“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself” (Miles Davis).

Let’s face it: The word “training” is a trap. Are we really in the “training” business? Why training? Do we want people to slavishly follow directions, or do we want them to be idea generators and problem solvers? Yes, we want to impart skills — but we also want to provide a path to wise decision-making and good judgment.

Great jazz musicians have technical training, but they also know how to improvise. Judgment is knowing when to follow the notes on the page and when to break out in furious improvisation. It’s not just about knowing what’s right and what’s wrong but also about knowing what’s best.

We need to rethink the delivery of learning to ensure that it meets the following criteria:

  • Impact: Learning needs to teach the skills and behaviors that drive the success of the business.
  • Accountability: Having knowledge is good, but putting that knowledge into action is better. Who is accountable for guaranteeing that learning turns into behavior?
  • Integration: Learning needs to be part of work, not separate from it.

From Knowing to Doing

How do we get there? Here are five ways to move from knowing to doing.

1. Establish a Cadence

There’s a well-known quote in business: “What gets measured gets done.” While there’s definitely truth to that statement, since measurement often happens far after action, it can be difficult to identify and focus on the leading indicators that will influence the lagging indicators. So, here’s a corollary: “What gets scheduled gets done.”

Who among us doesn’t check his or her calendar to determine what must happen each day? The first step to successful professional growth is to put it on the calendar.

Since learning is a long-term endeavor, however, putting a class on a calendar doesn’t go far enough. You also need to create a learning cadence: a long-term plan for learning, practice, reinforcement and adjusting. You’ll hear these cadences called playbooks or road maps; I prefer “pace plan,” because it’s all about setting the pace for development.

This leads to the second step in our strategy: Have a plan, schedule the steps in that plan over time and have multiple check points to determine progress.

2. Integrate with the Work

Learning is the work, not an addition to the work. Can you imagine anything more frustrating than spending a lot of time in a learning program that doesn’t relate to what you do for a living? Are your learners able to immediately apply what they’ve learned, receive feedback on their performance and continue to improve?

Too often, learning happens separately from work. Learners are pumped full of inspirational ideas and then return to the job, not sure what to do about them. Learning should be integrated with the work, using the know-do-refine (KDR) cycle:

  • Know: Learn a skill or behavior.
  • Do: Apply that skill or behavior on the job, preferably in multiple iterations.
  • Refine: Receive feedback on your performance and refine your skill set.

Remember, it’s a cycle — your learners will go through it more than once.

3. Provide Coaching and Support

During a recent conversation with a client, I asked what types of coaching support were available in his organization. He said there was talk of a formal coaching program, but it was difficult to align everyone, and it was going to take a long time to put together.

Formal coaching programs are great, and there are some wonderful programs out there. However, there’s a lot more to supporting learning than formal coaching. For example:

  • Manager support: Direct managers should be first-line coaches for just about everybody. Since they are typically closest to the work, they can give great feedback on performance and progress. With a little support of their own, they can become great coaches. How does your organization encourage managers to be coaches?
  • Cohorts: Learning need not be a lonely endeavor. Creating learning cohorts (groups of learners who are on the same journey) can help build momentum and an accountability framework. Learners don’t always need a trained coach — sometimes, they just need friends who are trying to solve the same problems they are.
  • Peer coaching: Peer coaching matches people at similar levels of development to drive an accountability-based model for the growth of both skills and business outcomes. Peer coaching is a critical success factor for driving behavior change and creating a coaching culture within organizations.

4. Use Technology to Enhance (not Replace) Learning

We’ve never had as much learning technology as we do now, including learning management systems (LMSs), massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other virtual collaboration platforms, coaching and mentoring “matchmaking” systems, social media-driven collaboration, and evolving technologies like adaptive learning and artificial intelligence.

But technology should be a tool, not a trap. Too often, organizations try to implement the coolest technology without a clear idea of the problem they’re trying to solve. Focus instead on leveraging technology to create a simple framework in order to deliver growth (skills and results) to the organization and streamline the experience for the learner.

The primary value of these systems is their ability to create a learning cadence. Even a simple LMS allows for scheduling, reminders and evaluations. Online collaboration platforms provide venues for conversation and coaching, even when cohorts are spread over locations and time zones. Coaching systems help learners find the coach that fits them best, not just the one who’s available.

5. Create an Accountability Plan

Learning is important to the success of the business, and it can be a significant investment. Like all that exercise equipment people buy after making their New Year’s resolutions, however, it’s only valuable if it’s used. An accountability plan measures progress against goals — so instead of saying, “Learning was interesting,” your learners can say, “I can prove that learning improved my performance.” And since learning is not a one-person effort, that accountability plan needs to include the learner’s manager and coach, too.

Putting Theory Into Practice: Leadership Development

Let’s face facts: If we took all the cool ideas about learning from the last few years and piled them up, they’d stretch to the moon and back, but ideas only really matter if they are actionable. What does the learning cadence approach look like in practice? Let’s provide some context by looking at a real-life example focused on one of the most challenging needs of business: growing new leaders.

Leadership training falls short so often, because leadership concepts can be easy to understand but difficult to put into practice. A leadership learning cadence for new managers might include:

Join a Leadership Cohort/Community

Learning starts with sharing ideas, and idea-sharing doesn’t require classes. New leaders can start by joining a cohort or a community of practice with other leaders, whether it’s live, online or uses a combination of both.

Prime the Pump

New leaders should read articles and watch videos that introduce key components of the curriculum. Help them start thinking about what leadership means to them, and set a 20-minute recurring meeting on their calendar for “coffee and a TED Talk.” Do they even notice they haven’t been to a class yet?

Attend a “Grounding” Workshop

Next, leaders should attend a class to cover the basics of the new behaviors they need. Don’t worry — this is the beginning of they cadence, not the end.

Engage in Action Assignments

Help leaders to take some of what they’ve learned so far and put it into practice, to actually run the business.

Ask for Feedback

Encourage learners ask for feedback on their performance from their manager, their colleagues and their peer coach and to look for opportunities to improve.

Again, KDR is a cycle, so learners will repeat this process more than once — but instead of its being “training time,” it’s work time. Doing the work and growing their skill set happen concurrently.

When we think of our greatest learning experiences, we rarely think of classrooms or e-learning; we think of great ideas, helpful mentors, eye-opening experiences and powerful feedback. In today’s world — where teams are global, technology makes sharing information easier than ever and new ideas are constantly developing — there is no reason to limit ourselves. Instead of training people to read off a sheet of music, let’s give them the skills they need to create their own sound.

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