Building a Culture of Growth (Without a Lot of Time and Money)

I just got back from a round table discussion where the topic was “Training on a Budget.” It should have been called “Training without taking any time.” By far, the primary concern of the executives in the room wasn’t what training was going cost; they all had money for training. Instead, they were much more concerned with pulling people away from their work or, more precisely, the resistance they face when they try to pull people from their work. They’re all too busy making the money that lets them afford the training. It’s not the worst problem for a business to have.

That’s where the discussion turned. How do we deliver impactful training in the time available? People had some really good ideas. They involved things like taking time out of a meeting to watch a short TED talk, giving people short articles to read, and posting bullet-pointed “how to” lists in places where people are going to read them, like on the inside door of a toilet stall.

Those are all great ways to start a conversation, but they can often fall flat when that’s where the conversation ends. There’s enough research to show that instructing people makes no real difference in their performance. As an intervention goes, it’s hit or miss. What makes a real difference in lasting behavior change is when people come to their own conclusions and discover things for themselves. You’ve probably at one point had a loved one who was dealing with some issue and though it was very clear to you what they should do, all the advice in the world made no difference. It was like they couldn’t even hear you. Then, one day they show up excited and share with you that they had the best idea, implemented it, and it made a really big difference. And it was what you had been telling them to do all along! What happened is that, finally, they discovered something for themselves.

Unfortunately, we can’t make people discover what works any more than we can make a horse drink water. Thankfully, we can create conditions where they are more likely to do so. Here are a few tips to use when distributing media to have people really take something away and have your low budget efforts make a real difference.

  1. When assigning a reading or giving people something to watch, introduce it with a couple of discussion prompts. “Be ready to share what, for you, was the biggest take away.” The will orient your team’s attention on actually taking something away. Another good prompt is, “As you watch this, think about situations where this wouldn’t apply.” This is a good one because it will really draw the learner to looking at where the material fits in her life. She’ll find places where it wouldn’t fit, but along the way will find a lot of places where it does.
  2. Ask “why” questions about the main points. In the things I write, I usually spell out why you would want to use a particular technique (see the previous point). And they are pretty good reasons in that I am basing them on research in human performance, but they ultimately aren’t that important. The reasons that are most important are the ones that are meaningful to the learner. They might not be the same ones that you or I would come up with, but if they are valid to the learner, they will make a difference in whether learning is implemented or not.
  3. Reinforce and validate the process of exploration! As you open this up for discussion, you might hear people say some things that are not quite the answer you were looking for. You might ask, “Why do you think it’s important to always have an agenda for a meeting?” and one of your charges might say, “So you don’t look bad.” And not looking bad might not always be the best reason to do something. I’ve been in situations where I put something on the agenda that I was worried would make me look very bad. But I did it, because my attention was more focused on effective action than the group’s opinion of me. In situations like this, the best thing you can do is to repeat what they said, say, “ok! What else?” This will let them know their response was heard and appreciated, and then get people looking for other reasons. Then, when you get to one that is more centered around team performance, ask questions that will elaborate and reinforce those responses. The point is that you never want to cut off the exploration. Even when people aren’t seeing what you want them to, you can keep them looking by reinforcing the process of inquiry.
  4. The final, most important question to ask is, “how would you apply this in your work and life?” Imagination is a powerful, powerful thing. We do things all the time in the service of things we haven’t and couldn’t have experienced. Travelling to the moon started with imagination. One of the key moments in the civil rights movement was articulated as a dream. The products and services your company delivers all started with someone thinking, “wouldn’t the world be better if…” Then, having imagined that, people got in action aligning reality with the vision. When you give people material, have them speculate what it would actually look like to implement it. What obstacles might they encounter? How would they work through those? Imagine the “yeah, buts,” “how abouts,” and “what ifs,” and how to solve for them. Doing so will make it more likely they take it into practice.

To conclude, the best trainings in the world are those that have people explore, question, wrestle with the material and, ultimately, discover something for themselves. And you can certainly hire a great trainer to help you with that, and I would love it if you did. That said, you don’t need to wait or spend a lot of money to effectively develop leaders. As a leader, you simply need to behave in a way that promotes inquiry and exploration so that people develop themselves.