Project Management Institute

Learning with style


PROJECTS DON'T WORK without people, and people don't work without instructions. You have to tell them what you want. If you've ever tried to explain a task to your staff from start to finish and returned to your chair feeling like they just didn't understand you, your intuition is probably correct.

You've run head-on into “learning styles.” Unlike so many other “styles” (leadership, personality, etc.) there are, thank goodness, only two types of learning styles (at least for the purposes of this article): “Part-to-Whole” and “Whole-to-Part.”

“Whole-to-Part” people have more of a global approach to learning. They like to go right to the end, get the big picture, and get on with it. About 75 percent of people use this learning style. By contrast, the “Part-to-Whole” learning style is sequential, like learning in a straight line. People who learn this way like to stay in order and go step by step. Even though only about 25 percent of people use this style, this is the approach traditionally taught in schools.

Most training and most delegation of work is done sequentially—“this is step one, this is step two, etc.” That's great for “Part-to Whole” thinkers. But since approximately 75 percent of the population use the “Whole-to-Part” learning style, it's better (at least statistically) to say, “This is what the job will look like when it's done. Now, let's look at how to accomplish this.”

“For ‘Whole-to-Part’ people, the most efficient way to learn is to have a goal and to seek information to meet that goal,” says educational consultant Ann Anzalone. “For these people, there is too much information available and it's impossible to keep up with it all.” The “Part-to-Whole” people want to learn the traditional way: from beginning to end. Anzalone is quick to add that neither way is better. She stresses the fact that these are learning styles, ways of processing information.

Tailoring your approach to a particular learning style can make your communications more effective. While formal tests remain the best way to assess learning style, there are rules of thumb you can use to help determine how people learn.

“Whole-to-Part” people seek the overall picture and are more “pattern oriented.” They often say things like “What's the point?” or “What's the bottom line?” They may read the last page of a report first, to get to the conclusions or recommendations section. Because they are usually “seeking” things, a cluttered desk can sometimes be a clue to “Whole-to-Part” behavior.


Most “Part-to-Whole” people value order, so their desks are probably clean. Their verbal communications usually contain a lot of details, and they are more likely to read a report from the beginning to the end.

One of Anzalone's clients is GZK, Inc., a franchiser of fast-food restaurants. “We've always taught ‘Part-to-Whole’ style, step-by-step,” said Steve Judge, GZK‘s training manager. “Today, most employees are interested in the ‘bottom line.’”

GZK tried a different approach with a new cashier by explaining the job to her in reverse order. They stated the desired outcome first—to serve customers and keep them happy—then explained the keys and buttons on the cash register. The result: She did much better than most new hires. Instead of ignoring customers and concentrating on ringing up the order, she explained to customers she was new and asked for their patience. She was taught to serve the customer, and part of that job included running the cash register.

In addition to happier customers, Judge believes there is another benefit to this technique: a more interested employee. “Employees go to work to succeed—and that's really critical to the psyche of the new person,” Judge said. With this kind of instruction, people know what a good job is so they recognize their efforts when they do a good job. GZK is considering adopting this technique in its training manuals.

Keep in mind this is only one piece of the management puzzle. Other parts include personality, learning style, and intelligence. “All of these come together to make the whole,” says Anzalone. “You want to make the pieces fit as well as possible.” Learning style is an important piece of the puzzle because, says Anzalone, “It is the key for understanding. ‘Part-to-Whole’ people have some flexibility in their learning; ‘Whole-to-Part’ people have to learn their way. They have to have a focus, they have to know the end.”

LOOK AT YOUR PROJECT TEAM and try to determine who uses what learning style. Next time you delegate some work, adjust your instructions to fit the team member's style. Communicating the day-to-day tasks more effectively can help improve the overall project execution. Who knows? You just may find yourself being understood. img


John Sullivan is a senior program planner for the Northrop Grumman Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, and an active member of PMI‘s Central Ohio Chapter.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • August 1997



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