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  • Writer's pictureAndy Appleby

Why you've had to 're-invent' Talent, Learning and Performance. Again...

Let me tell you more about Joe...

Joe is a person who's worked in your organisation for the last decade. Joe has performed well, consistently. Joe has been promoted. And Joe is an employee within the 'Volume' or 'Front-line' area of your business.

Joe, just like so many others, is part of the largest group of any organisation - those 'doing the do'. Whether it be Customer Service, Sales, Support, Operations. Whatever your industry.

Why am I starting this post introducing you to Joe?

Joe represents your greatest success, and your greatest failure, in delivering change in your organisation.

You see, Joe has learned, grown and enjoyed some great career progression working in your organisation.

But Joe managed this despite your Talent, Learning and Performance initiatives. Because every time Joe was hitting a great performance rhythm, or was ready to take the next step in learning new skills, something changed. The goalposts moved. And Joe had to navigate an increasingly murky world of career development in your organisation.

The great thing is that Joe is driven and, despite the constant change, was able to seek out opportunities to grow and excel. It wasn't as easy as it should have been. And Joe is a shining star. Joe is one of only a few people in your organisation who will succeed despite the constant, unnecessary change occurring all around. Not like Ashley.

Ashley was driven, and wanted to stay at your organisation forever! But after constantly changing the goalposts, with new corporate buzzwords, and focus on those in mid-level roles, Ashley gave up. Ashley is simply getting by until they can find a new job somewhere else. Ashley is like a large proportion of your workforce.

Change is inevitable. But not all change is necessary.

So. Now you've met Joe and Ashley, let me highlight why you're constantly having to re-invent your approach to Talent, Learning and Performance, unnecessarily.

If you're reading this, you're more than likely someone within a 'People' role, or 'Leadership role' (or aspiring to be, at least). This means you've either sponsored, delivered, or managed some level of change in your Talent, Learning and Performance approach. And you could be doing it wrong. Repeatedly.


How can I say that?

Because I've seen it, experienced it, and stopped people doing it more times than I can remember. This continuous, unnecessary change is usually one or more of these things:

  1. It's driven by ideology, with little/no appreciation of what your people actually want/need

  2. It's self-serving, either for the Sponsor, or team driving the change

  3. It validate's the existence of a Sponsor, or team

Stay with me while I expand on this a little more:

1. The Idealogically-driven change

This is the most common, and usually some form of Transformational change. It might involve wholesale changes to the approach to Talent, or Performance Improvement, or Learning and Development. Maybe the centralising of resources, or outsourcing of resources. It could even be delivered in the form of a change in methodology (e.g. 100% Digital/Remote instead of 'Face-to-Face' development and support.

If you're reading this you've probably been a part of this kind of change programme in the past.

In my experience this kind of change is driven 'from the top'. A new CEO, or People Director, or Head-of has joined and wants to 'make their mark', or has done something similar before, so decides to proceed with something they have seen work before.

Please don't misunderstand me. Anyone driving a idealogical change is usually doing so with positive intent. That is, they want to improve things. Unfortunately, it's not often delivered well, allowed to propegate through the business before changing/abandoning, or has a poor impact assessment, thus delivering worse-than-expected results.

Everytime I've been involved in an idealogical change for Talent, Performance and Learning functions the most common reason things are more difficult than expected is this:

The recipients of change are not involved early enough and are often not one of the primary considerations when defining, or implementing the change.

Why does this matter?

Well, unless the goal of your change is disengagement of your people, or cost-cutting then the recipients of change are the only audience that will make a difference to the outcome of the work you're driving.

So if you're not speaking to them first, you're already one step behind. Let's consider Joe and Ashley in this scenario.

Imagine Joe was just putting the finishing touches to a Personal Development Plan and is just about to engage the Talent, People, or Learning and Development team for support in achieving some well defined goals. Joe's plan was developed on the fair assumption that Talent, Learning and Development worked in a specific way and there would be access to current tools and resources.

When the 'change' hits Joe's plans, any momentum or motivation is likely to plummet. This will likely create dis-engagement with Talent, Learning and Development and place more barriers to performance improvement.

What about Ashley? Well, this is just more proof to Ashley that this organisation doesn't know what 'good' looks like, so provides more motivation to look elsewhere.

2. The Self-serving change

This kind of change is, in my opinion, the most damaging. It's driven by politics and ego. It's a hallmark of toxicity and the primary focus is the Sponsor, or team driving the change.

I've got countless examples of this and I'm sure you have too. Usually for me, Apples Performance and Learning have been approached to come in and fix the mess that a Self-serving change has caused. And usually after the initiating sponsor has moved on.

In most cases such changes result in a wholesale transformation of a technology ecosystem, operating structure, and Talent/Learning product that results in an early spike in positive impact only to leave a long tail of disengagement, ineffectiveness, confusion and waste. Along with reputation for poor quality and outcomes from Talent and Learning functions.

In this situation, more often than not, the 'Destination' that has been the driving force behind the change existed first and the 'case for change' was aligned to fit the solution, instead of the other way around. It usually means that all change agents, regardless of their role, are not invested and don't believe in the destination. This often results in a mentality of 'JFDI' - or just f***ing do it' because the change team know that no matter what the evidence says, or their experience indicates, all that matters is the Sponsors 'vision' being realised.

Why is this dangerous?

When we consider Joe and Ashley in this situation the impacts can be catastrophic. In both cases the excitement (that initial 'spike' I spoke about earlier) can be really refreshing. Driving high-engagement in the short term, only for it to fall off a cliff when they realise that the time and effort they've put into learning, improving their performance and driving their career is wasted. It's yet another false-dawn.

It's catastrophic to Joe and Ashley's career at your organisation because after being so disheartened, it felt like this was finally 'the thing' that will help them drive their career. Their doubts, and past experience was pushed to the side and they started to have faith. Only for it to fall apart quite quickly. It's the final nail in the coffin.

It can also be catastrophic to the reputation of anyone involved in delivering this change. When everyone realises this is a false-dawn fingers will be pointed, names and faces will be known. And now everyone knows this sh*t-show was their fault.

3. Change to validate your existence

This kind of change is usually a smaller scale. Often the 'ways of working' for a Learning or Talent function, or shift in the type of 'experience' delivered.

An example of this is the Head of Learning and Development, or Talent Management driving a shift towards the use of AR/VR/AI that ramps up the number of experiences delivered using this kind of tool. In my experience, whenever a functional head is driving this kind of change it's because they've read some research, met some vendors that have shown some them some new 'Leading Edge' tools that present an opportunity for the function to be seen as 'innovative' within the business. It's a great way to show that the function is 'leading the thinking'.

Sometimes it could be as simple as ensuring that all learning and talent activites must be driven to/be directed by the Learning and Talent function. Given that the most valuable opportunities to learn and grow happen naturally, on-the-job, this kind of approach effectively creates a direct dependency on the function existing. It drives a lot more activity towards Learning and Talent which is clear evidence that they're a critical function. Right?

Learning and Talent teams are critical to business success. So why is this kind of change a bad thing?

I agree, without exception, that Learning and Talent are a difference maker in individual and organisational performance. The problem with this kind of 'change' is that it's not geared towards the organisations need, or an individual's needs.

If we consider Joe and Ashley (again) these are the kinds of changes that do nothing for them achieving their performance potential.

Let's take the implementation of VR/AR/AI. These are incredible tools and will undoubtedly shape the future of People and Talent development for decades to come but for Joe, and Ashley? Real improvement for them would be the time to improve their performance. It would be empowerment to choose their own path. And it would be a culture that encourages them to 'have a go'.

Or what about the new 'governance' model for all Talent and Learning activity? For Joe and Ashley, this has just thrown another barrier to work past every time they want to 'formalise' their development.

So instead of this kind of change improving people's opportunity to perform, it hinders it.


How to make Talent and Learning Transformation stick!

If you've been paying attention, you can probably guess some of what I'm about to say, so here goes...

First - Define the knowledge, skills and behaviours your people need to deliver on your organisation's strategy

You can find the details of this in all kinds of 'Strategy Development' books. That's because it's one of the most effective mechanisms for driving change and transformation effectively. So what does it mean?

Honestly, this concept is very straightforward. Execution is where you'll need to put the effort and when you do, you'll discover some amazing things about your organisation, your people, and your clients. Try this:

  • In the simplest of terms (I.e. Remove the business bullsh*t) write down your organisation's strategy.

  • Then, under each strategic pillar write the question (and then answer):

    • To deliver this, what do our People need to:

      • Know...

      • Do...

      • Think...

      • Feel...

This will give you some very clear and simple explanations of the knowledge, skills and behaviours you need in your organisation if you're going to deliver the strategy.

Next, go speak to your people. Ask these questions:

  • How can we help you know more about X

  • How can we help you do X to the best of your ability

  • What do you think about X? Honestly.

  • If we were to help you know more about X, and supported you so you could do X, how would that make you feel?

BOOM! You've got some priceless insight right there!

I know, and you know, that this is a simple example. Actually doing all of this will take lots of effort. You'll learn some things. Not all of them good. But what you can be sure of is that any transformation programme you're driving in Talent and Learning will hugely benefit from joining the dots between what you need from your employees to deliver your strategy, and what your employees need from you.

Here's a snapshot of some of the positive and negatives of this:

  • Your changes are actually useful

  • Your changes are relevant

  • You have clear line of sight between your strategy, and your people

  • Your people are engaged

  • Your people understand why things are changing

  • Your change agents have countless levers to use when delivering the changes

  • You have a large amount of 'goodwill' from the recipients of change, because they appreciate that getting it right won't be an easy journey

  • At the start of this transformation journey, there will be lots of politicking required

  • You're going to bruise some egos

  • Things will go wrong, and you'll need to be more open and honest (upwards and downwards) than you've had to be in the past

  • There is a lot more attention on what you're doing, because this time everyone cares

Next - Remove the names, reputations and egos, then focus on outputs

Whether it's the names of those impacted, or even the ego and reputation of the sponsor, removing the 'personal' aspects of any potential or planned transformation in the Talent and Learning space will help focus minds.

It will give you the chance to objectively assess what you're being asked to do against the anticipated outcomes.

Now. It may still be a situation where you just need to JFDI but when considering your risk-management activites, you can objectively mitigate the egos and personalities involved through proper risk-management.

And - Know the landscape, before setting off.

I cannot stress the importance of this. Imagine someone told you that you're going to be blindfolded then taken 500 miles away. And you had to find your way home. Imagine too that you were told to pack all of the supplies you'll need, because you'll be on your own the whole time.

What do you pack? Boots? Water-proofs? Snow-shoes? Diving gear? How are you meant to know? You don't know what the landscape will be at any point on your journey. And if you don't prepare correctly, will you ever make it home?

Talent, Learning and Performance Transformation is the same. If you don't know what the landscape is how are you actually going to traverse it with any sense that you'll succeed?

So. Before you do anything get to know what's what:

  • What Technology is in place, and what integrations exist?

  • What people are in place, and what do they do?

  • What processes exist, and who owns them. How do they interact with the people and technology?

If all you ever do is this, you'll be an infinitely better place than you ever would setting off blindly to deliver any change programme.

And finally...

From Joe and Ashley, to blind-folded adventures, this post has been somehwhat of a whirlwind. So let me finish by sharing a few questions, that can help you sense-check any work you're doing to transform your approach to Learning, Talent Management, or Performance Improvement:

  • Why are we doing this?

  • Who does it benefit? How?

  • If we slow down, what will the impact be?

  • If we stop altogether, what will the impact be?

  • What does our business need from Learning/Talent/Performance?

  • What do our employees need from Learning/Talent/Performance?

  • If Learning/Talent/Performance disappeared overnight, what would the impact be?

  • What data is there to back this up?

Above all else I hope these questions and this post, generally, ensures some people, somewhere make better decisions today, so they're genuinely improving the outcomes for their employees, and the business as a whole.


This is where you usually get the obligatory profile, and pitch - feel free to skip it, but I'd rather you didn't. If you've read one of my posts before, this next bit will be familiar :).

Hi. I'm Andy. I'd rather not bore you with a profile, when you can find out what you need here. So take a look, or don't - it's quite literally up to you.

Also - I could give you a really slick 'sales pitch' about how Apples Performance and Learning can help you navigate through the minefield that is Performance Improvement. But I won't. To be frank, this post is already too long, and I'm bored of my own 'voice'. If you want to know how we can help you - check this out, or this.

Beyond that, if you've made it this far, thank you for sticking with me. Hopefully you agree with my points, and find some value in them. If not, please feel free to correct my perspectives - I won't learn anything new otherwise!


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