Calibrating expectations about training outcomes

L&D managers often have unrealistic expectations from training programs. This post busts some common myths.

If you have been in L&D or buyer of developmental programs for some time, these will sound familiar to you.

• A very inspirational talk by a movie star/cricketer fails to galvanize the troops at your organisation.
• A 2-day workshop on presentation skills produces slicker presentation slides. That falls short of the engaging, audience-centric presentations that were expected.
• The weekend outbound program that was billed as “development with fun” causes participants to quip “Next time, can we just have a picnic please”?
• A big-ticket leadership development program was held, with a workshop plus 3 months of coaching sessions. It produced 1 transformed manager. 1 out of 25.

I’m not talking here about ineffective training interventions. On the contrary, my claim is this: even if the above interventions were to be conducted well, they still wouldn’t produce the outcomes expected.

The problem is in the expectations. Based on hearsay or overzealous marketing by training firms, some myths get associated with training programs. They come in the way of realistic assessment of what a program can deliver.

Here are 4 common intervention formats, the myths associated with them and what can be realistically expected out of them.

The inspirational talk

Myth: The talk will produce motivation, which will stay on for at least a few months. And it may even help us meet our quarterly sales target.

Fact: Motivation (when it’s not intrinsic) needs a sustained stoking of the fire. The inspirational talk is like a gust of wind… it’s effect on motivation is fleeting.

On the plus side, it’s a good break from monotony, and people will thank you for it, saying “Let’s have more such talks”. Every once in a while, such a talk will seed a new idea in someone’s mind; they might take the idea to fruition. But of course, that cannot be predicted or assured, so it is a bit of a long shot.
A practical aspect … film stars, cricketers and divas will strain your budget; unsung heroes won’t, so give the latter a chance to speak. There is no dearth of start-up founders and social entrepreneurs who have achieved great things in their communities and will happily share their journeys. Moreover, your audience is more likely to connect with them, and think “If she did it, so can I”. 

The 2-day classroom workshop

Myth: Learners will emerge from the workshop, ready with new skills, which they can start applying right away.

Fact: For anything other than simple repetitive tasks, upskilling takes more than 2 days of immersion. Think of how long it took you to learn to drive, swim, play the guitar, speak a foreign language, handle a conflict between your kids, manage anger, deliver a smooth presentation … all human skills, fairly complex in terms of the number of micro-abilities needed. Each is possible to master, but it takes time. Also, it doesn’t get done in one long session; rather you need to practise the skill intermittently over a few weeks or months. I’ve written about this in more detail in another blog post.

What a short workshop can do is allow participants to collect knowledge about one topic, say financial terminology, roles of a team leader, quality management principles. This knowledge building exercise is best considered a prerequisite (necessary but not sufficient) to building skills through sustained, intermittent and supported practise later on.

The weekend outbound program

Myth: It will create an attitudinal shift in participants, and when they return to work, they will be collaborative, sensitive, result-oriented, focussed, quality conscious and will take ownership.

Fact: An outbound program is a pause for reflection. Aided by a skilled facilitator, people do reflect. Though reflection can result in a change of attitude, it isn’t guaranteed to. And even when it does, there is a second giant leap to be made: from new attitude to new behaviour. The odds are against all this happening as a result of a weekend in the woods.

But there are some very good uses of an outbound program.
1. Use it to break the ice between people unfamiliar to each other… after a merger/acquisition or as a new project team’s first interaction. In this avatar, all other pretence of learning management must be dropped, and the focus of all activities must be to get to know each other. That is the first step towards co-operative behaviour.

2. If you must have some learning, keep the topic narrow in scope (say “ability to plan better”), and use the program to:
• develop an awareness of the problem (“We don’t plan well”) 
• discuss the issue threadbare (“What prevents us from doing so? Why should we?”)
• get people to commit to change (“My department commits to doing…”)
• get them to follow through on that commitment, at least in the simulated context of the outbound program (This still doesn’t guarantee that people will keep commitments in the workplace context. But having demonstrated to themselves and others that they are capable of doing it, the chances of carryover to the workplace are a tad higher)

Keeping the topic narrow will allow enough time for multiple cycles of “experience-reflect-understand-experiment”. That is how experiential programs (and its sub-category, outbound programs) are supposed to work in their purest form. A big list of topics spreads out things too thinly, robbing the program of effectiveness.

3. Use the opportunity to “show” people an example of excellence. An intact team in an organisation could watch, from close quarters, another “hired” team perform extra-ordinarily. Leaders could watch another leader in action. Operational personnel could watch another ops-team, and so on.
The “watchers” could interact closely with the “performers”, learn what made the performance possible, and discuss possibilities of change within their own team.
Think of it as a longer and more “up-close” version of the inspirational talk. Or as an interactive theatre experience, where the performers have a script to follow, but the audience is pulled into the performance.

The workshop + coaching “leadership” program

Myth: We will see a visible difference in participants’ leadership behaviours within 3 months because we’ve provisioned for conceptual input as well as coaching support.

Fact: An umbrella skill like ‘leadership’ is composed of a host of sub-skills. Thinking ahead, thinking differently, knowing what makes people tick, managing contradictions, knowing and managing personal energy, communicating powerfully and so on. Just because we can fit all this into a nifty word, doesn’t mean that the learning can also be compressed. It takes a very long time to cover so much ground. To make matters more difficult, the leadership recipe also has ingredients like personality and experience, which a training intervention cannot provide.

A fair use for such a 3-month program is to develop a SINGLE skill. Just one. That provides focus, a key ingredient of up-skilling. And the 3-month duration is a chance for sustained, repetitive practise.

To develop broad abilities like leadership, we need to pick up the sub-skills one (or few) at a time. Pick one, then make sure learners are actively practising that sub-skill, through periodic engagement. Also, we continue the focus on that sub-skill for several weeks. That done, we move to the next sub-skill and repeat. And so on. The watchword is patience. 

To summarise…

One final myth

One more myth worth busting is: half the training effort will give us half the benefit. Driven by this belief, budget-constrained organisations spend much effort (and money) on half-hearted attempts at change or development. But training does not work that way. Rather, there seems to be a threshold level of effort, below which meagre efforts aren’t enough to get over the inertia of habits. The threshold isn’t an absolute number of hours or days; rather it varies by the desired outcome. An hour of discussion may suffice for new ideas whereas it may be several weeks or months before an upgraded skill becomes visible.

Sure enough, going overboard with training will detract from the participants’ regular role, and then the price to be paid for change becomes too high.

Like with so many other things, finding the middle ground is of essence.

Photo credit: Jamie Street on Unsplash