge is not needed in this large company, as long as they play their fixed roles in the development process. So why learn then?

  • Todor Vlaev April 5, 2010, 12:19 pm

    Hmm… just a thought… It could be that people who complain about limited learning opportunities, when they have at least some, just don’t recognize them.

    In the example “Hey, I found this presentation valuable and believe we have a lot to learn from it. I will find a room where we can see it and discuss it.” might just not be enough to convince/show people that this is something they _want_ to learn.

    In summary, I am far from thinking that people refuse to grasp sheer value offered to them when they do recognize it.

    Thanks for the post, Pawel! :)

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 6, 2010, 12:37 am


    I think the problem isn’t that people who want to unwind themselves are limited by their organizations. If their urge to learn is strong they either overcome organization constraints or they move on to the place which suits better to their characters.

    The problem I see is these few hard-core self-learners most of the time speak to the wall since others don’t feel like learning.

    I didn’t complain here about the company doesn’t willing to change to agile. If it will be considered worthwhile we’ll probably make the transition. On the other hand there are plenty of people who would gain a lot just from learning about a new thing. What more someone has just removed all standard impediments but they still don’t use the opportunity. That’s sad.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 6, 2010, 12:54 am


    If we consider human kind as a whole you may be right (although I’m not sure if you are). But what we’re discussing here is just a teeny slice of human kind. People who are knowledge workers and in pretty specific (rapidly changing) industry.

    I believe working in a factory hasn’t changed for past 100 years as much as working on software development for past 10 years. You can cook food like people did 1000 years ago (on a fireplace) and it will taste good and you’ll be well-fed after eating the meal but you can’t build application as you did 10 years ago since you won’t be able to sell a single copy of it.

    I don’t say every man and every woman should feel an urge to learn. I don’t even say every developer should. But I’m stunned with such a low percentage of self-learners among knowledge workers in one of industry which changes at full throttle.

    Vast majority of tools and technologies used by people around haven’t existed 10 years ago. And I think about 99% of code we build. We may safely assume that code we will be creating in 10 years from now will be created with tools, techniques and practices we don’t use now. Thus if we don’t learn we soon become obsolete as do our toolboxes. Yet somehow people don’t feel the need to learn.

    Coming back to your generic example I’m not surprised average person don’t want to learn (or isn’t ‘liberal’). If we all did it would no longer be an advantage of any kind and we wouldn’t be discussing it here.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 6, 2010, 1:10 am


    I hope you’re right about numbers not me, although I haven’t really seen any proof there may be as much self-learners as you state. I’d likely to say that bottom 25% may be people who are reluctant to learn even when they’re directed to do so.

    I just wanted to write that I agree that’s manager’s responsibility not only to create opportunities to learn but also proper incentives. But on the second though I’m not so sure. Manager’s responsibility is to have knowledgeable and ever-learning team. You don’t have to encourage people all the time and make learning opportunities frequent and easy to use. You may choose to hire self-learners in the first place. This, by the way, may be much easier when you work in a bigger organization where attending a conference can be a problem.

    I don’t see clear connection with will to learn and expectations to have work defined in very concrete terms. Actually if I see 9 out of 10 people not willing to learn I see all sorts of folks – those who look for simple orders and those who expect much freedom. It would probably easier to defined remaining 10% but I don’t really need a better definition than ‘self-learners.’

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 6, 2010, 1:28 am


    To some point you’re right. On the other hand I worked in different organizations from very small to very big companies and I never stop learning. It was either a new environment which forced me to learn tons of new things or, if it happened that I landed in a kind of work environment I’m familiar with, I was just pushing myself into chosen direction despite the organization. And more, I was always able to use the knowledge in practice.

    By the way this blog can be considered as one of these ‘despite the organization’ learning efforts and I would never say the knowledge I gained here is passive. Even if it isn’t usable directly at work I use it in presentations, discussions with other practitioners etc. It widens my perspectives. It makes people willing to discuss with me and listen to me.

    So while I understand frustration which grows when we learn new things and are still doing the same old mindless job all the time I don’t think that’s a good excuse not to learn. If I was stuck at a place with the same boring tasks to do I’d either fight my way out or move on. Actually a few of my workplaces might be considered as a kind of dead-ends but I never felt like that basically because of I fought my way out (and up).

    The answer for “why learn when you’re stuck” is exactly this: if for nothing else than just to get out.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 6, 2010, 1:39 am


    You make a valid point. But that’s where Dave’s point is valid too – in this case it becomes a manager’s job to help people recognize the opportunity.

    Let me give you an example – we had a great event last year: company’s internal conference. Employees submitted presentation proposals, there was voting session and the most popular subjects were presented. I was talking with a guy in my team and he was reluctant to come. So I chose three (among 15+) subjects which were valuable for him and he changed his mind. He just treated is as a software development conference, which it to some point was, and since he wasn’t a developer he didn’t take much time investigating every presentation.

    Anyway, I think people very often understand the opportunity but they let it pass. They do so even when they feel unhappy with their situation at work and will state they’re unhappy with their job. This is interesting since learning should make changing jobs easier.

  • Dave Moran April 6, 2010, 3:15 am

    Thanks, Pawel.

    It’s hard to say what the exact numbers are, and I’d sure be interested in seeing an actual study some day. Yes, a manager needs to create the opportunities to learn, and I’m curious about your take on incentives. If people aren’t really willing to take advantages of opportunities on their own, you usually have to go the more direct route and mandate the learning as part of the performance planning process. Any other thoughts on incentives to help overcome the willingness to learn hurdle?

    As for the connection between those willing to learn and those who want their work defined very specifically, the connection that I was thinking about is all about was the willingness and desire of the individual to be self-directed. In my experience, the top performers in an organization are those who actively learn and seek to apply what they learn, and are typically those who want less constraints around the actual definition of the job. At the opposite end of the spectrum, those who aren’t willing to learn are those who typically those who want very specific direction in their day-to-day tasks, and aren’t comfortable (and in some instances not capable) of working outside of what they perceive to be a nice, comfortable “box.” I was curious about your experiences in this regard.


  • Pawel Brodzinski April 6, 2010, 6:27 am


    One thing is I don’t really believe in making a learning a part of general process where employee is forced to take courses or contribute in building knowledge base or something. It doesn’t work. Enforced effort brings mediocre or even poor results.

    When I think about incentives in general it’s about making people want to do something. In this case to learn. Process doesn’t make people want anything. And any formalized incentive-creation approach will become a process (or even is a process in the first place).

    If you put a certification or such as a prerequisite to get promotion you’ll see people getting certification because of getting promoted, not to learn something. The same mechanics works if you bring simple financial incentive for passing exam etc.

    How should it be done then? I don’t have a simple answer at hand. Soft mechanisms like promoting self-learners over the rest (with no written rules) don’t seem to be blatant enough to be recognized by people in general.

    Open discussion have impact mainly on those who wants to learn with no incentive and majority seems to ignore it.

    In one of my past workplaces I brought a policy: as a company we don’t send people to conferences or trainings but we generally pay for every relevant training you may want to go and pay for every passed exam/certification (we don’t pay for failed attempts). In 18 months I we paid for only one exam and two places at local conference.

    Should I look for relevant opportunities and send people to conferences and courses? I think I shouldn’t. If someone doesn’t even take a minimal effort to find out relevant and interesting event he’d like to attend there’s something wrong.

    Of course there are companies which make the learning opportunities scarce resource but that’s a different story.

  • Olga April 6, 2010, 6:53 am

    Pawel, quick disclaimer: what I wrote is an example of how a disappointed person might think about learning. Perhaps the worst case of this. My personal experience is – always learning .

  • BRRamesh April 7, 2010, 3:55 am


    I too observed this as a manager. However i also feel there is so much work load on the people and also there is so much information overload that people , if they have set a clear priority learning goals, then they would take interest in learning. There is always a group of people who want to read every article and dont apply at all and some how the knowledge Sharers dont seem to consider them as a serious lot !

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 7, 2010, 7:16 am


    There are three things here. One is whether people have enough time to learn. We may safely assume that in healthy organization sometimes people have a lot to do and can hardly find time and energy to learn. But most of the time it’s not the problem of workload. People have enough time for long water cooler chit chats and web surfing so they do have time to learn too.

    Another thing is whether setting learning goals is the way to go. I believe not and I describe my point in previous comment. If you try to enforce learning what you get is pretty much screwed.

    The last thing is people who would like to learn all the time just for the sake of learning and not do the ‘real’ work at all. That’s of course pathology as any other thing brought to extreme. And I believe these are rare cases. Definitely none of them triggered me to write the post.

  • Vicky Stamatopoulou April 7, 2010, 1:35 pm

    Very good post. Thank you.
    I think some people learn new things because they want to. You don’t have to motivate them.
    Others because they have to. If you have to learn new thinks, and you don’t see any necessity in it, you won’t show any interest at all.

    How should you appreciate a new approach and its benefits over old practices if you are happy in what you doing & you think you have all the tools and information needed?

    People which I personally heard complaining about limited learning options were those who happened to be so unlucky to get involved in highly praised training offers organised by unexperienced trainers.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 7, 2010, 1:47 pm


    That’s exactly the point. Enforced training brings poor results. On the other hand no enforcement ends up with few people willing to learn. And I don’t think they expect to be rewarded for the fact they’re willing to learn. Most of the time their reward is opportunity itself.

    I agree Poor-quality trainings offered usually by big-name companies contribute to the situation we have but it doesn’t really explain why people don’t take even minimal effort when learning opportunities are at hand (and available for free). And this is exactly the situation I see every now and then.

  • BRRamesh April 7, 2010, 9:35 pm

    I think lot of points have been covered. just wanted to clarify regarding learning goals- i suggested that people decide for themselves what should be their learnign goals supported by mentoring and then it would be easy for people to prioritize learning.

  • Vicky Stamatopoulou April 8, 2010, 5:18 am

    Thank you for your answer Pawel.

    Talking about using all opportunities to learn… you mention a video of Mike Cohn in your post. Do you have the direct link? I visited the page and see lots interesting information and tools for Agile but no ‘videos’ area. Is it under Training?

  • Vicky Stamatopoulou April 8, 2010, 5:22 am

    oh…sorry… I recall my last question, I found them…:
    Resources > Videos.

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  • Tiffany May 11, 2013, 1:12 pm

    It’s because of cognitive dissonance and sheer laziness. Most people are kind of stupid and un-intellectual, unreflective thinkers.

    It’s wrong to say ‘effortlessly’, because the psychological costs – having to change their mind, pay attention to something besides gossip and soccer – is very trying on your average knuckle-dragging primate. We survived by selection of the best breeder, intelligence is very often a detriment to that. Therefor, most people are dumb and anti-intellectual.

  • Josh Bradley November 17, 2013, 6:30 pm

    While is seems to be the case where many individuals do not wish to engage in the process of learning, the question I feel is really what about this process is interpreted as an expenditure of effort to be avoided? To be clear, I’m not trying to make the assumption that an individual who expresses a disinterested in learning is necessarily lazy, however that the problem is likely in the format of learning which does not present itself with inherent value to the individual. It may be true that some take the gaining of knowledge in all forms to be of intrinsic value, but can you really assert that given an unknown number of external forces that all individuals should equate the same value to the effort? For surely there must be sacrifice made from all who engage in this process, the reward may not be sufficient to account for the time involved.

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 19, 2013, 10:10 am

    @Josh, I don’t expect everyone to invest the same effort into self-development. I do expect though that within constraints we have there always is a bunch of opportunities one can exploit to learn.

    The problem is these things don’t come for free, one needs to invest some, often pretty minimal, effort to learn something. Will they?

    My observation is that people happily look at these opportunities passing by, making swooshing sound, and stop only to occasionally complain how unhappy they are since there’s virtually no chance for self-development in that damn place.

    This is one part of the story though. The post is 3,5 year old and since that my thinking about that has evolved. I think that many drivers for such behaviors aren’t intrinsic for people but are the part of the system they’re part of.

    Does the organizational culture support learning? Does the system rewards that (or at least doesn’t punish for that)? These are questions worth asking.

    So you’re right with one thing – there’s no uniform measure of how and how much we should learn. I don’t expect the same pattern for a graduate fresh out of the university and single mother with two children.

    What I do expect is to see support for both (and everyone else too) in their self-development efforts from the organization and see them both exploiting the opportunities they have.

    By the way, I should resurrect this subject in a new post. Thank you for inspiration.

  • Mike March 26, 2015, 4:46 pm

    Since this (a) isn’t an accurate test (people could just be busy and have more important things to do), (b) isn’t random (you asked people to show up), and (c) you have a small sample size, you can’t really draw any conclusions from this or apply it to people.

  • Oda Barhuf September 4, 2016, 8:26 am

    I think there are other issues at a deeper level that contribute, such as how does the company value employees that would make the workers feel encouraged to learn more because there would be tangible benefits in doing so? Or having time to actually spent the time needed to learn something new when being overworked all the time.

    I used to work for a big corporation where continuing education was encouraged…the company talked but did not actually walk what was taught. That is also rather discouraging and can be extremely frustrating. That can also make workers think ‘why bother?’

  • Pawel Brodzinski September 4, 2016, 12:20 pm

    @Oda, There are two perspectives. One is that if somebody has a strong urge to learn I argue that the workplace shouldn’t be able to diminish that. It holds true, even if learning in an organization isn’t supported.

    Another is that declared values (we support learning) aren’t necessarily aligned with the real ones, see: https://www.infoq.com/articles/change-practices-principles-values

    Either way, the answer to “why bother?” is: because it is important for you. And if your current employer doesn’t give a damn it is unlikely that you’ll stick with them in the long run anyway.

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