What Questions Should We Be Asking?

bigquestionLearning Circuits asks us to ponder our pondering this month.

I love it when a group I’m a part of gets around to asking this question. It was one on which I was raised, by a wise mother of 4 little girls who knew that spending a lot of time and energy on answering the wrong question can create a great deal of heat and bad feelings, but wind up being a little light on producing any useful results.  Mom would walk into the middle of some heated battle among us and ask “what is the question?” and immediately, we’d go silent, because often, the question had devolved into something that anybody who subjected it to a moment’s reflection, even a 10 year old, could see was a blind alley.

For those of us whose incomes depend on the willingness of others to invest in training efforts, some questions are very difficult to ask, because they risk revealing that our services are not needed.  But truly, unless we ask the hard ones, we’re sort of shooting everybody in the foot, because it’s not really possible to build sustainable success on brilliant answers to the wrong question!

So here’s my hit parade for questions we should be asking:

What problem are we trying to solve?

Frequently, in organizational initiatives, there’s less consensus around this question than there might first appear.  While the company’s CLO may approach us because she needs to trim her budget and needs to find a way to move an established audience through established programs at less expense,  when we talk to others in the company, we sometimes find that other management team members believe that the problem is that current training initiatives are not creating the cultural change they believe is necessary, while subject matter experts think the problem is that established training programs do not adequately reflect the changes in the competitive environment which trainees face once they leave training.  The training audience may believe that the problem is that they are not being given adequate time to digest new material.

It’s not possible to design a solution which will meet the needs of stakeholders unless we first know just what those needs are perceived to be.  Often, there are tradeoffs to be made, and needs/desires of one group which must be de-prioritized to make sure higher priority needs are met.   Knowing whose ox will be gored by the solution proposal is critical to making a case for the proposal which acknowledges the  concerns of all stakeholders.

Is this a problem which lends itself to a training-based solution?

Bill tells the story of an organization which called him in to do some motivation work. It seems that everyone in an office had been informed that the office was to be closed in the next three months, and that they would all lose their jobs as a result of this change.  Productivity dropped like a rock.  So someone had the idea to have an expert come in to work on employee motivation.

Obviously, it is not possible to create motivating forces out of thin air – all you can do is alert people to the conditions which actually exist which reward good work.  This was a case for some other solution, maybe a performance bonus.

Is this the right time for this initiative?

Even when you’ve identified the problem set and the stakeholders, and determined that training is the most likely approach to solve the issues at hand, timing remains a critical factor.

In our experience, it does not pay to attempt to launch a training program in December.  Whether it’s holiday distractions or just the pressures of getting things done before year-end, people just don’t seem willing to put energy into training in the twelfth month.

Training designed to help people cope with a major reorganization can make for tricky timing.  Ideally, the affected folks would be trained before they take on their new responsibilities.  But realistically, who will be going where is often in flux right up until the last minute, and knotty personnel issues often complicate things.  The first weeks in a new position, however, are often too chaotic to make for a good training environment.

Nothing dooms a training initiative faster than a lack of will on the part of managers to free their reports from their other responsibilities in order to train. For online initiatives, this is an even bigger risk, because there is a perception that because the training is “right there” on the desktop, learners can just “squeeze it in” around their other responsibilities.

If now is not a good time to free people to train, then it’s better to just admit to that reality than to put learners in a bind by requiring a performance for which they have not been given sufficient resources.

Facing Reality

The guy who said “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later” was right. It’s scary  to ask questions which have the potential to rule out doing business right now.  But the risks of taking business which threaten to  result in ill-conceived or failed initiatives are many, and the rewards of screening for projects which have a high chance of success are not only those of developing a reputation for integrity.  There’s something to be said for saving oneself for the fun stuff, and working where you really have a chance to make a difference!