Why isolated L&D programmes don’t lead to real change

One of the biggest reasons why certain L&D initiatives don't lead to change is the fact that decision-makers have jumped to conclusions about what their team needs. In this article, we speak with Malek Adjerad, who is Director of Learning Design at Headspring, to understand crucial questions to ask, and steps to take to uncover deep-rooted issues within organisations.
Paul Lewis
Jun 14, 2022

Imagine that your business needs to be more innovative, but there’s a lack of creativity within the teams of the company.

At this stage, a lot of organisations would decide to invest in a learning programme to help boost creativity across the business.

The problem they might encounter at the end of the programme is that despite it being well received and implemented, the company still don’t see an improvement in creativity and innovation across the business.

Had the L&D team taken a more in-depth approach to identify the problem, they would have noticed that there is no lack of creativity within the team: the problem was micro-management and blame culture.

When people feel they don’t have the space to experiment safely, they won’t innovate – no matter how creative they are.

“One of the biggest reasons why certain L&D initiatives don’t lead to change is the fact that decision-makers have jumped to conclusions about what their team needs”, says Malek Adjerad, Director of Learning Design at Headspring.

According to Adjerad, this happens because businesses often address the most visible problems, but these problems are, often, merely the symptoms of a much more complex issue.

“Many L&D teams and providers first decide that they need to run a programme. They only start trying to understand the learning needs of their teams once they have made some assumptions of how the programme should be”, says Adjerad. The problem with this approach, according to him, is that it is back-to-front. ‘If you try to identify learning needs with a pre-defined solution in mind, the diagnose will inevitably be biased’.

If you go to a doctor, he argues, you want them to truly understand your problem before prescribing the medicine. “You don’t want the doctor to make assumptions about your condition. The same works for learning and development.”
According to Adjerad, the most effective way to create the right learning solution is to start with a blank canvas and conduct a deep assessment of the organisation’s learning needs.

“Don’t assume that you will need a programme at the end of it. The solution could be something completely different”, says Adjerad.

He says that a significant portion of L&D budgets goes to waste due to poorly executed diagnostics which are often bound to expensive programmes which don’t address the root cause of a business problem. “It’s not just a question of budget, but also the time and resources spent creating and delivering a programme”, adds Adjerad.

Going Deeper

The time spent before the design of a programme is as important as the time spent designing it. But it’s not just about interviews and surveys; according to Adjerad, the method is crucial:
“Interviews and surveys are useful, but if you don’t have a methodology to guide you, you will barely scratch the surface.”

At Headspring we developed a 7-step proprietary approach to help our clients uncover deep-rooted issues and make better informed L&D investments.

Step 1: Company strategy – what is the ultimate goal?

Too often, company leaders view their Learning and Development (L&D) division as marginal – a way to fill a technical skills gaps, or worse, just an employee benefit. This is a profoundly misplaced notion. Experience shows that executive learning, if done well, can solve essential strategic problems, leading the way to sustainable growth.  “The first step in programme design is to reframe that internal discussion so that learning is seen as essential to strategy execution,” says Malek Adjerad, Headspring’s director of learning design.

One can start by bringing together L&D leaders, senior executives from different departments and prospective learners, as well as other relevant stakeholders, to talk about the needs of the business from all perspectives, and at all levels of the organisation. In addition, Headspring might observe the company in action, interview relevant parties, and deploy other qualitative approaches to get an independent sense of the concerns.

Of course, not all participants, especially if relatively junior, will be forthcoming with their views. Fortunately, there are ways to limit such anxieties. Headspring’s “foresight creates insight” approach asks executives to imagine themselves five, 10 or 15 years into the future, and then to think about what current behaviours would seem crazy if looked back upon by their future selves. This removes them from the politics of today’s situation, while creating a vision of the future and setting new priorities. This approach aligns with Headspring’s own Leadership diagnostic tools, which consider what new leadership skills and dilemmas might become relevant a decade or so from now. Once the parties have considered the big strategic view, a learning programme can then focus on the specifics of what successful transformation might look like.

Step 2: What does success look like? – signposting progress

If politics is the art of the possible, then pragmatism is essential when determining what learning goals are realistic and how to measure progress. A learning programme probably will not be able to determine a company’s next growth market or the latest technological breakthrough. But a well-designed journey might help participants understand political risk, improve decision making, or develop a credible sustainability strategy, and so much more. They can signpost progress, for example with a simple success matrix that includes desired outcomes and their supported evidence such as financial data, KPIs, ‘before-and-after’ comparisons, or feedback from a coach or mentor.

Sometimes, outcomes can be articulated and monitored in the form: “Because…we did X, the outcome was y.” Perhaps most compelling of all is to actually solve the problem in question. Many corporate learning programmes require participants to identify a real challenge the company faces and then to work in groups over several weeks on a specific business project aimed at solving the problem, using the knowledge acquired during the programme. A facilitator may then assess all the submitted proposals, and the company’s board would vote to adopt the best idea as policy.

Step 3: Personas – understanding the different motivations of the learner

Setting goals and agreeing a road map to achieve the goals depends very much on the personalities, circumstances, and motivations of those in the classroom. One might first consider obvious points such as the gender, age, seniority and nationality of participants. How fluent are they in the language of instruction (often English)? Do they prefer a traditional classroom-style setting or group discussions and workshops, or lots of private reflection time? Their expectations might matter too. Stressed executives might want to cover the key facts and leave early to mollify an unsupportive line manager. Others, equally legitimately, might see a learning programme as a rare opportunity to bond with colleagues or experience a different working culture in an unpressured setting.

There are still deeper issues that Headspring’s own leadership diagnostic tool asks participants to ponder, around ambition, relationships and self-knowledge. Do you enjoy working with others or are you more of a lone wolf? Does the idea of executive training feel like a burden – an unwelcome challenge? What are your career goals: to become the next CEO, change the world, or find a satisfactory work-life balance so you can focus on family or hobbies? Does your personal or religious worldview influence your life goals and behaviour? All these factors might affect the way one teaches and how one learns.

Step 4. Learning needs and resources – using the tools and resources available

The learning diagnostic and design should build on what the company already has in place. Many companies already have a set of desired competencies following lengthy internal conversations. Moreover, there may be plenty of supporting data in existence which that can be deployed for a new learning programme. There’s no need for the learning provider to start from scratch. Of course, the list of desired competencies may well change during the course of the diagnosis and often do. But a good diagnosis will try to make use of existing data, methods and experiences, even if subject to change. As well as saving time and energy, this will also help to create a consistent message between a learning programme and the company’s longer-term strategy.

Sometimes, however, a company has not properly considered its true learning needs. The collaborative discussions may indeed be the first such conversation that the company has had. In this case, one must be creative and flexible about gathering data and defining the measuring tools. Yet, even if no such internal information exists, there is another dimension that may be far more important than the data, and that is the company’s learning culture.

Step 5: Learning culture – seeing learning experiences everywhere

Like a persona of an individual learner (see step 3), a company also has a persona that affects the way its employees will learn. Some view learning as a quick fix for a particular problem: a team- building course for a dysfunctional unit, for example, or an empathetic listening course for an intolerant executive. However, there is a deeper view of learning, indeed an entirely different mindset, which is perhaps more in tune with a rapidly changing world. That is one of continuous learning, learning from every opportunity, every interaction every casual conversation; learning from success, learning from mistakes; learning through observing others, and learning through curious inquiry.

Some of these elements can be formalised through regular debriefings or feedback channels. Often the best insights ride on a throwaway line or a beautifully distilled summary of long experience. “This type of learning culture involves a degree of humility, a belief that everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach”, says Adjerad, adding, “it is a window onto the corporate soul.”

Step 6: Learning tools and methods – tips and tricks

Learning is hard – especially for busy executives, and it is getting even harder as smart phones and social media compete for our diminishing attention spans. Educators must be aware of this trend, and adapt accordingly.  Ideally, we would be capable of what Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi referred to as being in “a state of flow” i.e. total absorption in the subject matter. For most of us, learning requires humble persistence and the resolve to bounce back after setbacks.

A Headspring research paper Metacognition: the science of learning in business explains the important neurological processes at play, and provides tips to galvanise our inconsistent brains. For example, rewarding ourselves for completing a defined period of learning can be particularly effective. In the classroom, the educator must inject energy and engender curiosity in order to bring learning content to life. In this respect, variety is key.

A module might combine periods of active teaching and passive self-reflection; gamification, simulations or virtual reality; self-paced study and peer-to-peer learning, coaching and mentoring. Executives also seem to learn better closer to the location of application – i.e. on the shop floor. The ultimate goal is to bring all these strands together to create a step-change in learning effectiveness – or “quantum learning” says Adjerad.

Step 7: Boundaries – recognising the limits of workplace learning

Finally, any programme must recognise that work-place learning has its limits even in the best of circumstances. There are some obvious constraints, such as how much time per week can be devoted to study; where learning can happen; what budget can be allocated to the formal aspects and what scope exists for informal learning. Perhaps most significantly is how important the subject matter is to the learner’s own job.

The best way to reach ambitious but realistic targets is to start from an ideal scenario and work back from there based on time, commitments and budget.


Headspring X: Closing the Gap Between Learning and Strategy

If you would like to take a deep dive and understand the deep-rooted causes of performance gaps in your business, explore our suite of learning consulting solutions. 

You can also watch an interview with Headspring’s Malek Adjerad where he goes more in-depth into each step.

Paul Lewis

Editorial Director at Headspring