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.

 

 

What 618 million hits can tell you about how to lead

A Google search for the term, ‘leadership training’ pulls up 618 million results. ‘Good leadership training’, 274 million. ‘Useful’, 146. ‘Effective’, 67 million.

If you’re looking to become a better leader and confused as to where to turn, you’re not alone.

What separates good from the rest, or effective from not?

To narrow our search we often turn to those we trust, whether it is the advice of experts or like-minded friends and colleagues.

As a learning and development professional, I am often asked to help match employees with learning opportunities. Though, more often, my job involves hiring and bringing leadership training into my organization.

Just like the words we type into a search field, we can learn much about the quality of our investment by the questions we ask.

Often times our questions stay at the rational-only level. They focus on content. What is the class about? What will we learn? Can I see the slides? Here, what we are often looking for is a guarantee that money in equals learning out.

But, in an age when content is at our fingertips and on-demand, a trainers role becomes more than sharing information.

What makes some learning opportunities more effective than others depends less on the material, and more on the context in which it is received and used.

That is why friends and colleagues often recommend learning opportunities not only because of the material, but because of how and if they personally connected to it.

Content is only one component. But if all we have is a hammer, then everything is a nail. And, we’d be failing to ask the carpenter about the other tools in their toolbox and how they use them.

In order for an in-person learning to be ‘effective’, the material needs to match the moment.

“What separates you from everyone else?”, is a question I always ask. Furthermore, I want a story. Rest assured I’m not looking for unique and different. Here I’m focused on someone’s understanding of not only the content, but the context they’d be teaching in. It is the science, and the art.

Yes, if we want ‘good’ training, it is possible that any of the 618 million results are right for you. But we’ll narrow and improve our search by focusing more on ‘who’, ‘why’, and ‘how’, than ‘what’. Content is cheap. Context is worth paying for.

I’m going to tell you the secrets of the universe

But first, a story…

I even remember the bench. I had walked out of the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park in a trance, in need of a seat. I immediately texted my friend Kelly but the exclamations points didn’t do the experience justice. Though we had just finished watching famous actors recite Shakespeare, my mind was fixed on the “performance” that followed; Harvard Professor Michael Sandel brilliantly facilitated an 1,800 person conversation on morals, ethics, and morality. A few microphones, some well-placed questions, and just the right amount of context created a beautifully moving piece of art. That night, I had found real inspiration and possibility for my work.

People often label what I do as training. Though I want to correct them I hardly ever do.

Instead, my mind races back to that night, almost four years ago, and to other work I’ve studied and borrowed from, from great musicians, to comedians, professors, executives, religious figures, and performers.

We seek to bring groups and people together around a common goal.

Though their vehicle is different, the greats I admire have a few things in common that apply back to the classroom:

They have the reigns: People want to feel that you’re in control. A professor once advised me on the perils of Improvisation. “Yes, leaders need to be in the moment and often improvise…but “improvisation on the spot” can be seen as insufficiently thoughtful and attention seeking”, he said. Safety is important to learning, and providing your students with some certainty quiets the brain enough to help them feel safe and pay attention to what matters. People don’t just want to know when the breaks are – they need a sense of the path, and confidence that you’ll help them get from A to B.

They build community: The beautiful thing about live theater, live training, live…anything, is although we all experience it differently, everyone in the room is sharing in something similar. Great craftsmen and women use this to their advantage to create a strong in-group sensation that binds a group of people together in time. Words fuel emotion which fuels connection and a sense of relatedness and togetherness, contributing to powerful dopamine spikes that open up the thinking centers of our brain with lasting positive effects.

They are experts in motivation:  The key to “pull” learning is to draw in people who want to learn or experience what you have to offer. Master teachers expertly play upon the gap between where students are and where they want to be. They play with suspense, and scaffold the learning in such a way that you want to stay on the journey until the end. A professor once described how he taught a subject that was often met with early skepticism and cynicism: “there is a golden ore I’m holding out for them the entire semester. But I can’t force it on them, I slowly reveal more and more of what it is until they can and want to reach out and grab it”. 

At a recent show, Comedian Mike Birbiglia appeared on-stage with a journal in his hand and carefully set it down at the edge of the stage without explanation. The audience didn’t forget it was there, but when he picked it up and read from it 45 minutes into the show, the build-up to that moment was so satisfying. By putting the journal on the stage, he was signifying an implicit promise to his audience and delicately toying with our curiosity.

Trainers and teachers who promise the moon-and-stars, guarantee perfect performance, and the secrets of the universe may truly want to do these things, though I am weary of the ones who declare a guarantee. Those whose work I admire most seek to create a genuine connection with their audience and leave them changed for the better. Sometimes that change takes months, weeks, or years to transpire, but if you’re like me, you remember its lessons forever. 

Context is king, content is cheap

As much as I enjoy learning, I’ll be the first to tell you that my go-to solution is hardly ever “training”.

When I share that perspective, I often worry I’m disappointing people as if I’ve taken the air out of their balloon. People want help, and I want to honor that.

In some organizations training is viewed as a checklist item, a perk, or a catch-all. I’m sure the intent is good. Though the idea of sticking people in a classroom and “fixing the problem” hardly ever works in unison or in isolation.

Why? Learning is change and change brings with it a whole host of sometimes covert and sometimes explicit difficulties. People are complicated, and learning is emotional.

It doesn’t mean training isn’t important or that people shouldn’t be given learning opportunities. But, without the right structural support, incentives, motivation, and environment, we may be leaving our employees more disengaged than intended, especially if they can’t apply what they learned. It’s critical to get the context right and understand what’s getting in the way of the intended behavior.

You want to roll out a manager training for your organization? Great – first let’s make sure that we know why people either are or aren’t currently exhibiting these skills, and line up our incentives with what we’re teaching. These are crucial steps for success that actually help programs scale, though they involve a larger up-front investment. We must spend equal or more time on what happens before and after training than on the class itself.

Learning done well takes time and often more than we are comfortable with. Why? Because we know that context is king and content is relatively cheap. Why and how and when is often more important than what. People don’t often respond well to the idea of slowing down or delaying, especially when they see a need and are motivated to help. It’s hard to say no, it’s hard to hear no, too.

I know this because this month I’ve been the person “pushing” for learning, seeing the need, and hearing “not yet, slow down”. I know that this is actually a good sign – that people realize though we have the motivation and the need, we’ve got to line up the incentives, and get the environment right to support the learning. This can be hard to swallow, especially when you have hungry learners who you want to satiate.

Learning programs that create and ignite lasting change come with their share of resistance, delays, questions, conversations, and challenges. This process brings with it its own learning – and that can’t be learned in a classroom.