What NOT to do in L&D

L&D what not to do

As do most articles in the L&D space, I frequently talk about what we should do. And, it occurred to me, that I could (and should) also talk about what we shouldn’t do. So here’s my list of things to avoid. There’s no claim that this list is comprehensive, but it is grounded in a ‘performance ecosystem’ perspective.

Don’t stop with courses.

There’re two interpretations here, and I mean both. First, don’t stop doing courses. There are times when skill shifts are necessary. Of course, when they’re done, do them right!  But what I’m also saying is that don’t use courses as the only tool in your tool box. There are other causes of performance problems in organizations besides skill gaps. Similarly, there are appropriate interventions, and L&D can and should play a role. Performance support and social networks are two other key elements, and don’t neglect them.

Don’t equate information with ability.

One of the wrong ways to do courses is to get information from SMEs and present it to the learners (whether or not you add a knowledge test).  Two problems: one, SMEs don’t have reliable access to what they do; and two, the notion that information equals ability is wrong. SMEs do have access to what they know, so that tends to be what they will focus on. And information without practice – applying it to problems in context – doesn’t lead to new skills. Similarly, recognizing the right abstract concept from a list isn’t going to lead to a new ability. In short, learning is about doing in practice what you’ll be doing in performance, with support. Period. And doing it right isn’t trivial. If you don’t do it right, you’re wasting time and money.

Don’t think smile sheets are evaluation.

Too often, learning is evaluated by asking the learner whether they liked the experience, or thought it was valuable That’s what is referred to as a ‘smile sheet’. Yet, as Will Thalheimer lets us know in Performance-Focused Smile Sheets, they aren’t likely to be relevant. For the average learner, the correlation between their evaluation of the learning experience and the real impact is essentially zero. Instead, we should be looking to see if they’re retaining the learning and applying it in performance. And if it’s actually changing the outcome from what was unacceptable to an acceptable level. I’ll add, “if you’re not measuring it, why bother?”, as a colleague once aptly opined. Developing learning and assuming it will work is just wishful thinking.

Don’t think it all has to be in the head.

Too often, we make courses when we don’t need to. As Joe Harless famously said, “Inside every bloated training course is a job aid struggling to get out”.  Too often our courses are bloated, but that’s not the problem I’m talking about here. What I’m saying is that many times it’s better to put knowledge in the world. Tools like checklists, lookup tables, decision trees, how-to videos, procedure guides, and more all address gaps in our cognitive architecture. We’re really bad at remembering rote and arbitrary information. Further, in situations where the amount of data is large, it must be exact, or it’s changing fast, it’s almost impossible to have people remember it. And there are remarkable stories about how such tools have made big impacts, as Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto informs us. Given that doing learning right isn’t trivial, it’s better to build a tool than to develop training. Allocate your resources accordingly.

Don’t think you need to control learning.

Too often, L&D believes it has to own all the organizational learning. This is silly for two reasons. The first one is practical: with increasing change, L&D just isn’t going to be able to keep up.  The second is principled: people learn all the time, as Jay Cross documented in Informal Learning. It’s human nature. Given these two factors, it then becomes useful to think what L&D can do.  And we start looking at a shift from provider to facilitator. Helping people learn to learn, in addition to doing courses right when the information or skill absolutely, positively has to be in the head. And it’s not only curating, but helping others curate. Ultimately, I’ll suggest, communities of practice will need to take ownership of their own learning, and that’s a great role for L&D, facilitating that shift. There will still be a role for L&D in this new future, but it’s much more a partnership and a leadership role than ownership.

Don’t do yearly, quarterly, etc reviews.

The evidence is in that annual performance reviews do more harm than good. They’ve become rituals of organizational performance that has bred rote processes and meaningless feedback. Worse, they incite fear and loathing.  What really helps people is much more regular feedback. And, by making it more informal, there’s less anxiety about it. Coaching is an excellent model to think about for guiding performance. This definitely plays a role in course success, moving beyond the event with continual development. But it should be a manager’s role to provide ongoing development, with feedback more closely tied to performance. Accountability is good, but not in the archaic mechanisms emerging from the days of Taylorism. Let’s align performance development with what works.

Don’t hide your work.

Another habit common to organizations is for work to be individual, and decisions are made behind closed doors. Yet the sharing of work is a step towards creating an organization where communication facilitates execution and innovation.  Jane Bozarth’s Show Your Work documents what this looks like, and why it works. On principle, if you’re working and learning ‘out loud’, people can give you good tips, learn from it, and be aligned with it. When decisions are transparent, people can understand why it was made (and if they’re to be shared, they’re likely to be better).

Don’t penalize sensible mistakes.

When done right, showing your work also creates ‘safety’, in that mistakes are visible but they’re used as lessons and not as shaming. You don’t want the Miranda organization, where anything you say can and will be held against you. Instead, you want to celebrate, not the mistake, but the lesson learned.  That has two benefits: people learn it’s safe to experiment (smartly), and no one needs to make the same mistake. Innovation requires experimentation, and experimentation implies mistakes. And don’t just accept it, expect it!  Mistakes are part of learning, and learning is part of innovation. Keep moving forward!

Don’t say “that’s not how it’s done here”, and don’t look for people like you.

Related to mistakes, two important additional components of innovation are being open to new ideas, and valuing diversity.  If you keep doing things the old way, you minimize the chance of finding new and better ways. You should evaluate all serious inputs and ideas, because in one of them might be the seed of the future. And to truly generate the unusual ideas, you need unusual people. If everyone thinks the same, most of those brains are redundant. You need variety. There has to be a shared set of values and vision, but beyond that, ideas can come from the most unusual places and people.

Don’t expect different than you demonstrate.

For all of this to work, you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Importantly, if you say ‘learn out loud’, and don’t do the same, no one will take you seriously. You should practice what you preach. I suggest that L&D should be leading the way by beginning to work in the new and innovative ways, and then scale it out. Just as your kids will do what you do, not what you say, so too will people in the organization.

Don’t forget the network.

Related to don’t think you need to control learning is to not miss the power of people. As the saying goes “the room is smarter than the smartest person in the room” (with the caveat: if you manage the process right). When people are working well together, the outcome is better. And there will be times when it just makes more sense to send the question to the community and/or the organization rather than try to find the answer. If it’s unique or new enough, see if someone knows the answer, or let them work together to answer it. There will be (many) times when it makes more sense to help folks learn to find the answer rather than provide it yourself. Your resources are limited, be smart about when, and how, to employ them.

All of these are obviously just the reverse of some good advice, but it’s worthwhile to characterize them differently if just to provide another way to look at it. What are your “don’ts”?