Learning Agility: The Shopify Story

In 2004, when a small group of Canadian entrepreneurs couldn’t find a suitable ecommerce system for their new online snowboarding store, they decided to build their own. That platform was the start of Shopify, an online commerce platform that now supports over 600,000 businesses in approximately 175 countries. Shopify itself now has over 3,000 staff.

I spoke to Katrina Moss, the learning acceleration lead at Shopify, about their experiences in learning agility and supporting a culture of continuous learning.

Full disclosure: Back in 2016, Moss and her team were early supporters and crowdfunders of my Learn2Learn app. I’ve continued collaboration and conversations with them and am pleased to feature them here.

Learning agility at Shopify

Like many tech companies, Shopify works in a fast-moving environment where they are constantly challenged to disrupt themselves and continuously improve their offerings. Based on their growth over the last few years alone, it seems that Shopify is doing something right.

“Shopify’s hyper growth is exciting and challenging,” Moss explained, “mostly due to the rapid rate of change and scaling required to meet the needs of our merchants and our internal employees as a result.”

In that context, Moss identified four key and interconnected areas that her team leverages to enable learning agility.

1. Democratize L&D: Ensuring that everyone has access to learning resources and training; this included a program called Boost, which provided core skills regardless of role. Another example is a program to improve team feedback—where participants are supported to seek and provide feedback via a mix of formal (workshop style) and informal (check-ins and reflection) delivery.

2. Encouraging SMEs to be multipliers: Enabling peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing by providing people with the skills to train and support others. This recently included training 50 subject matter experts to hold their own information sessions as part of an internal R&D summit.

3. Reinforcing learning as a rewarded behavior: Being a constant learner is one of Shopify’s values and considered a measure of success. Moss points out “this also means that you are never done learning, since our values apply to every level of impact in the business.”

4. Provide tooling that enables anyone at Shopify to access learning: Shopify has implemented a learning-event tool designed to ease the burden for multipliers of any kind, supporting easy sharing and a culture of peer-to-peer training.

Getting shit done vs. reflection

Shopify has been known for its “getting shit done” value. However, Moss said, “It was being misinterpreted as just being busy. To add more clarity, we adjusted that value to ‘be impactful.’”

Given the action-based culture of Shopify, how do Moss and her team encourage reflection for greater learning and impact?

“We still experience the tension where folks find it hard to prioritize learning from reflection,” Moss explained. “In times of resistance, I find the least-friction entry point as the right place to start. So instead of attempting to introduce this as a novel idea, we recommend teams run project retros, something they would find more practical and relatable.

“We also advocate for ‘fresh eyes sessions,’ which were created by the UX (user experience) team as a way to check your ideas and projects mid-way through with peers to gain valuable feedback. I’ve noticed that the more we can incorporate learning practices right into workflows and leverage practices that are already in existence, the more successful the adoption.”

Self-direction vs. scaffolding

When asked what her team has learned through failure, Moss pointed to lessons around self-directed learning.

“Self-directed doesn’t always work. We built a leadership development program and made all of our experiences self-directed. This worked well for those that knew what development they needed and when.

“What it didn’t facilitate was more concrete expectation setting for new leads. This was something we added since we are at times in a state of unconscious incompetence (we don’t know what we don’t know), and in those times when you are at the bottom of a learning curve, a big push of learning that is directed specifically for you makes a lot more sense.”

Leveraging data

Shopify is underpinned by technology and data, so it’s no wonder this is also a focus for the L&D team. Shopify has a people analytics team that is responsible for gathering and analyzing aggregate data sets.

Moss told me, “Our employee experience team digs into the more qualitative side of data by running focus groups and interviewing employees to understand root causes to internal problems. These two team’s insights are a great source of data for us.

“My team is also committed to identifying a learning record store this year so we can pool together insights from across our learning teams to really understand what’s making the most impactful behavior change.

Innovating with technology

Moss is currently helping to bring a more conscious approach to developing the L&D technology stack at Shopify.

“It’s very tempting to build the solution,” Moss said. “After all, we’re a company that prides ourselves on building intuitive and beautiful software.” However, Moss also points to the opportunity cost of using developer resources on internal solutions and not wanting to reinvent the wheel when strong alternatives from specialist third-party providers will get the job done.

Currently, Shopify uses an LMS, an intranet for knowledge management, and Slack as a key collaborative and just-in-time tool.

Moss said of other initiatives, “We’ve launched a learning event tool for all the experiences we run throughout the company. To give you an idea of volume, we launched the tool last month and have already supported over 10,000 registrations. Next up, we’re exploring learning experience platforms and learning record stores to launch by the end of 2018.”

Championing growth mindset

I asked Moss how she personally champions learning agility and her answer was simple: “mindset.”

“I work hard to spread the benefits of embracing a growth mindset. For example, I provided a priming day to our global SWAT team within Talent.” In case you’re wondering, a Shopify SWAT team is a multidisciplinary team brought together on a temporary basis to solve a difficult global challenge.

Moss explained, “The priming day helped ensure that the SWAT team were in a ‘learner headspace’ as they kicked off major projects. I position it with our ‘thriving on change’ value … something that all business leaders can get behind, since they love any methods that facilitate more resilience during change.”

Moss pointed out that having some aspects of a fixed mindset is part of life. “I share my personal story of growing up with a learning disability, which I believe demonstrates the main premise of a growth mindset: that we can attain outcomes beyond our expectations if we resist setting early limits and instead focus on hard work and perseverance.

“I provide tips on shifting perspective to move towards growth more often. The practice I focused on is noticing, switching, and rewiring, which I learned from an awesome book called Start Here by Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp.

“I use that model to help create awareness for when you are in [a] fixed mindset—by providing relatable self-talk language of what fixed looks like. Then I identify switching questions that you can ask yourself when you notice that you are in a fixed headspace. Last, I recommend a pause of appreciation when you have made that change which correlates to creating new neural pathways in the brain. So it’s literally an exercise in brain training!”

L&D scaling and sharing

Moss talked candidly about her team’s focuses. “We are a federated L&D model, so some of our challenges are surfacing shared practices at scale and enabling a fluid learner experience across multiple learning teams.”

To achieve this, Shopify has established a learning guild where educators across learning teams engage in sharing their experiences and expertise. They also established a learning council, which is a smaller group of decision-makers to inform a shared L&D technology stack roadmap.

Top L&D tips

Finally, what advice does Moss have for other L&D teams? Here are her top four tips:

  1. Focus on learning agility as the human lever for any change-management initiative.
  2. Embed it rather than pitching it as something different from a business need.
  3. Make it about something that solves a current problem rather than being a proactive idea. Proactive and strategic initiatives never seem to get the air time that a current “fire” does.
  4. Lead by example! Experiment on your own team before rolling these out so you can continue “eating your own dog food.” Nothing’s worse than advocating for something you aren’t willing to do yourself!

“Typically business leaders will be game for any strategies that will increase the likelihood of a change initiative being successful,” Moss told me. “These approaches keep you in touch with the needs of the business while also cultivating the capacities in people to face the demands of an unknown future.”

There are many lessons here, but my biggest takeaways from Moss are the way she champions growth mindset and integrates initiatives with the existing workflow, culture, and goals at Shopify.

What are your takeaways? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

More Executive

You May Also Like