The Heck With the Check

It’s common to face challenges when designing and implementing long-term learning or change initiatives. For instance, solutions may be disconnected from business outcomes and results.

Then it seems as though learning professionals don’t understand the business or cannot offer solutions that help improve business outcomes.

In other cases, attendees comply with programs, yet they yield little to no effect on the bottom line. Compliance will achieve some level of performance, but checking boxes will not lead to sustainable, long-term change.

In some cases developmental programs are considered nice to do rather than essential. The learning organization is seen as dabbling in the soft skills rather than creating the skills and behaviors that will help organizations make money, capture and retain customers and produce quality work.

Sometimes new initiatives are seen as the right thing to do, but when they don’t work right away, the organization loses patience and shifts to the next hot thing. Or else, just when the new program starts to work, someone throws in the towel.

In many cases employees are trained well, but there is little to no follow-up when they return to their jobs. Employees and leaders understood what needed to be done in training and at the outset of a program.

They may have practiced it during training. But it may be easier for business leaders to point the finger back at the learning organization rather than take ownership for a lack of support.

Other challenges are related to personal biases, preferences and habits. Employees have been sold on something because it makes promises people want to believe in, such as making happy and engaged employees, building emotionally intelligent leaders, developing a coaching culture, being a trusted adviser or becoming a great place to work.

The intention behind these programs and outcomes is good, but it’s in the implementation and execution where programs succeed or fail.

In his book, Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time & Money (And What to Do Instead), Aubrey Daniels writes, “Frequently good strategic plans fail because of poor execution.

If executives are not able to separate the plan from the execution (behavior), they often make the mistake of changing the strategic plan when the execution is at fault.”

Making It All Work
There are principles and tools that can help ensure learning programs and change initiatives are linked to business outcomes.

These initiatives can lead to sustainable behavior change, commitment rather than compliance, and changes that become desirable habits and help achieve long-term objectives. They include elements of follow-up and follow-through.

When designing a learning program, anchor it in well-defined business outcomes. Successful implementation includes all elements that support or impede implementation: the work process, customer responses, as well as supervisor, manager and leader behaviors.

Working backward, or reverse behavioral engineering, connects business results with organizational behaviors and activities for employees, supervisors, managers, leaders and customers.

For instance, what will revenue, customer service metrics, quality, employee engagement, safety and cultural measures look like in 12 to 18 months? Identify what customers would say and do in that time frame that would create business results.

What could employees say and do in that time frame to increase the probability of producing business results? What would supervisors, managers and leaders say and do to support and encourage this future state?

“Leadership involves being a steward of our people’s energy as well as being a steward of the company’s business,” said Linda Mahan, associate director of commercial training and development at Genentech. “The beauty of it is, if you do right by one, you almost always do right by the other.”

Create Commitment, Not Compliance
When compliance is a focus in learning program engagement or attendance, individuals act to avoid getting in trouble, hearing from the boss, being fired or other negative outcomes. This can be an appropriate way to get something started, but it is not how to sustain change.

Commitment not only engenders change, it ensures changes are happening even when no one is looking. People do a good job or learn because they want to rather than have to. As a result, changes occur more than once, and they become sustainable while they produce the desired outcomes — business impact, client response — and become desirable habits.

The conditions that create sustainable change are largely a result of positive reinforcement over time, not the two kinds of positive reinforcement that leaders promote most often — rewards and recognition. Those are produced by self-reinforcement, customer reinforcement, and reinforcement from the work and other natural consequences.

The right kinds of influence and leadership behaviors are necessary to ensure sustainable changes. To support change after a program or learning kickoff, leadership follow-up is required early and often. That follow-up also reflects a cultural shift, and a cluster of visible, replicable leader behaviors will lead to compliance.

These behaviors include managing exceptions, approaching employees when things are not working, discussing what isn’t working, reacting, responding and being transactional.

Another cluster of leader behaviors can help to create commitment. These include asking questions to encourage self-reinforcement, encouraging ownership of changes, reinforcing incremental change, anticipating, being proactive and helping.

A near-term plan is needed that connects actions today to a long-term vision. Near-term plans that work include a focus on one to two behaviors and skills. There should be a daily or weekly element that requires practice, follow-up and demonstration so performers can see it work.

This requires identifying what a good day or week looks like. For instance, if customers are involved, what are incrementally better customer responses? What are the next best incremental customer responses that could show progress? What would a good or great customer response today be?

A good response might be to learn something new about the customer. A great response might be that the customer describes who he or she relies on when making decisions.

To reach one or more of these goals requires built-in reinforcement for the new or different behaviors. If this reinforcement is experienced over time, as employees live with their successes, confidence soars.

When learning leaders build reinforcement into the actions identified in learning or a change initiative, they help ensure employees can do something new, and have support and encouragement to repeat what they are doing again and again. This provides a pathway to new habits that are linked to long-term business outcomes.

Learning organizations can directly connect their services to an organization’s near-term needs and the long-term strategy and connect organizational behaviors to critical business results in a deliberate and systematic way.

“The more opportunities a person has to practice and demonstrate behaviors that work, the more likely the behaviors will become habit,” said Linda Breaux, manager and behavior coaching consultant at Aflac. “Seeing the link between the behaviors and the end result will be naturally reinforcing and repeated by your performer.”

Joe Laipple is senior vice president for Aubrey Daniels International Inc., a management consulting firm, and author of Rapid Change: Immediate Action for the Impatient Leader. He can be reached at