Feel Good About Saying Yes (part 1 of 3)

shakingHandsThree months after agreeing to run product training across the business, Jeff is sitting in a meeting with senior business leaders.  The pilot was not received well, partly because half of the participants didn’t know the reason they were in training was because their role was changing.  One of the sponsors was “defending” Jeff by saying that it wasn’t that big of a deal  – they could just run training again.  Jeff cringed inside as the sponsor continued “…after all, training can’t hurt them.”
There was also no clear agreement on whether the participants had learned anything or were better prepared to perform their jobs.  The facilitator came in for her share of criticism because she had been “too tactical” for some and “over the heads” of others in the classroom.

Jeff desperately wanted to cut in to say “I told you so!” even as he knew how foolish that would be. However, he knew he couldn’t honestly say that.  The best he could say was “I meant to tell you so, but you wouldn’t have listened anyway”.  Now they were talking about phase 2 and he needed a way to take back control of the conversation before his team was on the hook for another round of training without clear agreement on needs, outcomes, target audience and measurement.

You are likely far better prepared than Jeff, but I suspect that you and your team have been faced with at least some of the elements of this scenario.


We love acronyms at my company and though this one doesn’t “sing” the way I would like, it has become one of the most frequently used tools in our kit.

I: Impact

R: Return

R: Readiness

This simple tool allows my team to work more effectively at the start of any learning engagement and the next three posts will go into each letter in more detail.

For years, learning departments have been steadily transitioning from “order-takers” to business partners.  There are many reasons for this and there have been many books written about those reasons.  I think we would all agree though that shifting practices, as hard as that is, is still a stroll in the park compared to shifting a mindset.

I’ve spoken to many learning leaders across many industries who struggle with institutionalizing “running training like a business”, not because they do not see the value, but because of everyday political considerations.

If a senior business leader needs something, shouldn’t we jump at the opportunity to prove our value, build credibility points and stay connected to strategy?  If we refuse, doesn’t that seem somehow just wrong?

Even if we’re skilled at negotiating, our own management may push back and ask what we think we’re trying to do.

We’re faced with the chicken or egg conundrum.  Which comes first – the tools and practices of running training like a business or the mindset?  What’s the point of bringing in strategic planning sessions and portfolio management into the business of learning if everyone is going to look at us like we’re mad?  On the other hand, how exactly do you change mindsets if you’re just talking about what you want the future to look like.

In a perhaps unsurprising twist, I advocate doing both.  Start laying the groundwork with key stakeholders (your own team, your direct manager, key clients) in conversations, but also bring forth simple, intuitive tools as you navigate supply and demand.

I developed this tool as a colleague and I were preparing to meet with key business leaders responsible for a couple of dozen initiatives they wanted training and development support for. Given the criticality of the strategic goal and the assumption that training resources would be available for all needs, we had about two days to bring together best practices and our own ingenuity in a practical, business-friendly methodology that would allow us to quickly understand and prioritize those requests in partnership with the business sponsors.

I is for Impact.

Before taking on any learning initiative, understand what the (business) impact is.  The key here is not to ask about training and development (T&D) needs in a vacuum.  First you must assess how important these needs and solutions are to the overall business objective.

The following questions are helpful in assessing the importance of T&D solutions in the overall support system:

  • What is the business objective?  That’s pretty self-explanatory, but I do want to emphasize the business impact.  Raise revenue?  Enter new market?  Segment clients?  Business leaders come to this meeting thinking about training and turn to solutions very quickly – “we need product training”.  Asking this first allows you to redirect the conversation away from a pre-determined solution to a discussion that allows you to be more consultative and ideally, helps the leader know you understand their business.
  • Of the key levers of strategic implementation (technology, process, organization, governance, people), how important is the “people” component?  Never ask about training needs in a vacuum.  If you spend the entire time talking about development needs, you run the risk of walking away believing that T&D is the most important lever of success whereas the business leader checks training off her list as she moves on to the levers that really matter to her.

In some situations, we have given leaders virtual money ($100) and ask them to “spend” it on the levers that would most impact the outcome.  We’ve used a simple table on a slide and documented the dollar value given to each lever to make the assumptions explicit.  So when the business leader(s) places $80 on technology enhancements, we have a clear idea on how much importance is placed on product training.  The exercise is a non-confrontational way for both parties to come to a common understanding of T&D’s impact and immediately resets the dialogue to a more realistic tone.

  • At this stage, the answer may be clear.  The “People” component is not that critical to the success and thus, there may not be a role for T&D at this stage (unless your team is also responsible for OD consulting).  However, if there is sufficient cause to explore further, take this opportunity to probe the people lever.

*Are there human performance gaps?

*Are these gaps skills or capability based? (I don’t know how to do this)

*Or is it a desire gap (I know how to do it, I just don’t want to)?

*Or it is an organizational gap (I can’t figure out what you need me to do)?

  • If it is a capability gap, then T&D has a clear and present role.  There a few more questions to ask before moving on to the next letter.

*Has the target audience been identified?

*Has their new expectations been defined?

*Have they been informed and do they understand what they need to do?

If any of these questions are answered in the negative, the timing of the learning interventionwould be discussed and negotiated.  Again, if your team is responsible for supporting change management, they can help the business work through these issues before training is planned.

A quick note on the other possible “people gaps”.  First is the “Desire” gap.  A learning leader once put it this way (forgive the aggressiveness of the analogy): If you put a gun to the person’s head and say “do it”, can they?  If they can, then it’s not a training issue, it’s a change management issue.  If they can’t, then it could be training-treatable.

Far too often, training is called in to solve communication and desire gaps and as we all know, it just plain doesn’t work.  Asking the question is the best first step.

An organizational gap is based on role clarity, expectations and structure.  This is pretty classic OD/training methodology so I won’t go into any detail, except to say that my biggest regret as a learning leader was to sanction training on a promise that the targeted audience would be informed of their expectations prior to training.  They were not and the course evaluations were mixed at best.

We posted the classic line from Cool Hand Luke – ““What we have here is a failure to communicate” – on our department’s whiteboard as a reminder to get confirmation on the basics prior to training.

Assessing the impact of training is pretty straight-forward and most likely a part of your needs assessment methodology.  The one point I’d emphasize is “never assess training needs in a vacuum”.  Other than that, a few simple question can do wonders to help you and your business partner quickly come to agreement on whether or not an issue is “training-treatable”.

In the next post, I’ll explore the next step to “Feeling Good about Saying Yes” with a practical approach to discussing the return on investing in training.

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