L&D is not about simplicity

Many trainers start off with trying to distill models into soundbites for training. Into a model. Into easy to understand stuff.

I think along the way we confused effective training with being comparable to teaching children. If you can explain it in easy to understand terms, you’ll make a good trainer.

As you deepen your career in L&D what you start to understand is that making difficult topics easy to understand isn’t the aim. Learning isn’t a simple act. Its multi-faceted and it’s not entirely understood. We know there are certain activities which help learning to take place. But we don’t genuinely know the full range of mechanisms which lead to actual learning.

We’ve got to an evolution in our language where we can codify many different skills and practices. We can articulate much of what we experience. And we’re realising a lot of what happens in life is interdependent on many other things.

Life is complex. Learning is complex. When we try to simplify, that’s not what learning is about and nor should it be. This is in part why there is a distinct move to being focused on performance consultancy as the practice which L&D should be adopting. At work, we need to do stuff. Yes the learning is important, and there’s a fine balance of needing training, needing the right resources to enable performance, and needing the right knowledge and having it accessible through different means.

We also need to be careful that we don’t swap out concepts such as “micro-learning” as meaning simple learning.

As we grow and learn more about our organisations and the context in which we’re delivering solutions, what we understand is that learning solutions are normally inclusive of a range of stuff. Making training simple isn’t the aim we should be striving for.


Training practice I wish we’d see less

1. When you want to genuinely explore a topic and the trainer asks – what are the benefits of using this methodology? And – how does it benefit the person receiving? And – how does it benefit you?

They’re all nonsense questions. They don’t reveal insight. They don’t help explore the topic. They’re just filler. It’s most likely because of poor planning or poor understanding on the part of the trainer.

2. When the trainer isn’t comfortable with debate and they say – we’re not discussing what we’re here for, can we get back on track? Or something similar.

It’s really poor capability on the part of the trainer that they can’t and won’t engage in debate. The people may be going off piste, and that’s ok. They’re in a line of thinking they need to explore, and they need to express. How they do that, and how you engage with them on it matters. It’s rare someone goes into controversy, and more often than not, they’ve been alerted to a line of thinking they hadn’t arrive at previously.

3. When the trainer wants to gain ‘engagement’ and they say – raise your hand if you believe this thing I’m about to say. And – raise your hand if you’ve experienced this thing I’m about to say.

Dear. Fucking. God. Because the people we’re with are children and we’re back in the classroom? This isn’t engagement. It’s interaction for the sake of it. It does nothing beyond asking someone to raise their hand against a highly leading and suggestive statement. That’s not agreement. That’s called compliance. That’s not training. That’s called obedience.

4. When the trainer claims – I am so good at this, I know what’s best for you. You may not want to do this thing, but that’s because you’re closed off to stuff. I’m clearly more knowledgeable than you and know what you need. The trainer may not say these words, but everything they do intimates these things.

I hate this. It happens because there are trainers out there genuinely believe they have so much human insight that they can ‘read people’ and they ‘know psychology’. That’s just not what people need in your training. They want to learn about the content, not be told by you what you think about them. You as the trainer have no position of authority over the person in your training. If they choose to try stuff, it’s because they’re feeling safe to do so, not because you’ve demanded it of them.

5. On virtual training, a trainer doesn’t know how use the tech and they make claims about virtual training being less superior to in-person training.

Well, don’t try go virtual if you don’t know how to do it well. There are many examples of brilliant training being delivered virtually, and your opinion doesn’t matter.

6. When the trainer only has examples from their own experiences.

Because the world revolves around them. That’s why they’re a trainer, because they can recount their personal stuff, and after all they’ve practised their story and can do storytelling really well.  Forget that it’s not relevant or completely misjudged.

I’m gonna stop there. Add your own below yo.

Vulnerability in the workplace

In the work I do, I get to work with a lot of different groups and leaders. It’s a privileged position where I have access to senior people in a way most people won’t. Inevitably you find that they’re just as human and foibled as the rest of us. They have the same kinds of insecurities and vulnerabilities.

One of the more interesting observations is that more and more leaders are becoming attuned to the acceptance of their foibles and the stuff they just don’t do very well. Instead of being stable geniuses or providing strong and stable leadership they accept that they can’t do everything and rely on the strength of the team to help them deliver.

It’s the expression of their vulnerabilities that I find particularly interesting. They don’t demean themselves. Instead they’ve learned to have humility about what they struggle with. Instead of “I don’t have data analysis skills and that’s a weakness I’m not proud of”, they say things like “I don’t have data and analytics skills and I accept it’s never going to be a strength for me.”

I believe that when we have better thinking in a safe environment about our vulnerabilities, we can express them in ways which are free of judgement and they are accepted.

What I find further interesting is how management teams then react to opening up about their vulnerabilities. Most leaders I come across are not the critical and judgemental types. They want to grow and enable their teams.

When I talk to management teams about the level of trust they have with one another and how that enables, or not, how vulnerable they are with another, it creates two different conversations. On the one hand they’ll say “we trust each other”, and on the other “I’m unsure how vulnerable I want to be with the team”. That second statement is a very valid standing and I don’t seek to create forced discomfort.

One of the elements of trust is the empathy we have with each other. That when I have something to say it can be heard. I feel included. I feel valued. That if I’m struggling to hit a target or achieve a goal, I can share that without judgement. And in fact the team and the leader create a safe environment where I can express that without my credibility being at risk.

And I will ask those team members to share easy levels of information with each other as an example of the kind of open conversation you can have with each other. I ask them to write down their responses to: You Can Count On Me To… and Never Ask Me To…

Some leaders and team members are really ok with this. They know what strengths and values they have. They don’t have to ‘manage’ their answer. It’s clear for them and they know how to express it. For others, though, it creates a real moment of discomfort. They want to be seen to be able and capable. They don’t want to express what you shouldn’t ask them to get involved with because they don’t want to lose face or credibility amongst their team members. That small and very real moment of discomfort is important because it tells us about how we genuinely feel about vulnerabilities – both from those willing to share openly and those who are ok with it.

And a personal example I think is valid here, too. I often choose to be vulnerable with my wider team. I have been vulnerable with my immediate team and they give me strength in knowing I am not judged by them. We work through stuff and I nearly always have a way forward – even if that way forward is to accept the mistake or it is to do nothing. When I choose to do similar with my wider team I get met with different reactions. Some don’t know how to respond, so they don’t. Others have an opinion about my actions to date (or lack of) and let me know them. Others let me know they appreciate knowing more about what’s happening for me and they don’t judge me for certain decisions made.

I’ve done a fair amount of self development work in many different ways over the years, so I have a level of comfort and self awareness about my strengths and values and weaknesses. Like you can always ask me to be a sounding board for stuff. I’m really keen on hearing people’s ideas and where it takes them. But never ask me to be the one to do the careful planning or detailed organisation stuff. It’s just not my bag and I can notice some stuff and in all likelihood will miss not having thought of important stuff.

Its complicated stuff. In the writing above I’ve used varying levels of language to describe the kind of stuff it’s all related to. Credibility. Ability. Capability. Strengths. Humility. Vulnerabilities. Openness. Trust. Self-awareness. Leadership. It all adds into the mix.

There’s no conclusion of any sort here. It’s just to share my observations of how I help others to explore vulnerability and my reflections on the concept in the workplace.

Is there a right way to express appreciation?

It’s an odd question isn’t it?

It’s something that has occurred to me several times and it happens frequently enough. People trying to express appreciation for something and feeling they have to add in a bit of “constructive criticism” for “being helpful”.

We’re in an entitled world. And this is not a millennial thing. It’s a person thing. If you’re human in this day and age you’re pretty much gonna feel entitled to most things. If things aren’t given to us on a platter, we moan about it. We forget, very easily, that we are probably at our most privileged in life than we have ever been. For those of us growing up and living in Western economies, very little is unavailable. Sure there is inequity all over the place, and there’s unfair discrimination happening in 50 ways from Sunday. Just because we have abundance doesn’t mean we have things figured out.

The entitlement we have is at odds with appreciation. In fact, I think entitlement is the arch enemy of appreciation. We are poor at expressing appreciation well because we feel entitled to the thing we’re either waiting for or receiving.

When people say things like…

Had a good night out and Bob’s Bistro, just a shame that the cutlery wasn’t clean!

Had a good day at the theme park, it would have been so much better if there weren’t so many people there!

Cor I was lucky to get the train but almost missed it cos of all these school kids in my way!

About to receive the Nobel Peace Prize! Would be so much better if I didn’t have to travel to actual Sweden to collect it 🤷🏽‍♂️

Was so lucky to be seen so quickly at the A&E but left annoyed because the pharmacy was shut and have to come back tomorrow to collect my medicine 😡

You get the idea.

I see it happen so much. People are trying to express gratitude and can’t help but say something negative alongside it.

I learned a long time ago, it’s very possible to accept things as they are, and to be grateful what is present, not what is missing. I learned that my sense of entitlement doesn’t mean I actually deserve stuff. If I want something, I have to put the effort in for it. If something hasn’t gone the way of expected, in most cases I can influence that so it’s better, or I have to accept that’s what it is.

You can ask for clean cutlery and be very polite about it. You can manage your time better so if a delay happens it’s not a concern. You can understand people only work so many hours and they can’t be at your beck and call.

Moreso, I believe, it’s about how we manage our sense of entitlement. It’s ok to feel entitled, as long as it doesn’t turn you into someone who thinks they’re positive and grateful but is actually needy and greedy.

That sense of entitlement is strong in a lot of us. “But if I don’t say it then how will they know what I really think?” “If I don’t provide criticism how will they get better?”

It’s very possible to express appreciation without saying something negative. It’s also very possible and acceptable to give criticism when it’s solicited or when it is genuinely needed to be said.

What’s the difference between using digital tech for learning and personal consumption?

Leading on from yesterday’s blog post, Myles Runham asked the above question.

My assertion was that

consuming digital for personal purposes is fundamentally different to consuming digital for learning purposes.

It comes down to the way we use digital for both and highlights just how poor learning solutions tend to be in this space.

A lot of people with modern mobile phones will have an array of apps to help them get on with day to day life. Mobile banking, social media, messaging, it’s all there and easy to access and in most cases easy to use.

When we’re using these or web apps / websites to help us either peruse life or get stuff done, there’s normally a navigation which makes sense. I want something on Amazon, I search for it, I click buy, and that’s job done. I want to watch something on Netflix, I search for it, hit play or download, and I’m consuming the content. I want to transfer money, log on to PayPal, hit transfer, and make it happen.

That’s the kind of ease of digital we’ve come to not only expect, but are very comfortable with.

Using social media / digital for learning purposes, though, requires fundamentally different digital savvy skills.

If I want to engage with a community on a Twitter chat, there’s several things happening I have to learn about the tool to help me engage with the chat. E.g. you have to know what hashtags are used, and how they’re used. You have to know the format of the chat. You have to know the practice for responding to questions and replying to other people in the chat using the chat tools. Those are specific ways to use, in this case Twitter, to build that learning capability of Twitter.

If you’re learning how to knit, YouTube is a great learning resource for that. You find the right videos and watch them to help guide you, see what others have done, emulate them in most cases, and keep trying to advance your knitting skills. If you want to further engage, you may choose to write in the comments. You may choose to create your own content to share what you’re doing with others and gain feedback so you can develop your knitting skills. You may ask questions in the comments and see what others have to say. All quite different to LOLing or using an emoji at a funny meme video.

So when I say that digital is fundamentally different for learning purposes, this is what I mean. We use the tools, in many cases, beyond what they’re designed for, to allow for them to still use their functionality but in a very different way.

This also then speaks to why many learning tech solutions are so lagging and lacking. Having an app on your phone to consume content is a very consumer based approach to product development. Instead we should be looking to use digital tech to build capability or deliver content in ways that help people in actual work situations. E.g. if you’re working in a project team and are finding you’re not leading the team well, one of the things you might do is watch a video on how to lead a team. What is likely to be more useful in that scenario is for you to have a community you can tap into, where you explain what’s happening and can seek input from others. That’s likely to be far more powerful and relevant in improving your performance as a leader than a generic how to be a leader video or top insights into leadership e-learning.

Just how important are digital skills for L&D?

The skill set needed by L&D is ever-growing. The traditional skills of being able to design performance enhancing courses/workshops/programmes is still very much needed, as is the need for high quality delivery and facilitation in-person. Anyone who argues that in-person delivery isn’t needed is being disingenuous to its impact and its efficiency.

If you look at the range of job titles on offer these days, it can be really quite confusing about what some roles actually do. I see titles like “Learning Experience Designer” and wonder how this is different to an “L&D Designer”. Yes, I understand that experiences matter, but why are we calling out experience as the key differentiator? I see titles like “Talent Development Partner” (my current title by the way) and wonder if that’s not the same as “L&D Business Partner”? It seems to be the focus of the organisation in drawing attention to talent specifically. I see titles like “Digital Learning Specialist” and wonder how that’s different to “E-learning Designer”? Yes, I understand one references a specific mode of delivery and the other a broader set of interactions.

Moreso, a lot of writers in our space talk about the need for digital skills. The challenge to that is we are still fairly immature in L&D when it comes to digital skills. Yes the likes of LinkedIn Learning, Skillsoft’s Percipio, and other platforms are getting better at delivering high quality content, and in accessible ways, but that’s still several steps removed from digital being the first set of thoughts for L&D. Many in our space think of digital as an after thought. About how it can bolster the in-person stuff as opposed to being a core way the learning takes place.

For me this is about several things.

L&D need to get much better educated in the potential and the utility of digital. I remember recruiting for an L&D Manager several years ago and being shocked at how many didn’t get how digital could be used to effectively deliver learning solutions. I’ve been in many conversations with senior L&Ders and struck by just how reluctant and reticent many are to think and design with digital in mind, instead acknowledging the fact they have amazing digital teams or digital content which is not designed to support performance directly and more often than not separate from the in-person learning experience.

We’re also at a stage where we don’t need to necessarily have the digital skills ourselves in order to deliver better learning solutions. There are more and more people trained in these skills. What we need to better understand is how digital can and should be just as fundamental in the delivery of a learning solution as is the in-person stuff. It still amazes me how we’re not including pre and post in-person stuff with digital delivery to prime people before in-person stuff and support consolidation of learning and sustainment of practice after the in-person stuff. And it doesn’t all have to be webinar or virtual, it can be about using Skype for coaching calls, or Slack for ongoing communication.

There’s an important question here about the need for vendors and our trade representatives to provide much better support and skills development when it comes to digital. There’s a real need for L&D to be upskilled, and not just through playing with the tech, but also being shown what the tech is and what it’s capable of.

And of course there’s our lives experience of digital. Writers in this space say we use digital everyday. Yes, of course we do, but consuming digital for personal purposes is fundamentally different to consuming digital for learning purposes. This is where there’s a disconnect of the hype and the reality. Its fine to say an LMS should be as easy to use as Amazon but if the LMS is built on bad tech, what do you do then?

So, yes digital is an important part of L&D but not because we should be delivering more through digital content, but because we are simply not making the best use of digital content and resources to fully realise what we can support with learning solutions.

Facilitating a product/project review

This week I facilitated a product review and thought it might be helpful to share the process I went through and my learnings and experience.

A product review is where you take the time to systematically review what’s happening with a product, use the session as a lessons learned exercise and use the insights to make ongoing improvements to not only the product but also address any cultural or other team issues.

You can use the same process to do a retrospective on a project, project review, or sunset review at the end of a project / product lifecycle.

It’s easy to assume this will happen, but it’s important for all the stakeholders to be involved in the review. After all it’s not just the engineers building the product who will have a valuable perspective. It’s also the sales people, marketing, product managers, and the leadership. The graphic at the top illustrates an important point about what each department is driven by or what they normally produce. The success of a product is having all departments not just understanding the same needs, but delivering in unison and collaboratively as opposed to in isolation.

I find when doing product reviews that you have to ensure everyone knows about the context of the product. Answering questions like:

  • What is the product?
  • Why was it developed?
  • What are the commercials of the product? (E.g. cost of product, revenue generated)
  • How long has it been in play for?
  • What’s the future of the product?

Those kinds of questions help establish a baseline of knowledge from which everyone can then take part in a more informed review of the product. It also may raise important information that team members may have missed, never known about, or made assumptions about.

The structure of the conversation broadly follows addressing key headings in terms of “What went well” and “What needs more focus”. The headings I used for this review were:

  • Communication – between departments, communication tools used, wider comms for awareness to business
  • Collaboration – how did collaboration happen?
  • Resourcing/delivery – Is the product properly resourced? Do people have the right skills? Is delivery happening against plan?
  • Team effectiveness – how well are the team working together? What processes are helpful? Which aren’t?
  • Leadership – what’s been the leadership for the product? Have there been conflicting demands? Who has the final say?
  • Product direction – was there clarity on the development of the product?
  • Tech solution – was the right tech used?
  • Client engagement – how well were the clients involved in the product development? What are their thoughts on the product?

Against each heading, we had statements which we then explored further by asking what went well and what needs more focus as highlighted above. The headings need to make sense for the product review, and essentially it’s about allowing for a full discussion about the product so it can be better for the future.

In terms of facilitation, I find it best to be fluid with this kind of session. It’s less about timings and more about using the framework to have a structured discussion. What I find regularly happens is that people go off piste with their discussions. That’s fine as long as it’s focused on lessons learned. If it’s rabbit hole stuff then obviously it’s about managing that conversation and bringing back focus to the product review and the headings.

It can also be easy for key voices to continually be heard. That may not be an issue as often people have multiple points of view. As a facilitator the key is to be mindful of overall contribution and that everyone has a fair chance of being heard and being included. It can be helpful to set out ground rules at the start of the session to help establish agreed ways of interacting and contributing for the review.

The product review process naturally drives towards actions and either continuing the same things or changing them. It’s important to find a useful way to highlight the actions so people know what they should be doing differently moving forward.