HPT-Context


ISPI publishes a weekly digest of news and information for performance improvement consultants.  Last week they published their top stories for 2011.  Over the next few days I will feature my thoughts on those I feel are particularly noteworthy.
Click here for my first entry.

One of the ironies of being an expert is that you often lose touch with what it is like to be a novice.

In October Harvard Business Review posted an article titled “The Best Approach to Training.”  With a title like that its bound to get a lot of hits.   While the article has value, its title is a little misleading.  Rather than focus on the latter I will focus on its virtues.
NOTE: I quote liberally from this article.  I am not trying to take credit for the author’s work.  Sometimes it is difficult to maintain a flow and quote the author fully.  This is more obvious in some places that others.

The setup: “Experts often are unable to articulate the many “obvious” (to them) things they do when carrying out a procedure or solving a problem.”  When tasked with training a new employee an expert tends to gloss over important information or steps because it has become second nature to them.  This actually makes the “trainee” more dependent on the expert/trainer, the exact opposite of what they set out to do.   As a result, the organization is not getting maximum productivity of either employee.

The diagnosis: According to the author, the common approach is to adopt an academically developed and tested technique to improve training and instruction that likely involves a resource-intensive task analysis.  This makes sense if you are documenting the minimum qualifications for a job, establishing performance criteria, and creating a training program. However, if you are simply training a new employee I believe you can accomplish more by getting him or her into the flow of the organization first.  After a short period of assimilation you can shift focus to mastering the individual tasks of their job.

The solution: “The best way to identify what experts do is to have them solve the problems or carry out the tasks in question and to require the expert to justify the steps he is taking as he takes them.”  This approach takes a macro-level view and enables the expert to consider the work holistically.  As a result, the resulting training bears a greater resemblance to the reality of day-to-day responsibilities.

An example:  The author asked experienced college physics instructors to create a set of problems — representing a part of the course — that a student in introductory physics should be able to solve if he or she “understood” that part of the course.

He then asked them to solve the problems and narrate their steps.  While they were talking he was “furiously” capturing their thoughts. In his words, “the instructors [often] had to stop and scratch their heads as they tried to provide a justification for their steps. The justifications in this case were rooted in laws of physics, but the relevant features or implications of the laws were things that the instructors had internalized or automated and they struggled to make them explicit to me.

The resulting solutions were of course quite lengthy and verbose, but they ultimately provide the raw material for guiding the construction of better worked examples and lecture materials for learners. I use the notes to then solve new problems with the expert available to help me when I don’t know what to do. Each time I reach an “impasse” I revise the notes. Ultimately, I reach a point where I can solve all problems the expert gives me.”

My thoughts: I have used this method and found it to be useful.  In fact, my most successful projects occur when I can think like the expert.  No one will confuse me for being an expert, but going through this process enables me to apply my skills to the subject matter and create relevant learning opportunities.  The challenge is coming up with the problems in a work setting.  In the end I don’t think this is approach is less cumbersome or resource intensive but the outcome is better.

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A key word in this series is “design.”  It would be understandable for a person to ask “when is he going to get around to discussing design?”  I’m almost there.  Before I do, I want to review where we have been in previous posts.

Whenever an organization is dealing with a performance problem, the focus must be on results (ISPI standard #1).    You may think training is required.  You may discuss who is or is not doing what they’re supposed to do.  Some may suggest investing in new software or systems.  Resist these temptations.   Focusing your efforts on results will put your discussions into the right context.  This will enable you to collect the right information, understand the true cause of the problem, and come up with a solution that will achieve the desired results.

Focusing on improved results sets the tone for the entire effort.  You must also consider the situation or context (ISPI standard #2) and decide what resources are required to effectively achieve the desired results.  With a clear understanding of the context and the right people on the project (ISPI standard #4), it is time to do a detailed analysis of the problem (ISPI standard #5).  Your preliminary research and partnerships will help.  Throughout all of this, resist the temptation to draw conclusions too soon.  Patterns will emerge.  Solutions will seem appropriate and attractive.  Wait until you have all the data and have analyzed it before you draw conclusions.  Let the data reveal the true nature of the problem and what is causing it (ISPI standard #6).

I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen an organization decide training will solve a problem without any idea what results they are trying to achieve.  They see that something is going wrong so they automatically assume training will fix it.  What do you train on?  Who decides what the training should be about?  How will you know the participants got what they’re supposed to get?  To find the right answer you have to ask the right questions.  Here are some ideas to get started.

  • What are your expectations (be specific)?
  • What does “wrong” look like?
  • What does “right” look like?
  • Who is doing it “right?”
  • Why is this person doing it “right?”
  • Why can they do it “right” and others can’t?
  • How will we know we have achieved our goal?

This process does not have to take months to complete.  Depending on the scope of the situation, performance improvement can be achieved in weeks or possibly even days.  Do not automatically assume that this process will consume a lot of time and resources.  It is not unusual for this process to save money.

This is a time-tested approach to achieve a successful outcome.  It isn’t always glamorous, but it works.  With the review behind us, lets get on with the discussion of ISPI standard #7, design.

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.

Going through my backlog of articles I want to read I came across an interesting post that touches on how to manage millennials.  No I am not obsessed with them I just post what I think might be helpful.  There is also a learning angle to this but you’ll have to read on to find it.

In this post, Tammy Erickson reviews the events that occurred in the formative years of millennials and how that has formed their identity and habits.  Below are  a few excepts I found interesting.

  • Y’s want to feel they are doing work that is challenging and important.
  • Focus on the actual completion of tasks; hold them accountable for outcomes, not for time spent.
  • Create a collaborative, team-based environment.
  • Leverage technology to create more efficient processes.
  • Provide frequent feedback; first-line managers should teach rather than assess.
  • Provide a variety of world-class learning opportunities.

Aren’t you glad you read to the end to find out what the learning tie-in is?  Read the whole thing.  It will only take a few minutes.  There is more in the post that is worth taking a look at.

I am planning a job analysis for an internal team in a retail organization.  They are skeptical about the need and process.  The buzz around the office is that this effort will be time consuming, tedious, and unsuccessful.  With this in mind, my supervisor has challenged me to develop an unconventional data collection plan.  In short, his vision is that we will break the “rules” of data collection.  For example, do we really need to convene a group in a room for 2+ hours?  Can we break the process into smaller chunks and still get reliable data?

To be clear we are not setting out to break “rules” just for the sake of doing it.  There is a bigger goal behind the vision, culture change.  Many habits (whether positive or negative) have become ingrained.  As you can imagine this has led to a stagnant culture.  We cannot afford to be stagnant.  We need innovation.  We need to be able to recognize and respond to opportunities.  I am hopeful we can have a successful analysis and begin to break the behavior patterns that are preventing us from performing at to our highest potential.

To break the “rules” we need to know what they are.  Please help me compile a list and share any other ideas, regardless of how crazy they may seem.

Here is some additional info that may be helpful.

  • Everyone works the same hours (more or less)
  • Everyone works in the same location
  • There are about 12 participants
  • All the participants have 5+ years of experience with the company

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