When a company invests in learning and development (L&D) initiatives, what do they want to get in return? Sometimes they need to invest in training to meet regulatory and compliance requirements, but most of the time they want people to do their jobs better. They want their employees to consistently behave in new ways so that they more effectively and efficiently execute the company strategy.
They want behavior change.
Yet many L&D initiatives still focus on delivery, content, memorized knowledge, throughput or even just ticking boxes. Instead focus on what the company wants — sustained and advantageous behavior change.
Start With the End in Mind
If behavior change is the desired outcome, the obvious question is, “What behaviors?”
You need to conduct a behavioral needs analysis (BNA). Look at the task that has triggered the request for an L&D initiative. How are people doing that task currently? How would they be doing the task if they were doing it well? What is the gap between what they are doing now and what they should be doing instead?
Identify the gap between current and desired behaviors and describe the behavioral gap in observable terms. Ask the question, “What are we seeing, hearing or feeling that leads us to believe the current behaviors are less than what we need?”
Then ask, “What will we see, hear or feel when we have successfully changed the behaviors to what we want?”
When you have defined the desired output behaviors in terms of what you will notice when they occur, you have a means to measure progress toward those behaviors. It is also critical that you agree and get sign off from the program sponsors on the set of desired behaviors and the observational success criteria.
You now have an agreed and measurable behavioral target for your program.
Think back to a behavior change you made in your life, work-related or otherwise. It probably didn’t happen all at once. It happened because of many small actions you took that added up over time. Other than “road to Damascus” style conversions, behavioral changes result from a process that takes time. Even if you tell someone, “From today do this job in this new way,” they still need time and repetition to get good at doing it the new way, and for the new way to become habitual and automatic.
To deliver a behavior change, you need to deliver a sequence of activities that take place over time. How many actions and how much time? That depends on the complexity of the change, the size of the gap between the present and the desired behavior, and the environment the actions will take place in.
To proactively change behavior, you must create a set of step-by-step actions that will reliably get someone who takes those actions across the identified behavioral gap. In effect, you are seeking to create a workflow. If you think about it, any change in behavior requires a workflow to embed it.
A workflow could be defined as, “An orchestrated and repeatable pattern of activity that reliably transforms what exists into a desired output.”
When you program a destination into your GPS, it creates a workflow for you. That is, it creates a set of turn-by-turn instructions, and if you carry out those instructions, you will get to your destination.
Everyone uses workflows in their day-to-day lives, even for something as mundane as going shopping. For grocery shopping, the sequence of activities is something like — write a list, find your car keys, drive to the supermarket, get a cart or basket and so on.
Notice that a critical success factor for a workflow is starting with the end in mind, and for this discussion, that’s behavior change.
Start Your Design Process
Now you can begin designing your program so it enables your trainees to cross the identified behavioral gap, and consistently exhibit the desired behaviors going forward.
One obvious place to start is to look at those who have already made this journey and are currently exemplars of the desired behaviors. How did they cross the behavioral gap? What do they believe, and what do they do now that is different from what they used to believe and do before they crossed the gap? What would they suggest other people need to believe and do to cross the gap?
Another approach is a simple thought experiment. Ask yourself, “If I was in the trainee’s shoes, what would I need to do and how long would it take for me to develop the desired behavior?” Think about the skills you would need to practice, and what you would need to know to practice those skills. Think about the support you would need on your journey to the new set of behaviors.
And of course, ask the trainees. Tell them the desired behaviors, and what criteria you will be using to measure when those behaviors are present. Then ask the deceptively simple question, “What would you need and when would you need it to change your behavior in this way?”
At this stage you should have enough information to start building a rough workflow skeleton. To put flesh on that skeleton, you need to consider some other factors.
Who Are the Trainees?
Build a persona for your typical trainee, in much the same way marketing people build a prospect persona. Who are the trainees, and why would they engage with your workflow?
What do they need to know and understand to say, “I want to do this!”, “I will persevere!” and “I know I can do this if I get the right help and guidance along the way.”
The mindset of the trainee is critical because if they don’t follow the steps of the workflow, they are very unlikely to get to the desired destination.
L&D is used to delivering content, but you need to think outside that box. Think experimentation, practice, reflection, collaboration, discussion, sharing, research, enquiry, study and yes, also content consumption, either pull or push.
Deliberate practice with a defined goal for each practice session is going to be a big factor in helping people embed a new behavior. If you are doing something new, do you expect to be good immediately? Practice is required to do things well and automatically.
It’s been said that you can’t get good at something unless you are willing to be bad. Practicing what you are not yet good at is not fun. It can be uncomfortable and even painful, so the trainee must want to do it. They need to tolerate the discomfort while they practice to improve.
Who Is Involved?
Clearly the local line manager has a big influence on the trainee while they are doing activities in the workflow. Most of a learning workflow happens on their watch, so they also need to be “sold” on the process and the journey of the trainee.
Who else should be involved but often isn’t? Peers, customers, sponsors, colleagues in other departments? Who else can contribute to the workflow in some meaningful way?
One of the biggest impacts other people have on a learning workflow is the culture they embody. What is the culture within the organization with regards to learning? And how is that culture promoted by factors such as measures, incentives, managerial behaviors, stories, tools, systems and infrastructure?
What’s the Timeline?
A learning workflow means you need to consider time. This is new to most people in L&D. When you look at the list of steps or tasks in the workflow, is there a balance of time commitment along the journey? You need a balanced workflow load, not big peaks and troughs.
And you need a plan! Your trainees will be much more comfortable if they have sight of the outline of the workflow and what they are committing to over the journey. This is the same sense of comfort you feel when you program your GPS and you can see the route laid out on the map.
Balance and Flow
A good learning workflow is balanced. One task builds on previous tasks and sets things up for the next task. Think of flow and precedence. Think of what is needed and by when. Little and often is a good mantra. Just as it is important to balance the activity load over time, it is also important to balance the cognitive load.
For many programs you will end up with a repeating cycle, often with a weekly cadence, but there are other valid formats depending on what you are trying to achieve.
As with any L&D program, measurement is critical. If you follow the steps above, measurement will be relatively easy because you have a defined set of behavioral outcomes, each one with a set of criteria that describe what will be observable when those outcomes are achieved.