October 2010

In a recent post I pointed out that innovative organizations enable employees to take risks because their culture creates an atmosphere of safety and trust.  I am not advocating risky behavior.  Neither am I suggesting that employees should be free to innovate without accountability.  I am pointing out that organizations ought to welcome new ideas without causing the employee to be seen as being ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.

With that caveat out of the way, please note that I use the term “enable” not “allow.”   It should not be risky to suggest something new.  Is it really  something really risky if an organization allows it?  To me when leadership allows an employee to propose a risky strategy (suggest something new) it is like saying, “I don’t trust you.”

As I reflected on what it takes to create a safe and trusting environment I realized that an organization must understand itself to create such an atmosphere.  An innovative organization must have a clear idea of what type of risk is acceptable.  It must know how much risk it can tolerate.  Every employee in the organization must know where these lines are.

It is imperative for an organization to be clear about their identity and behave consistently with that identity.  Consistency reinforces safety and builds trust.  For employees to be successful they need to know the goals of the organization and the expectations of leadership.  If employees cannot express these it will have an impact on their performance and it probably will not be positive.


Playspace is safe for people to bring their whole selves to work.

Chapter 4 of Pamela Meyer’s book Playspace is titled “Playspace is Safe Space.”  This is a very important topic that merits attention and requires careful consideration.  I appreciate that Dr. Meyer includes this in her book and does not treat this as a one-way street, from supervisor to employee.  This is such a dense chapter I find myself struggling to compress all its insights into one post.  This post focuses on the relationship of safety and trust.

When Dr. Meyer refers to safety she means psychological safety.  She provides the following definition for psychological safety, the “sense of being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.”  When a person has this type of safety they feel more at ease in the workplace and more comfortable taking risks.  Dr. Meyer goes on to list four psychological risks identified by Amy Edmondson of Harvard School of Business: being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.

I can’t think a person who enjoys being thought of as ignorant, incompetent, or negative.  I know a few people who like being thought of as disruptive.  However, in the context of this chapter the author is making the point that a person who wants to contribute in a positive way needs to feel like they are being treated fairly.  An organization will not get the best of anyone who is typecast in the ways listed above.  In today’s economic climate fresh ideas are the lifeblood of continued success.  Fresh ideas mean somebody is taking a risk.  A culture that promotes reasonable risk taking, sharing and learning needs to be safe.  Cultures that allow a person to feel safe to express his or her true self and take risks without fear promotes trust.

Have you ever worked on a project only to find out that you don’t have resources or support to implement your plan?    In training, or performance improvement, we face these situations all the time.  As a consultant, I have to invest time exploring the context in which I am operating early in the project.  When discussing context, it usually doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to constraints.

I confess to being a relentless planner (and worrier).  I am constantly wondering what I am missing or what I have not considered about a project.  When discussing context this is a helpful weakness.  Since I rarely have subject matter expertise or access to the location where the learning will take place I must rely on others to provide the contextual information I lack.

Understanding the context in which performance occurs does not automatically lead to a perfect outcome.  However, identifying and discussing potential barriers will help design an intervention that will achieve the desired outcome.  Sometimes it causes stakeholders to reconsider their expectations.

Below are ISPI’s performance requirements for the Context standard.

1. Identify the current work, workplace, or market environment in terms of how it affects organizational and group performance.

2. Identify the environment and culture of the work and workplace and how it affects organizational and group performance.

3. Identify if there is a lack of alignment between or among—

  • Goals and objectives
  • Performance measures
  • Rewards and incentives
  • Job/work/or process designs
  • Available systems, tools, and equipment
  • Expectations and capacity

4. Identify barriers and leverage points, both in the workplace and surrounding your project.

5. Drive conversations around the barriers and leverage points that have been identified.

Constraints, or barriers, include deadlines, budget, politics, time, regulatory issues, product launch, and safety.  None of these should be taken lightly.  In my experience none of these has prevented a performance intervention from being developed; However they do have an effect on the design and quality of the final product.

How do you know if you have done a good job identifying the constraints that affect your project?  One sign is that the topics of conversations change.  In my experience, focusing on constraints causes stakeholders to reassess their expectations and assumptions.  Instead of talking about what will happen in a training event, the discussion turns to causes and work conditions.  I’ve worked on projects where the client had their mind made up about the format of a training intervention only to change their mind after considering key aspects the work context.  The final product was completely different than the original concept.

If I am doing my job, what should my client be focused on?  Again, I will quote ISPI’s standards.

  • How is the work, workplace, or environment supporting or impeding the desired organizational and group performance?
  • How does the current culture supports or impedes the desired performance?
  • Where is there a lack of alignment between or among key factors affecting the success of the proposed solution?
  • How do the barriers and leverage points support or impede the proposed solutions and the desired organizational and group performance?
  • How will the proposed solutions will affect the greater environment of the organization as a whole?
  • Will the results of your work and how you plan on going about producing those results might jeopardize the client, the organization, or society’s well-being?
  • How will the methods of deploying and the results of the project will have a positive impact?

I realize these are not typical questions one asks when developing training but human performance technology is not about training, it is about improved performance.  If you aren’t asking these questions you are probably missing something and your training programs will show it.

The International Society for Performance Improvement has established standards which provide a helpful model for designing a successful performance intervention.   In my experience, failing to follow a systematic process is one of the main reasons an intervention is unsuccessful.  Whether the intervention is traditional training or some other approach (video, multimedia, etc) it likely will not resolve the actual need.  Following a systematic process will help ensure you identify the right issues and are focusing resources in the right way.  Without systematic planning the final product may resolve your problem; However it is just as likely you will waste time, exceed your scope and budget, and not be satisfied with the result.

The first of ISPI’s standards is identifying the intended result. One of the reasons ISPI’s standards are valid is because they don’t focus on solutions too early.  Discussing results, instead of solutions, promotes constructive conversation that helps establish a a common understanding of the issue.  Usually a group can come to agreement on the desired result.  Sometimes it can’t.  When a group is unable to come to agreement on an intended result it is usually an indication that another issue needs to be addressed first.  This should not be viewed as a bad thing.

When a person or organization embarks on a project without being able to articulate the intended results it is unlikely they will be satisfied with the final product.  This process is similar to planning a wedding.  One of the first decisions you make when planning a wedding is to select a caterer.  Some factors that affect your decision are budget, the season, and the time of the wedding.  If the couple is not unified in their expectations it is unlikely they will be satisfied with their choices.  Experienced caterers know what questions to ask and are able to focus the couple on what really matters to them.  This discussion helps ensure the couple is unified in their expectations and ultimately happy with their decision.

A similar process should be used when planning a performance intervention.  If you are not satisfied with the results in a given area, don’t be too quick to propose a solution.  Take time to write down your expectations. Ask questions.  Seek perspectives from others.  You will find the time you spend articulating your expectations early will be worth it and may save you time and money at the end of your project.

In the next few posts I will cover more of ISPI’s standards.  Next is context.