Archive for April, 2011

So tell me what you need, what you really, really need

Monday, April 25th, 2011

I’m all for the phrase “Make it happen”, but we always have to be clear on the ‘it’. Sometimes organisations are so keen to make ‘it’ happen, the priority can become “Make something happen” which can often be one step forward and two steps back. It can also damage relationships and cause waves in previously tranquil waters. And it can waste serious amounts of money.

The area of learning and development is one of the best – or worst, dependent upon how you look at it – examples of this.

I can think of several occasions where training interventions have been delivered and they have not delivered the required results in the workplace. In several of those instances the claim has been that it was “Training’s fault because they didn’t train the right things”. Hmmm. Perhaps it was, or perhaps it wasn’t. It is, however, relatively simple to introduce a process that minimises this potential and maximises the value from an organisation’s investment in learning. As with so many successful projects, the primary requirement is for the relevant people to take the required responsibility and accountability.

Learning and development professionals (the contractors) need to slow down the commissioning process. The commissioning process is the stage where the internal or external client identifies what needs to change. And this will only work if the responsibility is in the right place.

The client has to take responsibility for job descriptions, core skills and identifying individuals’ learning and development needs. The contractor’s role is to analyse the client’s needs and develop appropriate and cost-effective interventions, deliver the interventions, assess the competence of delegates and check the intervention met its stated objectives. Finally, we arrive at the evaluation of the changes in the workplace as a result of the intervention – which is the client’s responsibility.

The start of this cycle used to be called the Training Needs Analysis (TNA). However, it is increasing being broken down into two activities called the Performance Needs Analysis (PNA) and the Learning Needs Analysis (LNA). Whilst it is the responsibility of the client, the contractor needs to assist them in this process. When we are closely involved in matters, we often lose our objectivity and sometimes make assumptions – this is what can happen for a client and so we need to help them avoid this by taking them through a structure process.

This process can be as detailed as everyone wants to make it. Having said that, if learning and development professionals use too complex a process, they will lose credibility with the client. The complexity of the process should also be driven by the size of the audience – in other words, if 20 people need to improve their performance in a particular area, the process should be less arduous than if 2,000 people require it – but both require a process to ensure we make the right thing happen.

As a start, I use seven questions. These are:

  1. What is the identified performance need?
  2. Why is a solution required (how will it add value, and what would happen if it did not exist)?
  3. How will the solution improve the organisation’s performance against its identified goals?
  4. Which organisational competencies does the solution aim to address and to what level?
  5. What are the target staff groups /  teams / Departments for this solution?
  6. How will the effectiveness of the solution be measured in the workplace?
  7. What are the clearly stated, measurable objectives for the solution?

From experience, I know that these questions can come across as threatening to clients. This is particularly the case in immature organisations – in other words, organisations where discussions around learning and development activities are often packaged in terms of the client stating they want a course on a particular aspect, rather than rational, objective and meaningful discussions between the client and contractor on what they need to achieve together.  Consequently, my preferred approach is to let the client have the questions prior to us meeting face to face or us having a further phone conversation. This gives them the opportunity to identify what they need – what they really need.

When learning and development professionals get this process right, they are well on their way to making a meaningful impact for the organisation. They will be able to demonstrate their value in improving performance.

In my next post, I will explain a little more about each of these seven star questions – and why, when you have completed the process, you need to get your sponsor’s sign-off.  


Breathe in Good Company

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

I was asked last week why I called my company, “Breathe Personal and Organisational Development” – and in particular the reason for using the word ‘Breathe’ in the title.

I think names are very important as they give a first impression, and so I gave it a lot of thought. My aim was to find a word or phrase that encompassed everything that we offered. I eventually recognised that the most appropriate common denominator was breathing.

The on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia describes breathing as follows: “Conscious control of breathing is common in many forms of meditation, specifically forms of yoga for example pranayama unlike anapana which is only awareness of breath. In swimming, cardio fitness, speech or vocal training, one learns to discipline one’s breathing, initially consciously but later sub-consciously, for purposes other than life support. Human speech is also dependent on conscious breath control. Also breathing control is used in Buteyko method”.

I’m not aware of some of the techniques and methods mentioned in the definition, but you will find more detail on them on the internet. I am, however, aware of some of the benefits of effective breathing. These can include it:

  • Being a key to successful personal stress management
  • Reducing the impact of asthma through the effective use of particular techniques
  • Helping a person sleep more easily
  • Reducing a person’s heart rate
  • Being a method of helping control blood pressure
  • Enhancing performance because it helps people focus and relax

I’m not qualified to advise on a number of these, but I do know about the last of the bullet points – and that’s the reason behind the company name.

When we are preparing to deliver a presentation, dealing with a difficult staffing situation, being interviewed for a new job, or any other situation that we feel is going to be potentially challenging or stressful we need to maintain effective breathing.  The rest of our body and our faculties are counting on our breathing. They are ‘looking up’ to it for leadership, inspiration and support.

When it suddenly deserts us, we realise it – and suffer the consequences – very quickly. The loss of its leadership leads us to doubt our abilities, the lack of its inspiration stops us from searching for more positive thoughts and ideas, and the loss of its support can make us believe that everything we ever considered might go wrong in the particular situation will go wrong. An apparently hopeless situation.  And all because we’re not breathing very well.

This can result in anxiety, concern, fear, tension and other negative emotions – and we need positive emotions to enable us to breathe effectively. Hence why when some people see others suffering before or part way through a stressful experience, they say “Take a deep breath”. They are trying to help the person take control again. Whilst the advice is well intentioned, it is best to have learned how to breathe effectively prior to this point.

In brief, we need to breathe in through our nose and out through our mouth. By concentrating on breathing out there is more chance of avoiding shallow breathing and achieving deep breathing – which is the good place we need to.

In some ancient systems breathing was viewed as the foundation stone of health.  I believe that breathing is the foundation stone of effective performance and achieving our goals. Hence the name.


Caution – Risks around the corner?

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

I was travelling along one of the country lanes near where we live today and came across a couple of young hikers – perhaps in their late teens or early twenties. I came upon them fairly abruptly as I was negotiating a blind left hand bend and they were walking towards me at the side of the road (a right hand bend to them). The sort of reasonably gentle bend that I slow down a little for. Not only is it ‘blind’, but when walking on the side of the road that they were on, there is no verge for pedestrians to walk on. Yet there is a good wide verge on the opposite side of the road.

With a good knowledge of the Highway Code they might have used the opposite side of the road. It states, “If there is no pavement keep to the right-hand side of the road so that you can see oncoming traffic. You should take extra care and

  • be prepared to walk in single file, especially on narrow roads or in poor light
  • keep close to the side of the road

It may be safer to cross the road well before a sharp right-hand bend so that oncoming traffic has a better chance of seeing you. Cross back after the bend.”

However, most people only have a ‘headline’ knowledge of the Highway Code, which in this case would probably be, ‘Walk on the right-hand side of the road’- which is what they were doing.

But whatever the Highway Code says, or indeed whether they knew about what it says, why did they choose to walk this obviously dangerous line with no escape route?

I wonder whether it is linked to the way younger people have been and are being brought up in a very health and safety conscious age. These two young people, if they have been brought up in Britain, will have played on roundabouts in playgrounds with padding underneath for when they fall off. They will have played on computer games where every time a car crashes the driver walks away unharmed, or mysteriously comes back to life again.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have issues with any of these developments – they are all helpful. But when taken as a whole, are these developments stopping younger people from really understanding what hazards and risks are? Are we creating a society made up of a small number of safety specialists who put so many control measures in place we have effectively stopped thinking about risks and a majority who don’t think about potential hazards and risks because of the safety specialists?

One of the benefits of taking our children on holiday to Eastern European locations in the early part of this century was that the Eastern European safety culture was not as well developed as ours. I can remember several times seeing attractions or walks that didn’t look safe, so we discussed why they were potentially unsafe and whether it was a risk worth taking. At the extreme end, perhaps, my wife still talks about the national park we walked through where there were allegedly still landmines – but by sticking to the concrete paths there was no risk.  

Sadly, and all too often, there are now stories on news programmes within our locality of young people drowning in rivers – some after having intentionally jumped in, others who have probably fallen in after having had some drinks. Does it happen more often than it did 10 or 20 years ago? – anecdotally I suspect so, but I don’t know for sure.  And has this been, or will this be, a trend on our roads and in other environments? I hope not, but I suspect it may be.

I have walked the country lane I referred to many times in the past, and I would never walk the path chosen by the two people above. And if they had thought about it objectively, they wouldn’t have either.   

Is this the way society is heading, and will it be a problem? If so, what can we do to turn the tide?


Misleading Matters

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

I was having a lovely email exchange with a person yesterday who has recently moved into learning and development management. She was explaining how she now needed to be more strategic, she has real plans for her company and she was so passionate about what she wanted to achieve. It was an inspiring exchange!

It started me thinking about if I was in such a position again. If I wanted to develop a culture that was as performance focused as possible and able to demonstrate how it added quantifiable value to the organisation, what are the words or phrases that would most hinder that culture shift, and what would I seek to replace them with? How could I demonstrate clarity of direction? Here are my top five:

Training Manager – that would be the first one to go. For me, the title signifies that the post-holder is purely focussed on what happens whilst a delegate is attending a course or undertaking an e-learning package. I’d want to be the Learning and Development Manager – or even the Performance Improvement Manager – thus signifying that I have a proactive interest in engaging with the managers and delegates pre and post event, and ascertaining the value of our contribution.

Abstraction – So often I used to be told at meetings that training was an abstraction, and the person making the judgment argued they couldn’t afford such an abstraction (in some companies the word ‘overhead’ is also used). I would immediately retort – sometimes interrupting the person, especially if they didn’t get the message the first time – that the learning and development that I managed and delivered was an investment (not an abstraction). If people get used to referring to your activities as an abstraction, the activities have the potential to become so. Take the opportunity to change the culture and make people think differently about what you are doing.  Eventually others will call it an investment, and then you know the culture can change and you will be viewed very differently.

Time Management Course – Why advertise that you are going to do something that is clearly impossible? Sailors don’t claim to manage the tides, and weather reporters don’t claim to manage the weather – we may wonder what planet they were coming from if they did. So what reasons do trainers and training managers have for claiming they can help people manage time?  We know what the tides will do, and can see and feel (and predict to some degree) the weather, so we manage ourselves accordingly. The same goes for time. Call such events Task Management or Task Prioritisation Courses – you will be surprised how differently people think about the event from the outset, because you are being clear about what will be achieved. Have a look at all your offerings – do they really do what they say on the tin?

Problem Person – I have often been faced with someone seeking assistance as they have a ‘Problem Person’ to deal with.  I bet Carl Rogers turns in his grave every time he hears this. If people are viewed in this way, they will potentially always be a problem. Such an individual is a person. A person who has a problem – a problem which you may well be able to assist them with. Where the manager thinks they have a ‘Problem Person’ they will more than likely become one.

Can you organise a (whatever) skills course, please? – The answer to this is ‘No’ – well not on this information, anyway. Operational managers are busy people and also may not be aware of all the ways that development needs can be met. You need to find out more – a lot more … how was the need identified, how many people does it apply to, how do we know it applies to all of them, why do all of them need it, what opportunities will there be for all these people to use the new skill, and so on. Get to the heart of the matter. You will receive so many ill-defined needs – and asking these questions (and others) will help generate a performance improvement partnership between your function and the rest of the organisation. And if you don’t ask the questions, and the learning and development intervention doesn’t work, the operational manager will make it public as to whose fault they think it is – and that will not do your culture shift (or reputation) much good!

So those are my top five – are there any that you would add?