How Most Trainings Fail – Part 1

(In honor of my favorite book on education: How Children Fail by John Holt, which merits an entire post by itself. Click here to be notified when it comes out)

Many training programs are probably successful. Still, my claim is that most trainings that are directed at modifying trainee’s behavior tend to fail, and the primary reason is that training sessions, by themselves, are not an effective means to create behavioral change. In addition, many training programs suffer from one or usually several defects.

Now that I have hopefully called attention to the gravity of the situation, we can restart the post on a much more positive and constructive tone.

How to Design an Effective Innovation Training – Part 1

(behavioral change training)

There are many outstanding training professionals out there. They can design and deliver interesting, engaging and enriching training sessions, and receive very high scores on trainee’s evaluation forms. Yet, if you visit trainees, say 6 months after the training session, you will rarely encounter profound and lasting behavioral change. In our view, there are several important conditions for this often sought-after but rarely-achieved result. I will mention a few of these principles below, focused on innovation training, but, in fact, relevant to any training that strives to change people’s behavior in a corporate or organizational context. We will address two levels:

I. The training sessions (or course, or webinar);

II. The training program as a whole.

This post – Part 1 – deals with training sessions themselves, in Part 2 you will find some thoughts on the bigger picture.

I. Training sessions

  1. Prioritize the HOW over the WHAT. As made famous by Michael Polanyi (philosopher and all-round Hungarian/errant-Jew intellectual) there is a crucial distinction between knowing that and knowing how. You can, say, be an expert on the mechanics of the operation of a bicycle and still fall every time you try to ride one, while, obviously, most kids who can zip by you easily on their bike do not have the faintest notion of how it operates. Their knowledge, argues Polanyi, is tacit rather than explicit. Behavioral change is based on tacit knowledge, which is why you should be careful not to define a training only by its “content”. What percentage of a bike learning course for your kids would you want to be dedicated to explanations? If your goal is that they know how to ride a bike, the answer is probably “close to zero”. Review your next training session through this lens, by asking of each item in the syllabus: will it teach them how to do something? What?
  2. Limit your content. When we started to deliver training sessions, about 25 years ago, clients would demand that we teach all our 5 basic tools in each two- or three-day training. It seemed to make sense – they were paying what they considered to be a substantial sum of money, their people were kept away from their day jobs for 2 or 3 days, they wanted their money’s worth of training. If we tried to argue that it made more sense to teach only 4 of the 5, the feeling was that we were trying to keep some merchandise from them because we wanted to sell it to them later, at an additional cost. It took us several years and hundreds or thousands of trainees to accumulate sufficient confidence to insist on limiting the content. Today we rarely agree to teach more than 3 of these tools in a single training course. It is not only a question of having enough time – obviously the more time you waste on teaching additional content the less time you have for the crucial task of practicing how to use the content – experience shows that the more tools a beginner has in their toolbox, the harder it will be for them to select a tool in a specific situation and the less focused they will be in learning to master a specific tool. Optimal scenario: learn 2-3 tools max in one training, go out, apply, build your confidence while honing your skills on the go, and only then – come back to learn 1-2 additional tools.
  3. The magic number 16. This is simply a very effective number of participants to have in a training session – offline or on. Allows you to work in pairs, 4 teams of 4, two teams of 8, enough energy in room or zoom, even if 1-2 don’t make it to the session that day. As a provider – be firm, insist on capping the number, resist the temptation to agree on enlarging the team in exchange for charging extra for surplus participants. As client of the training – resist the urge to push 2,3 ,4 additional participants to supposedly “get more” for your budget. You end up getting way less (20 less-than-optimally-impacted participants is much less than 16-strongly-impacted alumni).
  4. Send tentacles into the future. Everyone (hopefully, by now) knows that what happens after the training is as important or more than what happens during. Build this future into the training itself by weaving into the activities what I call “tentacles into the future”, by which I mean tasks and experiences that directly affect what will happen to a participant post-event. Examples: send your future self a message, set meetings to complete specific tasks with a partner, write a message to a colleague who is not participating in the training to sell them on an idea you have just come up with, design a plan (including date and participants) for running a session based on what you learned, etc.
  5. Imagine the “Alumnus Journey”. It is nowadays common practice, when trying to sell, to imagine and craft a detailed “customer journey”. In sales, it can save you from “wishful selling”, which is sending out messages that somehow, hopefully will drive clients to purchase your wares even if you’re not exactly clear about how this is supposed to play out. The same goes for training: the fact that participant X successfully learned a specific tool or skill does not at all imply that they will actually use it. Spend time and thought on visualizing the precise path to implementation and make sure your course refers to all expected obstacles. Example: about 14 years ago we discovered that many alumni of our Innovation Coach courses felt very comfortable using some of the tools we taught them when they found themselves in the right situation, but still very few of them did. The barrier, it turned out, was that they didn’t know how to even arrive at the right situation. To help get them over this hurdle, we created a module named “From Story to Session” that trained them in the gentle art of converting a proverbial water cooler conversation (what’s Zoomish for water-cooler, I wonder?) into a structured session in which they could apply their newly acquired tools. (More on the specifics of training Innovation Coaches, in an upcoming post. Click here to receive a notification)
  6. The Full Monty. Most important: remember that the training session(s) are only part of a wider training effort. Careful! It is relatively easy to plan, say, a 2-day training course and agree that “there will be preparations and follow-up”. But when you do that, you miss the point, as you are still treating the training as a course with a before and after that support it. You are therefore only paying lip service to the notion that what comes after the course is at least as important as the course itself and thus must be built into the course from the outset. In our next post, Part 2 of How Most Trainings Fail, we will discuss training from the point of view of the bigger picture.

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