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Of Mice, Men and Spiders

Bob Little 

October 30, 2015

Despite our best endeavors, things don’t always turn out as we’d planned and hoped. In his well-known poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns expressed these sentiments when he wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!”

There can be few L&D professionals who’ve never – yet – experienced the grief and pain of a project that hasn’t achieved what they’d hoped it would achieve.

In the process of failing, an L&D project will provide you with a number of clues that this is happening. Spotting these danger signs as early as possible can sometimes snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat, but it’ll always help to minimize the negative “fallout” that accompanies such things. It might even help you emerge from the whole process with some credit and, thus, it might not prove to be a career-limiting move.

Obviously, anything can go wrong at any time for unforeseen and, sometimes, apparently unconnected reasons. Setting aside these “acts of God,” you can spot the danger signs in any L&D project via the acronym “PRIDE.” That is, an L&D project will fail if it hasn’t been – and isn’t continuing to be:

  • Promoted. This covers how the L&D program is marketed and advertised. The key is that, if it’s to succeed, the program must be in-keeping with the culture of the organization
  • Relevant.
  • Instructionally sound. Successful L&D projects are well designed. The content must be sound in the light of current developments and appropriate to the learners’ needs. Moreover, you need to check on the way that the trainers and tutors are putting over and/or supporting the program. Sooner or later, any lack of loyalty and commitment to it will spell disaster.
  • Demonstrably valuable. If this piece of learning fails to demonstrate value – however that can be defined – to the participants and to their organization, it’s going to fail.
  • Effective. That is, it’s not doing what’s really wanted (as opposed to what’s said to be being wanted).

Over and above this, there are issues connected with the “Seven Cs” –

1. Culture. An organization’s culture and politics can disrupt its L&D efforts. If learners are prevented – overtly or covertly – from applying their newly gained knowledge and skills to their work, the program is a waste of everyone’s time and resources.
2. Commitment. Among the major obstacles to this transfer of new knowledge and skills is the commitment and encouragement of each learner’s manager. So you’ll need to watch the learners for signs of “rebellion” against the program, and monitor their managers for negativity towards it too.
3. Costs. All L&D initiatives involve some costs – in time and money. Like all budgets, those relating to L&D reflect the relative health of the organization and feelings about its likely future health, as well as the interests and priorities of those who determine the size and allocation of departmental budgets. Here, the ability to spot the danger signs involves being “in tune” with office and organizational politics – remembering that your priorities aren’t necessarily others’ priorities.
4. Change. If you want your L&D projects to be successful, it’s worth remembering that often, when people plan to produce a learning program, they think of what’s expensive (and difficult) to do. They don’t think of what’s expensive and difficult to change (in terms of the learners and their organization – and even in the L&D department).
5. Content lifespan. All L&D programs have a natural lifespan. For example, you know when a job aid has worked because the users throw it away. You need to recognize when a particular program is coming to the end of its usefulness – and institute the necessary changes. This might mean changing the content and/or the delivery options for the existing program, or freeing up resources to address a new L&D need.
6. Clear criteria. Often, L&D projects are said to have “failed” because no one has defined what “success” should look like. Success criteria for the project need to be agreed at its outset. Failure to plan for, and identify, success – preferably in terms of organizational performance – will always condemn the project to failure.
7. Care. In addition to danger signs that arise from the external variables that can threaten the success of your L&D project, you need to watch out for the internal danger signs, too. Ceasing to care about the success of the L&D projects you’re involved with is an extremely dangerous sign because it guarantees their – and your – failure.

“From my experience, the major issues I‘ve faced with large scale training projects – national or global – have been from vague learning outcomes, stakeholder mismanagement, or poor management of the project team,” says Nick Hindley, Associate Director, Performance Improvement and Innovation, at PPD.

“I always have a full career/performance/development-type discussion with project members. I’m not their line manager but, for the time they’re on the project, they need to feel I’m helping them with their aspirations.”

Constant vigilance in all these areas is the only possible course for the L&D professional but even that can’t stop the occasional project failure. That’s when professionalism and persistence need to come to the fore.

As Robert Burns suggested, despite our best endeavors, some failures are inevitable. Maybe the only crumb of comfort we can glean – and the encouragement to continue nonetheless – comes from the work of another Scottish poet, Bernard Barton, who wrote the poem, “Bruce and the Spider.” This tells the legendary story of how “The Bruce,” Robert I, King of Scotland, after six successive defeats by the English armies, was a fugitive in a lonely hut. There he saw a spider try six times to cast his thread from one beam to another – and succeed on the seventh attempt. Bruce took courage from the spider’s perseverance, fought a seventh time, and won.

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