Most learning leaders understand the real impact of any program designed to change behavior flows from participants’ engagement. Yet, many of these initiatives fall flat.
April 29, 2008
“It’s not the agony of the quest; it’s the rapture of the revelation.”
– Joseph Campbell, Author and Mythologist
I have been asked to write this to convince you that certain kinds of learning programs will yield real impact. But I don’t think you need much convincing. So let’s get them out in the open and consider what they mean in practice.
I’d also like to encourage discussion on it. Collaboration and diverse viewpoints make us whole, and what I’d most like to do is incite rage, debate, panic and passion. I want to learn with you. That is, I want to participate in an industry that learns, not just “the learning industry.” So please write me, call me and tell me I’m crazy because, in my opinion, in the past 10 years, the conversation has barely progressed. Only the techniques are different, and frankly, they’re not that different.
So here they are. The salient points of this article in three easy steps. Read no more after this, if you like:
1. The most critical step to the sustained impact of a learning program is providing a highly engaging experience that impacts the heart and mind of the learner.
2. A second key to sustained impact is the ability to engage the learner in a continuous process of individual change, through ongoing application, practice and reinforcement, as opposed to a one-time learning event.
3. Technology plays an important role to effectively enable and accelerate this process on a large scale, allowing organizations to reach the critical mass needed to achieve broad-scale change and drive tangible business results.
Agreeable enough, right? The prioritization may rumple a few feathers, but they’re at least in the ballpark. But the problem is our industry is out in the parking lot.
Candidly, I’ve always been somewhat of a cynic with regard to changing people, which isn’t the worst thing to be in a market where learning is “managed” by a database and individuals learn how to have “difficult conversations” from an animated slide show. Sometimes, you just have to close your eyes. But that time is not now. That time is over.
I know you, the reader. Well, I don’t actually know you, but that will not deter me from gross generalizations. I’ve met with you to design management programs and global change initiatives and, on occasion, just to experience your renowned campus cafeteria. And I know it doesn’t surprise you in the least that engagement engenders change. Whether it’s John P. Kotter’s portraits in The Heart of Change or Patrick Lencioni’s portrayal of connection in The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, we all know that people don’t change without engagement. Not really. Not for long. Not deeply.
It’s a universal, everlasting truth. The key to a truly successful development program lies in the intersection of organizational change processes, individual change processes and adoption: It’s the tissue of it, the circulatory system, the connection.
Unfortunately, this tends to get lost as we develop our people. Because after all that, it’s still somehow easier to contemplate the role of connection and engagement when dissecting the collapse of the Soviet Union than it is when considering an individual’s transition from contributor to manager or from risk averter to rampant innovator. In development, engagement got lost in the shuffle — hence, our place in the parking lot.
Like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” I’ve watched the development cycle happen at 6 a.m. everyday. It usually goes something like this:
1. The organization identifies a business opportunity that requires training.
2. The knowledge, skills and abilities required to maximize that opportunity are identified.
3. Between 2 and 10 percent of the employee population, globally, experiences some combination of online, classroom and reinforcement training. (I left out the big debate over the right “blend,” cultural norms, appropriate corporate communications, liability, work councils, etc.)
4. Now everything is better because they know how to do everything and everyone has done their part.
Of course, this is marginally unfair. Many development cycles are quite well-adjusted. But change is a campaign, like a revolution or an advertisement — even if it’s a cyclical or programmatic change and very few individual or organizational change processes truly engage the heart and create that connection. And so they fail. It’s an undeniable truth: Change begins and ends with the heart, not the head.
For a moment, let’s objectively consider a personally treasured classroom experience. What did it for you? What makes it memorable? While I’ll assume you remembered the ins and outs of the models, processes and practices, I’m sure that something during that experience touched your heart. In turn, you left hungry, not full. Impactful programs leave you wanting more.
In the abstract, it may have gone something like this:
• You came to the class with your professional and individual tools and capabilities. Let’s call them strengths.
• You formed a relationship with several others, who became your trusted peers on the journey, your “travel companions.”
• You found a mentor, either in the teacher or in a peer.
• Some of your strengths were more useful on the journey, others less so.
• Through hard work and use of your strengths, mentors and peers, you gained new ground against the challenges presented, collecting several new treasures, insights and “organizational gadgets.” It is more than likely that your inbound strengths found affinity with some of the new material and helped guide the way.
• You took these new capabilities back to your daily life, and with a few of them were able to find success or save the day in some remarkable and inspiring ways.
• The student became the teacher, and so on and so on.
The experience, in short, led you to the truth. The truth captured your heart. Nobody would propose that it would have had the same impact if you’d sat at your desk and watched an animated slideshow. Kotter, as he walks us through an organizational change model in The Heart of Change, cautions the reader, “Changing behavior is less a matter of giving people analysis to influence their thoughts than helping them to see a truth to influence their feelings […] The flow of see-feel-change is more powerful than that of analysis-think-change.”
So the good classroom experience gets high marks. It’s teacher tailored to individual needs and strengths, provides a robust place for collaboration, enables the see-feel part of the process and, in turn, transforms people. They enter the journey one way and leave another way. Presumably, the few insights that stick put them on another road, ever so gently, and the rest is up to them.
Unfortunately, that type of classroom experience can’t be scaled effectively, and we live in a time of scale. Remarkable individual change experiences delivered to 300 people annually in an organization of 300,000 or even 30,000 don’t change the organization. What percentage of the organization would it take to get enough coverage to affect a sustainable change? At what level of engagement?
I believe that we all recognize this and do one of two things: ignore it or build requirements for online or blended training focused on the teaching methodology. Then we rationalize the requirements to engage the learner: incorporating dancing bullets, spinning desks, cartoons, etc.
But is that engagement? Not quite. Interactivity does not equal engagement. Engagement is unique. The engagement in what Kotter calls the “truth” is more critical than the facts, figures and models. It’s more than technology tricks and visual candy. Finding the path to it should be our No. 1 priority.
Many of you are familiar with the time-quality-cost pyramid. It plays a role in the development of every product from soup to semiconductors and legibly represents the dynamics and tradeoffs of a project. One usually goes out the window.
We make the same sacrifices and tradeoffs in learning programs, only with the triumvirate of scale, effectiveness and cost. We might sacrifice engagement and rationalize it with interactivity to achieve scale. Or we might give up scale to get engagement and rationalize it as cost savings. Ultimately, what usually goes is systemic effectiveness. After all, learning programs are almost always costly, when done on any scale. Even a single hour from only 10 percent of a workforce is costly by any measure. Taking that hour for an ineffective program is another matter altogether, one that never ceases to amaze me. For example, save $100,000 on development to reduce the effectiveness of a rollout costing $2.5 million in lost time to deliver. In this pyramid, however, these dimensions are failures in the guise of tradeoffs.
Let’s assume effectiveness is a measure of the organizational impact, and taking as truth the argument that effectiveness requires engagement, much of e-learning is not engaging and the classroom doesn’t truly scale. We find ourselves at a familiar impasse, one that keeps us up at night. The reality is we need all three to succeed.
Let’s look at it another way: Leadership and management development is all about getting two people to talk by instituting a common language and enabling a common community experience. The rest is equipping them to implement change. Classes do it, and so can technology. To hundreds of thousands of learners at once — effectively. Set the academic methodologies aside, and consider how the experience of it affects outcomes.
I’ve worked with hundreds of organizations during the past 11 years to create this proven formula, and I encourage everyone to use it. The possibilities and combinations are endless. Here are the three impact requirements:
1. Transform: Deliver a transformational experience, a starting point for the see-feel-change process.
2. Transition: Create a climate of transition for that experience with tools, processes, classroom and ongoing support. Transition is everything. If the experience is good, they’ll leave hungry and change themselves with the tools.
3. Totality: Generate enormous scale around that transformational experience to make it shared. Do it with technology, classrooms, cell phones, whatever. But don’t give up. It has to be a common experience.
Start the transformation with a story. We’re wired for stories. They just work. At one point, I believed that the structure of the story, the modeling of behaviors and the delivery methodology “taught” people better. Now I’ve seen what happens well enough to know the difference between “teaching” and “inspiring.” Stories impact individuals and organizations deeply by creating a common language, inspiring through perspective and just getting people to talk. Stories open doors.
Then, get your people to share in the story, share their perspectives and talk. Create a place where they can. Then embed that story, that learning experience, within a larger process that supports transition and delivers outcomes. They can be delivered either online or offline. The modality is important only insofar as scale and costs are concerned, and cost reduction certainly isn’t worth a failed experience. Focus on the coach. Every journey has one, and whether it’s a peer within a cohort, a manager or an interactive service, make sure people know where to find it.
And finally, enable scale. Strive for universal adoption of a small number of things rather than a small adoption of a lot of things. Identify the end game and get creative. Because without scale, transition can’t be sustained. The technology is ready if it’s used in the service of true change.
When all is said and done, I’m disappointed that our industry is in the parking lot: We threw out the learning as we scaled the learning management system, we threw out our people as we scaled performance management, and we threw out the transformation as we scaled the classroom. I’d argue that we chose with our heads and not with our hearts, and those heads led us away from impact. And isn’t that why we’re doing this anyway? It’s time for reinvention, folks.
I’ll leave you again with my salient points: engagement, process and technology. We just need to get it right this time.