Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Who have you left out?

When you're designing training courses* do you ever give any thought to the people who aren't going to participate? No, of course not, they're out of scope. The question I put to you is, should they be?

I've been attending an early stage pilot of a new module in our leadership training programme. As is customary with these things a senior member of staff was on hand at the start and end of the day to put things in context**. When he came in at the end he'd been listening to participants' feedback for only a few minutes when he interjected.

"You're all referring to managers. You're not managers. You're leaders. Managing is the old way of doing things. We need you to lead."

Now, you can rehash the old managers vs leaders debate endlessly***, but the outburst struck me as significant for a particular reason, following, as it did, the course facilitator's reminder that 70% of people who attend such training will try to put what they have learnt into practice, but will give up. Why? Because changing habits is hard.

The idea that this person-higher-up-the-structure had referred to wasn't new; it was the message from the previous stage in our training programme. Everyone in the room had learnt this once upon a time, but they'd forgotten it. They'd fallen into old habits. What's more they had been taken out of the workplace in small groups to be told this, then sent back to their desk without those around them knowing that things were supposed to be different. Job titles, importantly, didn't change either.

What is called habit at an individual level is, at a group or organisational level, called culture. And, being the social animals that we are, by and large, what goes on around us is what we find ourselves doing in order to fit in. Culture shapes habit. This ain't rocket science, or remarkable insight, it's what we all know. As a smart person once said, "culture eats strategy for breakfast."

So if you're launching a major cultural change, like for example getting people to adopt a new terminology or change the way they communicate, it's not enough to only inform some of your people, even if you expect them to be the ones to model the change, you need to inform everyone. And what's more, it may not simply be enough to tell them, you may need to help them understand why, so they'll feel included and won't simply ignore the change.

So how would I approach a cultural shift like this? 

For one, I wouldn't work with slowly rolled out face to face training, just touching necessarily small numbers at a time. You need everyone to go through it quickly together so its impact is felt simultaneously. And I wouldn't bank on a short touch course to create a lasting effect, you need to reinforce the message over time. For me, a MOOC would do this better than many alternatives - you can always back up key bits with face to face if it is important and genuinely can't be done digitally*4. 

And I wouldn't limit messages that are key to the lasting success, like changes in common vocabulary, to some elect group; throw it wide and tell everyone. It needn't be the same message, in fact it's probably better that it isn't, but you need to get everyone's buy in and some times you need to start something from the centre to achieve that, rather than scattering seed and hoping to reap beautiful blooms some months from now. 

* Okay, call it "learning experience" or whatever. 
** I'm always impressed with how much time our top level leaders will give to these things - he'd wanted to stay all day but had been banished by one of the project leads for fear of influencing the day.
*** I've got a number of problems with it: you don't need staff to be a leader, leaders don't do day to day stuff - they have lieutenants for that, and so on...
*4 and that's a whole different story.
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