L&D (alone) won’t solve your problems, here’s why

Here’s a one liner that might confuse, shock and perhaps, enrage some workplace learning teams. Building L&D products, solutions or tools (alone) won’t solve 99% of supposed workplace performance problems.

I’ve often said that 90% of the time, what a business will deem an L&D problem, usually isn’t. In the majority of cases, it’s a behavioural and cultural thing.

The role of a modern workplace learning function

Right, before the pitchforks and fire are brought out to chase me from the world of L&D, let me just say, that the following definition is just my viewpoint and not a definition from which we all must agree on.

So, here goes…

For me, (key word “me”) workplace learning teams exist to help people get better at what they need to do at work (performance) and as a human (behavioural). Adopting a coaching and consultative approach allows this function to enable learning moments, unlock new potential and guide people in the general right direction.

It’s not an instructional process. It’s an agent of change which shares new ideas, knowledge and tools to spark growth.

Ok, so why can’t my L&D team solve these workplace problems alone?

Yes, let’s get back to the reason you clicked on this article in the first place, shall we?

I would like to believe (or at least hope) that in most organisations, L&D is seen as akey part of the problem solving process. If I had my way, we’d actually stop labelling it L&D and just call ourselves performance consultants. I can dream, right?

Anyway, we are no doubt a part of the problem solving process, and rightly so. However, in the grand scheme of organisation change and transformation, we play a much smaller part that the collective business might imagine.

Let me provide an example to illustrate my point, with a classic narrative you might be familiar with.

The “L&D” problem…

It’s a bright sunny day, you’re fresh from a good night’s sleep, with a warm cup of good old tea making you feel all warm inside. You’re inbox is quiet, the calendar is unusually clear and people are naturally accessing that LMS you love to hate. (Is this a dream or reality?, who knows, bear with me).

But, out of nowhere, your team receives a request from the powers that be. They decree that the organisation has a widespread cultural problem with unconscious bias. Thus, it seems logical, that the whole organisation completes a compliance type resource to make sure they recognise and challenge any future bias.

That tea doesn’t feel so warm and lovely after all now.

Ok – there’s lots here which booths me already. Let’s unpack this:

  1. It seems like the identification and solution to the problem have been agreed upon with no discovery phase whatsoever. This is a case of instruction rather than, could you help us with this problem?
  1. No data has been quoted or shared – does this mean this is actually a problem? Or something, someone made an observation on once in a meeting? From what we know, it can be assumed this “problem” is largely opinion driven and influenced by recent industry movements. The classic case of “x” company is doing this, so we should too.
  1. A “compliance type resource” has been specifically identified as the solution, (because it always is right?) which roughly translates to, we need to tick a box and have a stat to share as part of our employer brand campaign.
  1. The problem has been identified as cultural but only involves L&D in the solution.
  1. Compliance awareness and education resources rarely, if ever, make humans recognise and challenge anything. We have been perfectly programmed to beat the point and click challenge rather than consume any meaningful content.

Now, having these requests and conversations, sucks. Mainly because we all know the instructed solution will not work on it’s own. For true change and adoption of new behaviours, it needs to be role modelled, ideally through leadership, discussed in meetings and continual reflective points throughout the workflow.

Instead, as with the example I shared, it turns into a tick box exercise to gain an output which allows an organisation to appease its people and brand proposition.

If you want to solve problems that enable real change, we must consider the following factors.

People

First off, what’s your community like?

How do they naturally operate in the daily workflow? What’s their view of said problem right now?

When working on any problem, we must understand the people across our workplace. Where are their thoughts, feelings and know-how today? Where do we want them to be

Ask more questions to get meaningful data.

Culture

A big one – what does the culture of your organisation look like today?

What are the belief systems and values you encourage? What are the ones that specifically represent your community today?

Solving any problem becomes more complex if you don’t recognise and understand the organisational culture right now. Not the want that the leadership wants it to be and refer to at every company meeting, but what it actually is right now.

The culture of your workplace plays an essential part in people recognising a problem and wanting to act upon it.

Remember, culture rules all!

Behaviours, habits and mindset

With this factor, I recommend you know the ingrained behaviours of your people, e.g how they’ve dealt with change in the past and what approach have they most engaged with?

There’s a lot to be explored in established behavioural programming of your workforce too. If you’re doing something that threatens the existing programme behaviours, then it’s highly likely it won’t work.

Another key component of this factor, is what your senior leaders role model?

You can roll out resources, courses and tools all year long, but if the large population of leaders don’t role model the desired behaviours, habits and mindset, then why will the rest of your people?

Curiosity

An often overlooked and undervalued component of the organisation problem solving process – being curious.

They say curiosity killed the cat, but for humans, it might just be the key to unlocking growth.

To evolve a culture, it’s people need to have a certain amount of curiosity for that subject. For me, it’s the magic ingredient in making change stick. Yet, it’s not easy to influence and isn’t exactly something you can build.

I don’t believe curiosity is a skill one develops, it’s more like a behaviour. One we can encourage through the workflow cycle.

You could say, curiosity is like the trendy terminology of fixed vs growth mindset. It’s helpful to once more understand and recognise your people’s thirst to grow. Again, you can sum this up to ask more questions to get more meaningful data. It will make you better prepared to help create something which peaks your people’s curiosity.

And back again

Now, if we revisit my problem solving map image one more time, you can get the final visual of what it really takes to solve problems across the organisation.

Yes, L&D plays a part. We’ll usually deliver a mechanism to support in challenging people to recognise potential problems and guide the evolution of behaviours, habits and mindset in the best direction.

And this is where so many organisations get it wrong.

They often equate an organisation problem (which as we’ve explored it affected by much more than your latest compliance offering) to be something that must be solved by L&D.

And that is all I have to say about that really.

Before I close this out, let me share a few ideas on how you could change this as a workplace learning professional and/or team.

  • Build trust and strong relationships with marketing, internal communications, senior leaders and those who form a key part of nurturing the employee experience. Help these people recognise it’s a team effort.
  • Ask your people questions more often. Get a feel for the culture today – not what you want it to be, but what it is. Gather data and evidence, try not to be opinion led.
  • Look to examples and case studies from other organisations. What are they doing? What can you learn? The right external data can certainly help influence your internal audience.

So, remember, L&D won’t solve any organisational problems alone.

Next time you find yourself in the predicament of somehow being landed with and accountable for solving a problem that L&D alone cannot, reflect on the thoughts and ideas I’ve shared here.

Before you go…

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Why choose traditional, when you can be original

All societies have their unique traditions. Whether it’s the way one would plan a wedding, host a family gathering or choose a career path. Traditions are woven into our lives but they can also be the thing which holds us back. 

You see, the sometimes blind thinking of “I must do it this way because it’s tradition’ has long kept many from doing what they really want to.

Traditions can be tough to break. Yet, choosing something original, something of your own, could well be the thing that unlocks your potential to grow and be the person you want to be. Not the person that tradition and other people expect you to be.

Let me share two examples of this with you.

One is the cultural phenomenon (to me anyway) of weddings. I’m pretty sure we’ve all been to at least one wedding in our lives. Like me, I’m sure you’ve noticed the almost military-like planning and execution these events have.

This is an event that is steeped in tradition, but also one that causes the most anxiety for many people in it’s planning. 

I’ve never quite understood why the planning is so difficult since the same blueprint is used by 99% of the population. Yet, these events always come with their stress and sometimes this comes from wanting to do something different.

I’ve met many people during their marital preparations who want to divert from the traditional model of a wedding ceremony. They want something simple just for them. However, they are scared of what other people will think. They fear the silent (and not so silent) judgement from loved ones on breaking tradition.

This is a real shame in my eyes. Their pursuit of originality which brings them joy is crushed by the weight of expectation to follow tradition.

Of course, not everyone does this. Many stick up two fingers to the concept of tradition and blaze a new trail. Kudos to you if you’re doing that too.

You’ve got to pause and think. This tradition you’re following was once an original idea and it became a tradition because others adopted it as a what good looks like model. This means that any other original ideas we come up with can be turned into new traditions too.

I also see the constraints of tradition affect many of us in the path of life.

When I say path of life, I’m referring to the ever popular chain of get an education, find a stable job, find a partner, buy a house and have children then die. I’m aware in that short sentence it sounds less than appealing and morbid.

Nonetheless, this is the well trodden path that is deeply ingrained into our way of being.

Deferring from this ‘plan’ is seen as some kind of sin that equates to you being abnormal. If you want those things then great. But, if you don’t want those things, then what? Should you be held by the constraints of tradition too? Or will you choose the path of originality and decide how this plays out on your terms?

We’ve seen many more examples in the last decade of people rejecting this selected path.

From those shunning formal university education to become online entrepreneurs, to those who choose not to have children and even those who decide that buying a traditional house is not for them, and instead build their own tiny house.

Originality is starting to spill out more these days. You just have to take a look around to see it.

Here’s some final words I want to leave you with.

Traditions are beautiful things that can bind us together and connect with our history. I’m not saying they are bad. Yet, if you’re falling prey to the constraints of tradition as you try to pursue your own way of living, then perhaps it’s time to embrace originality and do something of your own.

Who knows, perhaps one day that thing you do instead turns into a new tradition for someone tomorrow.

We all get one life with a finite amount of moments. So, don’t be constrained by traditions and the thoughts of others.