This is the ballad of Edith, the little learning program that found her own way by listening to those who she served, and by having the courage to change and grow herself.
Program management isn’t really all that interesting, unless you make it so…
Out of the aspects of my job that I haven’t written about much, the most prominent is program management. Mainly this is out of respect for the relationships I hold with the people and companies that partner with my employer to provide learning solutions. Even so, half of the programs I manage are internally delivered, mainly by me.
With free programs you never get less than what you pay for…
Those latter programs are short (as in a few hours), niche, free and provided “on-demand”. A motley combination when viewed together (from facilitation skills to business writing), I’ve run them in the most unlikely places and at the most unlikely times. An irony: they’ve been run when I could spare the time away from the bigger, more time consuming programs that I manage, yet they’ve reached the audiences that appreciate any soft-skill training at all – those with less budget, less plasticity in their operating rhythm or less strategic profile.
Waste in a process means nothing until it makes you angry…
Through two years of this dynamic, I’ve become aware of a key motivator in my role. My drive to refine process efficiency in the management of my bigger programs has been fed a lot by the desire to not let the little programs die. It isn’t just that I value the facilitation opportunities; it is much more to do with being the sole custodian of the utility of those programs. Metaphorically I tinker with the car in the evenings and get to drive it on a Sunday. The amount of quiet satisfaction this has given me is enormous; a hobby at work that delivers deep value for those who need it.
You might be getting too close to your work when you ascribe pet names to the things you work on…
Each one of these little programs has its own story; my dearly departed little program for leading through change has already had it its requiem. I’ll tell the story of the others in time, but the story I need to tell now is of our career and development planning workshop: her name is Edith.
The bones of a good learning program always need to be based in solid science…
About 5 years ago, Edith was put to together by some scholarly people. Thematically, Edith represented the best of positive psychology, strengths focus, work-life balance ideals and inclusion. Design-wise, Edith had some really inventive self-assessment and group activities. Flushed with the momentum and confidence of a significant, strategic investment in learning & development at the time, Edith was ready for the big, wide world. There was an Achilles heel though.
You can never be too ‘customer-led’, too early, in any design process…
Edith’s big problem was she was run across two sittings. Although Edith’s design allowed self-reflection in between sessions 1 & 2, the people attending simply didn’t come back very often after session 1. Not when put up against the things that stopped them forming a career & development plan for themselves in the first place. In a business environment, customers will justifiably get principal focus; then helping one’s team, doing the necessary compliance work and so on. Edith didn’t rate, principally because the people who needed Edith the most, just didn’t seem to place enough value on developing themselves. I saw this dynamic up close because I was one of the first facilitators brought in to run Edith. I saw the quiet disappointment of the original designers – who had faithfully followed iADDIE, one of the most robust approaches in any design discipline – and the program managers as Edith eventually went to live on a shelf. In the dark, she wasn’t run for over 12 months. But not everyone gave up on her.
You are always best-of-breed if you are the only one…
In 2013, we got a new corporate structure. Part of that saw a whole bunch of embedded L & D people working on their own in business units come together in a mega L & D team. With that, all of our programs were spot-lit, interrogated and made to justify their existence. While hundreds perished in the cull for being pale replicas of other programs, Edith presented herself as still the only program focused on the most crucial of all elements: enabling a learner mindset. Edith survived.
Don’t just fix what you see, change what you feel is needed…
An adept designer was set the task of giving Edith a second chance. Fortunately, this designer was also an experienced facilitator of leadership programs and career mentor to dozens of colleagues. She knew that for Edith to be successful, she had to do more than fit everything into a single sitting. Edith didn’t just have to reach everyone, Edith had to make a deep emotional connection with everyone. Edith didn’t just have to say the right things, Edith had to get everyone to say it in just the right way. Edith’s re-design coincided with my commencement as her program manager in 2014.
The absence of eye contact can make people more comfortable to be open…
It was great to work with Edith again. To underline the paradigm shift, her new mode was exclusively through the virtual classroom. Over the next 4 months, I delivered Edith via Webex to every corner of Australia and into Asia. People loved her, and enrolments starting growing. What worked was:
- Opening with a tangential example. In a stroke of genius, the designer started Edith with a series of questions around what was involved in planning a really good holiday, and what made that worthwhile. So instantly accessible to everyone! It allowed me as the facilitator to then ask the killer question: “So, if you put in this much discretionary effort, time and money into a holiday that goes for a few weeks, and you get that much excitement and happiness from it, do you take the same planning approach for your self-development and career?”. Loving the drama, I would let the pause absolutely hang for an eternity. Learning happens in the silence, and so after only 5 minutes, I had each group focused. Boom. That mindset-switch used to be the entire preserve of session 1 of Edith’s initial version. So, I now take back every joke about instructional designers I ever told to other facilitators (even the funny ones).
- The inherently practical session flow. After the first 5 minutes, Edith basically rested upon the group working together to articulate the benefits of having a development plan, the barriers to it occurring and generating solutions to overcome their barriers. I would then add some advice to their solutions. This achieved so many things: people could actually do something then and there to use their just-switched mindset; the universality of development plan writer’s block was shared; the approaches (like strengths focus) and tools (like our self-serve careers Intranet page) gave validity and structure to the group’s fledgling solutions. Suddenly the theories that every HR boffin and org psych knew made sense, made sense to anyone who came along to Edith.
- The way I facilitated. I had years of leadership and induction program facilitated in virtual classroom by this stage, so I knew what to do. I employed the discipline of hearing from everyone. I went deeper with repeated questioning around the biggest barriers. I used respectful gravitas and grateful politeness to protect the space. I introduced the really dicey conversations – like the role of management in development planning – by sharing personal stories first. I had courage, and I facilitated with much greater neutrality than ever before. This final method was a necessary mirroring of the independence of most of the participants, dialling in as they were from company outposts less influenced by our head-office culture. I jumped over to their side of the tennis net; but this embracing of their pragmatism was the best way to engage them. This has permanently altered my facilitation approach since, for the better.
If a learning program can’t sustain itself by word-of-mouth, you really need to ask at some stage why it is even offered…
Word spread. I started to get enquiries through the HR partners and managers of teams, and they asked if they could have a team-specific version run. I remember the look of mirth, then horror, as I answered the first request with ‘…but we only offer Edith through virtual classroom…’; it sounded stupid to me too as I said it. So began the first time I had tried to retrofit a virtual classroom program into a face to face one.
By and large, Learning & Development professionals are a bunch of perfectionists…
It wasn’t too difficult, because:
- I didn’t have any real time to modify the materials in a slick way
- I arranged to run the face to face programs myself
This became a satisfactory arrangement for a few months, until a team in Sydney came to me with a proposition. “We have people in the team who run some internal training. Can they just use your materials?”. All of a sudden my slightly Frankenstein-esque materials were in danger of flying the coup! And how would we monitor attendance? At the same time though I was obsessed with the notion of L&D relinquishing such a tight controlling grip of what we were tasked with as a profession. So I took a deep breath, and re-framed.
There are emerging ways to add value in Learning & Development, they just aren’t on the job descriptions yet…
The deal I struck with the Sydney business unit was:
- We would treat this as a pilot
- I would run the part-time trainers through a Train-the-Trainer, and they needed to attend the virtual classroom session as well to get the participant experience
- I would give them latitude to change the materials by 20%
Recognising where trust already is means you don’t need to create as much new trust…
We collectively saw this as a good blend of support and freedom. I knew that if Edith was run by a colleague/manager of the team involved, it would have a different dynamic to me running it. The ‘independence’ of the facilitator wasn’t going to be a factor, but rather the existing trust held in the facilitator, through familiarity. People would go further in the solution generation, in the direction of what was relevant to them and their team. The ability I gave for the materials to be changed related to emphasis on certain core elements of content. These part-time trainers knew their teams, and the needs of these teams, a lot more than I did. I paid credo.
Running facilitated sessions to develop strategy, who would have thought…
The sessions were a success: authentic, focused, a basis for a strategic localised capability plan. I didn’t really like very much how their adapted materials looked, but my efforts weren’t too pretty either, and their slightly bodgy-looking PowerPoints didn’t seem to make much difference to the outcome.
Ideas initially remembered from dreams only seem fragile because we are looking at them critically for the first time…
The Edith experiment gave me a shot of confidence. My anarchic visions of setting learning free didn’t feel quite so exotic (or quixotic) anymore. It was just common sense. No-one died, no-one got hurt. I dealt with the guilt about not collecting names for uploading one day into our learning management system (the business unit forgot to mark attendance. I remember discussing the matter with a mentor, who asked the salient question: “What is the point of Edith, anyway?”. “To get people pumped up about investing in their own learning,” I answered. My mentor, she smiled right back at me).
Not asking for permission doesn’t always mean you have to beg for forgiveness later…
From there on, I switched on the turbo thrusters to reach as many people as possible with Edith, rather than burning time on traditional measurement. I up-skilled team-mates of mine in Brisbane and Sydney. I trusted another six business units to ‘run their own’. I got Edith included in our 100-strong enterprise Graduate program pathway. Edith even ran as a core delivery mechanism for an enterprise employee communications initiative to support development planning; the Intranet story featuring me sharing the top tips generated by people in Edith had a massive response. Over an 18 month period we directly reached about 2300 people.
Measuring learning effectiveness can be like trying to catch a ghost…
So what was the measure of success for Edith? I talked about this long and hard with colleagues. Consensus became:
- Feedback from the commissioning managers. The majority of times that Edith was run, it was because the manager of a team wanted to address a specific issue identified through the annual staff survey. In the survey, every employee gets asked a specific question on things like how they feel their development is supported and how underperformance is managed (these are questions every large company asks their people if they want to be benchmarked as peers under the moniker of ‘High Performing Organisation’. Traditionally, scores for these aforementioned questions are quite low, no matter what company you are in). Where I work, the results are drilled down to team level, allowing localised action plans. Thus, the search by team managers for accessible solutions. Edith has allowed them to have a different conversation to happen within, and most importantly, with – their team. An example: whenever I’ve had any team manager in Edith, I asked “What is the number one attribute your hire for?”; 95% of the time the answer has come back as ‘attitude’ or ‘team fit’. An eye-opener for everyone else, this is the kind of opportunity for re-framing the involvement of team managers in Edith has elicited. This has helped Edith be a kernel of team mindset change, not just individual change. Every team’s manager deserves that kind of support from their HR function.
- Being able to have Edith run in any situation. Accessibility is the holy grail for engaging training. The adaptability of Edith has been staggeringly elastic: she has been run from 45 minutes to 6 hours duration, she has been run across time chunks of 30 minutes to fit the ‘diverted time’ environment of call centres, she has been run through video-conference, Webex, Lync, at off-sites and on-sites, with entry-level people and senior leadership teams. She has been run with four people and run with a hundred. Edith is the perfectly adaptable workshop.
- Breadth and width of the ideas generated within each session. Unsurprisingly to me now, the ideas that get generated in every session are pretty consistent. Those top 11 (in no particular order) are:
- Being mentored
- Learning from peers (including a role-shadow or a secondment)
- Being coached
- Building internal networks
- Building external networks
- Using a growth mindset
- Building resilience
- Being organised and working flexibly
- Considering formal study
- Giving and receiving feedback
- Aiming to build components (i.e. skills, experiences, knowledge sets, behavioural traits)
The standard thing at the end of a session has been to take photos of the scribed benefits, barriers and solutions and be used to create formalised action plans. I haven’t had to ask people to do it, they just do. The highest and best form of training is participatory problem-solving.
It is fair enough for business leaders to only have bandwidth for the things they themselves are measured on…
People have also repeatedly drawn an umprompted straight line to higher engagement and enablement. There is no way that a 2 hour workshop could directly be solely accountable for these things, particularly when they are only formally measured once a year. What I grew to further appreciate though is that when you get a team together, help them see possibility, allow them to get things off their chests and then work together to solve their own problems (with a bit of assistance around what is best practice), incredible things happen. People learn things from each other that they never knew. People learn things about each other that they never knew, too! People practice how to give each other feedback, learning to appreciate collective strengths. Re-framing happens collectively, building trust. Amaze-balls!
Come to think of it, laurels are made from twigs, so resting on them would literally be an uncomfortable thing…
Something was still sticking in my craw. We had only reached about 8% of our Australian workforce over 18 months, for something as universally required as self-development. Not good enough. Simultaneously, some other forces of change were impressing themselves upon Edith: my team capacity for workshop delivery started to shrink, and a brand new all-encompassing HR strategy for our company loomed. Regarding the latter, in an audience with our CEO I asked what his view on learner mindset was. His answer was refreshingly unambiguous: that looking after one’s own learning is part of performing in a role. I knew we had to get Edith out to absolutely everyone.
Relinquishing control in Learning & Development is really only about recognising that people will learn more if they have greater freedom to contextualise to their world…
This could only mean one thing, and that was to adapt the materials to be able to have any manager pick Edith up and run her, safely and effectively. In other words, me fully letting go. All the reasons for still retaining some controls over teams using ‘my’ materials still needed addressing first; primarily the issue of how to have every team manager be equipped with the knowledge of what best practice actually was.
The most valuable thing a facilitator possesses is the experience of what does and doesn’t work with a group…
A colleague facilitator (with a helpfully deep recruitment background) and I had a first go at redrafting Edith to become ‘leader-led’. We worked out that we needed to include:
- A bigger variety of materials to choose from. This meant a PowerPoint with notes at every slide, a short session plan, a full facilitator guide, a participant workbook and a coaching kit. The manager could then pick from any of these resources to run Edith, allowing them choice according to their confidence level and available preparation time.
- All the shortcuts, touch-points and killer phrases we knew from running Edith so often; the facilitation gold-dust.
- Most importantly, definition of the best practice solutions.
Failing fast is the best way to fail…
So we gave it a crack. What we quickly produced was pretty damn good in our eyes, but it is here (again!) that I underestimated the value of a good instructional designer (ID). After showing the drafts to the original ID, we got honest feedback and then really excellent advice on things like tonal consistency, layout, font, visual theming and where content ideally fitted. There was one particular thing we got wrong: we tacked a section detailing the 11 top solutions onto the end of the existing facilitator guide (my fault). This not only constituted a cardinal design sin (fundamental changes to materials without a fresh learning needs analysis), it also meant managers would need to use the full facilitator guide to access those solutions. So we actually started again on a second draft from scratch, armed with the ID’s advice. My colleague facilitator produced some beautiful materials, while I focused on what to do with the collated solutions.
Proper facilitation, with intelligently designed group process, makes popularity the best success indicator…
Get this: I’m a spatial thinker who needs to encircle a thing to understand it, yet I’ve always needed to feel useful to others. That strange, conflicting dynamic leads for me to quite often believe things can fit into a spreadsheet, ha! Thus, the Solutions Matrix was born: a conglomeration of the best and most common solutions from all the Ediths ever run. A truly crowd-sourced version of truth. The rows are the 11 aforementioned best solutions; the columns are:
- The activity description
- A short definition
- Where the activity fits in the 70/20/10
- Which of our 5 organisational values is most relevant to the activity
- The main barriers that the activity solves
- A description of the time to spend / the ideal timing
- The personal benefit of the activity
- The team benefit of the activity
- How to prepare for the activity
- How to do the activity
- What resources are relevant to the activity (inside and outside our organisation)
- Other things to think about doing that flow on from the activity (how to step it up a notch)
The visually digestible nature of a one-pager makes it the king of ‘performance support’…
God bless it, when you print the Solutions Matrix, it is a double-sided A3 sheet! I’ve positioned it as:
- A handout for managers running Edith to use as the go-to solution if both they and the team are stuck
- A standalone ‘performance support’ item that anyone can use, particularly when they have that familiar feeling of writer’s block when filling in their development plan
Never trust a thin chef, unless the food is healthy…
Five aspects give me confidence that the Solutions Matrix is robust.
- It is based on all the original science of when Edith was first written
- It is based on the voices of thousands of people
- I have shared it on our yammer group for ‘beta’ learning materials for anyone to try (it’s called ‘Learning Hubbub’. It allows us to also access diverse views via interest groups and existing communities of practice, simply by cross-posting). The feedback has been really positive.
- When I showed my boss, he studied it seriously, looked up at me and said “This is what you do, Paul.” Indeed, I’ve taken all the good advice from Edith and implemented it.
- The matrix has now been piloted as a core part of Edith. A fantastically enthusiastic operations manager has used the leader-led materials (including the Solutions Matrix) across five teams in her region. It all works. My colleagues and I have piloted the new Edith with 100 graduates too, just to make sure. They love it. So do we.
The law of diffusion of innovation can apply to Learning & Development too…
What now? Well, a final branding is taking place, with this (gratefully) gifted to an ID (that is their ‘fun stuff’!). The plan is to host the materials next week on our Intranet for downloading by all-comers, ready to be picked up in any fresh comms plan or HR initiative. We will stop running Edith and be there instead for coaching support for whoever wants to run her.
If you love it, set it free, just not into chaos…
In so many ways running Edith is a hard thing to give up. In so many more ways it is not. It took 5 years to get to this point and so be it. It is hard to force the pace of change beyond the pace it wants to go at. It feels so proper, so natural and so right. Evolution, not revolution, and definitely not devolution.
The ballad of Edith will continue to be sung, by a burgeoning choir.