Confessions of an L&D professional

  1. “What do you think about this class?”
  2. “Do you like this vendor?”
  3. “Can you recommend a good training on “X”?
  4. “Should we do a mentorship program?”

Well, it depends. 

These are the types of questions I receive several times a week. And when I’m asked, I usually offer a few questions back.

Learning and Development isn’t the only profession where people come to us looking for, or requesting a pre-set solution.

It’s the equivalent of going to a doctor to request a specific type of medicine. 

We want you to know – we want to help. Rather than being a content master or vendor wrangler, many of us thrive on understanding and solving your root cause.

Here is how to help us help you. 

Explain the ideal outcome, not just the tool you want

  1. What do you want to be different after “X”? 
  2. How would you know we’ve succeeded?
  3. How would this aid your performance, or connect to a business goal? 

People usually seek out training or L&D to solve a specific problem, not just for content. Start with the end in mind and help connect the dots between the challenge you’re facing and what the ideal state is. 

What are the conditions like?

It’s hard to land a plane in a hurricane. Conditions matter. 

The environment someone is operating in is a key factor in whether or not the training (or solution) will stick and have a lasting impact.

  1. What kind of managerial support does this person have?
  2. What else might get in the way of it being successful?
  3. Does this person or this team want help or see the need?

When we ask these questions we’re trying to get a sense of what could get in the way of this solution sticking. 

Why? Information (content) is everywhere. But people rarely change because of information alone. Make the content more useful by connecting it to a need people care about and understanding the context someone is operating in. 

Instead of simply being information brokers, L&D teams have the opportunity and desire to be connection builders for lasting change. We can help close the gap for you. 

 

A ‘pull’ approach to data-gathering

When we gather people in a room, our first instinct is often: what information should we push out? 

When our task is to gather feedback from people, our first instinct is to ask: what information do we need to hear?

In both of these common organizational rituals, the focus is on the content.

But before the content…comes outcome.

What do we really need from our participants? And, why?

If all we need is compliance, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response is fine.

If all we need is information, we can send a list of questions, or a survey.

But when we want to bring people together around an organizational change, some new process, or a common goal, we often need more.

We need engagement. 

The difference between asking for information and asking for engagement is involving employees in co-creating the data-gathering experience. It involves pulling on their intrinsic motivation and connecting your ask to something they care about.

This requires us to focus more on the people we are surveying and not just the answers they will provide.

People love and appreciate feeling heard and being involved, especially when the change affects them. Change is personal. We can treat it that way by taking a personalized approach to data-gathering.

Give employees skin in the game by asking for their expertise, their stories, their insights. 

Give employees a role by asking them to listen for what other employees are saying in the room so that themes can be built upon and solidified.

Show them the importance of their opinion and experience by elevating their status and highlighting their unique role.

Bring them in as co-creators of the experience

Bringing people together around a change effort involves more than sharing information and gathering it. It takes time to build and set the context that fuels ongoing engagement in a change effort. 

Success is not necessarily measured in the immediate clarity of their answers fitting nicely in a box, but in their ongoing commitment to join you in the change you seek. 

The 60-minute magic trick

Though I’m not a magician by trade, I am often asked to pull a rabbit out of a hat. This often means creating and delivering an educational gathering (i.e. a training class) in a limited amount of time that will solve a particular problem, and fast.

Let’s call it, ‘The 60-minute magic trick’.

Be it, helping a group of managers to delegate more, solve an interpersonal conflict, or enhance strategic thinking skills, the task is essentially to put a group of people in a room and create an experience that helps them think, be, or do differently.

The question is, how do we achieve the biggest magic trick of all: extending that initial 60 minutes into much more. The answer rarely is to keep people in a room longer. The answer and the impact lie in creating an experience that lasts, sticks, and extends far beyond the initial gathering. Rather than extending the time in the room, here’s how to do more with what you have:

Shift your audience from passive consumers to active co-creators:

Though a magician may practice their tricks alone, they need an audience to survive and thrive. Their tricks are only as strong and captivating as the audience believes them to be. In an educational setting, your content is only as helpful and beneficial as the audience’s connection to it. Our job is not simply to share content – it is to help close the gap between the utility of the information and the participant’s ability to do something with it. Help them become co-creators instead by giving them agency, ownership (a role), and when appropriate, choice. This shift doesn’t relinquish control completely, it simply increases a sense of skin in the game which can lead to more accountability. 

Provide certainty through language:

Your time in room is precious. One of the ways to shift the brain out of fight or flight mode and prepare it for concentrated learning is to provide certainty. Make sure attendees know not just the learning objectives, but where things are, what to expect, how to use what they’re being taught, etc. Even more basic – name the class something clear and concrete. No jargon here. This relaxes the brain into being ready to digest information because it knows how to orient what’s about to come. Don’t waste students precious cognitive resources on asking them to map the course on their own.

At comedian Hannah Gadsby’s most recent show, attendees entered the theater to see a picture of a dog on a screen and the name, “Douglass” underneath it. This small choice helps the audience immediately understand how the name of the show (Douglass) connected to the content that would follow. Uncertainty decreased, focus increased.  

Tell us how to feel about something:

Just like naming something gives us certainty, it can also provide a common language and shortcut. This shorthand serves us well in organizational life – it can cut down on misunderstanding, help us get on the same page faster, or in some cases, take the emotion or charge out of a potentially challenging situation.

Take, the word ‘puckerfish’. In Gadsby’s same show, she offered this phrase to highlight her disdain for something. Over the course of her hour, she repeated this phrase each time that same emotion aroused. After the second use of that phrase, she no longer needed to explain what she meant. We understood it immediately. By the end of the show, she didn’t use the phrase at all.  She simply moved her mouth like a puckerfish would. She taught us how she felt about something so that we as an audience knew how to feel too.

This common language also helps these experiences scale. One message, multiple messengers. Puckerfish. We can teach people more than content – we can teach people how to feel about something. Furthermore, it bonds a group of people together with more than a common language. It gives the group a common emotion.

In each of these tips, the content is not the main attraction. Why? Though our desire to pack in more content in our 60-minutes usually comes from a good place and a desire to share more information, people can often find content on their own. The solution then is not to give more, but to give what exists more meaning, more personal attachment, and a roadmap for its utility.

Let your gatherings be the start, not the only singular solve. Lasting change is gradual. It’s not magic.

The value of these experiences rarely come from checking all the boxes in 60 minutes. The true value is in handing off ownership of the experience to someone else.

If we do these three things well, we can more realistically view these one-off experiences as what they really are, a launching point for important people challenges, and thus teach people how to carry them forward with momentum and staying power.

The one-size-fits-all fallacy

Marketing guru Seth Godin put it simply, “Everyone is not your customer”. Same goes for learning.

But people can still feel that something was made just for them.

When we over-prioritize size and scale, we can easily forget the importance of creating a truly personalized learning experience.

Whether it’s a workshop, conference, town-hall, or another form of gathering, those deemed one-size-fits-all are ones where:

  • an audience is replaceable or invisible because the experience can apply to anyone
  • the particular medium is unnecessary because the information could have been shared a different way

It is possible to personalize a gathering, even at scale. Here’s three examples of how to shift from “made for everyone”, to a “made for me” mentality:

Speed limits do apply

When it comes to learning or retention, speed of information flow matters. At a recent conference I attended, participants were shuffled between 8-10 sessions back-to-back, some lasting only 15 minutes. Though we may be intrigued by the amount of information and learning available to us, we can’t necessarily consume or recall it all, at least not meaningfully. It’s like going to a grocery store and purchasing everything in stock just because it’s there. We can’t physically consume that much food. And we can’t consume that much information…at least not in a healthy way. Though it seems efficient, it’s actually highly wasteful. If time constraints keep us from spacing out our learning, at least we can digest it by:

Building explicit time or nudges into the experience that allow people to process what they just consumed, either alone or with each other. Ask a few pointed questions. You want to know, just like a game of telephone, how much is that learning being passed on? Without this time or energy, we as learners are less likely to take up the information as our own and do something with it. 

Providing content isn’t the same as solving a need

Content is a key reason that many people initially come to your gathering. Sure, they want to hear a speaker, they are intrigued by the topics or the agenda, etc. But the way that we frame, market, and put that content into context for people is often more important than the content alone.

For example, there is a difference between a conference that simply lists a bunch of session titles, versus one that shows and describes a clear arc of how each session builds on the other and leads people from A, to B. Make it easy by connecting the dots for your learners so that their energy can be spent on making meaning of the content, not the agenda. You can do this in a few ways:

Instead of a list of sessions or pieces of content, share:

  1. The questions each section will answer
  2. A guide to know if each session is right for you
  3. A recommendation engine tool
  4. Chunk the day into pieces
  5. Obsessively tie back to outcomes

The goal here is not to be allured by the number of tracks or choices of sessions. Learners want progress – more than just the steps in the recipe, tell me how each step leads me to the final product I care about making.

Pro Tip: You’ll know if you’ve over-prioritized content if you see low energy levels in and outside the room.

Find out what we all have in common

No, I don’t mean hometowns or favorite foods. It is possible to leave a gathering feeling more connected to others in the room, even if you haven’t met them. This is made possible when attempts are made to create a strong in-group. What is unique about this room of people? What do they all have in common?

When we make an experience for everyone, we aren’t able to clarify or classify what makes that group different and distinct. What specific language, rituals, or needs does this group have? People want to feel like they belong and they want to exhibit pride in their groups. Attempts to foster a strong in-group help others feel seen and that an experience was made just for them.

Just for me, just right, just in time. Personalized gatherings are possible, even at scale. It starts with a desire to view our audience as irreplaceable and necessary to our success… no matter the size.

Gimme the Real Thing

Ice cream. Merchandise. People.

When it comes to our preferences, most of us want the ‘real’ thing.

Tangible. Applicable. Relevant.

When it comes to our preferences for learning experiences, we don’t just want something close to the real thing…we need it.

‘Real’ in a corporate learning context can mean a few different things. Namely, is the content presented applicable to my actual work context? Is the class too steeped in jargon and theory or language I don’t understand? Is the emphasis on the unique tool being shared, or the application of that tool to what I do day-to-day and the real needs I have?

No matter what learning experience we are engaged in, the content shared is only as useful as the ability for someone to understand and use it (successfully, eventually) in their particular context.

Although we can’t control all learning transfer, asking “What percentage of you were able to immediately apply what you learned?”, is a good place to start.

The fundamental challenge of anyone trying to influence or encourage new behavior, skills, or knowledge is to present material in a way that engages the person in their real world…not yours.

This doesn’t just extend to corporate learning. A friend recently shared how after a tricky diagnosis, his doctor used imagery and similes to describe his condition. In this way, he was immediately able to understand something inherently foreign, and easily communicate it to his family and friends. Peace of mind was another benefit.

When we present material in this way, learning transfer isn’t just increased between teacher and student. Students/learners/employees are also able to pass down and teach back their learnings to others.

What closes the gap between ‘interesting material’ or ‘fun experience’ to engaged learner able to immediately apply what they learned? Make the experience more real with:

  1. A clear before and after: Help learners answer, what will be different after this experience and how will I know if I’ve been successful?
  2. Critical incidents: Seek out or ask participants to bring in/think of/practice with real scenarios to apply the material to.
  3. Make the material more applicable by relating it to real universal examples (stories, metaphors). Not only does this engage the room around a common idea, it helps the material stick and spread.

When it comes to consumption of material, we have an array of choices. But when it comes down to it, gimme the real thing.

Make your audience visible

“Make your thinking visible”, is a phrase I learned from a dear mentor, and one I repeat often to other facilitators and those who gather.

Sharing (some, not all of) what’s in your head and what you’re doing with the audience or students in the room serves a few key purposes. 1) It promotes safety, and reduces uncertainty so that others trust where you’re taking them 2) it helps destroy the distance between you and the audience 3) it pulls them into the unique, singular moment you’re sharing.

When we make our thinking visible it helps an audience feel that they are too.

After all, if your audience is invisible, then there is no reason for them to be in the room. They could be anyone, or anything.

Here are some questions and observation tactics you can use to determine the visibility of your audience:

  1. What energy is the audience giving you? Do you use it, or ignore it? How can you encourage more?
  2. What direction does the energy flow? Hint: it’s not enough for it to flow between an individual participant and the person on the stage, or only between those on the stage
  3. Does your audience talk or engage with each other before or after your gathering? If not, what is that silence telling you?
  4. Do you need your audience? If the answer is yes, how do you show them?

When we treat an audience as invisible, they sit, waiting to be told what to do, or what to think. In these instances, the flow of information and energy is often one-way. 

Making your audience visible is often a key difference between a gathering that is purely meant to entertain or inform, versus one meant to educate, and even engage.

We all gather for a reason. Do you know why your audience came? The five people who had their question answered by the speaker feel visible. How can you see the rest?

It’s not enough to create something for our audience. Create something with them instead. 

Learning is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be insular

It was like our little secret, but I wished it didn’t have to be.

I sat with a colleague just a few weeks prior talking about the learning experiences we both had over the summer. I spent it researching and writing a book about “Gathering”, and he rode his bike across the United States.

“So, what did you learn?”, I asked him on a walk in search of a cool drink on a sweltering New York City day. He talked about his growth, and who he was becoming because of his adventure. He asked me the same. I talked about a deeper sense of purpose, a revived confidence, and a clarity of my future.

We both concluded, each of our experiences were just tools for a similar outcome. It wasn’t the bike ride or the number of miles or pages written that was most significant, it was what it led us each towards. “Do you think anyone will understand that?”, we wondered. We surmised that when we returned to our normal life, this would be hard to explain.

Though well-intentioned, I was met back at work with a repeated question, “so… did you finish the book?”.

In many moments of defensiveness I answered with “no, but that wasn’t the goal!”. I went on to share the number of pages or chapters I’d written, literary agents I had sent it to, or hours logged. It was as if I felt the need to prove that I did ‘something’ worthwhile.

The truth was, I really wanted to talk about my summer – I could talk for hours about it. But, in that moment, I wanted to be asked different types of questions.

Transitions, whether it be at the end of a learning experience, a promotion, or a change of any kind are when we are all at our most vulnerable. It’s when learning can be cemented or siphoned.

So when we, or our colleagues, or friends have a new experience, especially one that takes them out of their comfort zone, we can support them by carefully choosing the questions we ask. We can also educate others about what we want to share or be asked.

Learning is personal, but it doesn’t have to be private.

It’s ultimately a choice. We can choose to keep learning private, singular, and isolated to one moment or one event. In this check-the-box mentality, learning is either something you did or didn’t.

Or, we can view learning as a process instead of a task.

The act of consistently learning, in that messy and undefined and wonderful way that isn’t always tied to clear-cut results is one that doesn’t often get talked about.

To help others, we can start by adjusting our questions.

Learning that sticks with us is personal, and therefore emotional. One way to invite this is by asking questions and framing experiences as ones that connect to our identity – who we are now and who we want to be in the future – and not just an isolated experience. These questions, like “how do you see yourself after this?”, “what do you now see as possible?”, aren’t limiting, they are limitless.

Does learning in your organization feel like you’re putting on more armor, or shedding layers to reveal who you are and who you want to be?

While we can’t assume every learning experience will provide such clarity or layer shedding, these different questions pull at our intrinsic motivation and can connect the dots between what we do and the deeper meaning behind it. This is deep transformational learning at its best. Multiply this by each person in your organization and we can only imagine what it unlocks.

Learning is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be insular.

More is not always better

When it comes to learning and development, a dream scenario is one in which your employees are hungry. They want to learn. They want classes and resources and opportunities. When this is true, how do you decide to feed them?

Though there are many options, let’s start by comparing two common approaches:

The Zoo Mentality

Often times I see learning and development groups function like zookeepers. In this scenario, there is a set number of courses and opportunities and they are rationed out on a schedule.  Here, learning is metaphorically thrown over a fence for employees to grab. While it seems generous to be providing these opportunities, it takes the power away from the ones who should be in control of what they learn and when. They can become so dependent on the zookeepers that learners don’t learn how to search for, source, or determine what’s best for them.

The Grocery Store Mentality

We can also view learning and development like a grocery store. Often times it is very tempting to stuff more and more content into our classes, decks, or learning experiences. We believe more is better and while we have people’s attention, why not just feed them more?

Here there is no grocery list, people want the whole store.

Though we might be tempted to, we don’t purchase everything in the grocery store when we go shopping. We may want to consume all of the food, but we can’t. There are limitations to consider from budget to freshness, storage space, usability, etc. We also know the store will still be there next week, and we can go back for more.

These same limitations exists for our learners, from cognitive capacity, to transfer ability, relevancy and application.

It is great to be hungry. We don’t want to let our learners starve. But hunger is only one part of the equation to sustaining a learning culture.

Just because content is at our fingertips doesn’t mean it’s ready or right for our learners.

We can teach people to not just to consume, but to create and share what they are learning with others.